BMW Motorrad Motorsport
Le Mans, France, 06/04/2016, FIM Endurance World Championship
Le Mans, Sunday morning, three o‘clock. It is a cold April night. The fans in the grandstands are wrapped in coats and blankets, and one or two are having a quick snooze. The mechanics and technicians in the garages have bags under their eyes. However, they are wide awake mentally. They stare, trance-like, at the monitors. Out on the track, their bikes are tirelessly completing lap after lap – as they have been doing for 12 hours. This is the halfway point of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the biggest endurance classics in the world of motorcycle racing.
The wait is over this weekend: the 2016 season of the FIM Endurance World Championship (EWC) kicks off with the “24h Motos”. Among those in action will be seven BMW teams, who will be looking to run twice round the clock with the BMW S 1000 RR.
The motorcycle classic is being held for the 39th time this year. Riders and teams have been taking on this test of endurance for man and machine since 1978.
“A 24-hour race is even tougher on a bike than it is in a car. The riders are really pushed to their limits,” says endurance institution Rico Penzkofer, boss of the Penz13.com BMW Motorrad team. The riders must be wide awake and can never afford to lose concentration – even in the middle of the night, after countless hours in the saddle, in the dark.
The mechanics are also pushed to their limits: “Our guys work right through from Saturday morning to Sunday evening. And then it depends on how the days have gone in the run-up to the actual race. If you have a problem in practice on Friday, you can end up working long into the night and only grabbing four hours sleep before heading into the marathon shift on Saturday morning.”
The race bikes are also taken to the very limit during the 24 hours. Even an eight-hour race is a big challenge for the machines, and a 24-hour race is a full three times longer. An endurance race, twice around the clock in the most extreme conditions, is pure attrition. As such, the racing technology on the endurance bikes is far more robust than that on their counterparts in other circuit-racing series, in which the races generally last 30 or 45 minutes – after which the teams have time to perform maintenance and repairs.
Bikes like Penzkofer’s number 13 BMW S 1000 RR also have other features, specifically designed for use on the endurance circuit. Although a race lasts 24 hours, every second counts in the EWC. Modifications to the handlebar, footrests and fairings allow mid-race repairs to be carried out quickly. The fuel tank has a larger capacity of 24 litres (compared to 17.5 litres on the production model) and the team can re-fuel in under five seconds, thanks to a modified fuel tank cap. As the race continues through the night, the endurance bikes obviously also feature lights and illuminated starting numbers.
Among the other challenges facing the teams is the set-up of the racing bike. The entire package must withstand the extreme endurance run. However, as every second counts, the technology must also be pushed to its limit in order to achieve just the right set-up.
“Everyone tries to get the very most out of the bike. The question of how to set the bike up is always like walking a tightrope,” says Penzkofer. “The front-runners in the Endurance World Championship are now so evenly matched that one of the key factors is who can get the furthest on their fuel. A pit stop costs between 45 and 50 seconds – so two stops are the equivalent of losing a lap. Nowadays, you can no longer make that up out on the track. Therefore, a lot of testing takes place, in order to be as efficient as possible with the fuel. At the same time, this can come at the expense of durability. You really need to have the right intuition.”
On top of all that, you also have such unpredictable factors as the weather and crashes that are beyond one’s control – the old adage that anything can happen in a 24-hour race, is repeatedly proven to be accurate.
All this is precisely what makes an endurance race – and particularly a 24-hour race – so appealing for all involved. That and the special atmosphere in the paddock. “Endurance racing is simply less formal than in other series – and I like that,” says Penzkofer. The BMW family is also a close unit: “You help out where you can. It is practical to have the garages close to each other, as you don’t have far to walk then.”
Then there is the unique atmosphere in Le Mans. “You can feel the long history and tradition that endurance racing enjoys at this circuit and in this country. There is always a full house here,” says Penzkofer.
The Le Mans 24-hour race for automobiles was first held in 1923. Since 1971, motorcycles have also raced twice round the clock – first with the Bol d’Or and then, since 1978, with the “24h Motos”.
2016 marks the second season in the highest class of the EWC, the Superbike class (EWC SBK), for Penzkofer’s Penz13.com BMW Motorrad team. The team is looking to take the next step this season with its three riders Kenny Foray, Mathieu Gines and Lukáš Pešek, and has its sights set on podium finishes in a field that features established works teams.
The BMW Motorrad CEEU team also competes in the EWC SBK. The number 52 BMW S 1000 RR will be ridden by last year’s champion in the Alpe Adria Road Racing Championship and the man who finished third in the 2015 BMW Motorrad Race Trophy, Roland Resch, alongside Michal Filla, Janez Prosenik and Martin Choy.
The third RR in the Superbike field will be run by the Tecmas BMW team. Dominique Platet, Camille Hedelin, Clive Rambure and Nicolas Senechal will ride the number 88 bike. The LRP Poland team will field the number 90 RR, to be ridden by Bartlomiej Lewandowski, Marek Szkopek, Pawel Gorka and Gwen Giabbani.
Three BMW teams race in the Superstock class. The BMW contingent in this class will be led by Völpker NRT48 Schubert Motors. Team principal Ingo Nowaczyk is an old friend of Penzkofer. Bastien Mackels, Dominik Vincon and Stefan Kerschbaumer will alternate on the number 48 RR. They are joined in the Superstock class by the GERT56 HMT by RS Speedbikes team (no 56) with Rico Löwe, Sasha Hommel and Didier Grams, as well as the 24Racing – Piste Libre – Epsilon team (no 42) with Jean-Paul Fritsch, Stéphane Bednarek, Christophe Seigneur and Julien Dubus in the saddle.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans gets underway at 15:00 on Saturday 9th April.