Not a race for the faint-hearted!

Motor sport

It is pitch dark and the corner is approaching like a meteor toward a spaceship. It is after midnight aone of a kind Drivers compete at the 79th edition of Le Mans 24 hours’  endurance race in Western France. afpnd the driver has just started a new shift, racing at more than 300 kilometers an hour and required to make a split-second decision on when and where to brake and turn to negotiate the corner safely and quickly.

After a short sleep, the driver has rejoined the race and the last time he was driving it was daylight. The usual points of reference at the side of the track are now hidden in the dark, reaction times and perception have changed and suddenly another, slower, car appears ahead, adding another layer of difficulty.

There are few races in the world where drivers face the kind of nighttime experiences as those in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where part of the track has light from the grandstands and garages, other sectors are partially lit and still other crucial areas have no lighting at all.

“When you are out in the countryside, it is dark, there are no lights, you get the sporadic little house light or the restaurant on the Mulsanne straight, or the corner workers,” said Allan McNish, a driver at the Audi team. “But the big thing out there is that your straight-line speed is something like 200 miles an hour. And you need pretty good lights to see at 200 mph, because you are then focusing on a braking point which is like a yard or two either side of a defined area.”

The sensations of driving at night at Le Mans make it a different race demanding different skills than in daylight.

“I really enjoy driving in these conditions,” said Loïc Duval, who races for the Oreca team in the top category. “It’s even more exhilarating, because the speed feels even faster when visibility is less.And it brings some surprises, and so adds moments of intensity that you have less of in the day.”

At the same time, the wheel-to-wheel battle for position has calmed and drivers see few spectators, adding another change in atmosphere.

“You feel much more alone, you see fewer people in the grandstands, and you really feel isolated, as if you are in your own little world, and that is a really great feeling,” said Nicolas Lapierre, who also races for the Oreca team.

Some team doctors and physiotherapists feed their drivers a homeopathic blueberry-based concoction to improve night vision, but Dr. Christian John, of the Audi team, does not believe in that.

“People came up with all kinds of programs, eye programs and everything, but I found that if you are a top driver you cannot improve by the program,” he said. “If you have healthy nutrition, I think you have everything.” Alexander Wurz, a driver with the Peugeot team who has won the race twice, said adrenaline was the best antidote “to pain, tiredness, everything.”

But he said it did not kick in immediately. He said studies had showed that at night the left side of the brain is more involved in instinctive actions and reactions but that this is impeded after heavy sleep, when blood circulation drops.

“You know how when you are waking up after a deep sleep and you take some time?” Wurz said. “That is the key in Le Mans, to overcome that as a driver. So my first step is never to sleep more than 30 or 40 minutes, so that circulation doesn’t dip down and dive off.”

“Then I do a lot of asymmetrical training, especially before I go into the car,” he said. “It’s coordination stuff, just simple things, but if it is asymmetric it is left and right side brain coordination. It might be with a ball, juggling, balancing, simple things like brushing the teeth with the left hand, not with the right hand. Just to fire the brain, to make sure it has a better communication flow.”

He said this allows him to be in top form immediately, rather than after a few laps, when adrenaline takes over.

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