CAN A NOVICE GET TO GRIPS WITH A LE MANS PRO­TO­TYPE?

LMP3 is de­signed to be an en­try level pro­to­type, but has it worked? By Rob Lad­brook

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The alarm was set for 0520hrs. I gave up try­ing to sleep at 0400hrs.

The eas­i­est anal­ogy is be­ing like a kid at Christmas, but the 100-minute drive to Snet­ter­ton in Nor­folk left just enough time for an­other emo­tion to creep in.

Ever since I first clamped eyes on a Le Mans pro­to­type back in the 1980s I had dreamed of what it would be like to drive one. To­day I was go­ing to find out. And I was ter­ri­fied.

It had been a few months since the email landed from Ligier’s par­ent com­pany On­roak Au­to­mo­tive, sug­gest­ing I fi­nally had a go in one of its LMP3 rac­ers my­self.

‘I can’t turn that down! That’s a once in a life­time op­por­tu­nity,’ I’d said to my­self. How­ever, the com­bi­na­tion of a sleep­less night and the scant early morn­ing traf­fic con­spired to tinge sheer ex­cite­ment with doubt.

‘I can’t wait’ sud­denly be­came ‘what have I got my­self in to…’

I’ve gained some de­cent on-track ex­pe­ri­ence as a re­sult of my years on MN, hav­ing driven pro­duc­tion saloons, Rad­i­cals and GT4 cars be­fore. But this was a very dif­fer­ent level, and one I wasn’t sure if I was ready for. LMP3 is de­signed to be an en­try level into Le Mans rac­ing. But, un­like many of the rac­ers in the cat­e­gory, I don’t have even one sin­gle-seater race on my CV, let alone a few years in For­mula 3. Surely this would be out of my league?

United Au­tosports – Ligier’s UK agent – was wait­ing for me upon ar­rival. There were no qualms with the crew. I’ve known team head Richard Dean since al­most my first day in this job, and know first-hand how good an out­fit United are hav­ing cov­ered their ex­ploits since Dean and Zak Brown founded the out­fit in 2009.

What both ex­cited and wor­ried me in equal mea­sure was sat in the garage, and also fall­ing from the sky. Af­ter weeks of weather that fi­nally re­sem­bled sum­mer­time, it was a soak­ing wet morn­ing in Nor­folk.

Track con­di­tions were dread­ful, and I was pre­par­ing for some­thing faster and more pow­er­ful than any­thing I’ve ever driven. What could go wrong?

Re­gard­less the engi­neers be­gan work set­tling me in and check­ing I was com­fort­able in the car.

At first glance the trio of Ligier JS P3s look stun­ning, and highly in­tim­i­dat­ing. With the rear en­gine cov­ers off ex­pos­ing the five-litre 420bhp Nis­san V8s, the large front dive planes and in­tri­cate split­ters, and the tight con­fines of the car­bon­fi­bre cock­pit, it re­ally brings home the re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion – as does the noise. Engines fir­ing in uni­son, the garage is a ca­coph­ony of ex­haust note. “We come to Snet­ter­ton as it’s eas­ier to get un­re­stricted noise test­ing,” says Dean. “Most tracks only give you 105db max, these tick over at 110…”

First job. Get in the thing. Sec­ond job. Try not to panic.

Get­ting in is ac­tu­ally more dig­ni­fied than many rac­ing cars. You sit on the side of the chas­sis then ro­tate your legs up and into the cock­pit be­fore slid­ing your bum down into the seat. The Ligier uses a low-slung seat­ing po­si­tion, akin to a for­mula car, with your legs raised like you’re in a bath.

The in­te­rior is far more util­i­tar­ian than lux­u­ri­ous, with bare car­bon en­velop­ing you in what at first feels a claus­tro­pho­bic cabin. There’s only a ba­sic switch­board and some wiring for com­pany. The steer­ing wheel con­sists of an easy to read dig­i­tal display with info on gear, speed and revs and there’s lit­tle else to dis­tract you.

Seat fit­ting over, it’s time for a brief­ing. My men­tor for the day would be ex-bri­tish F3 racer Chris­tian Eng­land, who han­dles the car in the Euro­pean Le Mans Series.

He walks me through the con­trols and ba­sic pro­to­type driv­ing hints. That sorted, and a few hours wasted wait­ing for the track to dry and re­sem­ble some­thing re­motely driv­able, and we’re good to go.

I pull on my over­alls, and my brave face, and clam­ber in to get belted up. Just be­fore the door slams shut, a fi­nal word of what passes for en­cour­age­ment from Dean: “We’ve only ever given one other driver their first P3 test in the wet, and he was one of our pros and came back in say­ing he felt in over his head, so it’s OK to be sh*tting your­self…” gee, thanks.

For the pur­pose of the test day the cars are pushed out of the garage and then fired up on pit exit. As the crew gets the car rolling and I wres­tle to get the Ligier lined up cor­rectly on drys­teer, I’m given the sig­nal to go. Dump the clutch, hit the green ‘en­gine start’ but­ton and… dear Lord.

The Nis­san VK50 V8 en­gine orig­i­nates from the Ja­panese brand’s top-line 4x4s, but via tun­ing from ORECA is trans­formed from lux­ury cruiser to some­thing more akin to a cruise mis­sile. When it comes on-song the sound is glo­ri­ous. The vi­bra­tions al­most take your breath away.

Af­ter the cus­tom­ary ‘first timer’ stall try­ing to pull away on low revs, I’m off. And the nerves sub­side about as quickly as the garages in the mir­rors.

