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
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