Karim Ajlani became the first Syrian driver to compete in the world famous Le Mans 24 Hours last weekend, although becoming the first to finish will have to wait until 2010.
The OAK Racing driver, who had lined up eighth after LMP2 class qualifying, was handed the honour of starting the epic race. As the 33 year-old took his place amongst the 55-car strong grid, so he became a part of one of the most evocative sights in motorsport.
“The start was extraordinary with the concentration level required much higher than at the beginning of any other race,” said Ajlani. “This event is massive and the start is something incredible. I was very concentrated and focused. It went well and there were no dramas during the opening laps.”
Karim ran strongly during his opening stint and remained at the wheel of the Pescarolo-Mazda prototype for the second after pitting for fuel.
“My first stint was good and at the end we decided to double stint the tyres. It’s the first time I have ever done that, I haven’t even done it in the LMS before, so I made sure I was more careful under braking and all went well.
“In my second stint I found a rhythm pretty quickly and made some progress setting my best lap time as I continued to build my confidence in the car and on the circuit.”
Having enjoyed another trouble-free run, Karim made his second scheduled stop of the afternoon to hand over to co-driver Matthieu Lahaye. Fellow #35 car driver Guillaume Moreau would also have time in the car before Ajlani returned for his next stint that night.
It would prove to be anything less than trouble-free however. Towards the end of his stint while running fourth, the gearbox alarm inside the cockpit lit up. On returning to the pits several laps shy of a scheduled stop, his engineers discovered that the engine had developed a problem. With it sealed, team mate Lahaye returned to the fray, only for the car to start billowing smoke. Further checks prompted a 90 minute delay while the entire turbo charger was replaced. Optimistically, Lahaye again headed out, only to complete a further 30 minutes of running before, at 8.30am, the car was retired with engine-related problems.
“Obviously we were all disappointed. The car had been running well up until then but I guess that’s what Le Mans is all about. It’s 24 hours, not 18, although we can be proud to have come that far with an all new package. It was a shame, but at least the sister car proved the potential by finishing on the podium.
“Our mechanics did an exceptional job to try and help us finish the race and I am very thankful to them. Le Mans is a real challenge of both man and machine and I learned a lot. We have done a lot of kilometres this week and this will be beneficial to us for the remainder of the season.”
Ajlani will be back in sportscar action at the upcoming Le Mans Series round in Portimao, Portugal this August.