Le Mans 24 Hours: Sam Bird aware the hard work starts now as Ferrari look to maintain perfect start
British interest at Le Mans has never been in short supply. 130,000 fans are expected to cross The Channel this week, not for the European Championships, but for the Le Mans 24 Hours.
However, this year’s event sees a British driver arrive as a runaway championship leader. Sam Bird will hope that both he and Ferrari team-mate Davide Rigon, together with third driver for the week Andrea Bertolini, will leave the historic French track with their GTE Pro championship lead intact, but the 29-year-old is fully aware that the hard work starts now.
“52 points out of 52 isn’t too bad,” Bird tells The Independent of his and Rigon’s victories at Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps. “Coming into this I was a Ferrari rookie, and a GT rookie at that. I was hoping for this kind of success, but I didn’t believe that I would be here with a nice championship lead with Davide Rigon.
“However, we’ve worked extremely hard, we’ve done a perfect job so far. The car is phenomenal, hats off to AF Corse, to Ferrari, for delivering a seriously good GT car with the 488 but now the work load really ramps up with Le Mans just around the corner, and this is the big one, this is the one where we really need to be on our top game because for sure Ford, Aston Martin, Corvette and Porsche are going to be on their top game at Le Mans. We need to come away from there with at least a podium if we’re going to have any shot of winning this title.”
After making his name in the LMP2 category along with his career in single-seaters, Bird has taken the switch to GT racing in his stride, despite having the strange addition of a roof for this season’s World Endurance Championship.
But if the start of the season suggested a Ferrari walkover at Le Mans, Bird was quick to play down a repeat of the opening two six hour races, and he believes that their biggest rivals in the form of the over manufacturers may have something up their sleeve once they are unleashed on the Circuit de la Sarthe.
Bird and Rigon triumped in Spa as well as at Silverstone (Getty)
“Everything is running very smoothly, everybody is very happy with our performance and where we are,” he says. “It’s just that kind of concern that we don’t really know where our opposition are yet. Due to the manner of which we’ve won the first two races, we don’t fully know where the speed of all the others is, because I don’t believe that they’ve shown their speed. We are happy with what we’ve done and what we can achieve at Le Mans and for the rest of the year, what the others do we just don’t know.
“We can only control what we’re doing, and we’re happy with what we’re doing. We’ve shown pretty decent speed over the first two weekends, others haven’t yet shown their speed but don’t worry, they’ll be showing their speed come Thursday evening at Le Mans when it matters to deliver a lap. I believe that there will be some teams that are very fast.”
Bird’s fears came true on Wednesday when four of the top five in GTE Pro qualifying were Fords. Whether the two Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA entries and two Team Ganassi Team UK entries were sandbagging earlier in the season is not known, but they certainly showed enough pace in the first of three qualifying sessions to suggest that they’ll be in the mix come Sunday afternoon. There is also the Balance of Performance to consider, where race organisers the ACO can make adjustments to try and reduce the gap between certain manufacturers to make the action even more competitive.
The No 68 Ford GT topped the timesheets after Wednesday’s session (Getty)
That’s all in the murky world of regulations though, and when it comes to Le Mans, it’s all about the magic of the race, which heads into its 93rd year. Bird clearly loves the race as much as any fans as his voice changes when he starts to describe the feeling of being at Le Mans, starting with the drive down from the United Kingdom, the week-long commitments of scrutineering and parades along with qualifying and, finally, the 24 hour race itself.
“For me it kicks in when I start travelling to Le Mans,” adds Bird. “It’s a magical week, you have the scrutineering, just driving the circuit on the test day is magical enough, let alone the race. And then you line up for the start and you’re on the start grid and you see just a sea of people. You can’t see for people, there’s only a handful of global sport events that are like this – the Indy 500 being another – but you look towards the Dunlop chicane, the first chicane, and you can’t see, you can’t see for people.
“It’s unbelievable, and the atmosphere is like you know you’re going to war with 50 other cars for 24 hours and you know that you need to put in the performance of your life in order to win the best prize in motorsport. You know that you’ve got to have a clean race with no mistakes, but the car can’t let you down. You’re not just relying on yourself but your team to do a perfect job, you’re relying on your team-mates to help you through this mammoth event. It’s nervous, it’s exciting, there’s adrenaline – I’m smiling just thinking of it – it’s a serious event like no other. The first time I did it, I stood on the start line and the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck and arms, I just couldn’t believe the atmosphere, it was phenomenal.
“I’m a racing fan, massive racing fan. I admire people when they drive well, I’ve got no issue with telling team-mates or competitors when they’ve done a brilliant job because at the end of the day, if they’ve done a brilliant job then they should be told, and I hope people would do the same with my driving. I love this sport, I’m in it because I love it, and I’m very lucky that I do the job that I love. I don’t think there’s any shame in me being like that, to be honest.”