Nicolas Minassian is a fully paid-up anglophile. He lives in a sleepy Sussex village, he drinks Guinness, has developed a penchant for the full English breakfast and, sacre bleu, he lists Silverstone as his favourite circuit! Yet in other ways, he’s as French as they come. Not least in his desire to win the biggest race in his homeland, the Le Mans 24 Hours.
“The closer you get to winning, the more you realise how difficult it is to win Le Mans,” explains Minassian, who this year lines up with Pedro Lamy and Christian Klien in the number 7 Peugeot 908 HDi. “I have to admit it’s getting to be something of an obsession now. I really need to win that race.”
“I was a young driver, just 21, who was only thinking about F1 when I was asked to do it,” he remembers. “I was happy to go, but it was just another race to me. It wasn’t until I got there that I realised just what a big event it is.
Le Mans is special for so many reasons, explains Minassian.
“It’s the crowd, it’s the ambience and, of course, it’s the track. It all adds up to create something unique. I’ve done the Indy 500 and raced at Monaco when I was doing Formula 3000, but nothing compares with Le Mans.”
“I love driving in front of a big crowd, after all, we are meant to be entertainers,” says Minassian. “I’m a big football fan and you can understand why players perform better on the big occasions in packed stadiums.”
The unique nature of the Circuit de la Sarthe, an eight-and-a-half-mile blast through the French countryside makes the race “all the more special” for Minassian. In excess of half the circuit is made up of public roads, which means opportunities to drive the complete track are limited.
“You can’t test there, which only adds to the challenge,” he explains. “I’ve raced at Le Mans nine times now, but I’m still learning every year I go. And then there’s the speed.”
“I love the straight and the speeds you do,” he explains. “The braking for the first chicane and for Mulsanne Corner at the end of the straight are among my favourite parts of the circuit.”
Minassian is a regular at Le Mans these days: he’s only missed it once since returning for his second stab at the 24 Hours in 2000.
“I had the odd offer after 1994, but I was always unable to do it because of my commitments in F3 or F3000,” he explains. “It was something I always wanted to do again and I went back in 2000 when I was doing F3000.
Minassian didn’t manage to get behind the wheel in the race on his return to Le Mans in 2000. The car, a Chrysler-engined Reynard prototype, retired after just a lap and a half. He notched up his first result, a sixth-place finish in 2002 aboard one of the French ORECA team’s Dallara-Judds and has been back every year since, “and always in a good car”.
The big break for Nicolas Minassian sportscar driver came when he was picked up by Peugeot for its return to endurance racing in 2007. He knows the importance of being with a manufacturer team in a discipline he describes as “a team game”.
“I love that side of sportscar racing, actually,” he says. “I enjoy being a team player and working with my co-drivers to get a set-up that works for all of us.”
He knows from experience just how difficult it is to win.
“You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time to win Le Mans” he reckons. “Peugeot might be the right place this year – I believe we are ready to win Le Mans.”
Minassian's perfect lap:
It's not the corner that’s tough but the braking zone. The righthander before should be flat-out, although the car does go light as the tyres lose their grip. Then you have a big brake while trying to keep your line tight to avoid messing up your entry to the chicane. Getting a good exit is all-important
The new dowhill righthander is flat, so you arrive at the left in fifth gear, brake hard and downshift to third. There's a lot of grip and the camber is in your favour so you can carry a lot of speed through here. It's a very nice corner, although you have to watch out for the rear of the car going light over the crest on the exit.
This corner has changed a bit recently. It's fourth gear and you can take a lot of speed through this all-important righthander. There are no bumps and you can take a lot of kerb. Because the first leg of the Mulsanne Straight follows, you need to be on the power very early, which can mean sacrificing a bit of entry speed.
I love the straight, especially at night. That gives you a real feeling of speed.
This is a very difficult corner. At night there is no light at the apex, so it is very difficult to pick you braking point and line. Overshoot here and you will fly over the gravel and end up in the tyres. You approach at 340km/h (210mph) and brake between the 200 and 100m boards. Again, you have to be on the power early.
The lighting is very good at the second chicane on the Mulsanne. The lefthand section of the corner is part of the braking zone: you brake all the way through to the first apex. There' a lot of grip here, but it is bumpy, so the car moves about a lot.
I love the braking zone here, though the corner is nothing special. You are braking as you turn and braking so late. It's one of the darkest points of the circuit, which means it is very easy to make a mistake. There's no margin for error.
You have a long curving straight between Mulsanne and Indianapolis. It's very narrow, which means you are flashing your lights like a maniac to make sure slower cars in front are aware of you. The entry of Indianapolis, along with the Porsche Curves, is my favourite part of the track. In the Peugeot you take the righthander flat at something like 330 (205mph). You brake really hard on the exit, trying to hold the car on the right for the lefthander that follows. You brake hard, but not for long. The corner is cambered and you can take a lot of speed into the bend.
A funny place. It's easy to lock up and end up in the tyres, partly because you become a bit disorientated. You've been a high speed for so long and then you reach one of the slowest parts of the circuit.
You can see the Porsche Curves coming and start bracing yourself for an amazing sequence of corners. It’s like driving in a tunnel: the speeds are so high and the walls are so close. The first right is a brake before you are back on the power. The following two lefthanders are flat. You touch the brakes and go down to third for the next right and then have to be very careful at the final left. The track is off camber and there’s no run-off.
The first part of the Ford Chicane is tricky because you don’t have any reference points as you turn in. The second part is all about using as much kerb as possible to get the power on early for the start/finish straight. It seems that you can cut the kerb more and more as Le Mans week goes on.