Text: Rick Kiewiet.
Images: Rick Kiewiet and Adam Prescott.
We had a sit down with Jeroen Bleekemolen, driver of the Keating Motorsports Ford GT Team. We talked about the uniqueness of Le Mans, the Ford GT and the future.
PM: So, Jeroen, this is already your 14th participation in the 24 hours of Le Mans. How did you prepare for the race?
JB: You live towards Le Mans for months, either aware or unaware. I've already driven a lot of races this season, but for me Le Mans is the biggest and most special race of the year, every year again. There's no special preparation for Le Mans. Throughout the weeks before, you just keep your physical condition in order, take the right amount of rest, try not to travel intercontinental anymore... The schedule here is quite odd of course, because there are almost no sessions in the afternoon, you drive mostly in the evening. Before you go to sleep here, it's almost always after 01.00 am, so that's something to take into account as well. So most important is to take as many rest as you can.
PM: Is that how Le Mans differs from most endurance races around the globe? The schedule?
JB: Yeah, this is the most extreme race in many ways, the schedule, the fans, the size of the event. There are events that come close in the States, Europe as well. Next week I drive the 24h of the Nürburgring, but Le Mans always has an edge over the others. It has the largest time span of course, ever since the test day two weeks you're occupied by Le Mans.
PM: What's your goal for the race? You're starting 9th on the grid. When are you satisfied, considering the team is driving a new car?
JB: We're in it to win it. Plain and simple. Last year with the Ferrari we were third, then Ben had the chance to get the Ford and he took it. A podium alone is not enough, we really want to win. I drove a lot here in cars with which I had no chance of winning, than you're mindset is more towards "participating is more important than winning". But this year, that's not the case. If during the race we spend a couple of hours in the pitbox, I'm not interested to simply finish the race. I want to perform, get results, same goes for Ben.
PM: What's the strength of the Ford compared to the competition?
JB: It's a very low car, with a lot of down force. It has very little drag, which makes it good on the straights, while providing a lot of grip in the corners. It's a very efficient car. That might not be important for Le Mans especially, 'cause with the Balance of Performance (BoP) they simply cut some of the power, but they (ACO) found a good balance in that so we're also competitive on the straights. The other great thing about the Ford is the full factory support we receive.
PM: You could say you're almost a factory team?
JB: Yeah, you could even call us a full factory team, we work together with Ganassi, we're in one pitbox, mechanics of Ganassi and Ford walk in and out from both sides, we can compare data etc. Everything they found in practice and qualy, we can use on the car as well.
PM: So, besides the car has to be at least one year old by regulation, are there any other differences?
JB: No, besides that we have less engine power, the cars are identical. I think it's good to have a little less power than the Pro cars. This way they can pass us on the straights and we don't get in their way unnecessarily. In the corners, we're just as fast. This car, this chassis, has raced in Le Mans before, made it to the podium. It was the first Ford GT to win a race, at Laguna Seca. Indeed, you cannot have the latest specifications of the car of the last year, but the car hasn't changed the last year, so it's identical in that respect. all the updates that the factory had are also on this one, as the factory-car hasn't changed in a year either. The only difference with the factory-cars is the power, in Am you have a bit less power.
PM: The car spend a reasonable amount of time in the box last evening, any issues with the car? We thought it might be an engine change?
JB: No, there were simply a couple of large things we wanted to replace. They're actually changing the engine right now. Also, Ben had been through the gravel once, so we wanted to clean up that good. So no, up until now we've run completely free of issues.
PM: Tomorrow, you start midfield. What's your strategy for the beginning of the race?
JB: I wanna move up the field as quickly as possible, without taking too much risk of course. I'm not gonna do anything crazy in the first phase. But yeah, we need to pick our chances to move forward. We definitely have the speed, we didn't go all the way to have a top-qualifying time.
PM: Yes, you've been in midfield most session, but scored a p3 in session 2?
JB: Yeah, after I set that time in the beginning of the session, when the track wasn't that fast yet, I knew it was good and immediately came in so my teammate Felipe Fraga could take over the wheel. As the previous version of the rule book read, in GT Am, the qualifying time would be the average of the bet time of the best to drivers of any car. We thought it was still the case and actually assumed we would start 3rd or 4th, since Felipe's time and mine combined were pretty good. Apparently that rule was scratched out about a week ago. However, we never got that memo from ACO... But it's not a big deal, grid position says next to nothing here, and we're confident we have the pace to win, we could've started in the top 5.
PM: Looking towards the future, is there a chance we're gonna see the Ford GT in another race? What are the plans?
JB: We'll be looking at that after Le Mans. Ben Keating owns the car, that was part of the deal, so he can field it in any race he likes. We have a team, we have spare parts, everything we need. The only is that the car is very expensive to run, it's way more exclusive than other GTs. We took a look at the WEC, but we didn't apply yet. Maybe for the season after the next. It's possible we'll drive here next year if we receive an entry, maybe we'll do ELMS, maybe just a couple of races, it's still open. Daytona might also be an option, as Ben is also really fast there.
PM: You've driven a lot of different cars here, LMP1, LMP2 and different GTs. What's the biggest difference in driving a prototype and a GT here?
JB: Every class has it's own specifics here. In LMP1 you're actually constantly overtaking, although when I was driving the Rebellion here, we've already had the Audi's, Peugeots and Toyota's flying past. In terms of driving pleasure, that's the best. Because it's goes fastest. You're more busy with planning and overtaking. In GT's you have to watch in your mirrors way more often. But when you drive a GT on the limit, that such an awesome feeling too, that it's not much less than a prototype.
PM: Last question: Jan Lammers currently holds the record for Dutchman with the most starts at La Sarthe (24), is that something you aim for?
JB: It definitely seems fantastic to grab that record, but it's difficult. You don't know how it will look here in ten years, but yeah, if I have the opportunity, I'd go for it. I'm only 37 now, so age should not be an issue. But I wouldn't do it for the record itself, but simply because I really love driving here so much. Since I drove here the first time, this is the race I want to drive more than any other, as often as I can.