Any 24-Hour race is a real challenge to the team, equipment, and drivers and the 89th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans proved to be no exception for inception racing, the team making its debut at the fabled event.
There were a few low points to the race week at Circuit de la Sarthe, but also plenty of highs, as together, the team secured the race finish, showed great resolve in adversity, whilst underlining its competitive spirit and expertise to run for a good portion of the race inside the top six, before ultimately finishing in 12th position in the GTE Am class.
Fielding the #71 Ferrari 488 GTE Evo run by Optimum Motorsport in conjunction with Kessel Racing, the Le Mans rookie trio of Brendan Iribe, Ollie Millry and Ben Barnicoat took part in the pre-event test the Sunday preceding the race. It was a trouble-free test, giving the team plenty of confidence heading into Wednesday’s Practice and Practice Qualifying sessions.
Ben took Practice Qualifying duties on Wednesday and certainly was not showing his Le Mans rookie status as he put in an incredible performance to record the fourth-fastest time and to put him into the prestigious Thursday evening Hyperpole shootout for the fastest six in each class.
The lap time in Hyperpole was almost identical, just 0.015s slower over 13 Kilometres underlying the consistency of both driver and car. This meant a fifth position start for Saturday’s 4 pm start.
The first major issue of the Le Mans week came right at the end of the fourth and final practice session, with Ollie losing control of the Ferrari at the Ford Chicane, backing into the barriers with a reported impact of 29G.
He was thankfully uninjured, but the car was badly damaged in the impact. Overnight and through to late into Friday evening, the team worked to rebuild the 488 around a new chassis. Thanks to the help and cooperation of multiple parties in the spirit of Le Mans, including our Yorkshire neighbours United Autosports, Kessel Racing and Ferrari technical support, the car was completed at 10 pm Friday night in readiness for the 15-minute warmup session on the race morning.
Proving a point, Ben was quickest of all in the GTE Am class with the team fully set for the race start. A heavy rain shower ahead of the start meant that the 61 car-field completed an extra two laps behind the Safety Car before being unleashed, but despite this, there were issues throughout the field with multiple cars spinning and making contact. Ben played it safe, steered clear trouble, before settling well into his first stint.
He made progress despite very tricky conditions but was forced to make an unscheduled stop halfway through his second stint with a right rear slow puncture. A more significant tyre failure occurred on lap 32 prior to Brendan getting his first race run.
Lengthy periods of trouble-free running followed, allowing the team to cycle through the stops and to be in the position to challenge the #77 Dempsey Proton for fifth position at the 12-hour mark. Trading places stop by stop, an unfortunate error in a routine tyre change with 13 hours completed, Ben left the pit lane with the front left wheel loose. It took 16 minutes to return to the garage on three wheels, and a further 20 minutes to effect repairs to the splitter and corner of the car. With eight laps to the #77 lost the team returned to race action.
From this point, however, realistic hopes of a top-six finish had been dashed. Through to dawn and then into Sunday afternoon, the three drivers completed their stints, with finally Brendan taking the chequered flag 12th in class, 42nd overall. While not the result the team had aimed for, it was still a tremendous effort from all concerned and alone, to finish the 24 Hours of Le Mans at its first attempt, is a significant achievement.
Bas Leinders, Team Manager
"Today is a great day for Optimum Motorsport and all the team members; to be at the start of a 24 Hours of Le Mans is a dream for many and we were able together, with our Rookie drivers, to go just that one step further on our first participation by getting to the finish.
"I would like to thank every team member from Optimum and Kessel Racing for all the work that has been achieved in preparation, and also during the last 14 days at Le Mans."
“We lost a lot of time with the pitstop issue, but all learned so much over the week. Until you race here, you do not realise how tough it is, but it has been amazing. Everyone has done a fantastic job, Optimum Motorsport, Kessel Racing, and everyone involved, and we can’t wait to come back next year and have another crack.
“We did everything we can to stay out of trouble and the objective has always been to finish, but naturally, I wanted to win, but you have to realise how tough this is. We calculated where we could well have finished and that was the fourth position in the GTE Am class, so it is a case of ‘what if’ but again, it’s been such an experience and we take so much from that.”
Image credit Optimum motorsport