Le Mans...Only Ten Days Away!!

Le Mans 2013

                

                          Rollercoaster Ride

Words by James Edmonds/Photographs by James Edmonds, David Talbot and Thomas Murray   

Emotional.  That was Le Mans 2013 in a word.

She is a fickle and demanding mistress, Le Mans. She celebrated her 90th anniversary this year and to be sure, a lot has changed since 1923:  the track layout, the equipment, the safety measures, the rules and regulations, the infrastructure…the list goes on. But besides the obvious differences between that first race and that of this year, much is still the same: The long battle; the fatigue; the elements; the unknowns. The Risk.  

None of us were there for that first race, but it seems to me that this year, Le Mans threw as much at us as she has in many a long year – a sentiment echoed by Le Mans fraternity members with a lot more firsthand knowledge than your scribe. And that was just from my perspective. I can only imagine how it was for those who were actually taking part, although it has to be said that at La Sarthe, more than any other race – perhaps any other sporting event – that the fans are as much participants in the event as anyone.
To be there, on the track after 3pm on Sunday when the race has just ended, and to share in the plethora of mutually held emotions: the head-spinning feeling from the sleep deprivation; the cold; the wet; the heat (although not much this year); of having come through it all, along with those hundreds of thousands of Le Mans veterans and virgins alike, is a feeling of elated accomplishment truly shared by one and all. 




My first trip in 2008 was planned with help and information garnered on Beermountain.com and I made many friends there and since on the forums. One of the Beermountaineers I met there was David Talbot aka Artherdaily.



Artherdaily

 I won’t bore you with details of his online ‘handle’ but suffice to say, if you recall an English TV show (Minder) of the early ‘80s featuring a shifty East End used car salesman, then you might get the idea! He was picking me up at Heathrow for the drive down to France. My usual race partner Dave Lobou had planned on making the trip as usual, but circumstances sadly prevented us from being able to enjoy his camaraderie on this occasion.

A fortuitous meeting with ex-Aston works driver Adrian Fernandez while dining at Miami airport during my lengthy delay, bode well (or so I thought) for the rest of the trip.  As it turned out, the delay caused me to miss my flight connection to the UK, so poor David had to hang around Heathrow for five hours more than he had planned. This in turn meant that we  missed our ferry crossing from Dover to Calais, but thankfully the English still seem awfully accommodating and they let us on the next crossing. Our planned sojourn to the Tyne Cot war graves in Belgium was the only casualty to our itinerary as it turned out, so all was not lost.
Arriving at Le Mans on Saturday we enjoyed what was to be about the only sunshine for the entire week as we did the requisite lap (or five) of the public part of the circuit and it amazed me again how deserted the roads were – I always imagine hundreds of eager race fans emulating their heroes on the roads prior to their becoming The Track! After a relaxing tour of the excellent museum we sorted out our tickets before sneaking into the circuit gates which gave a real sense of the magnitude of the logistics necessary to put on such a huge event.
With only days to go before the onslaught of the (mostly) British fans there was still a huge amount of work to be done, with all the vendor booths, restaurants, hospitality buildings and track barriers still to be finished. The place looked to be in total chaos, but in that Gallic laid back fashion, which was good because it took the security guards a few minutes to throw us off the track, but not before we had snapped our pictures in the shadow of the iconic Dunlop Bridge. I was proud that my record was still intact as I don’t feel that I’m really trying until I’ve been removed from a restricted area or stopped by the authorities for questioning!
Because the camp site on which we were to be staying – the excellent 1st Tickets enclosure which was also home to the AMOC campers – was not open until the following day, I had arranged to stay at the quaint family owned hotel  just south of Mulsanne where Dave and I stayed on our last trip. Our host Philippe Cauchois informed us before dinner that he had overbooked the place due to a large wedding, but this turned out to be fortuitous in two ways.

