René Rast starts on pole in LMP2 at Le Mans

Audi factory driver and Project CARS handling and physics consultant René Rast went one step closer on Wednesday to claiming the only blue ribbon endurance race that has so far eluded him when we claimed LMP2 pole for the Jota Sport-run G-Drive ORECA squad for Saturday’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. He will start ninth overall. His first flying lap saw him out-qualify Nelson Panciatici in the Baxi DC Racing Alpine by a slim 0.007s. Unsatisfied with the margin, René went out again late in the session and laid down a 3m36.605s, almost a full second ahead of Panciatici, and the only LMP2 car to dip into the 36s. René, though, isn’t a big believer in that one perfectly connected lap.

“I never felt something like that,” he says, adding, “normally I’m always 100%, and there are very few moments when I am not concentrated—I always plan out and try to maximize everything, so I never had that feeling of a perfect lap because I try to make every lap perfect.”

​For last year’s race, he was assigned to drive the full works LMP1 Audi R18. What was that like, starting Le Mans as a potential overall winner?

“It is the world’s greatest endurance race in terms of spectators, and obviously the biggest race in endurance racing, the history and all that, so many people coming to the track, it’s a massive event, a one week event, and obviously the driving is special, taking the start and stuff like that, it’s like the movie, it’s still very special.”

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The race, though, was won by Nico Hülkenberg, another of René’s sparring partners from back in the BMW formula days of 2005, with René placing sixth overall. What was it like driving the full-works LMP1 car at Le Mans?

“The LMP1 Audi is the fastest car I have ever driven in a race,” says René, “but the 2016 car is just—it blows the 2015 car away. First time I jumped in, I thought, ‘Okay, it might be a bit faster than the 2015 R18’, but the step the R18 made from last year to this is mind-blowing—you hit the throttle and when you feel the boost, it’s just amazing—you know, it’s faster from 100-200 than 0-100.”

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There is a certain sense of disappointment as he says this. As a result of the cost-cutting agreement between Audi and Porsche to field only two LMP1 cars each in the wake of the emissions scandal that swamped the Volkswagen Group, Audi chose not to enter him for this year’s Le Mans. Instead, he’s been drafted into the Jota Sport-run G-Drive ORECA coupe with reigning WEC LMP2 champion Roman Rusinov, and Frenchman Nathanael Berthon. Jota boss Sam Hignett told Autosport, “Getting René on board is as good as it gets for us: there’s no doubt he’s going to be quick, he’s won big races, and he’s a lovely guy.”

It’s also not the first time René has raced an ORECA, having done so for the Sébastien Loeb Racing squad at Le Mans in 2014. René has been bullish about his chances, telling Autosport, “The ingredients—including the team, the proven chassis and engine, and my team-mates—give me a lot of confidence. An LMP2 car was the first prototype I drove back in 2014, and I am very much enjoying re-acquainting myself with the category. This year looks like it will be a special one for the class, so I am personally very much looking forward to the challenge ahead.”

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A week from the start of the 86th running of Le Mans, he remains just as bullish, despite lining up against a record 27 LMP2 entries. “I think, in our class, we can win it, yes, we have a good team, a good line-up, a good car, so we have the potential. We’re going for the win.”

In most people’s mind, the two great endurance races are at the ’Ring and Le Mans. How does René compare the two?

“Probably the longer stints makes Le Mans the track where you get the most exhausted because you sometimes have three, four-hour long stints,” René says. “The speeds, also, at Le Mans—the straight line speed is so much higher: At the ’Ring, you max out at about 280, at Le Mans, you’re doing 350 or so, so different world in terms of straight line speeds, and obviously driving time is longer, and your brain has to work faster because you’re just driving faster.”

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Does racing at those improbable speeds, at night, after four hours, diminish his reaction times?

“Not a problem, actually,” René says, adding, “it’s physically demanding, yes, and you feel tired after three or four hours obviously, but that’s our job, we have to make sure we are hitting apexes after four hours, we’re race drivers.” He takes a moment before noting there’s another incentive to making sure you don’t miss an apex at Le Mans. “If we miss one, we end in a big accident; like the Porsche Corners, which are really fast, if you don’t hit the apex there, you’re in the wall at 300KM/H. So, yes, you concentrate.”

How tiring is it, though, to remain at that level for so long?

“You feel it after four hours, to be honest,” René says. “You’re exhausted, you feel it when you get out of the car, you feel like an old man, you can’t walk, everything hurts, and you’re hungry and thirsty and your brain hurts, but after a few hours of recovery you’re okay again.”

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Le Mans has unique rules in which the so-called ‘server’ driver—for Jota Sport, that’s Roman Rusinov—has to drive for six hours, with the remaining 18 shared between the pro’ drivers. That means nine hours on the limit for René next weekend. René will also qualify the number 26 ORECA. The team have already raced together this seaon, with René and team-mates Nathanaël Berthon, ex-F1 driver Will Stevens, and Roman Rusinov doing the full 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship with Jota Sport in the G-Drive Racing ORECA.

“WEC is the best endurance series in the world,” René says. “It has a mix between GT and prototype, so it’s very demanding for drivers as you have to deal with a mix of cars. It goes around the world, great circuits, eight hour races, or six, or 24, it’s very challenging.”

The season has already had its opening two rounds, at Silverstone and Spa, where the Jota LMP2 car has shown its pace—two pole positions gained by René—if not its race potential.

