x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

24 Hours of Le Mans a merger of metal, mental and more

Any 24-hour race is about more than just mind control, as Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, with teammates Khaled Al Qubaisi of the UAE and Andrea Bertolini of Italy discover.

For eight of the next 24 hours, this will be the office Emirates driver Khaled Al Qubaisi will be working out of as he, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Andrea Bertolini of Italy compete in the No 60 Ferrari 458 Italia at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
For eight of the next 24 hours, this will be the office Emirates driver Khaled Al Qubaisi will be working out of as he, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Andrea Bertolini of Italy compete in the No 60 Ferrari 458 Italia at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Four wheels. Two doors. One driver. If you've made it to the starting grid at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, you know you're about to tackle one of the most gruelling - physically and mentally - challenges in motorsport, or indeed any sport.

The 14-kilometre Circuit de la Sarthe stretches out ahead, over and over again. As does perhaps the longest day of your life.

On Saturday, 56 drivers started the 90th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, who is taking part in his third consecutive Le Mans, it gets no easier.

"When you are in the car, you are all alone," the Al Faisal, 29, said earlier in the week. "Every lap you are thinking of the next corner, and at the end of each lap you look at the dashboard to see what your lap time is. After that you settle into a rhythm."

Last year, Al Faisal suffered several disruptions. This year, it is that elusive, and uninterrupted, rhythm that the three drivers in the JMW Motorsport Ferrari 458, sponsored by Emirates Aluminium, Abu Dhabi Racing and Dunlop tyres, are seeking in the GTE Pro class race.

Once all the preparation is done and the car is ready, it's all about focus and concentration.

Time and again, Al Faisal, with teammates Khaled Al Qubaisi of the UAE and Andrea Bertolini of Italy, return to the subject. Le Mans, or any 24-hour race, requires monumental mental discipline. But it's about more than just mind control.

"If you are not physically fit, your concentration will drop," the Saudi driver said. " You must aim to maintain momentum, strength and speed at all times."

The drivers have been getting in shape for the last month or so. Al Faisal highlighted that as the big weekend approached, however, a more balanced fitness regime was needed, the idea being to get in the car feeling fit, but also very relaxed.

"As you get close to the race, you have to ease off on the heavy training," the Saudi Falcons driver said.

"The goal at that point is to conserve energy and make sure that your muscles are relaxed.

"And eat healthy, of course."

Still, nothing quite prepares you for the extra pressure of racing against the world's best. Or what exactly will go through your mind once the action gets under way.

Anyone who has ever been behind the wheel of a car for long distances would likely to have, at some point, suffered from what is known as "Highway Hypnosis"; tiredness creeps and your mind starts playing tricks on you.

You continue to drive, but are, in many ways, unaware of your surroundings. Those who experience this syndrome, also called "white line fever", will have no recollection of long periods of the drive at the end of their journey.

The dangers hardly need explaining. With shifts of up to two hours, or as Al Qubaisi said, "as long as the fuel tank takes you", such lapses are unthinkable for endurance racers.

"You try and focus on the moment, but sometimes you can't help other thoughts creeping into your mind," the Emirati, 37, said.

"But at such high speeds, you can't afford to lose any concentration."

Once again, focus and concentration.

At Le Mans the drivers spend over 80 per cent of the time at full throttle.

At the corners, especially the tight Mulsanne turn, a car must brake from a speed of over 300 kph to around 105 kph in seconds, putting immense stress on the engine. Keep your car out of technical troubles, and you have a chance.

Knowledge of every twist and turn of the track is essential, and last week the three teammates took an old fashioned method to familiarise themselves with it.

"We went did a 24km run around the track, stopping at every corner to discuss the best lines to take," Bertolini said.

"As a team the dynamics are very good, we're very confident."

Needless to say, fitness and mental strength, were never far from his thoughts, either.

"If you're not 100 per cent physically, then you'll be in trouble," the Italian said. "In reality, it is not just 24 hour for us, it's more like 40.

"We get up at about 8am on Saturday, and then and we finish at 4pm on Sunday."

After approximately eight hours of driving per driver, the physical effort might be over then, but there is a fair bit of mental exercise to endure yet. There is no off switch for the adrenalin rush.

"When your time in the car is up, you need to give your body time to cool down," Bertolini said.

As the race heads towards it's conclusion the drivers cannot afford to think too far ahead, never mind the finish line.

The next turn on the track remains the only thing on their mind.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

 

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