WORDS BY STEPHEN BRUNSDON | IMAGES BY RICHARD MILLE
Eight-time World Rally champion Sébastien Ogier completed his first-ever 24 Hours of Le Mans last weekend, finishing a respectable 13th overall and ninth in the LMP2 category.
Despite this being Ogier’s third endurance event of his post full-time WRC career, Le Mans offered the first real impression of this type of circuit racing due to his previous two World Endurance Championship races being affected by poor weather.
The season opening Sebring 12 Hours was curtailed by a series of red flag stoppages as major thunderstorms in the Florida area brought heavy rain.
Ogier’s debut was a careful one, as the Frenchman built up the confidence to drive quickly on the notoriously bumpy former airfield track at Sebring, and the heavy rain eventually forced the permanent race stoppage before Ogier was due to get back behind the wheel in the final hour.
It was a similar story at the six hours of Spa-Francorchamps, where torrential rain brought the race to a halt early on.
Coming into the Le Mans week, Ogier had spoken about his adaption to the world of sportscars and how much he was still learning from his relatively junior team-mates, Charles Milesi and Lilou Wadoux.
Despite being the elder statesman of motorsport, circuit racing is a new game for Ogier, which is why he was so impressive in his first 24 Hours last weekend.
Speaking after the previous round of the season at Spa-Francorchamps, where the car finished eighth in LMP2, Ogier said the key to starting Le Mans week was seat time in the car and building experience.
“There are positives to take away from this race, it was quite an interesting experience,” Ogier said.
“It was my first time driving in the rain with this type of car, so there was a bit of trepidation when I got in the car. The main thing was to finish, rack up the kilometres and gain experience, which will be important when we get to Le Mans.”
That experience came in handy for Ogier who started the competitive part of the week slowly building up his speed. His best time in the first free practice was a 3m38.017, just over 1.7 seconds slower than Wadoux and just under five seconds slower than Milesi.
For those not familiar with Le Mans, this deficit between team-mates might appear large, but time gains and losses around the 13.626km (8.467 mile) are historically big.
Ogier’s best night lap-time was around half a second slower than his FP1 time set in daylight, showcasing that the multiple rally champion didn’t have to wait long to adapt to the difference in visibility. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given how many night special stages he has driven in a rally car over the years.
Following practice (there were four sessions split across two days) and qualifying (which Milesi drove), Ogier felt at ease with his Oreca car but, ever the professional, knew that work still needed to be done.
"It was a great discovery and an important first day to familiarise ourselves with the track," said Ogier.
“I was told that it is well suited to cars like the LMP2s with fairly consistent high speeds, and I found it really enjoyable. There is still some work to be done, but we have some ideas and the changes we made at the end of the day were quite positive.
“I hope we can continue in this direction this week, and I'm certainly looking forward to getting back in the car."
With Milesi starting the race from seventh on the grid, the #1 ran well inside the top 10 in LMP2, with Ogier taking over just after the 90-minute marker for a triple stint. He spent the best part of an hour in the car, completing 27 laps, albeit at around two seconds slower than Milesi in the opening salvo of the race.
Ogier’s pace improved in his second triple stint after seven hours, with Signatech – the team which runs the Richard Mille Racing operation – team principal Philippe Sinault suitably impressed.
“Sébastien showed good improvement compared to his opening stint with a faster pace, and Charles is among the fastest as soon as he gets behind the wheel. Their performances allow us to fight for tenth place, even though the gaps remain very tight.
“The race still has to settle down, and we know that the end of the night and the dawn always have some surprises at Le Mans."
There were, indeed, surprises in the LMP2 class, most notably at the start when the leading contender - #22 United Autosport of Will Owen and the #31 Team WRT of René Rast – collected each other right at the start of the race, sending Owen into the gravel trap and a lap down.
Further back, the #47 Algarve Pro Racing car of Sophia Flörsch ground to a halt with a gearbox issue, dropping five laps.
That the #1 car and Ogier in particularly stayed out of the limelight – despite a stop-go penalty for a pit-lane entry infringement – no mean feat for any crew at Le Mans, let alone one with a rookie driver at the wheel.
"My first-night stint at Le Mans was very nice, said Ogier. “We increased our pace a bit compared to Saturday afternoon, so we [were] heading in the right direction. The traffic is sometimes frustrating as it's difficult to get a clear lap. I managed to take care of my tyres, which was maybe one of my weak points in the first two rounds of the season.
“It’s a shame we got this penalty from my first triple stint with my mistake at the pitlane entry. If not for that, we would have had a great first half of the race.”
Ogier got back in the car at around 5am on Sunday for his final triple stint of the race, handing over to Wadoux who in turn left Milesi to bring the car home.
Overall, this was a strong outing for Ogier, and one which will increase the confidence and experience levels of the WRC legend. It remains to be seen which type of car – and which brand – Ogier will attack next year’s edition of the classic enduro, but one thing is for sure, he will undoubtedly be in the mix for victory.
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