Christina Nielsen: A podium would be great

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is getting excitingly close now, so caught up with Christina Nielsen, to talk about the upcoming race.

The young Danish racing driver will drive her second 24 hours race at the French track, but she has had knowledge of the track from the Aston Martin Le Mans Festival race in 2015, which was a 45-minutes race, which was run Saturday morning, ahead of the big race. She finished in a very good second position in that race.

If we turn back the time, to when she started racing, she was “just” the daughter of Lars Erik Nielsen. But now she has really made her own name in international motorsport, because of a second place in the IMSA series in 2015, followed by winning the Championship in 2016 in the GTD category.

The first time she was at Le Mans was in 2007, when her dad competed in the race himself, and finished in an impressive third place in the GT2 category together with Pierre Ehret and Allan Simonsen in a Porsche 997 GT3-RSR for the Autorlando Sport team. Nine years later, she crossed the pit exit line herself for the exact same race.

2016 was her first “real” Le Mans. He was part of the all-Danish lineup at Formula Racing together with Mikkel Mac and Johnny Laursen. The team participated in a Ferrari F458 Italia in the GTE Am category, and even though they had a good pace in the race, there was several mechanical issues troubling the team, so they ended a disappointing sixth.

This year Christina will race with Scuderia Corsa in car 65, which is the same team that she participated in the IMSA series with as well. But other than in the IMSA series, where the team competes with a GT3 version of the Ferrari 488 car, this is the 488 GTE version that will be used at Le Mans. Once again its the GTE Am category that she is competing in, together with her usual teammate from the USA, Italian Alessandro Balzan, and then bringing in the American Bret Curtis to the car.

Scuderia Corsa #65, Le Mans 2017
Photo: Christina Nielsen

We asked how many miles that the three drivers had done, before they went out on the test day at Le Mans, a few days ago.

“We held an official test at Monza, one day back in March. That is actually the only time. Alessandro, Bret and I were all there.”

Bret Curtis is a new man in the team. He participates in the Weathertech SportsCar Championship, that the IMSA series officially is named, but there he is a part of the Turner Motorsport team in a BMW. But how much does Christina actually know him before they will share the car:

“I have a good relationship to the Turner Motorsport team and have many good friends from the team, and I know Bret quite well, and got to know him last year. He is a really good guy, and he has been to Le Mans before. He has shown in the USA that he is a good bronze driver, he is stable and he had a lot of the qualities that you are searching for at in a endurance driver.”

Like always in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there are three drivers in the car, who aren’t always with the same shape and size. A lot of teams have a special seat insert for each driver, but the Scuderia Corsa team has chosen to do it differently.

“We are kind of three different sizes. I am a medium size, Bret is a large and Alessandro is a small. Bret don’t have any (inserts, editor), but to make the pitstops faster, the inserts that we have, we have actually put them inside the race suits. So I have two cushions to each side of the ribs, since i am slimmer than the guys around the ribs. So we have made some pockets in the race suit, where the cushions are placed. Alessandro has a cushion in the back, which is in a pocket too.”

When we ask about the goals for this years Le Mans, we get a clear answer.

“We, of course, try to reach the best result as possible, and a podium would be great. But regarding actual laptimes and such stuff, it’s not something that I’m interested in. There are many factors working together, to get a good result in a 24-hours race. If you do a fast lap, it isn’t much worth if you can’t handle traffic, for example. It all about being consistent, and to get well through the traffic. Of course you have to deliver good laptimes, but there are so much more to it. It’s not much worth to do an insanely fast lap, if you risk the car in 10 different corners, where you could have gone off. When you are driving endurance the car needs to last, so hammering over the curbs isn’t worth the risk.

“We saw that ourselves last year, where the front suspension broke with two hours left of the race, and we had to pit and fix it. Fortunately it didn’t impact our position, but it is things like that. We are trying to follow the philosophy of handing the car over to the next driver in the same state, as you like to receive the car in, when you are jumping into the car.”

