British racing driver Alexander Sims will compete in the Le Mans 24 Hours for the first time since 2012. The 30-year-old, who is based near Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, is a BMW works driver and will compete in the GTE-Pro class, racing the #82 BMW M8 GTE alongside team-mates Augusto Farfus (Brazil) and Antonio Felix da Costa (Portugal).
The BMW M8 GTE is new for 2018 and is the first racing car in the history of BMW Motorsport to see track action before its production counterpart. The new BMW 8 Series Coupe will be unveiled on 15 June 2018 ahead of the 24-hour race on 16-17 June. The new luxury sports car was developed in parallel to the BMW M8 GTE, with which BMW Motorsport will take to the Le Mans starting grid for the first time since 2011.
Q: You’ve seen success at the 24 Hours of Spa, how does the 24 Hours of Le Mans compare in terms of preparation and physicality?
AS: The preparation for Le Mans has certainly been very different to when we won the Spa 24 Hours in 2016. As the Spa race is in GT3s, it is effectively customer racing with a little support from the manufacturer. This is vastly different to Le Mans, which is a full manufacturer programme. BMW is investing huge resources into making it go as well as possible. We have had more time to practice procedures and work on the car’s performance than we did at Spa. However, Spa was in the middle of a season and we had done seven or eight races with the car beforehand so we had a lot more race experience to draw from and that helped us fast-track lots of the learning on the weekend. With the M8 GTE at Le Mans, the team and BMW have only competed at one race in the FIA World Endurance Championship so it’s a slightly different situation.
Q: You last raced at Le Mans in 2012, back then you drove an LMP2 car. What sort of differences do you expect in terms of the overall experience in the GTE class?
AS: One of the main differences is that we will have both LMP1 and LMP2 class cars lapping faster than us, so I will have to be looking in my mirrors more to make sure I’m overtaken safely at the same time as driving flat out. Testing was the first time that I’ve driven a GT car around the track. But with a new car, whether you’ve got a lot of circuit experience or not, it’s all about nailing down the finer details. With the M8 we’ve had quite a lot of that to do in testing. We did around 1,200km combined in the #82 BMW M8 GTE and the #81 sister car during the test day, putting in long runs to try and understand the car’s performance and how to get more out of it.
Another key different this year is that I’m driving for BMW and it is a factory effort, so the level of preparation and support personnel is on a different level to that of Status, as it was a small customer team with limited resources.
It is seven years since BMW last competed at Le Mans, do you feel any pressure to achieve results with the M8 GTE?
There is always pressure to perform, but that comes from inside me every time I get into a race car. There’s no pressure coming from BMW; they trust us to do the best job possible and hopefully that brings the result. Everyone in the team is there because they love the competition and want to win so it’s a natural pressure from ourselves that makes us want to get the results.
The M8 GTE is an entirely new car, in its maiden year there are significant amounts of testing to be carried out. How difficult has it been to balance development of the car with preparations for 24 Hours of Le Mans?
As I am racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship as well as doing the Nürburgring 24 Hours programme and some Blancpain races, I haven’t had much time to be part of testing. I have completed a few tests and it’s been interesting to see its evolution. We race the M8 GTE in IMSA so we continue to improve it at these races so there’s quite a nice steady evolution to the car.
Q: You drove the BMW M6 GT3 last year, how does the M8 GTE compare?
AS: Compared to the M6 GT3, the first big difference is the lack of ABS, then the systems in the car are quite a lot more advanced in the M8 GTE. We can adjust a whole host of settings whilst driving that we couldn’t in the M6 so from that perspective it’s quite exciting. I would say that the M8 is a better car over the range of different corner speeds. However, the M6’s downforce was extremely good and in the highest speed corners the M8 is probably slightly off the M6.
From a handling perspective, the car feels good and has a lot of potential. It’s a comfortable ride, which is important when competing in endurance events and taking double or sometimes triple stints. It’s not a particularly stressful car to drive; it’s a lot calmer to drive than the M6, which you need to coax into getting the most out of it in every corner.
Q: You last raced at Le Mans in 2012, how did it feel to return to the track for testing and how different was it to your last time competing there?
AS: It’s been six years since I raced at Le Mans and I’m really looking forward to getting back out on the track in a race situation. Testing has helped me reacclimatise to the circuit and get a good feel for how the BMW M8 GTE performs there. Going through the Porsche Curves again is a fantastic feeling!
It is quite a different experience to when I was last at the track. Back in 2012 I was in an LMP2 car, a Judd-powered Lola B12/80 with Status GP, but unfortunately we had to retire from the race.
One of the main differences is that I will have both LMP1 and LMP2 class cars lapping faster than us, so I will have to be looking in my mirrors more to make sure I’m overtaken safely at the same time as driving flat out. Another key difference is that this year I am driving for BMW and it is a factory effort, so the level of preparation and support personnel is on a different level to that of Status, as it was a small customer team with limited resources.
