13 June, 2011
Newcastle-born driver, Rob Bell, completed the prestigious Le Mans 24 Hour race this weekend, crossing the finish line ninth in class in the JMW Motorsport Ferrari 458 GT Italia, sharing the driving with team mates Tim Sugden and Xavier Maassen.
The round-the-clock endurance race famed for being the biggest challenge in sportscars racing claimed half the field as victims over the course of the 24 hours, but despite clutch and engine problems, Bell and his team mates kept the JMW Motorsport Ferrari on track to the bitter end.
Bell, making his fifth visit to Le Mans, took the helm for the first stint of the race and was able to improve on the team's qualifying position, lying sixth by the time he handed over the car to Maassen. Bell's stint included a long period behind the safety car after an accident for Allan McNish in an LMP1 Audi, which slowed the field's running for over an hour, but gave Bell an extra problem, with nausea from the fumes of the car ahead of him.
Towards the end of Sugden's first stint the JMW Ferrari developed a clutch problem which left the drivers battling with shift changes and compromised their time in the pits for the routine stops as the car had to be in first gear using only the starter motor to leave the pit box each time.
Bell says, "Less than six hours into the race we had shift problems with the clutch and although out on track it wasn't too bad, it was an extra pressure, particularly going through the high speed corners, when you need to have total confidence in quick shifting. The biggest impact of it was in the pits though. At the beginning it wasn't too bad and we were able to get away in first gear just using the starter motor, but towards the end, the car was struggling to fire up and we lost time at every stop.
"We also had a fuel-injection problem on a couple of occasions which needed lengthy pitstops to sort out, so this dropped us back down the order. It's testament to the great crew we have at JMW that despite these problems we were able to run until the end, unlike so many cars this year.
"It's an achievement in itself to finish, so I'm pleased we reached that chequered flag, but I'm still left wanting more. I hope to be back to give it another crack next year!"
A week-long event, the 24 Heures du Mans, starts with plenty of fanfare and spectator participation, with scrutineering in Le Mans town square and a drivers parade through the streets later in the week. With part of the circuit using public roads, the practice and qualifying sessions are held in the afternoons and evenings leading up to the race itself on Saturday.
"There's nothing quite like the atmosphere of Le Mans," concludes Bell. "It's the biggest occasion in the sportscar racing calendar, with the best sportscars in the world racing against each other in one of the toughest challenges there is. It's a privilege to be part of it and I love the whole week, with the enthusiasm of the spectators, the camaraderie of the pitlane and the 'family' of the team, which makes it a very special event."