Racing Reality
Automobile|November 2019
We follow Hurley Haywood at Le Mans to learn what has changed
Sean Evans

HURLEY HAYWOOD abhors being late. As a three-time champion of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and a five-time winner of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, arriving anywhere first is a trait that’s served the 72-year-old well during his 30-plus years as a race car driver. But at the moment, “Early Hurley” is stuck in an elevator smaller than a bathtub—with seven other people— for nearly half an hour. Perhaps more upsetting than this claustrophobic predicament is the threat to Haywood’s punctuality. Even worse: As the grand marshal of the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, he’s a guest of honor at a Rolex-sponsored dinner to kick off the famous endurance race. But the finicky elevator within the control tower of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s complex in France has a mind of its own.

Upon release, much of the dinner is over and Haywood’s interest in attending has waned. Aggravation may shoulder some blame here, but fatigue factors, too. The requisite grand marshal duties are lengthy and afford few moments of respite. In between photo ops with fellow racing luminaries such as Jacky Ickx or glad-handing the eager cadre of 1,000 volunteer track marshals, many of whom watched Haywood successfully campaign here in 1977, 1983, and 1994, Haywood’s presence has been politely requested at a slew of luncheons, dinners, and other functions, including the drivers’ briefing.

“I remember when you could smoke during these,” Haywood quips quietly during the latter, as we sit in the front row of a room containing 186 drivers, a few seats from returning Le Mans champion and ex-Formula 1 superstar Fernando Alonso.

He also recalls far fewer rules governing his time on the Circuit de la Sarthe. In stark contrast to today’s 150- plus pages of regulations, “We were told not to crash into each other, respect the marshals, and go like hell when you saw the green flag after a caution,” Haywood shares. Among the lengthy instructions FIA race director, Eduardo Freitas gives today’s crop of pilots is a telling command: “Reverse is one of your gears. Make sure you know how to use it. I’m not keen on putting marshals in harm’s way to push your car out of a gravel trap.”

This directive would have been unfathomable in Haywood’s heyday, but it’s a prescient one rookie drivers need to hear. Over the years, the FIA, international racing’s governing body, and the ACO, the Le Mans organizer, have waged a multipronged effort to mitigate risk. Freitas and his colleagues believe the Circuit de la Sarthe needn’t be the notorious danger zone it once was. Part of the safety advances include physical changes to the course, a direct response to ever-increasing speeds.

“The cars are now capable of 400 kph [almost 250 mph] on the Mulsanne Straight,” Freitas says later over lunch, “so two chicanes are necessary. But the placement of the last one is vital: Too far back, and the brakes are too cool for the right-hander at the end.” Blow the braking zone after the 3.7-mile straight, and the punishment is a trip around a newly included roundabout to the left. “You’ll hit a gravel trap, and I can’t risk you dragging stones onto the track, so the roundabout will help knock away the loose pebbles.” Attempts to skirt the maneuver will see marshals holding the car for longer than it takes to comply.

Freitas understands the drivers’ belief that their car is the most important vehicle on track. “But,” he says, “we have the largest field ever this year. There are 61 other cars out there that I must consider. One car has no right to mess up others’ races. If you’re spilling fluids all over the track and still pushing [to the limit], that’s a large problem. You must exit.”

Measures aimed at eliminating driver injury are applauded by all, though it’s a marked paradigm shift, mentally. “The driver [years ago] who overcame obstacles the quickest won,” Haywood offers as we shuffle to the pits where he’ll wave the flag to open practice and qualifying sessions. “Oil on the track was just another obstacle.”

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