Firstly, he had arranged for us to stay with his friends at the most rural French family farmhouse imaginable. The rooms could not have been more quiet and comfortable and as we discovered at breakfast the next morning, the owners who we dined with spoke not a lick of English. You can imagine the nodding going on as I tried to grapple with the fast paced francais being fired my way, interspersed with uncomfortable silences as we followed suit and dipped our baguettes with delicious farm-made confiture  in our  bowls of coffee.  Regaining my composure, the best conversation piece I could muster in my pigeon Franglais was that “I once lived in Maidstone and we had the world’s best strawberries”.  It felt appropriate at the time, given the excellent jam!

Secondly, and perhaps even more fortuitously, I realized while dining at Philippes excellent restaurant that the adjacent church bells, still chimed twice every hour on the hour! I thought that this would have been fixed since my last stay, but at least we would now get a good night’s sleep!  24 chimes at midnight on serious jet lag does nothing for ones slumber. It is only as I write these words that I realize the symbolism of this and that perhaps the tower bells are set deliberately to chime twice during race week!

 Over dinner we met up with Tom Murray, a friend from home, and the three of us drank until late and chatted variously about the merits of Canon DSLR’s and how best to use them to good effect over the next few days.


Tom Murray



Next morning after bidding “Au revoir” to the delightful couple at the farm amid much waving and faire la bise, we retreated back to the safety of the town to see some of the scrutineering.  This used to take place on Monday and Tuesday but has been moved ahead to Sunday/Monday and (hopefully only) temporarily away from Place des Jacobins where construction in the traditional and beautiful setting prohibited the event. Still being quite early and with not much action we decided that lunch and a beer at the Oak Racing official restaurant would be a good idea. With traditional Morgans alongside one of the new LMP2 cars it made a great setting and we enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere and the remains of the good weather.

Tom was the only stalwart who decided to see out the afternoon there and he fought the crowds to be rewarded with some great pictures,

while David and I retreated to the camp site. On the way past the circuit I noticed the huge iconic Ferris wheel – which makes up part of the Le Mans skyline- under construction and it struck me as odd, as I always thought that it was a permanent fixture.  We set up the tent and gazebo kitchen just prior to the first of many down pours which would become such a large part of the week’s story.

It rained and it rained. And it rained. And the wind blew. Hard. And it got cold.

Tuesday evening is really the first time that the public gets a chance to see all the cars, drivers and teams up close and all together as the popular autograph session in the pit lane gets under way.  As people line up in queues  that would rival those at Disney, the drivers are only too pleased to take pictures and sign treasures from years past that have been brought along for the occasion and the teams are able to do pit stop drills and practice driver changes. 



Allan McNish

 Audi, Corvette and Aston Martin always have the longest lines, so we weren’t quite sure what was up at the Porsche # 77 garage until we spotted Patrick Dempsey aka Dr. Dreamy! I think his team beat the Audi record!

Tom Kristensen

Darren Turner

The autograph event is open to the public and many of the locals go along even if they do not make the race itself. Although still early in the week, the atmosphere makes the place electric with life and you start to get excited as your adrenaline starts to flow. Hey…we’re at Le Mans!

Wednesday sees the practice sessions start followed later that evening by the first qualifying runs. It’s very hard to get used to in Europe at this time of year as night falls so slowly and so late. Qualifying starts at 10pm, but it doesn’t actually get dark until closer to 11. Qually takes place over two nights and all drivers have to complete laps in the dark in order that they are allowed to race. Although it never rained for hours at a time, the rain was on and off all week long and seemed to just hang in the air. Each time the track would start to get ‘rubbered in’ again, the rain would come and wash it clean. This caused more than a little angst with many teams as the frequent spins and accidents caused prolonged safety car periods meaning that even Audi were hard pressed to get English new-boy Oliver Jarvis out.

One of the perks of this assignment was the all important Press Credential. At most races here in the States you get access to the press room, the briefings and into the pit lane. What I didn’t realize until I was there was that you also get photo access which is a completely different credential at home. As one who attends these types of events just so as I can taste the rubber dust and exhaust gasses, getting this kind of pass gave never-before-seen access to the “other side of the chicken wire” and the photo ops that come along with it. One of the enduring memories I will have of this trip is being so close to the cars as to be able to feel the wind as they rush by.  And taste them too. What about the noise you say? Sorry…my hearing isn’t too good any more.

