Race report interview: A look back at Mikaël Grenier’s Total 24 hours of Spa

RECUPERATING AND RELAXING IN AUSTRIA AFTER A SLEEPLESS NIGHT AT SPA CULMULATING OVER 10 HOURS AT THE WHEEL OF EMIL FREY RACING’S LAMBORGHIINII HURACAN GT3 EVO

It has been over a week since the checkered flag at Spa Francorchamps where teams and drivers of the GT World Challenge Europe met for what was a gruelling 24 hours endurance race.

Since traveling is limited because of Covid-19, Mikaël is in Austria staying with teammate Norbert Siedler until the next and last round of GT World Challenge Europe for the 1000km at Circuit Paul-Ricard in France on November 13-15.

We caught up with him to relive his side of the Total 24 Hours of Spa.

Canadian Racers News (CRN): Back at Spa where a couple of weeks ago, you had a chance to prepare for the Total 24 hours. How has practice gone and were you able to continue your preparation from the previous test?

Mikaël Grenier (MG): It was going pretty well with the car as we ran some of the practice and pre-qualifying in dry conditions. We were actually classified eight and tenth after FP1 and FP2. We had some doubts though about the long stints since we were only able to drive short stints during the previous test in dry settings because of the constant change in track conditions.

During the event, the first practice session is 90 minutes and the second one is 60 minutes. To get enough track time for the three drivers is hard and to maximize available track time for us three, I sat out the second practice and one did not drive in the first session. But we were still happy with how practice unfolded.

CRN: Then came qualifying where things did not quite work out. Was it due to water accumulation on the track?

MG: The qualifying session was in the rain. And we are having a difficult time understanding why we did not perform as well as in previously similar conditions like in Zandvoort per exemple. Our set-up for the car did not work for the track configuration that is at Spa. But it was not just hard for our cars at Emil Frey Racing. All of the Lamborghinis (8 Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo were present, ndlr) were not performing well in the rain for some reason.

We missed the Super Pole (the top 20 cars from a combination of all three drivers’ time have a chance to compete for the ultimate pole position, ndlr) by one tenth of a second and within minutes to the end of qualifying, we were the highest placed Lamborghinis. But then other Lamborghinis placed 16th and 18th. We finished 22nd.

CRN: Starting from 22nd place in a 24 hour race, everything is still possible. You started the race in adverse condition on a damp track. How did you approach it?

MG: We were still very confident before the start of the race. Actually the eventual winners started just ahead of us (Laurens Vanthoor, Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber / #98 Rowe Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R, ndlr). We knew we still had a chance. The start went well and we did not want to take too many chances because of the length of the race and also the fact we started on slicks on a wet track surface. I gained two places during my stint and in the first two hours we were shown in 16th place. We realized early on we did not have the momentum, the pace for a podium finish but a top 10 was still attainable. The top five cars were in a league of their own. Looking at our rhythm and strategy throughout the race, certainly a sixth to tenth place was possible.

CRN: Going back to the start of the race, there were 55 cars taking the green flag and you were in the middle of the pack. Looking at the lap times as it is very close over a lap, how was it from your point of view in the first couple of laps?

MG: Of course, it looks a little more extreme when you’re not in the car. Obviously, it there are incidents ahead of us, we are pretty much in the worst possible place in 20th-30th place. But then, when you are in the car, you don’t think about that. You focus more on the cars immediately around you. I knew my mom was stressing out a little (Mikaël said laughing, ndlr) as she was watching.

CRN: The #14 Emil Frey Lamborghini was pointing in 16th place early on then it seems the car hit some trouble and you lost several laps. Can you describe to us what it was all about?

MG: Yes, unfortunately, we had braking issues with the car’s rear left wheel twice in first five hours of the race and we don’t know what caused it. The brake pads exploded in pieces. The first time, it was Ricardo (Feller, ndlr) that was at the wheel. This caused an unplanned stop as the mechanics had to replace the brake caliper and pads. The second time it happened, I was the one at the wheel. Fortunately this time, the mechanics realized the same situation had happened while we were on a scheduled stop. We had to bring the car in the garage and proceed to change the parts. After that point, we did not encounter that problem anymore. It is very much a mystery, what happened.

CRN: With this, your team lost seven laps just like that.

MG: That was a tough one as we were still on the lead lap in a good position. Our initial objective was to be in the top 15 at the beginning of the night as we knew that as the sun come up there are usually a lot of safety cars periods. After the first time we had to deal with the brake issue, we had lost three laps but were still positive we could regain some advantages but when it happened the second time, we knew we would have it rather difficult for the rest of the race.

CRN: You then had 19 hours or so to go and being seven laps behind, how do you stay motivated to keep going knowing your objectives have disappeared?

MG: It is difficult for sure. We were really happy with the start of the race and it was actually my first ever start of a 24 hour race so a bit more stressful for me. Without saying it is discouraging, it is quite difficult as we know there are some 19 hours to go. At one point we were occupying 46th place. Also, the Total 24 hours of Spa is different from, let’s say, the Rolex 24 at Daytona in terms of safety car rules. At Daytona, even though you may be 10 laps behind, there is a possibility to regain some of those laps. Where as in GT World Challenge Europe, there is no possibility other than strategy to regain lost laps.

CRN: So, all you need to keep doing is give your maximum and drive your hardest as there are most likely going to be others in difficulties throughout what is left of the race. With all that, you still managed to finish in 16th place.

