STORY: Welcome to the Alpine A480 drivers’ office

Ever dreamed of climbing behind the wheel of a Le Mans prototype? Alpine Elf Endurance Team’s Nicolas Lapierre talks us through his workspace inside the Alpine A480 he is driving in this year’s FIA World Endurance Championship. Believe us, it’s no place for claustrophobics, or fans of uncluttered automotive design!

Even if you managed to give Alpine’s guards the slip and sneak inside one of the team’s A480s, you wouldn’t get very far in it. The cockpit’s complexity is effectively comparable to that of an airliner, with an array of buttons, lights and switches on and around the steering wheel, the purpose of which would elude the vast majority of wannabe drivers.

The cockpit is a little like our office. We spend several hours inside it every race weekend.

Nicolas Lapierre, Alpine Elf Endurance Team driver

Permanently connected

The steering wheel is equipped with numerous push-button and rotary switches which the drivers employ lap after lap, but there are other ways they get to interact with their car. To the right of the steering wheel, for example, is a panel with more than 20 coloured buttons. “These are the controls we use less frequently,” notes Nicolas Lapierre, “to activate a fan, for example, or adjust the screen’s brightness. That sort of detail can be critical in certain situations, such as driving at dusk.”

Further to the right is a key electronic display that can be activated by Race Control. “Our car is equipped with a GPS system programmed to receive messages from Race Control as a function of where we are on the track,” says Nicolas Lapierre. “The screen will turn yellow, say, if yellow flags are out at Turns 1 and 2. That’s in addition to the trackside signals, so it’s a valuable safety feature.”

Rear-view vision is another important safety aspect. “There are two lines of thought here,” observes the four-time Le Mans class-winner. “The GT cars are often overtaken by the prototypes and many of them have rear-facing cameras linked to a screen inside the cockpit. As for us, we have two small exterior mirrors to see what’s going on behind us. We rarely use them but they are sufficiently big to see whether a car is approaching. The team uses the radio, too, to tell us whether a rival is getting close.”

Spartan comfort

Hit as many switches as you like, but you’ll never get the aircon to work, and that’s because the car doesn’t have one! To cater for that, the drivers have access to a big drinks bottle in the heat of the action. “It is connected to our helmet by a small tube. We sometimes spend more than three hours in the car at a time and it can get pretty hot inside the cramped cockpit, so you need to stay hydrated. Because there’s little air and no aircon, your drink gets warm quite quickly but it’s still nice to be able to take a sip every now and again!” The switch to activate the flow is depicted by a beer glass!

Another performance-enhancing comfort feature is the driver’s seat. “Our seat is made to measure to match the contours of our body,” continues Nicolas Lapierre, “so it’s actually quite comfortable, despite the lack of space. And that’s no luxury given the amount of time we spend inside the car.”

This personalised insert is positioned by the driver during driver swaps and is designed to ensure perfect access to the pedals. Given that the clutch is activated by a steering wheel-mounted control, there are only two pedals. The accelerator and brake pedals are located right and left, like in any automatic road car, but they aren’t used in the same way: “I would say nine out of ten drivers brake with the left foot. I still brake the old-school way, though, with my right foot.”

Clearly, not everyone would be capable of being at the peak of their game in such a small workspace, so it’s probably wiser to leave it to the experts, Nicolas, André and Matthieu…


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