The Quick way around Le Mans

Vern Schuppan - from "LE MANS - 24 Heures du Mans" - Peter Mc Kay, Barry Naismith

Very few drivers can put a Porsche 956 around Le Mans any quicker than Australia's Vern Schuppan. The former winner lets us in on hisformular for a hot lap of the long and difficult French road racing circuit. He starts out screaming past the pits for a flying lap...

"You would take fifth gear when you're well into the Dunlop Curve, so the speed here is somewhere approaching 180 mph. I've watched at thia corner from the spectators banks and i must say that it doesn't look that fast, but the car certailnly uses up all the road! You have two wheels against the verge just before the pedestrain bridge.

As you Crest the hill, you're drifting across the left and the cars goes quite light as you go under the bridge. Then there's plenty of time to steer back across to the right side of the road and line up the car for the Esses.

Comming out of the pits, you're up full racing speed certainly by the time you reach the banking area for the Esses. Under normal racing conditions in the 24 Hours itself, you brake at around the 200-metre board and let it coast through, bit in qualifying you take it on to 150-metres and brake hard. When you're racing, of course, you have to be easy on the car and it's best to get on the brakes early. It's more comfortable to let the car roll into the bend a little more. You can go almost as fast doing that, and it's a lot easier on the car, less hard on the brakes and better on the fuel cosumption because you're off the throttle a lot more.

The road is quit bumby here in the braking area so, again, it feels nicer to lift off a bit earlier and approach the corner a little more softly. If you brake hard and late the car moves all over the road and there's always a chance of locking up the right front wheel here. Under braking, I go straight from fifth to third here, or sometimes fourth. Even on a qualifying lap, not many drivers go down through the gearbox at Le Mans."

Esses

3rd gear/6700 rpm
120 mph/195 km/h

"The Esses is theoretically a third gear double corner but, again to conserve the car, sometimes in the races I would use fourth gear. With higher revs, the car is more controllable in the lower gear and fourth doesen't feel as nice. Over the years it seems to have got increasingly bumpy on the right side as you move towards the rumble strips on the exit of the first part of the corner. You can turn in a little later than usual and avoid some of the bumps, but you can't miss them all.

There's quit a little hill coming up out of the Esses and as you leave the right-hand part of the corner the road falls away from you to the left, so you have tu tuck the car in quite tight to the right side of the road. The track then dips again, and you hold whatever gear you've used for the Esses all the way to Tertre Rouge.

At racing speeds this whole section - the left-right at the Esses, a slight right-hand curve, the right-hander at Tertre Rouge - does all become the same sequence and you try to drive it all in a smooth flow. If you're taken the Esses in fourth you have to change down to third for Tertre Rouge, which is an all-important corner because it leads onto the straight. That's another reason why it's preferable to take the Esses in third, so that you can hold the same gear all the way from there oto the straignt, but it is harder on the car.

The approach to Tertre Rouge is a good place to overtake but the problem is that everybody is trying to drive the whole section in one, sweeping motion, so you're never quit sure if a slower driver is going to stay on the racing line and not look in the mirrors. So this is one of the areas where you have to be specially attentive when overtaking. And if the driver in front does decide that there can be no one behind, it can cost you a lot of time."

Tertre Rouge

3rd gear/5600 rpm
105 mph/170 km/h

"You get on the brakes near the 100-metre marker at Tertre Rouge and accelerate through the corner in third. Hitting the rumble strips at the apex and on the exit here is normal. It looks as though you're driving all over the road and maybe doing the car no good at all, but in fact all these particular rumble strips do is make a lot of tyre noise. The car is loaded relatively lightly here and you can't damage the suspension or anything like that. There are many other places on this track which are more severe on the suspension. Anyway, with the car evenly loaded on each side you can straighten out the corner a little bit and run over the left side rumble stripe on the exit of Tertre Rouge and there you are, on the public road. You hit the Mulsanne Straight maybe 20 feet of road sooner than if you had stayed on the tarmac, and considerably quicker.

