Philippe Haezebrouck and Le Mans 2001 : "What a mess !"
In 2001, a top five finish in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Porsche 911 GT3 RS was still possible. Twenty-one years ago, the best GT car finished one lap behind the winning LMP675. Impossible in 2022 !
Among the top GT cars was the Porsche 911 GT3 RS/Freisinger Motorsport with Romain Dumas, Philippe Haezebrouck and Gunnar Jeannette. In the early 2000s the team led by Manfred Freisinger was the scarecrow in GT. Two years later his team won the 24 Hours of Spa ahead of big GT1s.
In the trio of the #77 Porsche there were two rookies : Romain Dumas and Philippe Haezebrouck. Only Gunnar Jeannette had taken part in the event one year earlier.
Both French drivers started their careers at Le Mans somewhat by chance. Philippe Haezebrouck has special memories of his debut at Le Mans, having just competed in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring in a CS Racing BMW M2 at the age of 67. The driver from Reims has six starts in the 24H du Mans between 2001 and 2020.
"Romain Dumas called me and said: 'do you want to race at Le Mans?'" recalls Philippe Haezebrouck. "It's like asking a blind man if he wants to see. It was only 15 days before the event. Romain had been contacted by the late Kaneko who offered two seats. He gave me the conditions which I accepted and I found myself at Le Mans without knowing more. I arrived and that's when this affair happened where Manfred thought he had taken Sébastien Dumez and not Romain Dumas. I thought to myself 'what a mess'."
For the #77 Porsche, the test started off on the wrong way, as Haezebrouck explains: "On the first evening Gunnar Jeannette went off the track on the last lap of the session. Manfred's first thought was not to repair and therefore to withdraw. Kaneko has to explain to him that he has to compensate us if the car fails because there is no driving for the drivers. A really crazy story."
After some heated discussions, the programme changed as the German team decided to repair the car. "At 4am, Freisinger decided to repair the car," smiled the Frenchman. "So we did very little driving before the start. The mechanics were unbelievable because the car was so badly damaged."
Those who were present at the 24 Hours of Le Mans certainly remember a very rainy start. The #77 Porsche could have been aiming for class victory without a risky tyre strategy : "Everything was going well until Gunnar Jeannette asked for intermediate tires to be put on instead of rain tires, only to stop again a few laps later to put on intermediate tires. At Le Mans you stop once more and you are out of the game for the win. Without that, the GT victory was ours.
"That year I discovered a Manfred Freisinger who is a strange guy, totally the opposite of Kaneko. I knew Romain Dumas from Formula France. He was a very fast guy who knows how to make you feel confident. Already in 2001, he had an incredible talent. I had never driven a car like that before and I didn't know anyone in the business. It was really great."
When Philippe Haezebrouck took part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he was eager to come back: "Just because you finish Le Mans in 7th place doesn't mean that the following year you will finish 6th. What impressed me the most was the stress of this race. I have never experienced that anywhere else. At Le Mans, you have the impression of being the centre of the universe, which is not the case after all. When you drive in GP2, you say 'yeah right, I drive in GP2', but Le Mans is something different. On the circuit side, the Nordschleife is better but the Le Mans is something else."
Almost twenty years later Philippe Haezebrouck drove the Porsche 911 RSR at Le Mans, a car that is both similar and different: "The philosophy is the same. With this car you can do anything, it is incredible. I was looking for a seat this year but the prices were out of control. When a 24-hour race stops, I'm ready to start again for 24 hours..."