DH-H’s Journey to Le Mans
The 80th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will take place this weekend, and while the primary focus undoubtedly will be centered on the anticipated duel at the front of the field between the LMP1 Audis and Toyotas, some of the most compelling action is expected to be found in LMP2. Interest in the category has mushroomed since the organizers revamped the rules in an attempt to reduce costs significantly and included a stipulation that demands a pro-am driver lineup.
It makes sense. After all, wealthy amateurs fund many of the teams. So assuming a minimum level of competence, why not give them an opportunity to shine while the “big dogs” chase their tails in the true pro classes – LMP1 and GTE Pro?
One such amateur who will be among the 40 Le Mans rookies this week (two fewer than last year, incidentally) is David Heinemeier-Hansson. “David Who,” you might ask? Well, fair comment. DH-H, as he is known, is extremely well-known as an innovator in the Web world, but his is not a name with which many, if any, race fans will be familiar. After all, he has been racing for only a few years and, until 2012, was not competing regularly in any high-profile series.
Born in Denmark, DH-H became fascinated by the sport from1 tuning in to watch on TV as a youngster in his homeland – specifically Formula One and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. His interest was heightened further when Tom Kristensen became the first Dane to win at La Sarthe in 1997.
“It was a pretty spectacular moment,” recalls Heinemeier-Hansson. “I’d been watching the race for a few years but seeing a Dane actually win the most prestigious sports car race in the world was very special.”
After moving to the United States in 2005 and proving successful in business, it wasn’t long before DH-H was in a position to begin to follow his dream.
“It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to go where Tom had gone,” he says, “so that became pretty quickly the mission, at least once I got serious about pursuing motorsports in about 2009. I kind of mapped out my plan from the get-go.”
He began racing a Porsche in the Cayman Interseries, then dipped his toe in the water of the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge through a recommendation by long-time Flying Lizard/Porsche factory driver Patrick Long, who was serving as a driver coach. A last-minute deal with veteran Dennis Aase’s team saw him contest the final round of the 2010 season in the Gold class at Petit Le Mans, where he promptly emerged victorious.
It was an auspicious start. DH-H planned to graduate full-time into the Platinum class for 2011, but after showing some good speed and making his ALMS debut at the wheel of a GT Challenge Porsche at Road America, he found another door opening. It was in the form of an opportunity to contest the final three races of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup with a GTE Lotus Evora.
“I thought, ‘Hey, what a wonderful way to jump even further up the ladder and get into a GTE car, so I can get to do Silverstone, Petit Le Mans and Zhuhai in preparation for next year and getting closer to the dream of Le Mans’,” he explains. “At the time I drove my first GT3 race, I was preparing my own car for the following year. We had done a little bit of testing but I hadn’t actually gone racing. So I, of course, jumped at that opportunity and found it to be absolutely wonderful. I was quite surprised. I felt the jump was going to be bigger than it was, and I’ve thought that along the way pretty much every single time I’ve made the step from one series to another.
“It sounds very intimidating to jump from just a gentleman/hobby series, like the Cayman Interseries, to something that’s a support race to a professional setup like the ALMS in GT3 – and then again from GT3 to GTE in ILMC – but I really like the sports car ranks and how the feeder series work. I feel like the steps between them are actually easy enough that once you’re pretty good in one of those smaller series, you’re actually good enough to run perhaps mid-pack in the next step up. So that was sort of how I moved along from doing really well in the GT4s and then I got into GT3 and had a good run. The first race I did was in Gold class, then I did Platinum class the year later and found that the competition was really good but I was able to hang in there and continually progress.
“The ILMC really gave me the chance to run with the big boys. For example, coming down Hangar Straight at Silverstone with an Audi on the left side of me and a Peugeot on the right was just a phenomenal experience. Every single step of the way, all this just pulls you in and hooks you in more! Not too long ago I was just watching this stuff on TV and now all of a sudden I’m sitting and watching the diesel-engined cars zoom by. It’s just amazing!”
Heinemeier-Hansson’s enthusiasm is infectious. I found myself impressed, too, by his obvious appreciation for the some of the nuances of the sport. He seems to realize the potential pitfalls of trying to progress too quickly and holds reasonable expectations for himself. His original plan for 2012 was to graduate full-time into the World Endurance Championship with a GTE Ferrari, but when that deal through at a late hour, he began casting around for other options. He soon came into contact with former Indy Lights champion and IndyCar driver Eric Bachelart, who was seeking to expand his Conquest Racing team by venturing into endurance racing for the first time in the American Le Mans Series. The two parties quickly reached an agreement.
DH-H was more than happy to contest the ALMS, rather than the WEC, but he included a stipulation that Bachelart would introduce him to a European team that would enable him to fulfill his ambition of racing at Le Mans. Contact was made with a variety of teams, but since Bachelart had chosen an Onroak-built Morgan chassis for his foray into the ALMS, reaching an agreement with the sister organization – Oak Racing – seemed to make the most sense. Firstly, though, Heinemeier-Hansson had to persuade team manager Sebastien Philippe that he was worthy of the ride.
“When I first met Sebastien, I didn’t have a whole lot of history to my name,” he admits. “I could talk a little about the GT3 races I had done the year prior but that was pretty much the only full year of serious competition history that I had, so I could hardly blame Sebastien for being a little skeptical about whether or not to put me in a car! Oak Racing is not out there just to run cars around a circuit; they’re running this program because they want to be competitive and they want to win.”
