When Sebastien Bourdais took over the No. 68 Ford GT from Joey Hand shortly after 5 a.m., the car was a little more than a minute behind the leading Risi Ferrari. However, if anyone could bring that gap down it was Bourdais, a formidable race driver under any circumstances but in this case one competing on his “home” circuit for the 11th time and who could probably lap Le Mans’ Circuit de la Sarthe in the pitch dark faster than most of his competitors in broad daylight.
What Bourdais couldn’t know was that he was setting off on one of the wildest rides of his career. All went well initially, but it wasn’t long before radio communications with the pits vanished. However, while pit-board technology (as simple as chalk on a blackboard, or as sophisticated as electronic pads with LED displays) went out with bias-ply tires and carburetors, every team has pit boards in case of just such an eventuality. But Bourdais couldn’t read the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing board in the glare of the headlights. “It felt like the longest stint in my life,” he said.
Fortunately, the steering wheel’s electronic data display was functioning, including a countdown of the number of laps before Bourdais had to pit for fuel. All well and good, but could the onboard computer be trusted? It was right on the money. Bourdais made a routine stop and returned to the track. What’s more, the team tracked down the glitch (it was in the garage apparatus not the car) and soon effected repairs. “The second stint we got the radio back,” said Bourdais. “‘OK,’ I thought. ‘It’s back under control. Everything is good.’”
Good indeed. For all the communication problems, Bourdais had clawed his way back to within seven seconds of the Risi Ferrari when the second chapter of his crazy ride commenced.
“We triple-stinted the tires, which was tough because the performance was degrading quite a bit,” Bourdais said. “But … we had a safety-car period, so we could follow the safety car around without putting too much stress on the tires … and then the steering wheel [electronics] froze. I couldn’t see data, only the radio was working, and when I went into the pits, the pit-lane speed limiter wasn’t working. So I was trying to gauge my speed from the Aston Martin ahead of me and not get a penalty for speeding in pit lane. Then when I came to a stop in the pit, I hit the kill switch on the steering wheel and the engine went brrrrrrrr … and then it started again.”
The trouble was, the moment the engine shut off, fueler Lee Blackwell plugged-in the hose only for the engine to re-fire instantly, incurring a penalty for refueling with the engine running, regardless of the extenuating circumstances.
As Bourdais was reaching for the master switch on the dashboard to cut all the electrical power, Dirk Müller had the door open, the window netting down, and was trying to yank his teammate out of the car—which didn’t work so well given the driver hadn’t yet released his seat belts. Meanwhile, the team had located a spare steering wheel. The beleaguered Frenchman pulled the quick-release on the inert wheel, replaced it with the spare, and finally, exited the car. It was, in Bourdais’ words, “quite special.”
Müller belted-in, new steering wheel and four fresh Michelins installed, the No. 68 burbled to life. Müller engaged first gear and headed down pit road, destined to return a few laps later to serve a drive-through penalty for refueling with the engine running. What had been a seven-second deficit had ballooned to 39 seconds. Unfazed, or perhaps energized, Müller set about reeling in the Ferrari, driving—in the immortal words of Jake and Elwood Blues—“like he was on a mission from God.”
Editor’s note: David Phillips is a freelance motorsports journalist whose articles have appeared in Autoweek, Autosport, Motoring News, Racer, and Automobile. He is editorial director for iRacing.com, the world’s foremost online motorsports simulation service. Published in December 2016, his book is available for $34.95 at BookBaby.com.