The 24 Hours of Le Mans is considered to be the ultimate test of man and machine, and for Level 5 Motorsports, that means being fully prepared for the task at hand. Earlier this month, the three-time American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón champions arrived in France for the nearly four-week-long trip, which culminates with this weekend's running of the world's greatest endurance race.
With the goal of heading home as Le Mans champions, the Scott Tucker-owned organization has ticked every box in the quest for victory. In addition to Tucker, a nine-time national driving champion, Marino Franchitti and Ryan Briscoe will complete the driver lineup in Level 5's No. 33 Honda Performance Development ARX-03b, with more than 30 crew members having made the trip overseas for the event.
Level 5 is one of six American teams in the entire 56-car field and the only U.S.-based prototype team. There are a class-high 22 entries competing in LMP2, with Level 5 being the only HPD chassis or Honda-powered car. The same HPD ARX-03b package won last year's race.
The field may be reduced to 20 by race day, as both Lotus T128 entries were seized after a ruling by a Le Mans court after the team apparently did not fulfill its financial commitments. The team has until Friday to get the matter sorted out, but was expected to be back in court as early as Wednesday afternoon.
Rain hampered Level 5's extensive testing plan during testing day on June 9, as a day that was meant to see more than 1,000 miles of running was cut in half due to showers.
"We didn't get as much track time as we would have hoped for, but we can't control the weather," said Tucker. "It's a little disappointing to have traveled this far to get rained on but we made some good progress once it dried out. It was great getting back on the track and picking up where we left off last year. We weren't going for quick times, so we're not too worried heading into the race."
Instead of risking its equipment, which was air-freighted from Level 5's Wisconsin headquarters for the event in France, the organization waited for conditions to improve in the afternoon to begin its testing program in earnest. That strategy paid off, as both the No. 33 and No. 44 entries ran like clockwork during the four-hour session, proving the reliability of the HPD package, which won last year's race.
All three drivers turned laps between the two cars, including Briscoe, who made his Le Mans debut and successfully completed his "rookie" requirements for the race. In fact, it was Briscoe's 3:45.158 lap that held as the quickest time among the Level 5 drivers. The No. 33 car was 16th on the time sheets, while the No. 44 "test car" ended the day 19th, thanks to Tucker's 3:48.380 time.
Le Mans can be a daunting place for a U.S.-based team. With a different set of rules and regulations compared to their normal stomping grounds in the ALMS, not to mention the obvious language barrier, mastering the nuances of the rulebook can often times be considered a victory in itself.
Two of the biggest changes at Le Mans, from a sporting regulations standpoint, that American teams have to adapt to are the pit stop and safety car procedures.
Unlike in the ALMS, which allows two air guns to be used simultaneously for tire changes, pit rules at Le Mans limit the use of a single gun and only two mechanics changing tires at the same time. However, instead of the same crew and air gun being used to change all four tires, most teams split up the duties between two separate crews.
"It's definitely a change, but having done it so many times before, I don't think it's a big hurdle for us," said Level 5 Crew Chief Ken Swan. "I've been looking at how the teams at Silverstone and Spa were doing their pit stops and it's the same way we did them last year and the way we pretty much did them in ILMC. We're at the point where we just put our four fastest guys on it. We'll be working on them and practicing a lot during the week."
Another change comes in the way full-course cautions are handled at Le Mans. Due to the length of the 8.469-mile circuit, three safety cars are deployed during yellows, compared to a single car used most everywhere else. With roughly one-third of a lap of separation between packs, it adds an element to the strategy on whether to pit under yellow or during the green.
"The nice thing about Le Mans is that it's probably the easiest race of the year to do from a strategy standpoint," says Level 5 Chief Strategist Jeff Braun. "There's no wave arounds, there's none of that getting your lap back if you stay out. A normal yellow at Le Mans is usually a half-hour because the track is so long. So that plays into the strategy of whether we pit or stay out."
One possible advantage of pitting under green would be able to keep tire temperatures up, as unlike in the ALMS, a form of tire warmers are allowed at Le Mans. Tires are placed onto racks inside an oven-like chamber in the garage and heated to approximately 180 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal tread temperature. They're then whisked away onto pit lane just seconds before the scheduled tire change in order to retain as much heat as possible.