Reality Disaster TV is not really new these days. Air Crash Investigation. Seconds before Disaster. Harty trying to explain how the Maranello Motorsport entry in the B12H faltered and was eliminated… The list goes on.
So I thought it would be a good idea to unravel what caused their untimely demise and try to explain the sequence of events.
From the outside looking in, it would appear that firstly, the fastest Ferrari 458 GT3 simply ran out of fuel, whilst secondly, another driver wrecked the car, having activated the fire retardant system.
To be fair, there is a small amount of truth in those statements – clearly the team looked daft, but when you are flying a jet and an alarm sounds, followed by another, and yet another, the combination of signals can create a scenario that when revisited is a simple operational melt down.
Even before the race started, whilst out on the warm-up lap, Danish sports car ace, Allan Simonsen was complaining. It was dark. Darker than he’d previously experienced at the start of the Bathurst 12 Hour. Cloud cover had replaced the clear night skies in the lead up, offering little illumination.
“I’ve got no high beams”, said The Dane over the radio, to the listening brains trust in pit bay 17.
Apart from the fact Allan wasn’t great with either plurals or prepositions, the message was clearly understood. Unlike the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there had been no pre-race night running. The issue had never reared its head. A simple oversight, but dealt with swiftly by a driver that has dozens of 24 hour races under his belt.
Starting off position two, Simonsen used the pole-sitting Audi R8 of Christopher Mies to advantage, letting him light the way until dawn broke.
In the cool, still morning air, Simonsen then took the lead and started to reel off a string of sub-outright timed laps. It was very impressive and whilst some thought he was pushing too hard, it was rather the pace that both he and the Ferrari worked best at. Mid 2.06 laps, some 1.5 seconds off his best – a time set last December in warm weather and with a lighter fuel load.
The cool air was just what the Ferrari 458 liked. Cool dense air that generated top horsepower. But, unknowingly, that came at a cost – fuel burn was slightly higher than calculated. With no actual fuel gauge, but just a low level sensor in the car, nor any back to pit telemetry, it was up to the engineers to advise him of the correct fuel window. Ten laps out came the first call, then five. As the laps counted down, so did the engineers, relaying to Allan when to pit. As he passed the start/finish line, he was told to pit immediately at the end of that lap for his scheduled fuel stop. But the car coughed and surged going up Mountain Straight and came to a halt on the steepest part of the cutting. With the nose of the car uphill, fuel ran through the baffles to the pickup point. The car fired and he was away again, only to have a repeat at Reid Park. Once again it refired and Simonsen trundled the car down to the pits to be assisted by the team into his pit box.
A fresh load of fuel was installed and away he went. However, complex modern engine management systems, the sort that help you limp home in a case such as this, also self-learn. Despite the car now being full of fuel, the EMS did not fully understand that and continued to ‘protect’ the engine by staying in a semi-limp mode. What should have happened was that the data acquisition guy should have plugged a laptop in after refuelling, resetting the onboard computer.
That now necessitated a further stop, dropping them two laps off the lead.
Allan continued his second stint successfully, getting back a lap in the process.
John Bowe was next in, bringing the car back onto the lead lap. He would however, make a very slight mistake and touch the pit entry blend line, forcing a a drive-through penalty.
JB out. Dominik Farnbacher now in. The weather was atrocious. Not fun for a rookie on The Mountain.
Towards the end of his first stint, the Ferrari coughed and died on Mountain Straight. With the safety car deployed, Dominik was towed back to the pit bay to determine the fault. Once again the car was restarted and he was sent out.
Yet again the car stopped on Mountain Straight. Dom tried the ignition first. Nothing happened. Then the master switch, rebooting the onboard systems. At that moment the onboard fire system discharged, coating both car and driver in foam. DNF.
Let’s rewind. Unbeknown to the engineers, an oxygen sensor had started to loosen itself from the engine manifold. That caused the ECU to twitch and so the car stop, with Dom aboard, on Mountain Straight. As soon as the car left pit lane , the sensor fully dislodged from the manifold. Hot gasses escaped, directly onto the ECU, pushing the internal chip temperatures above their operating temperature and the computer failed.
Dom tried to restart the car by ignition. Nothing. Next, he cycled the car, which was effectively a cold boot up.
The fire bomb system is set off from the cabin. It can also be activated by a manual mechanical switch at the front of the car, which had unbelievably worked its way loose, into the activate position.
When the ECU/EMS rebooted it sensed an alarm from the manual firebomb switch and thus released the retardant. Poor Dom was coated in foam – and from the outside looking in, it seemed he’d made a rather unfortunate cock-up.
With the thread gone from the manifold, where the oxygen sensor lay, it was impossible to solve the problem whilst the race was in process.
A very clear case of problem compounding problem compounding problem… Just so we’re clear on that, ok?