Meeting your heroes: Le Mans winner Andy Wallace

| 5 Jan 2016

In the February issue of the magazine, we all list our highlights from 2015. My ‘Hero of the Year’ was easy. Back in the summer, I was lucky enough to meet Andy Wallace and join him for a few unforgettable laps aboard the Jaguar XJR-9 in which he won Le Mans in 1988 with Johnny Dumfries and Jan Lammers.

Entertaining and articulate, Wallace related a number of stories for which we didn’t have room in the final article… 

On winning at Macau

“My big break came in Formula Three. I won the British Championship in 1986, then went down to Macau. That’s where you get all the F3 series from around the world coming together. You get a lot of guest drivers, and one of those was Jan Lammers, who was also driving for Jaguar at the time. This is where things got lucky… 

“The first corner was Lisboa. They had so many accidents there – they even tried funnelling it earlier, but it didn’t help. It’s difficult to pass after that – the circuit gets very twisty.

“So Jan is leading the first heat – it’s two heats with an aggregate winner. He’s leading, I’m second, and we’re all going around having a nice time. It comes to the last lap and I know I’ve got to pass him at Lisboa if I’m going to win this thing – and he knows I’ve got pass him there!

“He’s still the guy with the best car control of anyone I’ve seen. He’s legendary. We arrive, and he’s looking in the mirror, and I’m pushing, pushing, pushing. He braked late, got the car a bit twitchy, then touched the white line and the back of the car went around – he controlled it, but he’s aiming at the three layers of Armco on the apex. That’s what he would have hit.

“I saw my chance and dived down the inside of him and we clipped – front wheel to front wheel, back wheel to back wheel. I pushed him straight! So now I’m first, he’s second, no one’s lost any time and we go across the line.

“We were on the podium afterwards and he said: ‘Thanks for that – I was definitely going to hit the wall’. In the second heat, I buggered off and didn’t wait for anybody and won that.”

On his first F1 test

“Up until that point, almost everyone who had won the British F3 championship had gone from there straight to F1. I did the tour of teams and came away with two offers, but they both required quite a lot of money, which I didn’t have. So that scuppered that. 

“After winning at Macau, I was given a test drive in a Benetton-BMW at Donington. It was two degrees C and dark. It was so dark, in fact, that the titanium skidplates were lighting up the track.

“At the end of 1986, [Gerhard] Berger won the Mexican GP on Pirellis. They used the same set of tyres for the whole race – it was a hard compound, but that was okay in Mexico City where it’s hot. We arrived at Donington with the same compound – they were putting them in an oven rather than blankets. An actual oven! After three or four laps, they’d cooled down so they had to put them back in the oven…

“There were 10 people there. The most experienced was Emanuele Pirro, who’d done F3000. He did the fastest time, and I was second. Later on, after Johnny Herbert had his crash, they drafted Emanuele in.”

On the challenges of Le Mans

“You’re getting towards the Mulsanne Kink at over 240mph. It’s flat-out but there’s a car there – what’s going to happen? Are you going to pass him before the Kink? Even if you do, now you’re on the wrong side of the road, and you didn’t feel like doing that – you’d have enough of a wobble on that you might not make the corner. All those things you had to weigh up. It’s crazy, and you get the hang of it, but everything’s happening so fast. The only way for you to do it is for your brain to slow everything down.

“Then the problem is that you get to Mulsanne Corner, where you have to almost stop. It’s really easy to outbrake yourself because your brain’s been slowing everything down on the straight –you think you’ve shed enough speed but you haven’t. It’s very draining. 

“After that, you’ve got two flat-out right-hand kinks before a third at which you have to slow down. When you don’t know the circuit, it’s very hard to tell the three apart. Now, it sounds silly because I’ve done thousands of laps there, but [in 1988] it wasn’t. You don’t necessarily need both lanes to do the first two flat-out, but it’s better because the car’s wandering. It’s all about placing the car and looking far enough ahead.

On battling Porsche in 1988

“The Porsches had more downforce and were very quick through the Porsche Curves. When you get to the slower corners you’d get understeer because of the [Jaguar’s] spool – the idea of which was that, if you broke a driveshaft you could get back to the pits. 

“The rear end was quite stable but you picked up a lot of understeer in places, especially at the last of the Porsche Curves, which was always called the ‘Bastard Left’. These days it’s a lot safer, but then it had a really high apex kerb. You’d go into the Curves and the first one’s fast, the second and third ones were fast, the fourth one is fast and long with a lot of speed and if you got it wrong you’d go into the barrier on the left. That’s where the Porsches were quicker.”