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.
“Le Mans and F1 are two different pairs of shoes for me and I don’t tend to compare,” he says. “Both are at the pinnacle of motor racing and of course, like with everything in life, you have the chance and opportunity to improve things. But I’m a driver, I’m hired to drive a race car fast and it’s not my job to think about these things too much.”
Interest in his (temporary) transition extends beyond the media and Hulkenberg admits his regular classmates are fascinated by his weekend sojourn: “A lot of the drivers were quite curious to know what it feels like. There is definitely an awareness and an interest from F1 people.
“When I signed up for here, I knew what to expect. I know it’s different. I didn’t expect to find the same things as in F1. Mentally you accept it, you go with the flow. You adapt to new circumstances and requirements.”
Asked what he’s enjoying the most about Le Mans and Hulkenberg expresses surprise at his own conclusion. “The traffic,” he says. In an LMP1 he’s often braking 150 metres later than some of the amateur GT drivers, and this is new territory.
“I didn’t know about it until before Spa [his warm-up race with Porsche last month], but it adds a little bit of extra excitement. It’s an extra job you have to take care of and you can be better or worse at it.
“Maybe to a certain degree experience counts, but it is also a natural thing.
“There is a bit of risk-and-reward strategy as well; if you dive in on somebody which is a bit risky (or not) it can earn you two seconds, but obviously that is something we have to calculate constantly and very spontaneously. We can’t really think about it, we just have to go with our instincts.”
Another area Hulkenberg is learning is racing as part of a driving squad. F1 is a necessarily selfish endeavour, but endurance is all about communication with your co-drivers.
Webber – no F1 slouch himself until he chose to switch to endurance racing – reckons this has taken Hulkenberg back a little.
“At the first test, when I was trying to help him on certain things, he was like: "What the hell? Maybe he’s trying to stitch me up here, what’s going on?".
“But it’s a different environment altogether. He has enjoyed the challenge of the new series and how much you have to push and how much you really have to deliver from yourself on lap times and consistency."
By F1 terms, Le Mans is a harsh, unforgiving circuit. The super-quick, downforce-dependant Porsche Curves require commitment like Eau Rouge at Spa, but offer none of its run-off comfort zone. As Hulkenberg says, the place has an "edge to it" and the Porsche Curves, "Quick. And fun!".
Webber says: “Le Mans is still relatively old school. The track is obviously super-long, it’s a still a place with consequences so the concentration is super-high.
“The backmarkers are going as slow as they have ever gone in relation to our speed and the pitstops are a bit old school, you have got the old school refueling and night driving.
“But the number one topic for me is the emotion that comes out of this event. When everyone is tired and you see grown men in the garage and you see how it hits them when the event goes to or away from you, then you see the lure of the emotion.
“Last year with two hours to go we lost the race,” he recalls. “Timo [Bernhard] and I went down to Audi to congratulate them and all the mechanics and management stood up and clapped Timo and I. That’s Le Mans. I get goose bumps now. That was real class."
Webber admits he’s an addict now. But what about Hulkenberg, will we see him here again? Right now he’s not clouding his thinking with that.
“It’s special [this place]. I feel it gives me something and I am also proud to be able to do this. To manage both F1 and Le Mans is a big challenge but it’s obviously a unique opportunity to be in Le Mans racing with Porsche.
"I want to deliver a good job, stay mistake free and master the task that the team has given me. It would be awesome to be at the front and to be on the podium steps somewhere at the end.”