Thursday afternoon was the Beer Mountaineers AGM at the camp site marquee. This affair is traditionally a meeting of all the club members and gives a chance to mingle with old friends and many of the on-line acquaintances that have been made over the years. Speeches are made with tongues firmly planted in cheeks and (mostly joke) prizes are handed out as the club raises money for charity via donations, a raffle and auction items as the afternoon progresses.

Brian Sheehan, owner of 1st Tickets and our camp host had organized Audi works driver Oliver Jarvis to come along and speak.  How he managed to do this I’m not sure. Although a large group, it was certainly a coup for him to be able to liberate a driver from the Audi camp with only a few hours to go before qualifying! The young English driver had already won Sebring and Daytona this year and gave some fascinating insight into the inner workings of a drivers mind during a long race.

Tom had managed to organize a treat for us that evening. He had booked his trip with Bam Motorsports, the owner of which had invited him to dinner during qualifying at the Hotel Arbor which is on the Mulsanne just south of the second chicane.  Tom had managed to get David and I on the invite list and it turned out to be one of the trip’s many highlights.

Firstly, the company was great and we all enjoyed swapping our many war stories over a bottle of wine or two. It was a nice way to unwind after the stress of actually finding the back roads to the place, as obviously the main entrance was now closed off to all except the local race car traffic! Secondly, the culinary delights which we were to enjoy that evening were on a par with any I’ve had in recent memory.  Thirdly, when I say that the hotel is on the Mulsanne, I mean that it is on the Mulsanne. During dinner we were treated to the world’s best soundtrack and then afterwards we just took a few steps and were able to watch night qualifying literally right in front of us. Friends, conversation, dinner, Mulsanne…could life get any better?

Friday is a rest day for the drivers, although not for the teams. They spend months preparing the cars for this event and then after they have been thrashed within an inch of their lives, crashed, blown up or otherwise dilapidated during qualifying, they have to be completely stripped and rebuilt in time for Saturday morning warm up. It was especially tough on the engineers this year as the changeable weather wreaked havoc on set-up. It also gave the mechanics some short nights as cars were having to be repaired almost constantly due to the inclement weather.



Evocative new CC100





David and I took the morning to visit La Chartre-sur-le Loire where we took in the sights and sounds of some very special Aston Martins at the AMOC luncheon. Notable thrills were seeing the new CC100 and listening to company chairmen Dr. Ulrich Bez and David Richards speak.  You can read more on this and see photos in a separate article.

After lunch we headed back to the paddock in the hope of visiting some of the team garages. The driver parade is held in town on Friday early evening, so the paddock is relatively quiet, although the pit lane is still swarming with crowds watching their favorite teams preparing for the long battle ahead.
Being an old friend of Audi car #2 crew chief Brad Kettler (the winning car as it turned out), I was lucky to catch him with a small window in his hectic schedule and he was able to get us all in to the Audi garage for a behind-the-scenes-tour of The Machine.  With mechanics and staff rushing around, bodywork going back and forth and gearbox tests going on all around us, we had to be careful to stay behind the marked out lines to avoid getting run over. It is hard to describe in a few words how utterly incredible is the level of detail that goes into this race for Audi. I would say F1 teams have nothing on this extraordinary unit of specialists and NASA would be hard pressed to keep up. Try to think of the minutest detail of the smallest system on the car or garage set up and not only is there a plan for it, there is also a Plan B and a Plan C.  The efficiency really does boggle the mind. I could write a thesis on it.
With a whole race to prepare for, Brad was gracious in spending time with us and answered all of our questions with alacrity even when he had to be prudent with his answers! With the small matter of a race to run, we left him to it and stepped back into the paddock and spent a few minutes beaming while we discussed what we had just seen. Hopefully if you are still reading along you are a race fan and can appreciate what a thrill this had to be. Where to next?
Still light headed from our most recent thrills, we walked up to the Aston garage undaunted. The rather intimidating, tattooed and Terminator-esque security guard took a look at our AMOC VIP passes from the earlier event and with a broad smile invited us in to take a look around! In stark contrast to the confines of the Audi garage we were able to meander on our own at leisure and take photos of pretty much everything. With five cars starting the race, the Aston garage was huge and was easily the most impressive to look at. Whilst chatting to one of the team members I know, David delighted in taking pictures of the crowd behind the velvet rope who all had the same thing on their mind: “Who are those guys?” Tom took pictures of everything else! 