Effectively, Heinemeier-Hansson was seeking to jump all the way from a GT4-spec Porsche Cayman to LMP2 in the space of little more than a year. It seemed like an unrealistically fast progression. DH-H, however, did his homework – and gained plenty of practical experience. He pounded around experienced racer Klaas Zwart’s semi-private Ascari Race Resort in southern Spain at the wheel of a V8-powered Radical SR8.
“It’s a wonderful track for testing,” asserts DH-H. “He basically cherry-picked his favorite corners from all the tracks he had raced at, so it’s a very diverse track with everything from high-speed sweepers to chicanes and everything, and I got a chance to practice a ton – maybe, I don’t know… 1,500 laps. So that was really a good preparation for stepping into LMP2 and it wasn’t such a shock. I had at least experienced a downforce car.”
Heinemeier-Hansson impressed both Bachelart and Philippe during his ALMS/WEC prototype debut at Sebring, and his deal with Oak Racing was quickly concluded. After posting two more solid performances in subsequent ALMS events at Long Beach and Mazda Raceway Laguna Raceway, both of which could have resulted in victory with even a modicum of good fortune, DH-H set his sights on Le Mans. That included an additional outing in the WEC race at Spa thrown in for good measure prior to his first-ever appearance at Le Mans for the Test Day a couple of weeks ago.
“The funny thing in some ways is that the top speed of the prototype cars these days is not really that intimidating,” he says. “It’s not like the old days where these cars had a lot more power than the GT cars. The jump from the Evora with 475 hp to the Nissan engine we have in our Morgan wasn’t actually that crazy – actually, they’re comparable in top speed. But the first time you take a corner at 3.2 Gs is quite an experience and I’m happy at least that I had quite a few times to prepare for that before coming to Le Mans. Because once you dive into Indianapolis or one of these other corners, if that was going to be the first time doing that in a prototype car, I think that would have been quite a shock.”
The Le Mans Test went well, with DH-H spending almost the entire day gradually working up to speed after his highly experienced co-drivers Bas Leinders and Maxime Martin were committed to a Blancpain Endurance Championship race at Silverstone in England… which they won.
“Thankfully, the Oak Racing team is really taking this incredibly seriously, so we had done four individual test days prior to showing up at Le Mans. We went to Magny-Cours twice to do night testing and we stayed an extra day at Spa to do a test, plus we had done an earlier test at Bugatti, so I had a chance to learn about the different downforce setups. It was really a completely different car when we changed from the high-downforce package that we ran in the Spa race to the low-downforce we’re going to run at Le Mans. It’s 30 percent less downforce, which might as well have been 200 percent less because that’s how it feels. It’s just like everything you’ve ingrained into your muscle memory on how the car is going to hold on full throttle in the middle of a corner, you have to throw all of that out and relearn it.
“It was just really nice to have the chance to slowly build it up, so I didn’t have to push really hard out of the gate and also just learn to have the respect for the track that it absolutely requires. I mean, very unfortunately, the (Oak) LMP1 car had a very bad accident. It was actually strange for me because I saw (Guillaume) Moreau hit the wall and it just didn’t look very bad to me at all. I was sure they were going to have that car back out in 30 minutes or something like that and he was going to be fine, and then later he wasn’t just fine; he’d broken his 12th vertebra.
“It’s kind of easy to think of Le Mans as, oh, just a couple of small country roads put together and it’s not that hard, but it is. It is an unforgiving track in many ways. More so, I found, even than Spa which was a higher-speed track with more g-loads and so forth but perhaps this is that sort of two sides to Le Mans. You have the relaxing, long Mulsanne Straight – I know that sounds like an oxymoron but somehow it fits pretty well because you’re relaxing when you’re going the fastest – and then all of a sudden you find yourself in the Porsche Curves where the wall is five meters away from the edge of the track and it’s very easy to make a mistake. It really is a unique place.”
So far, Heinemeier-Hansson’s Le Mans experience has very much lived up to expectations. But what does he hope to achieve in the race?
“It’s funny,” he says. “When I started the whole pursuit, my goal originally was simply to be at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and just be part of the whole event. And as it goes with motor racing, when you just have a small taste of success, you get hungrier. I probably shouldn’t say things out loud but at this point I feel like we actually have a contending car, and by contending I mean that if we can keep it on the track and avoid the accidents and all the other stuff – which, of course, I think about half the field typically cannot – then I think we have a good shot at it. That’s a wonderful feeling. I consider myself incredibly lucky that I ended up with such a good combination of everything. We have a great team, we have a great chassis, we have a great engine and we have a great driver lineup, so it’s sort of hard to not look at all that and then think, ‘Wow, maybe we actually have a shot at something here.’ It’s even more amazing because it seems like LMP2 is one of the most competitive classes in the world right now.”
So does that mean he’s beginning to feel some pressure to perform?
“There’s definitely a bit of pressure. When I ran my own car in GT3 Challenge, I was just responsible for myself. If I crashed the car or I didn’t do well, it was just all by myself. Now, there’s a whole lot more to it. I’m part of the Oak Racing team and I have two professional co-drivers who are certainly not showing up for me to crash out the first time I get in the car. There is more pressure on me, but that kind of pressure is something you only think about when you’re not in the car. Once you’re strapped in and your seatbelt is tight, you get out there and you forget everything else, which to me is part of what attracted me to racing in the first place.
“Once you’re in the car and you turn on the ignition and go out, there is only that – there’s you, the car and the track and your competitors. You don’t think about the pressure or anything else; you don’t think about fitness; you don’t think about what you’re supposed to do tomorrow or all of the other concerns that you might have in everyday life. To me that’s the magic of racing. It makes you forget everything else but the task at hand – to go fast and not crash!”
- Jeremy Shaw