It takes a very special person to compete in this race. Speeding along over 24 hours in a custom-moulded bucket seat fixed inside the hot cockpit of a 930 kg chassis, propelled by a 4-liter V8 engine delivering 600 bhp that can reach up to 330 km/hour, on a 13.629 km track that includes public roads, may not be everyone’s idea of a dream. And yet 180 passionate drivers – three in each of 60 teams – entered the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans to live the time of their life, confident that every last nut and bolt is positioned to provide maximum security, precision, and long-endurance performance.
Among the teams chosen to compete this year was the Panis-Barthez Compétition, created in 2016 by former Formula 1 driver Olivier Panis, and former French goalkeeper and World Champion Fabien Barthez. Panis is Team Principal while Barthez is one of the drivers, the “gentleman” or semi-professional driver, bringing his experience as a top-level athlete to the other drivers on the team. Thanks to the team’s partnership with HYT Hydro Mechanical Horologists and HYT’s invitation, we were able to have a look behind the scenes on the day of the qualifying sessions, two days before the 15:00 departure of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Technical and high-end
In some ways we were reminded of a watch manufacture, as technicians spoke to us of highly resistant alloys, components, gears and gear trains, speed, torque, and adjustments – elements and principles we know from watchmaking. With HYT, the parallels are even more pronounced, with fluid dynamics, pistons and tubes, reservoirs, compressors and hydraulic pressure being just as essential to racing cars as to Hydro Mechanical watches. Before final assembly, we discovered the chassis, the bucket seat, the steering wheel and the engine, with precision and utmost attention given to every detail. Michelin tires, for example, are maintained at a temperature of 80°C for the front, and 100°C for those at the rear, adjusted when the track surface temperature varies; tire inclinations also play an important role in the car’s adhesion to the track.
Unlike most other races where the focus is on speed, the 24 Hours of Le Mans concentrates on both speed and long-term performance. Manufacturers innovate to build sporty and reliable cars that are fuel-efficient with good aerodynamics and stability at high speeds; the mechanical and driving talents of the racing teams complete their work. For Olivier Panis, it is this “research, innovation and a spirit of new technology for better performance shared by two young companies” that forms the bond between his team and HYT. “And the watches are sublime,” he adds, “technical and high-end, like our cars.” During the day, we saw the H1 Ghost, Skull Green Eye, H0 Silver and H2 Colorblock Orange.
A learning experience
The 60 teams in competition are divided into four classes: two for prototypes – LM P1 and LM P2 –, and two for GT (Grand Tourer) – the LM GTE(ndurance) Pro and Am(ateur) models. Seven of the LM P2 cockpit and chassis model, including that of the Panis-Barthez team, come from the same manufacturer: Ligier, while a new single specification motor comes from Gibson. The two test days before the race are therefore crucial for the teams to make the difference through adjustments and fine-tuning to optimize performance while preserving the wear of the tires, thereby limiting the number of pit stops. A four-tire change takes 17”, a refuelling of 75 litres takes 30”, but during that duration “we have time to change the driver also” assures a technician. Engineers in the control room advise the technicians of the adjustments to make throughout the race, depending upon mechanical wear, driver fatigue, and the weather.
One of the quieter moments of the day came during the press conference, when Team Principal Panis chose to use precious allocated minutes to speak of his commitment to the “Mécénat Chirurgie Cardiaque Association”, with a young, former patient in the room attesting to the success of the operation that repaired her heart malformation. Surprisingly, even quieter was the intense silence, almost religious, as we entered the technicians’ area a final time. With the car now assembled and the qualifying sessions begun, the team’s concentration on its mission was almost palpable, as the technicians listened carefully with their headphones for instructions from the engineers eyeing their screens in the control room next door.
The Panis-Barthez Compétition obtained the 26th qualifying position that day, but unfortunately had to abandon the race on Sunday three hours before the end due to a clutch problem; cars are known to endure up to 25,000 gear changes during the 24 hours of the race. A learning experience for a team just two years old, the result will be analysed for the future, as races continue throughout 2017 in the ELMS (European Le Mans Series) category.
As for the HYT partnership, a new team timepiece is expected for September. Until then, existing models will continue to be seen on the wrists of the Panis-Barthez Compétition team, watches that Barthez loves to wear, he says “for the original mechanics, style and look”.