It is officially called “24 Heures du Mans” but most of us know it simply as Le Mans, a name that needs neither honorifics nor epithets. In a sport that is often guilty of overusing superlatives to gain just a little more traction, Le Mans is (probably) the most famous car race in the world. Put simply, the competition is a definitive performance car race staged in a sleepy French town that springs to life life once a year for an epic showcase. It was first staged by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest in 1923 as a test of fortitude for automobiles and is the oldest (and undoubtedly the most romantic) endurance car race in the world. Formula 1 is a sprint but Le Mans is ultimately a marathon, for both cars and drivers, providing a crucial test of doggedness and resilience for each.
Team Evolution Capital hosted a group of TMT entrepreneurs at Le Mans 2019 in June and were delighted to be addressed by former race winner Xavier Pompidou during a break from the track. Read on to find out what it takes to make a Le Mans-winning driver.
Q: How did you get into to racing cars?
XP: As a kid I was always into cars and I got into karting. I discovered I was quite good at it at in 1990 I won the Elf Volant Karting Trophy in Jesolo, Italy. I was lucky enough to get some support from Elf and Gitanes and with their sponsorship I was able to continue.
Q: What led you into endurance racing?
XP: When I was 26 I got an offer from Elf to take part in the ISRS Prototype World Championships driving a Centenary/Alpha. This led me to go on and drive at Le Mans in the LMP (Le Mans Prototype) category. After that I joined I joined Porsche, winning titles in the GT Class before joining Rebellion Racing in Switzerland and winning at Le Mans again.
Q: What makes Le Mans such a unique event?
XP: Le Mans is a very special occasion and it gets the best out of everyone. Of course, we are there to win and that is your job but it is not everything. In the media all you hear about is F1 but here, at Le Mans, you cover a greater distance in 24 hours than any Formula 1 driver does all season and probably at higher average speeds. On average we race at at 220 kilometres an hour and cover almost 5000 kms for the race. Drivers need to be incredibly fit in mind and body.
Q: Is this what makes it such a great race, the super human effort required?
XP: It’s not all about the driver but it’s everything about the team. At Le Mans you can’t do a thing without your team and everyone has to work hard to be part of that team. Drivers, engineers, mechanics, strategists all have to work in harmony or else nothing works. Ultimately, I think that this makes us better people.
Q: How hard is it on the cars?
XP: It’s brutal – an engineer’s nightmare. Cars burn hundreds of gallons of fuel, go through thousands of pounds of wheels and tyres, the engines are driven to destruction. So many things can go wrong. If the smallest of parts break that can be the end of the race.
Q: With so many things that can go wrong what is at the top of the teams list of priorities during the race?
XP: When it all comes down to it it’s about making the right choices at the right time. Simple things such as when will the last tank of fuel be taken or will the tyres be good for another lap. Races are won and lost in the pits.
Q: Is it difficult to sleep during the race, when drivers are changed?
XP: Personally, I don’t find it so. We assemble at 6am for the race briefing and the race starts at 3 pm – so when I was driving, I could sleep easily after the change – I was ready for it. It’s really a 48-hour race not 24 hours.
Q: What was your scariest moment driving a race car?
XP: I think it was losing a wheel at 200 kph at Indianapolis – I finished by hitting a tree.
Q: Do the Le Mans Drivers need to be the same size, height, weight?
XP: No not at all. Each driver has a seat and belts are custom-made for him and these are changed when the drivers swap over.
Q: Can the car engines be reused after Le Mans?
XP: No, they are built only for Le Mans
Q: Which cars do you prefer to drive? F1 or Endurance?
XP: Definitely Formula 1
Q: Is there much difference between the cars?
XP: Not much, the Porsche Prototype is quicker, Le Mans 24 hours cars are quicker still but on the straight the F1 car will be quickest at 220 maybe even 230 mph?
Q: What are your weaknesses as a racing driver?
XP: I am probably too nice for single-seaters. To be a successful F1 driver you need to be a real dog if you are to reach the top.
Q: Can you become wealthy racing outside F1?
XP: Not really. At Le Mans the prize money is around $150,000 to be shared between 3 drivers and the team. There are lots of nice watches and race-cars to be won but that’s probably it. I retired from racing because I knew I would not get into F1.
Q: What do racing-car drivers do when they retire?
XP: Many like me go and coach the young guns which is a fantastic career move.
Q: Which is your favourite team?
XP: Pavillion Racing was the best team I ever raced for. I made so many good friends there. I miss all that.
Q: What road car do you drive?
XP: I drive a diesel BMW 3 Series. I hate driving on the road. In fact I just got my first speeding ticket this week.
Q: What are you doing now?
XP: Six months ago I started XP Developpement, which teaches and coaches young racing drivers. My parents were not rich and I received lots of help and support along the way and this a chance for me to give something back
Q: What is the most important attribute for a racing driver?
XP: Talent of course. But great balance is critical, this balance comes from the ‘inner ear’ and without it no driver will make it.
Q: What do you eat?
XP: When I was racing I followed what my nutritionist told me very strictly. Complex sugars, complex carbohydrates and plenty of water.
Q: Did you pass your driving test first time?
Q: How many speeding endorsements have you got on your driving licence.
XP: None at the moment but I think one is coming in the post!