Testing was the first time that I’ve driven a GT car around the track. But with a new car, whether you’ve got a lot of circuit experience or not, it’s all about nailing down the finer details. With the M8 we’ve had quite a lot of that to do in testing. We did around 1,200km combined in the #82 BMW M8 GTE and the #81 sister car during the test day, putting in long runs to try and understand the car’s performance and how to get more out of it.
Q: What learnings have you taken from testing ahead of race week?
AS: During testing, our main focus was to get the laps in, take longer runs and to try and understand the car on track and to make setup improvements. We competed a lot of laps – I did around 20 or so – and everything proved to be very reliable. We didn’t have any reasons to stop running.
The M8 feels really good and balanced around the circuit. We do need to work on the lap time: the #81 BMW M8 GTE sister car was faster throughout the day so we’re looking into that in more detail to find some time there. But I think we go into the race week with some good data and having made progress with our set-up.
I have some good experience in the BMW M8 GTE having competed in endurance races in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship in the USA this season, so I’m confident that I have a good feel for the car and its capabilities.
Q: As a new car this season, what are you driving impressions so far of the BMW M6 GTE?
AS: For me, the stand-out characteristic in the M8 GTE has to be the electronics systems. The engine management system has been developed since the M6 and although the changes may seem relatively minor, when you’re driving close to the limit they have a major impact.
It has a V8 engine with BMW TwinPower turbo technology but it’s limited to a 4.0-litre capacity due to regulations. It puts out over 500hp and weighs just 1,220kg thanks to extensive use of ultra-light CFK components, making it lighter than the M6. During the development process, the focus has been on achieving the greatest possible efficiency and maximum durability for success in endurance races.
From a handling perspective, the car feels good and has a lot of potential. It’s a comfortable ride, which is important for endurance events. It’s not a particularly stressful car to drive; it’s a lot calmer to drive than the M6, which you need to coax into getting the most out of it in every corner. The M8 GTE can look after and manage the tyres much better from an endurance point of view.
Q: What are you anticipating in the Le Mans race?
AS: During the race weekend, I’m expecting to drive for around eight hours, consume 8,000 calories and sleep for about 30-60 minutes, if I’m lucky! The Balance of Performance (BoP) is unfortunately not working in our favour. We’re currently set to run at 1268kg, so it will be a challenging race within our class considering our testing pace. There’s still time for that to change and we’d of course take any changes in our favour. However, we need to keep looking at ourselves and ways we can improve our package regardless of the BoP situation. Hopefully we will be in the mix with a slick strategy and strong reliability that will see us where we want to be at the end of the race.
Q: You’re competing in four 24-hour races this year: you’ve already raced at Daytona and the Nürburgring and will race at Spa-Francorchamps at the end of July. How does the Le Mans circuit compare?
AS: The Le Mans track, Circuit de la Sarthe, is quite unique in its high-speed straights, which should make for some good action come race day. It’s a very different track and you know that you’re at Le Mans because of its characteristics. As a temporary circuit with a mix of public roads and race track, the surface is an inconsistent mix and proves to be an interesting challenge. Its length is one thing – it’s 13.6km or 8.4 miles and has 38 turns – but its combination of corners is the main reason that it is such a fun track to drive. Having raced at the Nürburgring Nordschleife last month, that is a much longer and more complex track but it’s so different.
At Le Mans, the highlight for me has to be the Porsche Curves; it’s an awesome section. They require real commitment and precision. It’s been made a bit safer, which has changed the section since I last drove there, but it’s still a real highlight of the track.
Q: You’re racing in the GTE-Pro class: how does that differ from your other endurance races this season?
AS: At the Nürburgring we’re in the fastest pack, so it’s all about anticipating what the slower cars are doing and getting around them smoothly and incident-free. However, at Le Mans that is reversed as you have the LMP1 and LMP2 cars as faster classes. The LMP1 cars are a quite a bit faster than the Daytona protypes were at the Daytona 24 Hours, so the speed differential on-track is significantly greater. The characteristics of the circuit, particularly in the Porsche Curves and first sector, mean that some fairly risky overtaking manoeuvres can be made on you. You’ll have the faster cars going around the outside in the Porsche Curves and trying to anticipate your braking point into Turn 1. If you slightly misjudge the braking you might oversteer into them, which they wouldn’t foresee. It brings an extra element of risk and gives a greater chance of problems occurring or getting caught out.
You go through certain corners minding your own business with nothing in your mirrors and then there’s someone shooting around the outside. You’ve got to stay that bit more alert. And they can go past you pretty quickly. Even though you’re motoring on quite a bit in a GT car, these guys can make you feel like you’re standing still when they go by!
Q: Does the history of the circuit and the prestige of the race affect you or your preparation?
AS: Le Mans is an amazing place, steeped in motorsport history. It’s an incredible race, which is why it attracts around 100,000 British motorsport fans each year. But my job is to go drive, and drive fast. That and enjoying competing are the most important things for me. I visited the museums and it was great to see in the flesh the scope of cars that have raced there in the past and how they’ve evolved, which was particularly interesting as I love the engineering side of racing. But ultimately, we live in the present and this year is about the new M8 and trying to do as well as we can now.