Words James Edmonds. Photography Fabrice Huet unless noted
100 years. For anyone who’s ever been to Le Mans, this was the year to be there. Despite late planning, I was all set. Media access: check. Accommodations: check. Gear all ready: check. Alas, unforeseen circumstances thwarted my trip literally at the last minute. All was not lost though. Our friend and pro photographer Fabrice, was ready to take up the challenge and we can now live the event through his lenses.
No need to recap the race here as that’s already in the books, but perhaps a few observations and Fabrice’s brilliant photography.
There was plenty to see, do and talk about this year, and the hype leading up to the event was huge. Thankfully, that hype turned out to be well founded and the events of the week, culminated in one of the best editions of this magical event that we have witnessed in many a year.
Unlike most races around the globe, Le Mans is one that starts many weeks before the race and the final week leading in to the race weekend takes over the town and surrounding areas with all sorts of welcome events hosted by many clubs and local businesses. Campsites are huge with many being set up by travel companies who do most of the work for you. The tiny town of Le Mans embodies the greatest sporting event on the planet (as proclaimed by National Geographic) in a carnival that has something for everyone. It is without doubt, a bucket-list destination that has to be savored at least once.
For the die-hards, sharing the experience of the drivers’ and teams’ own endurance through sleep deprivation, experiencing all manner of weather conditions (“It always rains at Le Mans” is now a common phrase in many households) and the collective emotional roller coaster of despair and elation, all make this week-long celebration, shared with up to three hundred thousand (this year for the centenary) other like minded individuals, a life changer.
Scrutineering is the event that really kicks of the week. A crowd favorite opportunity to see the teams and drivers up close as they all load up the cars from the paddock and drive them into town over a two day period. This could easily and more effectively be done at the track, but this spectacle at the foot of the Cathédrale St-Julien du Mans is a time honored tradition that gets everyone fired up for the week ahead. As the cars are unloaded, team bosses and drivers enjoy the spectacle and sign autographs as the truck drivers and mechanics curse at the imposition caused by the whole affair. Secretly, the enjoy it too.
After the checks have been carried out to ensure that the cars meet their stringent class regulations, the cars are team members assemble for the team photographs as the marketing people on the big teams give away team swag to the crowds. It’s a part of the week that shouldn’t be missed.
Le Mans History
Photo – Willy Chanteloup
There is always a good selection of historic cars at Le Mans, but this year the crowds were treated to something special with a huge number of past cars and pilots
Another event on the not-to-be-missed list, is the driver parade which takes place on a route through the old town. This is where the drivers are driven on classic or vintage open cars through the town in close proximity to the fans who are able to shake hands, get selfies and autographs along the way. This is one of the highlights of the week and one of the most enjoyable for the drivers.
The Driver Parade
A huge throng of fans and campers-turned-party-goers attend the free concerts every year. This year, renown French DJ/mixer, Bob Sinclair was one of the performers. Lucky for us, our photographer Fabrice works with him and was able to capture the atmosphere!
The race this year was literally one for the ages. With the Hypercar class now nicely filled out, a real race was on the cards with a Toyota walk-over now not a foregone conclusion. With new entries from Ferrari, Cadillac and Porsche, all of whom had shown strength in previous endurance races, the race was on.
There was plenty of controversy to keep the fans happy too: Last minute BoP changes for Toyota, Garage 56 had a modified NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro, the newly adopted safety car rules had the best of us scratching our heads well after the race was over and an NBA star dropped the tricolor.
The adoption of what would be deemed by many as “IMSA” rules appeared to have really slowed down the proceedings with the multi-faceted rules making their application hard to follow. Much of the issues were directed at the “bunching” of the field under the SC, making strategic pit stops less effective. Many complained that the first SC deployment was unnecessarily lengthy, but at the end of the race, all of the classes were extraordinarily close.
I long held the view, that rules should be set and the cars should show up and race. The guys with the faster cars would be up front and the rest would have to play catch-up. Some may be better at other tracks perhaps, but applying BoP rules to artificially close the gap was penalizing the more creative designers. In an attempt to open my mind, I recently watched an old race to see if the good-old-days, really were any better. To my own surprise, I found that I got bored. Not only by the fast cars disappearing, but by the huge gaps in the entire field. Although I really do miss the more open design rule book, the sexy cars, and the different sounds, I have to admit, that there is something to be said for creating a more interesting spectacle. It’s a long debate that we could have for hours, but I am starting to see the wisdom. Certainly, the races in modern times have by and large, been nail biters, which, whether your teams wins or loses, is what it’s all about. For sure it had it all this year.
The weather played a big part for the first time in many years and with a circuit as big as Le Mans, localized rain at various places around the track made for incredibly tough calls for the engineers on the wall. How many Gitanes were inhaled this year would make for an interesting stat.
Garage 56 is always interesting, but this year the unusual entry polarized the racing community. When announced last year, the news that a NASCAR team would be fielding a car was met with ridicule and a lot of April 1 jokes. Well it was no April fool. Hendrick Motorsports, one of the preeminent teams in NASCAR, brought a beautifully prepared Camaro replete with working lights and real thundering race car sound!
The car with it’s non-opening doors and the use of floor jacks in the pits were just two of the novelties that had many of the fans – most of whom had never seen a “Cup Car” before – raising their eyebrows. Although sneered at by many of the purists, the car won the hearts of the majority with it’s huge size, huge noise and huge speed.
The driver lineup of Jenson Button, Mike Rockenfeller and Jimmie Johnson gave a varied team with speed and experience. Jenson, in a pre-race interview stated that he wondered if he’d made a big mistake, but once with a few laps under his belt, found it to be one of the best experiences of his career.
LeBron who? That was what a lot of racing fans said. Plenty has been written about this topic, so I won’t thrash it here, but I see both sides. Did he bring anything to the racing sport? Maybe some spectacle and some awareness to the NBA? He has some previous associations with racing perhaps, but in the end, what was a big headline upon announcement, didn’t make much difference to the proceedings.
The choice for Grand Marshall was a little more obvious than a basketball player. Tom Kristensen clearly loves his ambassadorial role for the race with which he is synonymous and he very proudly paraded the new 100 Year trophy before the race.
The flag dropped under leaden skies and it didn’t take long for the heavens to open. The ensuing melee caused by localized rain tripped up many drivers. Dry or wet – that makes calling the tire choice easy. Mixed conditions on and off for several hours make it nightmarish. The weather made for an interesting race and all classes had close battles that kept everyone biting their nails until the end.
Notably, Corvette claimed their class at the last race to be run by a factory effort. Coming from last place to first made this all around a huge party for the legendary squad and emblematic of the gutsy team after early race difficulties.
In Hypercar, the battle was fierce with Ferrari, Peugeot, Toyota, Porsche and Cadillac all sharing time up front. Everyone had their own issues with mechanical problems or crashes, but all came back to join in a classic battle and it’s clear to see that top-line prototype racing is back.
Ultimately, Ferrari claimed an epic tenth overall win which was made a little easier when Toyota, who always like to finish the race with a Japanese driver, put Ryo Hirakawa in for the last stint. Chasing the Ferrari, the young driver went off and lost time, which begged the question in my mind as to why Buemi wasn’t put back in to give a better chance to win.
In the final analysis, these are the inevitable and yet unanswerable questions that keep all of them – and us – coming back year after year to see what will happen next time. Until next time then.