Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, June 13, 1997

Grandpa at the Wheel? It Must Be Le Mans

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
When the 65th annual 24 Hours of Le Mans starts Saturday, 37 of the drivers will be former Formula One racers.

In one way, this confirms the status of the most prestigious endurance test in the world. But some may wonder how a race with cars going more than 300 kilometers an hour (185 mph) can be run with so many old drivers, some of whom are grandfathers coming out of retirement.

Mario Andretti, 57, will drive his Courage prototype for the third straight year as he tries again to become only the second driver in history to win the Indianapolis 500, the Formula One Drivers' Championship and Le Mans. Only Graham Hill has won the events that make up motor sport's grand slam.

Andretti said he'd keep coming back as long as the other two drivers of the team could say, ''I know he can carry his own weight; I know he's a guy I want on the team.''

This year one of the two other drivers on Andretti's team is his son Michael, the CART champion, who presumably is disposed to want his father on his team.

Still, can a man twice the average age of most Formula One drivers, hold his own in a 24-hour race at those speeds?

''I think it's not so much the age in itself rather than the length of time that you are in the business,'' said Jan Lammers, 41, a Dutch former Formula One driver who will be driving a Lotus GT1.

''Easily until 40 to 45 you should be capable of doing a top-class job. But that all goes with your motivation to really get the most out of yourself. And to be very sharp and alert on technical issues to try to improve your equipment. I've been in the business now for 25 years and I'm as hungry as anything.''

Henri Pescarolo, 54, four-times a Le Mans winner, has driven in the race a record 30 times. He also drove in Formula One.

''There's the ascending period,'' he said, ''during which we are under a maximum amount of pressure in order to get into Formula One, then to stay there. It's a period that is psychologically very difficult, because it's a continual pressure. After 10, 15 and sometimes 20 years at the top you start to get a little worn out psychologically.''

That's when a driver starts looking for other forms of racing. In endurance races the speed and level of competition are high, but the pressure is less intense, because the drivers do not need to reach the absolute limits all the time. Pescarolo says age may be an advantage in endurance races.

''It's in the experience in knowing how to analyze the wear of the car during a race,'' he said, ''and analyzing the wear of the tires in function with the evolving meteorological conditions, and adapting a different kind of driving. Here it's no longer the pure speed or the possibility to turn the fastest lap that's most important. It's the need to be very fast all the time in all the different conditions. And that's where experience can compensate for absence of 'youth,' or 'age.'''

Many believe age is relative. When Damon Hill switched from racing motorcycles to car racing at 23, he shaved a couple years off his official age at the time because he feared he would be considered too old. He did not race in Formula One until his early 30s, but nevertheless became world champion last year at 36.

''It depends on the context,'' said Eric Van de Poele, also 36 and a former Formula One driver, who is racing in a Nissan. ''In endurance racing it's very important to prove that you're fast, and that you don't make stupid mistakes on the track. It's true that experience counts. But a lot of the 25-year-olds of today have more experience than I do, because they started a lot younger. I started at 22, when I went to driver's school.''

Formula One remains the most physically demanding form of car racing, however, with its sudden and violent speed changes during braking, and with the G-forces a driver's neck undergoes in cornering.

At Le Mans, among the 150 or so drivers this year, there will be a disparity of talents, with some drivers turning laps several seconds slower than teammates in identical cars.

That's where the old guys like Mario exploit their experience.

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