Ben Keating does not blame the organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans for his team’s victory-turned-disqualification. And to be clear, his emotionally charged thoughts on the two violations handed down by ACO and FIA technical inspectors haven’t been offered to remain in their good graces.
Having sprayed champagne from atop the GTE-Am podium on Sunday after earning a debut win for the No. 85 Riley Motorsports Ford GT in Le Mans’ Pro-Am class, the Texan learned on Monday that his dream-like win would be vacated after two violations were assessed.
The first, for consistently refueling the Ford at 44.4 seconds across 23 pit stops, 0.6 seconds faster than the 45-second minimum established in the rules, earned the team a post-race time penalty that dropped the No. 85 from first to second in GTE-Am. The follow-up penalty, which came after measuring the Ford’s fuel tank as holding 96.4 liters of fuel — over the 96.0 limit — resulted in the DQ.
Speaking soon after the heartbreaking news was received, Keating offered a compelling narrative of insights and explanations on all that transpired at Le Mans.
“I have a really big distaste for injustice,” he said. “I will be the first person to step up and make a scene and do something stupid when I feel like there has been injustice, and I’ll be the first person to step up and take my lumps when it’s appropriate.
“If it were just about the time penalty, then I would be making an argument that some of the hoops we had to jump through might or might not have been justified. However, the fact is, we did our capacity check three different times, and we were four tenths of a liter over capacity. I’m also 100-percent sure that we checked our capacity before the race, and we were at 96 liters.”
Every modern race car like Keating’s Ford GT makes use of a rubberized fuel bladder that sits within a dedicated cavity built into the chassis. Within the bladder, fuel pumps, dense foam, internal panels to channel fuel, a collector box to draw fuel into the pumps, and plastic balls — of various sizes, but often in the range of a baseball or softball — are found.
It’s not uncommon for a team to remove and inspect the bladder ahead of a major endurance race like Le Mans, and during re-installation, flattening any warps or wrinkles can take some time. With the bladder installed, a fuel capacity check is often the next step to be performed to ensure a decrease in capacity has not occurred from small warps of wrinkles in the bladder.
Once the capacity is determined, and if there’s an overage, teams will insert however many plastic balls are needed to reduce capacity — akin to how ice cubes dropped into a glass reduce the amount of liquid that can be held — to ensure they are extremely close to the limit. It’s also not entirely uncommon for teams to leave a tiny margin of error, say 95.9 liters in the No. 85 Ford GT’s case, if they are working with a new car for the first time, which was the case with the Riley team.
In light of the multiple pre-race fuel capacity checks carried out by the team, Keating wonders if 24 hours of hard racing straightened out an unseen warp or kink in the bladder.
“You know, if I were in the position of a team that left a margin of error, or did not have a cell that expanded, then I would expect to be moved up.”
“The only thing that makes sense to me is that the rubber bladder inside the cell got broken in, after being filled and emptied and pressurized and heated and vibrated and all that other stuff over a 24-hour period, enough that it could accept another 400 milliliters,” he said.
“But because I am the first person to be really upset about something being unjust, I would expect nothing less from the stewards. You know, if I were in the position of a team that left a margin of error, or did not have a cell that expanded, then I would expect to be moved up. And I can’t deny the fact that I had too much capacity in the car.
“No, I’m not going to appeal the fact that we had 0.4 liters too much in the tank. Because it is what it is. I hate it. I am still proud of the performance that we had. I’m still proud of the team.”
Coming out of the official Le Mans Test Day two weeks prior to the 24 Hour, the No. 85 Ford GT was sorely lacking speed as Keating and teammates Jeroen Bleekemolen and Felipe Fraga placed 16th out of 17 cars. In qualifying, the trio maintained their next-to-last position, earning 15th out of 16 GTE-Am entries.
Pushing every boundary possible to recoup some of the missing performance, in Keating’s estimation, is what eventually led to the DQ.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of. You know, we did not gain an advantage by any of this and none of it was intentional. We were seriously concerned about our pace versus the other manufacturers. We didn’t feel like we had any margin to give. Whether that is half a second on fuel fill, or whether that is 400 milliliters on capacity,” he said.
“And so, we set everything right at the limit. I now know that that was a big mistake. I did not think that those two pieces of equipment would change. And they did. So, it’s a tough situation. But it is clearly not an injustice. I had 400 milliliters too much fuel, and I can’t argue with that.”