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“We got a podium at Silverstone,” says René, “and a sixth in Spa, but we had contact with GT cars in both races, so we lost two wins, a bit of a f—k up really!”
René has also returned, albeit for only one round, to open wheelers: He filled in for António Félix da Costa at Team Aguri for the 2016 Berlin ePrix.

“It’s a different type of racing,” René says of Formula E. “I have never experienced something like that, it’s a formula car, but it makes no engine sounds, carbon brakes but no aero, and the weight, the car is heavy, and you have no power steering. The weekend also takes some getting used to: I practiced the car first time in the morning, then qualified, then raced that afternoon! You hear no engine noise, all you hear is the tyres and wind noise; the engine is quiet, you only see the red line on the steering, 16,000RPM, something like that. The torque is progressive, like a normal car, and you can adjust it; when you hit throttle, you get a similar response, but you drive it like a GT car, because it’s heavy and it moves a lot, you don’t drive it like a formula car, it’s really more of a cup car.”

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René’s experience with so many cars at the highest levels of motorsport is a much sought-after skill-set in the arena of car simulation. Guys who have karts, formula cars, touring cars, and prototypes on their CV, and who’ve won in every category, are few and far between. René is heavily involved as a handling and physics consultant on Project CARS, joining Ben Collins, and Nic Hamilton in assessing, evaluating and testing the cars and tracks in the racing game.

“I test every car,” René explains. “I take the car on the simulator, go on tracks which I know, and then I compare to real life. I tell the guys, ‘Okay, this car needs more braking, more stopping power, better front, we need more rear support, different gear ratios, steering ratios,’ and stuff like that. I compare the simulator with real life, and note what is different, and what needs to be improved.”

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René says he’s pleased with the direction the sequel to Project CARS is taking. “I think it’s getting closer and closer to the real thing. I prepare every weekend with Project CARS. It isn’t 100%, but car simulation can never be 100%, because even real race cars change week-to-week on the same track, so we can’t ever expect a car simulator to be 100% accurate. But where we can be accurate is the braking points, the turning points, the turn speed, all of that is already at a high level, and getting better and better.” He’s excited by the new tyres that he has been testing. “We have different tyre models that we’re currently testing, and we’re playing with different compounds, too, and improving the feel all the time.”

René has his own blog on the internal forum at Slightly Mad Studios. “Whenever I feel something,” he explains, “I write it down in the forum, and the team goes away and works on my suggestion. It takes time: if I tell them something today, it can sometimes take weeks to see the difference.”

​Is he using Project CARS to prepare for Le Mans?

“Of course,” he says. “It’s about getting into the rhythm, preparing emotionally and getting your head prepared for the race. When you have a break from racing, you need a few laps to get into a rhythm, and so I spend hours in the simulator in the days before a race weekend. Your mind and reactions are on a high level then, so when you jump into the car, you feel like you’ve done a lot of laps.”

How fast is René Rast in the simulator?

René takes a moment before admitting, “Slow! I’m not a great sim driver in terms of lap times, I don’t know why, I have a better feel in real life than in the sim. I also notice,” he adds, because he’s a racer, and competition is in his blood, “that real world drivers are always slower than sim drivers in the simulator. I think it’s the lack of lateral forces and other forces that are missing, that’s why I’m worse.”

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What tracks and cars does he enjoy most in Project CARS?

“I like the German tracks, but also Le Mans, the ’Ring, Spa, those are important tracks for me, and I do a lot of preparation on them. The track fidelity is very close, you know, but there is always work to do, especially with bumps and kerbs. Last weekend I went to Le Mans, for example, and I went back to the Project CARS team and I said, ‘This kerb is slightly different here, and there is a bump over there which affects the car on exit’, stuff like that. I think it’s important to give as much input as you can. To replicate the real track is important, it’s not just the laser scan, it is the driver input, and it’s very long process.”

Laser scanning and driver input can ensure the virtual track mirrors the real track, but what about the cars?

“The Audi R8 and R18 are my favorite cars in the sim,” he says. “The R18, I have driven this car a lot, and am very familiar with it. The car is close, very close in the game, even though the R18 is not easy to replicate because there are so many electronics in the real car.”

There are but a handful of men who have driven the new R18 which Audi are hoping will avenge Porsche at Le Mans this weekend. René is one of the chosen few, and this kind of knowledge is crucial for Project CARS. “We’re working on this,” René says, “and the R18 is much closer now to the real thing, we’re getting there: We’re making big progress, I can feel the progress.”

There are many pieces to the jigsaw that creates a winning driver. René Rast learnt early that it’s the whole package that matters; speed is crucial, yes, but it is not ultimately defining for an endurance race. Mostly, it comes down to preparation. The days when a super-fast driver could just turn up and ace the opposition are long gone; the days when a driver came to a race without having spent countless hours learning every yard of tarmac on a simulator a thing of the distant past. René Rast has found in Project CARS a vehicle to further his ambitions; a simulator that he can work on to maximize the fidelity he requires to keep winning. And doing that, he and Project CARS—and by extension Project CARS’ drivers—all walk away winners.

The prep’ work for this weekend is concluded. Now comes the real test: winning Le Mans. Keep an eye out for the number 26 ORECA of René Rast as he battles to complete the poker of endurance racing—Daytona, Spa, the ’Ring, and Le Mans. Come on René!


Photos courtesy of Audi & Formula E

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