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Autoviva2012-06-22 14:42:51

Le Mans as an insider: Five days, what I did and what I learned

 
 
Slideshow
The #1 Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro Hybrid was the favorite to win.

Tuesday, 12.06.

Excitement and optimism were the order of the day as I made the trek over to Le Mans. I was looking forward to seeing the Nissan DeltaWingDeltaWingNissan DeltaWingJapan, 2012 > present19 photos
3 videos
, meeting some drivers I have never met, seeing if ToyotaToyotaToyotaJapan, 1937 > present155 models
4668 photos
10 videos
could challenge AudiAudiAudiGermany, 1909 > present83 models
8300 photos
27 videos
(no-one really expected them to) and supporting a couple of people I know who were driving in the LMP1 and LMP2 classes.

The car for the trip over was an Audi A5 Cab 3.0 TDIA5 Cabriolet 3.0 TDIAudi A5 Cabriolet 3.0 TDIGermany, 2011 > present2 photos
and the gendarmes were surprisingly relaxed on the way over and decent progress was to be made. I stayed in the village of Arnage, and if you can I’d advise you do the same, it’s great and you get to see a multitude of characters, from the ‘Radio Le Mans’ crew through to team managers just enjoying a beer, at least you do earlier in the week!


Wednesday 13.06.

The first proper day at the track was a busy one, finding ones bearings and settling into the press centre were key, as was sorting out a few contacts.

The drivers also needed to get themselves qualified so it was important not to crash, sadly that is what Giancarlo Fisichella did in his Ferrari 458458 ItaliaFerrari 458 ItaliaItaly, 2009 > present20 photos
2 videos
, so I went to investigate. It is interesting what a little bit of asking around can do. AF Corse are not famed for being easy to get to, they are an Italian team and they don’t have an obvious media team, but I managed to bump into a chap who introduced himself as Botti, he gave me an interview and was incredibly helpful. I thought Botti was a mechanic if I’m honest but as it turned out Botti was actually Amato Ferrari, team owner of AF Corse – this was my first indication of what Le Mans is really about.
 

The Nissan DeltaWing surprised many with its performance

The Nissan DeltaWing surprised many with its performance

© photo by Autoviva, licence: Attribution

Thursday 14.06.

Next up was the Audi and NissanNissanNissanJapan, 1932 > present159 models
7236 photos
12 videos
driver meet and greets. Audi was up first and yet again I was amazed to fall into a conversation with Marcel Fässler and then eventual winner Benoit Treluyer, who again were very helpful, none of the aloofness that you might associate with top level racing drivers. I also spoke to Ulrich Baretzky, the Audi engine designer, what a nice bloke again, and he was excited about racing, interestingly not so much with the hybrid project but with renewable energy from plants and algae, I wish I could put him in a room with David Cameron and Angela Merkel.

Then it was on to Nissan and a chat with Marino Franchitti, Dario’s brother. He said that despite the fact that only 25% of the weight of the DeltaWing (which he was driving) was over the front wheels it doesn’t understeer and this is made even more amazing by the front tyres – which are the same size as those from a Citroen 2CV2CVCitroën 2CVFrance, 1948 > 19907 versions
26 photos
2 videos
. The DeltaWing also weighs 500kg, can do 12mpg and run at the same pace as an LMP1 car with a few tweeks. All the nay-sayers can eat their words in my book. The DeltaWing is great.

 

Friday  15.06.

Friday was a day off for most and a chance to wander into Le Mans and enjoy the driver parade. It is amazing, but the fans in Le Mans are desperate for merchandise, they would have had my arm off if I’d strayed too close! Luckily the guys from the #83 FerrariFerrariFerrariItaly, 1947 > present233 models
5149 photos
37 videos
were keen to help, tomorrow they would be driving at nearly 200mph down the Mulsanne straight, but at 6pm on Friday they were giving me a hand – lesson number two in what Le Mans is all about!

Some decent food and a quick word with Anthony Davidson (he’s tiny by the way and a lovely chap – you’ll get bored of me saying that soon) ensued, but Saturday morning we were going to have to be fresh – so it was a couple of glasses of red (I’m in France) and off to bed.
 

Saturday 16.06.

A day of massive highs and some serious lows. In the morning I stopped by to watch some old Group C racers, they are awesome but so unreliable! It makes you realize how far the cars today have come on, all the way through. It wasn’t long ago that finishing almost got you on the podium, not any more.

A wander down the pits and a failed attempt to break onto the grid, later it was time to head back to the media centre. I won’t bore you with the details because you’ve probably already watched it or even read about it, but a few hours later I was off to Toyota for dinner. It was as I stood next to Nicolas Lapierre and Sebastian Buemi that Anthony Davidson had his accident. It was massive and I’ve never seen a reaction in a room quite like it, until he got out. The silence was deathly and the worry palpable. Intense is the word.

Meanwhile AF Corse were battling back to the front, from last on the grid after the new chassis had been delivered. You’ll know already but they won the GTE Pro class and didn’t put a foot wrong. You can do that at Le Mans.

The other event from Saturday was the realization that not every driver has a great weekend there. I know Stuart Hall quite well, he was one of my best room-mates at boarding school (it’s an English thing) and after J.C. Boullion crashed his LMP1 Pescarolo he was withdrawn, Stuart and Emmanule Collard were to do the whole race, but they weren’t even on the grid at 3pm, they retired with engine trouble. I asked Stuart how it was going, he replied ‘well it’s not is it?’ fair enough. He was in a better mood on Sunday and we chatted then.

The Champion 2012

The Champion 2012

© photo by Autoviva, licence: Attribution

Meanwhile Alex Brundle, who I was at University with and whose father, Martin, I know through my own father, also had trouble with his car. They lost 20 minutes with a dodgy alternator and Alex had to right foot brake all night due to a sticking clutch. I thought they might make the time back but such was the pace of the winning LMP2 car they never got close.
 

Sunday 17.06.

By this time I was knackered (for want of a better word). The Toyota’s were out and Audi were going to win, but could Rebellion Lotus make it onto the podium – well, Audi weren’t infallible – Allan McNish and Marc gene both made mistakes, but such was Audi’s efficiency that the car’s limped back and were repaired in no time. Still, Rebellion did a great job, as did JRM who maximized what it had.

After the race I blundered around like usual and ended up behind podium. If I’m truthful I don’t think I was meant to be there. It dawned on me that it was a little bit special when the Audi drivers walked past me with their trophies. It was only me up there, one photographer and the drivers, that will live with me forever!

Le Mans could be the best race in the world. It was interesting all the way through, the drivers are approachable but top class, amateurs can race with pros and the DeltaWing proves that the race is relevant. I want to do it now, but even if I can’t I’ll go back and spectate again and again and again.

Racing drivers are nice blokes
Le Mans could be the greatest race in the world

 

1 comment

cabruce
Great post, Tom. Love reading your impressions. Wish I had been there.
22.06.2012 @ 20:25
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