A couple of hundred yards down the avenue of trees there's a right-hand kink which is no corner at all. The only problem here occurs if you're coming up on a slower car and he decides that there's an apex he ought to be aiming for, and comes across in front of you. Some of them do see the need to find an apex, which is ridiculous, but you must watch out for it and, again, it can cost you time. If there's a Group B car, say, and a C2 lining up to pass it, it can be a problem here.

On the straight you change up into fourth as you're still leaving Tertre Rouge, really, hold it through the kink and then snick into fifth, and you can see the straight undulating along into the distance. The Prosche moves around quite a bit as the speed builds up. Stiffer springs for qualifying make the car better in the corners but the speed is so high on the straight that the car reacts to every little undulation in the road surface. For the race we use softer Springs just to make the car easier and less tiring to drive, and also because, on the stiff springs, it would be a real handful had it rained.

Even on the soft springs, the amount of movement of the car at over 200 mph is surprising, so you have that to think about and, of course, any traffic that might be around, especially if there's someone just behind you in another Porsche. Normally, though, the 3½ miles of the straight gives you the chance to check your gauges, shift your posture, stretch your fingers and maybe the odd muscle, that sort of thing. You see the café flash past and there are various other reference points that you come to recognise, but the main one is the group of trees which conceals the small hump before Mulsanne Kink."

Mulsanne Kink

5th gear/7800 rpm
215 mph/345 km/h

"When you're over the little hump you're tight on the kink at this speed, but it's no problem at all in a ground-effect car. You approach the corner on the left side of the road, but I reckon that you could come up on the right, take the corner and still cross the white line as you left it. The downforce is that good. It's best, tough, to use all the road and get across to the left.

The big humb shortly after the kink is quite a gradual affair and the car doesen't realy get light here. Again, it's best to go over this hump on the left side of the road which is the side you need to be on for Mulsanne Corner, so that you don't need to be making unnecessary changes of direction at maximum speed on the other side. You still keep it flat to the boards for quite a while on the other side amd then hit the brakes, hard - at the 250-metre marker which is about as late as you can go.

Mulsanne is a low corner and you're braking from about 215 mph, so you have to let the brakes do all the work for quite a distance, because it's easy to make a mistake under this circumstances and change down too early. If you did that you'd send the engine revs sky high. It would be so easy here to overrev the engine that you tend to get to the point where you you're almost ready to accelerate again before you pop the gearbox from fifth to second. The brakes on these Porsches are really good: there's just a little bit of wander as you get to the end of this braking area, but otherwise they realy inspire confidence."

Mulsanne Corner

2nd gear/5400 rpm
70 mph/110 km/h

"Mulsanne is a mutch tighter corner than you would think (more than 90 degrees) and, in fact, with a turbo car, second gear is almost too high. But there's no point in using first because you'd lose as much time with the extra gearshift. It's best to pop it into second and let the engine slug a bit: it doesn't take all that long before the turbo cuts in and you're away again. You try to straighten the corner as much as you can but you don't get hard acceleration until you're almost out of it.

When you've turned the corner in the evening, the only sensation is blinding sunlight. What follows in these conditions is arguably the most hazardous section of race track anywher in the world. Sunset doesn't last too long, about 45 minutes, perhaps, but the problem comes again in the morning when you're going in the opposite direction, into the Esses and then to Tertre Rouge. You can't even see the braking marker boards - you know when to brake from memory. The windscreen on the cars is virtually never clean and, towards the end of the race, it's pretty well sandblasted, so it's difficult to see anything out of it. Everyone has to throw away their windscreen after Le Mans and, in fact, I'd say that there are very few cars without a crack in the screen somewhere, caused by the continuous body-flexing for 24 hours. So you've got cracks, the sandblasting effect, flies, oil, you name it.

The combination of the screen and the sun is really bad news. The section from Mulsanne to Indianapolis is very nearly as fast as the long straight itself, and you can't see anything, so you have to rely on memory to know when to point the car through a couple of kinks on this section, which are taken at up to 200 mph."

Right-Hander

4th gear/6500 rpm
140 mph/225 km/h

"At the end of it comes one of my favorite corners, the right-hander just before Indianapolis. You have to brake quit hard here but it is possible to take this corner in fifth, You use fourth only if you're on a hot lap: fifth, for the same reasons I've already mentioned, is better reliability and fuel consumption in the race."