MG: We were not expecting with all that happened to finish in 16th at all and I think we managed to gain one lap back. With the circumstances, we were happy. The team did a very good job with the strategy and the pitstops. It is unfortunate that we had these problems because otherwise we had a good race. It is part of racing and we need to learn from these events and understand why we were not in a position to fight with the leaders as there was one Lamborghini that was fighting up there (#63 Orange 1 FFF Racing Team, ndlr) with the lead group.

The BoP changes before the race favoured us better. We were competitive at other tracks this season but surely we need to work harder in preparation for next year’s race. The official Series’s test days was difficult with the weather changing constantly and because of that we could not test all that we wanted. On a race weekend, it is not the time to start to experiment as track time is very limited with two practice session. Private testing would certainly help.

CRN: You were the one chosen to finish the race. The condition were far from good with some heavy downpour. How is Spa in the rain? How did it go for you?

MG: I always like this kind of challenge. I drove a stint during the night in the rain, so I had an idea of what to look for. We also had rain during the official test. So, there was quite a bit of aquaplaning, especially at the bottom of Eau Rouge. What was most difficult were the two restarts we had as I was in mid-pack and could not see anything. I was just hoping nothing would happen going up Eau Rouge. The car felt better though than during qualifying as we had made some changes to the set-up.

CRN: You mentioned Eau Rouge. It is a mystical corner. You must be flat out going through it with the Lamborghini Huracan? You mind sharing your feelings about Eau Rouge?

MG: It is definitely a special corner and a very fast one. The elevation change is more drastic than what you can see on TV. The car is bottoming out quite a bit, it has a steep climb as it turns left then right into Raidillon with not much run off areas. If you make a mistake, you are surely to hit the wall. There is a good amount of time to be made up when driving through Eau Rouge correctly as it leads to a very long straight line. So, if you lift going into it, the car will decelerate more rapidly because of the incline. During the race, you are not at full throttle unless you are on a set of brand new slick and only for a couple of laps. Mind you, in qualifying, it is flat out!

It is a great challenge with a GT3 car. Obviously, when watching a Formula One car it has so much downforce it looks on rails. A GT3 car, you are very much on the limit. On top of that, you have to respect track limits at the top on the left. When the car performs great, it is my favourite corner bar none.

CRN: As a driver, every lap is a new lap. Is Eau Rouge the type of corner that needs that much more concentration every lap?

MG: Yes, it is THE corner that needs the most concentration. For instance, the #63 Orange 1 FFF Racing Team was leading the race when it hit the wall severely at the exit of Eau Rouge. At the time, the rain had stopped and there was only a narrow dry line you could use. Most likely, the driver hit a wetter part and that was it for their race.

After a while, it becomes like any corner but you do prepare more as you are approaching it.

CRN: Throughout the 24 hour race, a stint at Spa being an hour, how many stints did you drive?

MG: I actually drove about 10.5 hours as my teammate Ricardo was sick from food poisoning and Norbert drove about 10 hours. I drove a triple stint at one point which was long especially at Spa.

My first stint at the start was one hour. It was already planned that we were to drive couple stints at night to give a chance to the drivers to rest. At another time, I drove 2.5 hours as well. I also finished the race with a single stint. I did not sleep at all during the 24-hour race but with the adrenaline rush and a couple of espresso, it compensates.

CRN: As a driver, what is different between driving a single stint and a triple?

MG: There are not really any difference especially when you look at what the Spa 24-hour race has become. It has to do more with a sprint race than endurance. You have to attack for one or three hours. What is bizarre, is when you are doing a 1-hour stint you think to yourself “I’m never going to be able to drive three hours”. But then, when you know you have to do it, it doesn’t seem that bad afterwards. You simply have to mentally motivate yourself in acknowledging you will be in the car for three hours and go on with it.

CRN: Fortunaletly, you have your track engineer that is constantly with you on the radio to give you a rundown of what is happening.

MG: Yes, of course, the engineer is there. The team is very well organized. Following the relay, we spend a bit of time with a physiotherapist to help recuperate. As funny as it may seem, over the course of a 24 hour race, having a physio session helps tremendously with staying fit and relaxed. We also have a doctor with us (who works with Olympic athletes, ndlr), taking blood samples then analyzing them. From the results, he can direct us in what we need to eat and supplement with to stay in top form. Truthfully, this made all the difference.

CRN: Now, there is one more race to go at Paul-Ricard on November 13-15. It is scheduled for a 6-hour race?

MG: Yes, it is now going to be a 6-hour daytime race compared to the initial schedule where we were to race at night and I will share the car with Norbert Siedler and Ricardo Feller. We have not driven there since the beginning of the season but it is a track where Emil Frey Racing usually performs well. We are currently awaiting news that the race will take place as more restrictions in France have been placed because of Covid-19. Normally, all professional sport will continue.

CRN: Being the last race on the calendar, after Paul-Ricard you are set to come home?

MG: Yes, that’s the plan. Normally, we would go ahead and have a season end private test but considering being this late in the year and Covid-19, I don’t think that’s going to happen. The season went by very quickly. Even though we started late, it was kind of a slow start at first but since August, it has been back to back racing. I enjoyed that part very much.

CRN: In the meantime, you are to stay in Austria?

MG: Yes, I’m going to stay in Austria with Norbert, relax and concentrate on the coming race.

Images courtesy of Emil Frey Racing

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