BY MARTIN WALSH
MATT Griffin was quite despondent on Monday week last but it was understandable. It was the day after the conclusion of the Le Mans 24 Hours, and he and his team-mates, Britons Aaron Scott and Duncan Cameron, had failed to finish.
For a racing driver, Le Mans is the pinnacle. Along with the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix it’s part of the unofficial ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport.’
The race has history and prestige. It’s French title, 24 Heures du Mans, resonates. It is the world's oldest sports car race in the context of endurance racing and it’s being going since 1923. Some call it the ‘Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency.’
Griffin and his team-mates were competing in the No. 55 Spirit of Race run Ferrari 488 GTE but their race ended on Saturday evening after about seven hours.
‘Duncan was in the car at the time, we were about P7 in the LM GTE category,’ Ballincollig-based Griffin explained.
‘He was tagged and spun out by one of the prototype cars (LMP) at Turn 1. Our Ferrari punctured both left-side tyres and by the time he had driven all the way back to the pits, it was badly damaged. The team considered making repairs but it would have taken a lot of time and we wouldn’t have been able to get back into contention.’
Game over. Griffin’s response was succinct: ‘I was gutted.’
It's every racing driver’s dream to finish on the podium in Le Mans. Griffin did so in 2013 when he was part of the AF Corse team that took third place in the LM GTE category. Last year he was leading the category with just 90 minutes remaining but suspension troubles dropped them to eighth. He’s twice been fourth and fifth. Last weekend’s race was his ninth consecutive outing in Le Mans.
‘It (Le Mans) is the true test of man and machine. In 100 years’ time, whatever motorsport will look like, whether the cars are electric or powered by hydrogen or whatever, Le Mans will still be there,’ he said.
Le Mans is different, it consists of both permanent track and public roads (the latter temporarily closed for the race) and is 13.626km (8.467 miles) long. Its top speed is now around 330km per hour (205mph).
‘It looks simple when you look at the track layout and the amount of corners but it is by far the most difficult track you will ever go to; it’s three times longer than a normal racing circuit,’ Griffin explained.
‘It is 90 per cent public roads (outside of the race weekend) and it’s at high speed – at five points around the track you are driving at over 300km per hour. What that means is that you have to take all the aerodynamic down force off the car to be quick so the car never feels underneath you like it does at the likes of Silverstone or Spa Francorchamps.’
Griffin’s experience is vital.
‘Because it is so long, you never get many laps on the track. For example, in an hour you will do 12 laps whereas at Silverstone you will do 33 laps in that time. That brings its own challenges.’
Like any athlete, he has to be in top condition.
‘You have to stay fit all year but Le Mans is strange. It’s not so physically demanding as it’s mentally demanding. It’s about making sure your endurance is very good. Your weight is super important. For Le Mans I am at my lightest (61kilos) every year.
Ten kilos is worth about four tenths of a second per lap which, and when you consider you will do 150 laps, it makes a difference.’
Outlining his main fitness regime, he said, ‘It revolves around cycling because it is something I want to enjoy and it’s important when you are doing physical exercise for long periods.
‘In Le Mans I am in the car for what we call a double or a triple stint, a stint is how long the fuel will last, which is an hour. I have done a four-hour stint in the past. So, in that context cycling is perfect, my heart-rate on the bike is close to what it is the racing car. I burn about 800 calories an hour when I am racing. You could run or go on the rowing machine every day but you could pick up an injury. Over the course of the year I will cycle between 12,000 and 15,000 kilometres on my road bike. As I am 37 now, it is important to look after my body with stretching and regular massage, when I was younger, I didn’t need that.’
The mental approach is certainly more demanding. Griffin is the most successful driver in the history of the European Le Mans Series (ELMS), has won more races that anyone and has racked up more GT races in a Ferrari than any other driver. He is a gold-rated driver.
‘It is hard to prepare for Le Mans, it comes down to experience. Why it is mentally tough is because there is a lot of pressure on the driver. The cost of competing in Le Mans is very expensive, you are talking about a €1,000,000 just to do the race. If you make a mistake on the first lap, it is almost certain you have cost the team that much.
‘You also have the pressure that you have to be fast all the time. On top of that you have to deal with the prototype cars, adjusting to night time driving (parts of the track are better lit than others) and there is much more, but it is a team effort.’
This year due to Covid-19 there was no official Le Mans test and the team had an issue with car that wasn’t solved until free practice four on Friday, well after they had qualified 14th in the category. Griffin drove the first stint.
‘It was frenetic, crazy, at the start. I made up one place by Turn 1. Cars were three abreast at 300km per hour, jostling for position. The slipstream is important. I was up to fourth in first two hours.’
Unfortunately, they retired around the seventh hour and while he still has outings in the British GT and the ELMS and others for the rest of 2020, a Le Mans podium remains more than a target for Matt Griffin.