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The driver's view of a Le Mans like no other
Three months late, no spectators. Toyota's Mike Conway talks 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours
“We have to wear masks full time at the track,” says Mike Conway. One of Toyota’s six drivers at the 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours, he’s in the paddock ahead of the weekend’s race – held September 19-20 – telling us how odd it feels.
“It was pretty different just rolling into the paddock this morning. We’re used to seeing fans arrive from the Monday and seeing the campsites pretty full. Even the car parks look very lonely. It’s going to be really different. You usually feel the energy building up throughout the week.
“We hope the fans are going to be watching it at home. It’s a shame they can’t be here, but we’ll try to put on the best show we can.”
Conway and his co-drivers - Kamui Kobayashi and José María López – are leading the World Endurance championship going into the weekend, and won the last round at Spa-Francorchamps, traditionally the warm-up round for Le Mans.
“It felt so good to be back racing at Spa,” he says. “A bit of normality. All the blood flowing, all the good team bonding. I didn’t feel rusty at all. We just got straight back into it, so we’ll hope to do the same here. Le Mans is never easy – it’s longer and more brutal – and we’ll hope to get the win this time.”
Le Mans geeks will know just what happened in 2019. The Toyota TS050 of Conway, Kobayashi and Lopez lost the lead in final hour of the race owing to false warnings from the tyre pressure monitor, gifting the victory to the other Toyota – and Fernando Alonso and his teammates – right at the death. So has Conway’s team prepared anything differently to avoid heartache in 2020?
“I’ve been slipping a few mechanics some euros here and there! But no, nothing too different. We prepare so well every time anyway.” Is there any bitterness still lingering from 2019? “There’s always going to be part of the garage which won’t be happy, and part of it which is,” says Conway.
“Last year was… we thought we had it, you know. Then things happened the way they did. We were really annoyed. But what can we do? Some mistakes were made and that’s the way it goes.
“We didn’t get the win, but we did the best job we could, and a little bit at the end got away from us. We did everything perfectly up until then. The guys are motivated and pushing hard to redeem themselves. We’ll be doing the same, we’ll be pushing. I just approach it that I get in, I do the best possible job in the stints I have, and I do that three to four times. Do the best possible job and the luck will fall where it does.”
My body wants to sleep, but I close my eyes and my mind is rethinking the laps I just did
A measured, philosophical approach we can’t help but admire. So with up to four stints in the car this weekend, what are Conway’s favourite times to take the wheel?
“I like taking the start. That’s always a good feeling. You get quite a few clear laps, which are quite hard to get in the build-up to the race; you always have traffic. So by doing the first stint, you get the first six or seven laps with a clear road ahead of you.
“The night’s always harder, vision is affected a lot more and it seems a bit crazier out there, but I like going from dark to light. When the sun comes up, it’s the feeling of ‘we’re nearly there, we’re into the last part of the race’. Which is a cool feeling. I’ve done that a few times now. Normally whoever starts at Spa starts at Le Mans, so I’ll be starting again this year. I did the start in 2016 and they’ve just kept me in ever since; I like doing them and I used to have team mates that didn’t. Every year you come away knowing a few more tricks about the place. You keep it in your toolbox so that every year you come away a bit wiser.”
Does that mean he’s now an absolute pro at taking a nap atop a stack of tyres as the race blares past the pit garage? Um, no. “I find it hard to sleep. I’ll always get a little bit, normally after my second stint in the early hours of the morning. But it varies: one year I had nothing at all, and last year I maybe got an hour.
“I want to sleep – my body wants to – but I close my eyes and my mind is often rethinking the laps I just did, what I could do differently. It’s hard to switch off. When it’s like that, I just get up, pick the radio up and engage with it all. Some drivers sleep better than me. Kazuki Nakajima can sleep whenever he wants – he’s got the gift!”
And is Conway excited for 2021, when the World Endurance Championsip ushers in its new hypercar era, with Toyota among the entrants?
“I haven’t really been involved, but I’ve seen more recent developments and it’s all looking good. I can’t say anything [about whether he’ll drive the Toyota] until they say something. But I’m excited for it. It’s going to be different; the cars will be slower but with more teams coming in, I’m all for that – Glickenhaus, Peugeot, Alpine and hopefully others down the line. We want more competition at the top of the sportscar tier.”
Let’s hope the stands and campsites are packed once more to witness it…