Never mind third time lucky, the 90th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was seventh time lucky for Ben Keating. The US driver had travelled to the Circuit de la Sarthe on six previous occasions prior to the 2022 edition and never stood on the top step of the podium*. Thanks to what he termed “the perfect race,” the duck has been broken.
“It’s special, particularly in terms of how we won it,” said Keating, speaking to WEC-Magazin after the race. “We didn’t win it on pace. The Porsches were two seconds per lap quicker than we were. But everyone did their job perfectly. We made no mistakes, no off-road excursions, no penalties. We had the perfect race.”
In the GTE Am category, bronze-rated drivers (non-professionals, also known as ‘gentleman’ drivers) have to complete a minimum drive time of six hours at Le Mans, which can often make the difference between success and failure, as Keating explains.
“I definitely felt the pressure. My fastest lap in practice was a 3:59.1. Some of the Ferrari drivers were doing 3:55s. Even the bronze driver in the #777 car, our teammate, was doing 3:57s. I got really nervous. But I studied the data and the video a lot with [teammates] Henrique Chaves and Marco Sørensen on Friday, and I found some areas where I was leaving something on the table.”
“Even from the moment I got in the car I felt like I had to lay it all out there because I knew, if we were going to be up front, a lot of that performance was going to be on my shoulders,” Keating continued. “I really tried to push hard and managed to do it without ending up in the gravel trap, so I’m very proud of the performance for sure.”
Sørensen: “It’s been such a long journey to this point.”
Marco Sørensen has been a regular feature at the Le Mans for the best part of a decade. Initially part Aston Martin’s works GTE Pro effort until its discontinuation in 2019, the Dane has since become a key part of various Aston Martin GTE Am efforts. The GTE Am class win in 2022 was his first time on the top step of the podium at Le Mans.
“It feels amazing!” he said, speaking to WEC-Magazin post-race. “I was getting goosebumps with three laps to go and started getting emotional. Then I thought, if I start thinking about winning the car will break down. So I was just really trying to just drive until I got to the line.”
“When I crossed the line it was a rollercoaster of emotions,” the Dane explained. “It’s been such a long journey to this point. We’ve tried so many times, in GTE Pro with my brother Nicky Thiim, to win this and we have come so close so many times. Now we are doing GTE Am and it is probably one of the most competitive fields that has ever been here.”
Loose steering column could have cost team victory
As with any win at Le Mans, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the #33 TF Sport crew. One of the keys to the race was the fact that the team didn’t have to change the brakes on its Aston Martin Vantage AMR, but that didn’t come without risk.
“The brake pads that we use just work,” said Sørensen. “We found out a couple of years ago that not changing the brakes works on the Pro cars. It’s on the limit for sure, you cannot go flat out the whole race. But you can gain one minute in the pits, so if you can, you go for it.”
But that wasn’t the only worry as the clocked ticked down to zero at the Circuit de la Sarthe, as Sørensen explains: “We had some concerns about our steering column. The curbs here are such high-impact and I think slowly it was starting to come loose, so I had steering that felt like I was driving a classic car. Normally our car is really direct but this one was changing direction by itself.”
Lavish praise for Keating
Sørensen believes that the performance from the team’s bronze-rated driver was the decisive factor in the GTE Am battle: “The difference was that we had Ben Keating,” said Sørensen. “He’s done amazingly. He found some pace compared to free practice and you think ‘why couldn’t you do that before?’ and he goes out in the race and he is just doing it. And doing it easily, which was amazing.”
Keating’s #33 TF Sport squad now lead the GTE Am championship by 8 points ahead of fellow Aston Martin runners Northwest AMR with three rounds of the season remaining.
*Keating won Le Mans ni the GTE Am class in 2019 but was subsequently disqualified for an oversized fuel tank.
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Image © WEC-Magazin (David Tunnicliffe)