Alessandro Balzan & Christina Nielsen, Scuderia Corsa, Weathertech SportsCar Championship

Regarding laptimes, they will drop compared to last year, since it’s a brand new car that the team races in this year.

“I wasn’t quite as comfortable in the car last year, as I feel this year. I drove on used tires and did a 4:01,5 (her best time in 2016 was 4:00,5 , editor), but our car lacks two seconds on the straights compared to our sister car (Scuderia Corsa #62, editor), so if I had gotten those two seconds for free… I am not sure what was wrong with our engine, but it needs to be solved before the race, and then I will be into the (3:)59’s. But I don’t have a laptime that i wish to drive. It is so depending on the conditions, and if you hit traffic in a lap, and how much you risk the car, and on that point I am – at least what I think – it’s very selfish trying to reach a great laptime, when you are doing endurance. It’s actually about teamwork, so you have to look at the bigger picture and don’t think about yourself. A great laptime might be great for yourself, but is it good for the team, if you crash the car on the next lap, only because you are trying to drive even faster…?”

A lot of drivers have a special time of the day, where they like to be in the car. Some like driving at night, while other prefer daytime running, or the change between day and night. But on that point, we get a clear answer from Christina:

“I’ll just drive whenever I’m told to do so! It was beautiful last year, when I had the morning sting, driving into the morning. I believe that it is the most difficult, when you are driving into the night or into the morning, because the light changes so much, which can be a quite a challenge for the eyes. But I’ll just drive, when I’m told to do so – I don’t really care.

“I never race with the visor completely closed, because we race in a closed car, but I usually pull it down a notch, when the morning sun hits, so you can hide a little behind the lower part of the visor.”

When asked about favourite points around the track, there isn’t any clear ones, but:

“I think it’s amazing to drive at Le Mans, and driving with the Michelin tires – it is impressive what they can do. I believe that everybody loves to think that the Porsche Curves is an area where you as a driver can really push the car, and push your own limits. But it’s also a bit of a risk, if you take some chances. Also because they have cameras there, so you can’t cross the track limits, because then you will get a penalty, if you’re going too far over – and that area is easy to get into. I haven’t actually thought about a special location on the track, but the Porsche Curves is certainly something that is probably the biggest challenge for the drivers.”

This year Christina Nielsen will be the only female driver at Le Mans, among the 179 other racing drivers, so that itself attracts some attention.

“Of course I get a lot of attention from the media because I am the only woman. We did so last year too. So there is quite a bit more PR work for me to do than the men, and we use that as much as we can. There is more for me to do, and there are already some interviews lined up, but I can’t talk too much about that at the moment. Last year we visited the Pavillon des Femme – a Pavilion only for women, where you can go and relax. You can go there and get face mask, massage, pedicure and manicure and all such stuff. So that is very girly, and probably for girlfriends and wives who aren’t as interested in the race as their male significant others. I actually think it would be better if you could get them more interested in racing. But I think it’s a good initiative to try out, to do it more attractive for females to come to a race track, and then hope that they go other places, and then there might be some great racing going on, that they might like. By creating some surroundings for them, where they can hang out, without everything needing to be about racing, and where they have a chance to get introduced to it at a nice relaxed level.”

We would like to thank Christina Nielsen a lot for taking time out of her calendar to talk with us, in the middle of some busy days leading up to the big race of the season.

Scuderia Corsa will arrive at Le Mans 2017 with two podiums in the bag from the two previous years – a third place in 2015 and the victory in the GTE categeory in 2016 with Bill Sweedler, Townsend Bell and Jeff Segal driving both years. This year Segal is replaced by Cooper MacNeil, but we can be rest assured that car number 62 will be at the top of the 16 car large GTE Am field. And hopefully #65 with Christina Nielsen, Alessandro Balzan and Bret Curtis will be able to fight along, when the team has found the lack of speed in the engine, down the straights.

The next time the drivers of this year’s Le Mans race will roll on the track, is on Wednesday June 14th at 16.00 CET, when 4 hours of free practice starts.

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