“Woody” AMR head mechanic
Race day dawned wet and cold. Again. We stayed at camp and meandered over to the track after lunch to take up position for the start of the race. Tom and I were able to enjoy the festive atmosphere of the grid walk and my pulse started to quicken as the cars were pushed into position. I perched myself at the top of the stairs leading to the ACO building at the front of the pit straight and overlooking the podium for the dropping of the Tri-coleur at 3pm.
The start of any race is always a joyous and emotional moment, but there is a certain uncanny je-ne-sais-quoi as the flag drops at La Sarthe. To see the world’s top teams all racing for the Dunlop Bridge as the ground shakes beneath you is a spectacle that has to be on the bucket list of any race enthusiast. I find myself thinking, “I’m at Le Mans” over and over as I rub away the goose bumps and the tears. There really is nothing like it.

After only a few laps of racing and again on a damp surface, the safety cars came out for what we heard was a bad crash by one of the Astons. Not being glued to a PC in the press room, it is difficult to hear all the goings on, but no one was yet aware of what had transpired. David and I met up and took a ride on the Ferris wheel and then headed back to camp for a break. It was only then that we learned along with everyone else that the Danish driver Allan Simonsen had not survived the injuries sustained in the crash at Tertre Rouge. 

The mood of the entire place turned morose. Losing a driver happens so rarely these days that the reality and dangers of racing slapped me in the face as I grappled with the emotions of actually being there on one of these occasions.

It’s strange that you feel as if you know these guys; that all of us are part of a big family. In a way we are. We travel all over and run into the same people time and again although at locations thousands of miles apart. It was to be sure a very sobering time, but in the tradition of Le Mans, the race went on. And so did we, albeit with heavy hearts.

 Did I mention the rain?
I had scheduled photo time in the pits at midnight as I always enjoy the late night more than any other time. Although the track action is just as frenetic as ever, the pit is a little quieter as many of the press and TV people take some time to recharge – figuratively and literally.  I might sound like a parrot, but it was another box ticked on my personal list: to be down in the pits at Le Mans during the race. Taking pictures and being shoved out of the way by Ferrari mechanics during a stop painted an almost permanent smile on my face. I’m a kid in a candy store on Halloween.

 

 





McNish alert and at the ready

Winning crew chief Brad Kettler


Jan Magnessen



While traversing the pit lane, I stopped at the Aston garage. I happened to be there as their cars were rotating through. It was business as usual as the cars slammed to a stop and then thundered away in what seemed like an instant as the mechanics performed the drills that they have practiced time and again.

  It was after the pit stops that I noticed the heavy atmosphere. The jubilant mood and high expectations of the previous day stood in stark contrast to the feeling in the camp now. Where the crews might have been high fiving and fist pumping as they completed their stops successfully, the body language now spoke volumes. The loss of Simonsen was weighing heavy, and although it was palpable, the professionalism of the team kept them bonded together.

Getting to sleep after such a rush was tough, but we all took a good nap at about 2am in preparation for the early morning reveille to see the cars racing through the sunrise. The roads being deserted at 4am it was easy to get to Arnage and then Mulsanne to take in the sights at what is known as ‘Happy Hour’. As the sun comes up, your body naturally awakens and the cobwebs seem to vanish as day breaks. It is always strange to look at your watch and to see that we still have nine hours of racing to go!



Happy Hour at Mulsanne



After another nap and some breakfast we headed out to the Dunlop curves amidst more on and off rain to take more pictures and get ready for the race end festivities. It’s a hike to Dunlop from our camp opposite the Ferris wheel, but a great viewing spot and the walk gave us a chance to peruse the wares on offer in the village.