Indianapolis

2nd gear/6600 rpm
85 mph/135 km/h

"At this difficult time of the evening, the right-hander is sufficient to take the sun out of your eyes. As soon as you're through the corner you swing the car to the right for Indianapolis, a second gear corner, or third in race trim. You brake hard on the extreme right, as far as you can go, move to second gear and turn in on the throttle, taking care not to run over the apex on the left because that is one place where it is rough, and you could unsettle or even damage the car.

As you exit from Indianapolis you do go very close to the fence, but it's normal. There's a couple of feet of road beyond the white line that tapers back onto the track; it's usually clean and you can use it to straighten out the corner a little bit."

Arnage

2nd gear/5400 rpm
70 mph/110 km/h

"You go up a gear to third, swing across to the left (sun in your eyes again), and the 50-metre marker is about the braking point for Arnage. Back to the second and turn in to a relatively boring corner. It's a nothing corner, Arnage; it follows so soon after Indianapolis that you're taking it quite slowly, and the road widens suddenly on the exit. You can't do anything with it, if you know what I mean.

Now you head back in the general direction of the pits, and you go along a very wide piece of road. It's a little deceptive, the feeling of wide open space. Soon after the corner, as you're moving back through the gearbox, there's a left- ahnd kink which you take in fourth flat out. But just beyond it, the camber on the right side falls away from you quite sharply and, if you are too far over the right, the car tries very hard to pull off to the right. The road tends to steer the car and it's an easy place to get into trouble and at quite high speed, because you're back into fifth gear before braking for the Porsche Curve."

Porsche Curve

3rd gear/6700 rpm
120 mph/195 km/h

"As you line up for the Porsche Curve, which takes you off the public road again, you can't afford to move too far over to the left. It's far too bumpy for comfort. So you have to do your braking in the centre of the road if you can.

Having turned in to the right-hander, you get back onto the closed section of proper race track and suddenly the surface is much smoother, so you get a realy strong sensation of grip from the tyres at this point. It's fairly through the Porsche Curve and beyond: during qualifying I use third, but in the race I use fourth, driving the next section of circuit as far as possible in one flow."

White House

3rd gear/6700 rpm
120 mph/195 km/h

"The road goes uphill through the Porsche Curve, then left and over a road bridge, quite steeply downhill into the right-hander at the White House which leads you into another blind left-hander. Through the hole sequence of turns you can hold the same gear and you don't have to brake, maybe a slight lift just after the bridge, so it's a nice and satisfying section to drive well. As you turn in to the White House the car oversteers quite a lot, and the last left-hander is completely off camber, and I reckon that corner probably claims more victims than anywhere else on the circuit.

It is possible to get round other cars in this section but, because it is a sequence of corner, it does get very dirty off the racing line, so you have to be careful."

Left-Hander

4th gear/7400 rpm
160 mph/260 km/h

"After the Porsche Curve - White House sequence, you get into fourth and the end of the section is a very fast left-hander which brings you within sight of the grandstands. You take this flat, but you do have to think about it. You then stay in fourth until the engine nearly hits the rev-limiter, by which time you should be at the 150-metre board and on the brakes for the first chicane."

Ford Chicanes

2nd gear/5000 rpm
60 mph/100 km/h

"The Virage Ford is a very dull double-chicane, really, and the two elements of the corner are almost identical. In race conditions, I do the first chicane in third and pop into second for the second part, but in qualifying, I drive the whole thing in second. You do have to do a little braking in between the two chicanes. It doesn't realy do you mutch good to climb the kerbs here, because they are quite steep and they will unsettle the car."

Dunlop Curve

5th gear/7000 rpm
175 mph/280 km/h

"Whatever, you get it all straightened out as you leave the last corner and head up past the pits, and take third and then fourth before you reach the end of the pit wall, and fifth again in Dunlop Curve, and you're taking off on another lap. That would have been quite quick - maybe a 3:32 or 3:33, or about 143 mph average (230 km/h)."