The hulk­ing, in­tim­i­dat­ing ma­chine in the garage is sud­denly trans­formed

into a pre­cise and re­as­sur­ing racer by the time I’ve rounded Riches. On the move the car feels nowhere near as big as its 4.6 x 1.9 me­tre floor­plan. In­stead it feels tight and con­nected and re­mark­ably re­spon­sive.

“Ev­ery­body who drives the P3 for the first time can’t be­lieve the fron­tend on it, it’s real pre­cise, fin­ger-tip stuff,” said Eng­land be­fore­hand. “The big­gest adap­tion is al­ways the brakes. You never hit them hard enough at first and it takes a while to adapt to the pres­sure to stop over­shoot­ing apexes.”

I see his point. The JS P3 is a real back-to-ba­sics driver’s car, with no ABS or trac­tion con­trol, leav­ing all of the key in­puts up to the driver. A squeeze of the brakes with my left foot soon tells me I’d bet­ter stay tra­di­tional and use my right as the car doesn’t scrub enough speed off into Agon­s­tini. I run too deep, have to turn in to avoid the grass and wait, tensed for the back end to pen­du­lum on me, but it never hap­pens. The front end sim­ply bites around the out­side line and off we go. Re­mark­ably calmly.

The front-end grip and re­sponse is un­like any­thing I’ve ever driven. Cor­ners like Riches are taken with a slight turn of the wheel, and any move­ment is fol­lowed with an in­stant re­sponse. The Ligier makes you feel con­nected to it, with zero va­gary at the

wheel when on throt­tle.

The en­gine is also a clever ad­di­tion. Be­ing nat­u­rally as­pi­rated and tuned for torque over out­right power, it pulls at any stage of the rev range. Ex­it­ing Wil­liams and get­ting on the power brings an adren­a­line rush as a huge boot in the back ar­rives with each gear shift. There’s no wait­ing for tur­bos to spool, the ac­cel­er­a­tion is in­stant and you bang through the gears much faster than an am­a­teur prob­a­bly should on their first run, but the chas­sis al­ways gives you the con­fi­dence that noth­ing could go wrong when you bury the throt­tle. The kick in the back when­ever you pull a pad­dle to shift a gear in the X-trac six-speed se­quen­tial gear­box is more than a lit­tle ad­dic­tive and the cock­tail of noise, speed and sen­sa­tion is frankly a lit­tle eu­phoric.

Through the cor­ners the car be­haves very serenely when be­ing smooth, and more vi­o­lently when not. It likes calm steer­ing and throt­tle in­put, and dis­likes mid-cor­ner fid­dling. More than once I got a slide on dur­ing cor­ner exit by be­ing a bit too keen on the loud pedal. The key is pa­tience to avoid the rear wheels break­ing trac­tion.

The chas­sis also rides kerbs par­tic­u­larly well, with the sus­pen­sion will­ing to surf the bumps hap­pily. How­ever, dip­ping the rear-left onto the

wet kerb­ing at Mur­rays isn’t ad­vis­able. The chas­sis gives good feed­back as to what it’s up to, but in the wet the line be­tween ‘ev­ery­thing’s fine’ and ‘good luck mate’ I found to be rather slim. It tried to break away from me once or twice with lit­tle warn­ing, but af­ter the ini­tial re­bel­lion was quite happy to play along at the sec­ond at­tempt. A per­fect 360 de­gree spin out of the fi­nal turn was rel­a­tively easy to catch be­fore con­tin­u­ing know­ing that even if some­thing did go wrong, there’s enough wrig­gle room to work your way out of it. I’m told feed­back at the rear is much im­proved in the dry.

While the Ligier is sim­ple to jump in and drive, find­ing the best lap times from it is no­to­ri­ously tough. Hav­ing never raced an aero-de­pen­dant car be­fore, learn­ing to trust the chas­sis through high-speed turns takes a lot of time as you have to ad­just your mind to think be­yond just the me­chan­i­cal grip.

Ligier worked hard to find an op­ti­mal bal­ance be­tween down­force and drag, mean­ing the JS P3 can cor­ner like an F3 car, and pull like a GT3 down the straights.

As the track dried the best ex­am­ple of this was down the Bent­ley Straight. Run­ning on the Miche­lin wet tyres used in the Euro­pean Le Mans Series, when you ap­proach the top end of fifth gear you can feel the car be­gin­ning to bob around slightly as the aero pres­sure forces the tyre tread to move about. It’s never un­set­tling, but prob­a­bly time for slicks.

Sadly my time was up, time to trun­dle back to the pits for a de­brief with Dean. Sport­ing a huge grin.

“Peo­ple see a big, scary sportscar, but LMP3 has been de­signed with am­a­teur driv­ers in mind,” he says. “Dur­ing ELMS races the Bronze-graded guys have to do the ma­jor­ity of the rac­ing, so the car has to be ac­ces­si­ble and com­fort­able by de­sign.

“The over­rid­ing emo­tion with it for any driver on their first go is sheer en­joy­ment. Ev­ery­body loves the sen­sa­tion of it, the speed of it, the fact you have power in every gear at any revs. It’s a real pro­to­type for sen­si­ble money and it gives driv­ers that buzz. It has enough aero that it that makes you want to drive it more and get closer to the lim­its. Am­a­teur driv­ers love the com­fort and the fact you can jump in and drive at a de­cent pace rel­a­tively eas­ily, whereas the pros love the fact that get­ting those fi­nal tenths out of it is a real chal­lenge.”

If you dream of Le Mans one day and the ex­pe­ri­ence of a real pro­to­type, it’s tough to find a bet­ter en­try point than LMP3. The old say­ing dic­tates that you should never meet your heroes, but I did and I loved every sec­ond.

Ligier had loads of grip in the wet Our man han­dled Ligier Chris­tian Eng­land coached

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