David Heinemeier Hansson

June 13, 2023

The Le Mans Centenary

I didn't get into the race car until two in the morning. By then, the rollercoaster that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans had already been going for ten hours. Oh, and we were a lap down on the leaders in our class. Doh!

I've never had the race go that long before getting into the car. Usually by midnight, I'll have driven at least a good two hours of the required minimum six. But this edition of Le Mans also had more drama than any of the previous nine attempts I've been part of. At the end of the race, 22 cars had retired from crashes or mechanical issues, and several more were limping home many laps down. It was mayhem.

Which started right from the words green, green, green. By the first chicane down the Mulsanne straight, a Cadillac in the class above us crashed hard immediately in front of my team mate Pietro Fittipaldi, who had to brake and swerve to avoid the carnage, dropping us from first down to fourth position in class.

Not that the position really matters that early in the race, as long as you have the pace of the leading cars, which we did (at least in the beginning). We ended up completing 316 laps, or 4,305 kilometers, across the full 24 hours, so where things stood at lap 2 was never going to matter that much.

But you still like to be out in front. It's good for morale. So of course we all cheered breathlessly when Pietro, as one of the only drivers, dared stay out on slick tires when the monsoon rain fell a few hours into the race. That allowed us to jump right back up to the front, as everyone who'd (sensibly!) gone to wet tires had to pit again to go back to the slicks.

Running out front, my other team mate, and fellow Dane, Oliver Rasmussen, made it look easy. With a solid 10-second lead over second place, Oliver just kept clocking in the laps, as the track got drier and quicker. And for over two hours, he kept the lead. Things were going almost too well!

That's the danger of Le Mans. The race is so long that it's easy to start dreaming about results well before it's prudent. Given the fact that our car had been so fast during the test day and practice sessions, and given the fact that Oliver was cruising out in front, I foolishly did let in those intrusive fantasies of victory before I'd even gotten in the car.

Never do that at Le Mans.

Because after six hours, our troubles came. First, Oliver probably ran over some carbon-fiber debris on track, which delaminated a tire, and forced an unscheduled pitstop. That turned the 10-second lead into a 20-second deficit, but hey, that's what happens.

Worse was that rain once again swept the track just two laps after we pitted, and it caught Oliver out. He crashed the car coming out of Tetre Rouge, but managed to keep the main damage squarely on the nose, which didn't take long to change. It still meant another pitstop, though, and now we were three minutes down.

Freaking Le Mans!

And that's why I waited so long to get back into the car. With conditions this treacherous, and now with the sun having set, I had absolutely no desire to hop into the car for the first laps then. Le Mans is a tricky track in the best of conditions. Pro drivers had already crashed plenty of cars in the light and the dry, and they'd crash many more in such ideal conditions before the race was over. So I didn't fancy my odds going out in the dark and the wet for the first run, which meant Pietro had to go back in.

That was clearly the right call. Not only did Pietro make quick progress, which crucially kept us from turning that three-minute deficit into going a lap down. So when a safety car was finally called to deal with a myriad of simultaneous track incidents, we were brought right back into the fight. As the track went back to green, we were running fifth or sixth, just a few seconds behind the leader, and Pietro was poised to pass at least half the cars in front easily, as they had their amateur drivers in.

Le Mans wanted it differently.

Barely had the track gone green, and barely had our excitement of being back in the game subsided, before an overly-ambitious attempt at a pass into the first chicane landed our car in the gravel trap. Boom. That was it. Now we were a lap down for real, and any shot at a win essentially gone.

That's the margin that makes this race so interesting. You can do literally hundreds of laps across the French countryside with perfect poise, and then you make one tiny mistake, in a split second, and it all goes away.

Maybe it was knowing that we were already out of the running baring a miracle, maybe it was jumping in while the track was still very damp in places, and dark in all the others, but I didn't have a good first run. Sometimes you click with the car at Le Mans. Everything flows just right. The traffic comes just as you're able to make the key passes without losing anything. This wasn't one of those times.

So I handed the car back to Oliver rather deflated, after that first run. You never know whether you're going to get another shot at running at Le Mans. This track literally only exists twice a year, the rest of the time it's mostly public roads. And if this was going to be my last impression, in case of a race-ending incident, that would have been a real bummer. Thankfully it wasn't.

Now given the fact that I had waited nearly half the race to get into the car for the first time, I ended up having to do almost half of what was left in the race once I got going. So at 7:30 in the morning, I got back in the car for another two-hour run, and this time the car and me did click.

It's a strange sensation, but in some ways it can be liberating to drive at Le Mans when you're no longer in it to win it. All the pressure is gone. It's just you and the track and the commitment to go flat out, damn the risks. That's what this middle set of stints felt like. Car was starting to wake up from its slumber during the night, where we seemingly just didn't have the pace of the leading pack due to the lower temperatures. So I was going a good two seconds per lap quicker than in the night.

Pietro hammered home that point after me. After going no quicker than a 3:40 minute lap in the night, he set the fastest time of our race with a 3:37.3. That was still a ways off the quickest lap in our class, which was a 3:36.0, set by Robin Frinjs in the #31 WRT, though. Showing that in the race, we just didn't have the ultimate pace. But it was still quick!

With three hours to go, I was due to complete my final set of triple stints, but not before Le Mans showed us twice that even if Oliver and Pietro hadn't set a foot wrong, we probably still wouldn't have been able to taste the podium champagne. First we lost eight minutes to an overheating engine issue (which required putting in 4.5L of water that had evaporated!), and just before the end of my runs, we lost half an hour changing a dead starter motor.

On the positive side, I banged out my best laps of the race in those final three runs. Managing a satisfying 3:38.9 fastest lap. Cementing a top 40 fastest laps average of 3:41.1. Good enough to be the fifth-fastest silver driver (in a classification stacked with professional drivers half my age!). A small consolation, but a consolation none the less.

Such ended my tenth participation in the 100th year of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. With another result far off the potential of the effort. Maybe Le Mans is trying to tell me that I've already had more than my fair share of luck at Circuit de la Sarthe.

In the first six attempts, I managed to finish on the podium four times, including winning with Aston Martin in 2014, and gracing the overall podium in 2017. But in the last four attempts, the efforts have been foiled every time by mechanical issues. Blown engines, blown gears, blown starter motor.

I'd probably be wise to take the hint and hang it up. But when the pace is still solid (I had over a second on the winning silver driver on the top 40 average fastest laps!), it's hard to commit to calling it quits.

We'll see where it goes. But in the meantime, my greatest gratitude to the JOTA team for giving me the best chance at a result since 2017, to my team mates for being gracious with my gentleman-driver ways, and to Le Mans itself for being the greatest motor race in the world.

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About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.