Tom took up his station above the pits and I walked to the pit lane from Dunlop on the photographer’s path for the race end. As I did so I stopped at the fenced off area with all of the retired cars and got a shiver as I looked at Simonsen’s covered car. David headed to the Ford chicane.  I think our cache of photos would collectively rival anyone’s as we covered an awful lot of real estate during the event.


 

Seeing my friend Brad in rapturous applause as the Audi of McNish/Kristensen/Duval claimed an unlikely victory gladdened my heart as it crossed the line. It in no way made up for the loss of the fallen Dane, but it did add some poignant emotion.


Winning team celebrates……






…..sombre mood in Aston camp




The British/French Oak Racing Morgan team held up our end by finishing a fantastic first and second in LMP2 with the aid of English drivers Alex Brundle and Martin Plowman along with my favorite epicurean named driver, Bertrand Baguette, or Bertie Breadstick as one of my friends fondly calls him! How his name never made it into the movie ‘Cars 2’ I will never know.
The Aston team was not quite so lucky. After more attrition, two cars remained with four hours to go: the full works cars #97 and #99. Again being caught out by the damp, Fred Makowiecki lost control of #99 coming out of a Mulsanne chicane and just like that, the car was done. Safety cars out again.  The special ‘art car’ #97 soldiered on and made up ground on the leading 911 to the point where they were swapping the lead in pit stop rotations towards the very end. Victory was so close that it could be tasted, and what a fitting tribute that victory would have been. But alas, in the last hour another rain shower along with a minor body issue caused a stop just long enough to relegate the crestfallen team to third where they would shortly finish.

So in the end, the Aston team did not do what was predicted, but instead they did write some poetry which perhaps was a more fitting end to their unforgettable weekend, and be in no doubt that they will be back again next year.
I was able to reach David Richards after the event and he was very gracious in offering me his thoughts on what had to have been the most difficult race of his life and also for those on his team.

 “As you can imagine the race was a very tough and emotional event for everyone in the team that was completely overshadowed by the loss of one of our drivers.

We all knew that we had a competitive car that was borne out by the qualifying times and I’ve never seen the team better prepared or in a more positive frame of mind as we started the race on Saturday afternoon. 

As the true enormity of Allan’s accident on lap four unfolded we were left with a real dilemma.  However, it was Allan’s family, his father and two brothers who were at the track with us, who felt the best thing to do for the team and in tribute to Allan was to continue and try and win. 

The Bruno Senna, Rob Bell and Fred Makowiecki car held a dominant 90 second lead until Fred made a very uncharacteristic mistake only a few hours from the finish.  I can truly say that I’ve never seen a driver so upset about an incident like this as Fred was.  Emotions were running high and he knew the enormity of responsibility that lay on his shoulders as we tried to secure a win for Allan and Aston Martin on our Centenary year.  The Darren Turner, Stefan Mucke and Peter Dumbreck car was still in contention up until the last hour when a rain shower, along with a minor technical problem, dropped them behind the two Porsches who they’d been fighting neck and neck with throughout the night and this put an end to the Aston Martin challenge that had looked so promising 24 hours earlier. 
It was only when the podium ceremony finished that everyone allowed their true feelings to come to the fore and a team that had behaved so professionally embraced each other and allowed the tears to flow not for a lost race, as there will be many more of those in the future, but for a lost member of our own team, Allan Simonsen. 

This sums up a weekend at Le Mans that I’ll never forget.”

And so it was. Another race over and what a memorable one it was too. For all the right and all the wrong reasons.

The demanding, beguiling and savage mistress that is Le Mans has her hooks in all those who attend, and like thousands of others I too will return. The story that I write next time will be completely different, as it is every year. You just can never tell.

The next morning as we pulled out of the camp site, the place was almost empty again, save for the deconstruction crews…and it wasn’t the cold morning air that gave me a chill as we left – as I said goodbye to the stationary Ferris wheel I couldn’t help thinking that they should have had a roller coaster there this year instead.



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