The relationship between Formula 1 drivers and Le Mans is long and complicated. Taken purely from the perspective of those two entities, it’s a story of star-crossed lovers through decades. A glorious and heroic tail tainted by tragedy and heartbreak.
There was a time between the 1950s and ’60s when the big factory team programmes spanned all disciplines. The recognised aces of their time would slot into whichever car or category needed them to inject fearless, barely contained velocity. The very best drivers in the world, indeed often world champions, weren’t just drawn to the majesty of this perennial, unrelenting contest of speed endurance, they were required.
By the late 70s, that trend had faded as F1’s biggest stars began to focus solely on the individualistic nature of their craft, and the top teams introduced prohibitive contracts to protect their precious talent from the often lethal business of racing through the night at 220mph.
So, through the 1980s, Le Mans became the domain of those seeking to make a name, or those who had already done so but still wanted to compete at a prestigiously high level.
But throughout the decades, there has always been another kind of F1 driver that never stopped calling on La Sarthe… specifically, the under-rated, lesser stars. Those guys have not achieved the reward their talent deserves in F1 and are thus not yet tied to it exclusively.
Every so often these midfield-encased aces, unable to demonstrate their ability at the top of F1, are lured to Le Mans in June, intent on having a crack at the world’s most famous race – in this small French town (population 140,000) in the Pays de la Loire region. Seeking glory.
The latest of these is Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg, who forms part of the factory Porsche team’s stellar 2015 Le Mans line-up. The German has watched opportunities for advancement into top F1 machinery evaporate at least twice before his eyes in recent years, and as his Porsche team-mate for the weekend Mark Webber says: “He deserves the chance in F1 to have a top seat but there are not that many around.”
This weekend, Hulkenberg joins Porsche Cup graduates Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy in a third 919 Hybrid LMP1 prototype.
Hulkenberg’s approach to racing can seem unemotional, outwardly at least. This unflappable air is borne from a practical thought process. He breaks down tasks, simplifies them and executes. Sir Jackie Stewart (another ex-Le Mans racer) calls this mind-management. But in the hurly burly build-up to the multi-manufacturer 2015 carnival of Le Mans, this serves Nico well.
“Why should I say anything, then build up expectations and then put myself in that situation,” he says during one of several distracting ‘Meet the Team’ press encounters ahead of the race. “There are so many situations that could go wrong in the 24 hours that we then have to manage those, so there is no guarantee.
“You just have to keep cool, do your job, keep it on the black stuff, hopefully have no technical issues and see where we end up.”
In the build-up to Le Mans, Hulkenberg’s been the centre of attention, the first contemporary F1 driver since Sébastien Bourdais in 2009 to race here. He’s been asked endless comparison questions between a sport that some believe is suffering something of a PR crisis right now, and one that has all the signs of booming.