Le Mans 2011
Last weekend I made my second trip to Le Mans for the 24 hour race along with my girlfriend Liz who was making her first trip to the world’s best motor race. It was certainly a great race to attend for the first time and no doubt Liz will be going again. That’s the trouble with Le Mans, once you’ve been once you just want to go back again and again. Obviously there is some great racing on show, incredible cars and world class drivers, but couple that with the fantastic atmosphere and the amount of things to see and do and you have the recipe for petrol head heaven.
We drove down on Thursday morning and those of you who have been will know that if you took one of those Eye Spy books on Supercars then you will probably have filled it all in by the time you got there. We pulled up at the channel tunnel check-in behind a Lamborghini Murchialago and the services area was filled with various Ferrari’s, Porsche’s, Lotus’ and Aston Martin’s to name a few. Boarding the train we were loaded on right behind a bright orange 200+ mph Ultima, which according to the driver was his toy for bombing down to Le Mans in. Apparently he has already lined up an ex rally Lotus Talbot Sunbeam to take next year.
Having stocked up on food and supplies in Calais, we opted to avoid the toll roads en route to save a few quid. The route was certainly scenic and took us through some nice areas of France. You have to be very careful on the way as the Gendarmerie (the French rozzers) are out in force to cash in on speeding Brits as the drivers of the BMW Z3 and Lotus Elise found out to their cost as the booted it past us only to be pulled in half a mile later.
After arriving at the camp site, setting up and eating/drinking, we headed over to the circuit to catch Thursdays night qualifying session. I’d been waiting months to see the new Audi R18 in the flesh and you had to pay close attention to catch a glimpse as it passed by. They were spookily quiet which meant you couldn’t hear it coming. Just a gentle whoosh could be heard as the menacing beast gracefully sped past. All of the cars were looking great and the two hour session had really got us excited for the race. Funnily enough as we wandered behind the grandstands I spotted my friend James. To be honest, he’s not that difficult to spot as he towers above most people. If you ever go to see a British GT race, keep an eye open for him. He’s usually seen in the paddock or pits wearing a gilet and surrounded by a bevy of beauties. He’s a bit like British GT’s Bernie Ecclestone except twice as tall. Literally.
Friday is the drivers parade so we headed into town for lunch and beer and met up with James and his cousin. We watched the hubbub of everyone setting up the route and the array of classic and supercars on show in the square. Liz and I decided to head for a good location along the parade route and managed to get a spot right at the front getting a great view of the 1991 Mazda 787b roaring past through the French streets. It’s always nice to see the parade and good to see the drivers get involved with the crowd, signing autographs, handing out posters, pictures and gifts. The car carrying the RML drivers had stopped in front of us and Ben Collins was surprised to hear us call his name amidst the mostly French locals, but gave me a great photo opportunity. As did Aston Martin driver Darren Turner. Liz was particularly excited see Giancarlo Fisichella and was in good spirits as we headed back to the campsite on a packed tram. If you are planning on going to Le Mans in the future, I can thoroughly recommend going to the driver’s parade and if you do go to Le Mans and don’t take in the parade then you are missing out.
So race day was upon us and after the morning’s brilliant Classic race, the excitement, tension and nerves were beginning to build. We had seats in one of the Grandstands at the start of the pit straight right next to one of the many big screens and although a grandstand seat isn’t a necessity as there are many good viewing points, it’s nice to have a guaranteed good view especially during the Start and Finish when the crowds are very deep. It was funny to see Jean Todt struggle with the huge Tricolore to start the race as it was as big if not bigger than he was.
As the race began it was clear it was going to be a close battle between the Audi and Peugeot’s and also between the front runners in the other categories. The first hour passed in a blur until disaster struck. An attempt to pass his team mate and a GTE Ferrari at the Esses went wrong and sent Allan McNish and his Audi careering towards the barrier. The subsequent impact sent debris flying everywhere and the dreaded hush descended as thousands of spectators were left reeling in shock. It seemed like an age as we all waited for any sign of McNish to emerge from the mangled wreck but thankfully cheers ensued as he pulled himself out and walked clear. I real testament to the safety of modern racing cars. The image of Audi Team Boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich wiping away tears of relief on the big screens as McNish got out is one that will stay with me.
Unfortunately, this was not to be the end of the Audi woes. As the race headed into darkness and Myself and Liz had took up a spot at Tertre Rouge, the big screen showed a safety car heading out. The guys on radio le mans were as surprised as everyone to see it but then an image appeared on screen. Something was trackside as marshall’s flocked around. It was unclear as to what it was for a while until collective gasps followed by the awful hush as realisation hit that it was the remains of a Car. Eventually onboard footage came up of Mike Rockenfeller heading at full speed towards Indianapolis flashing his lights at another GTE Ferrari. Unfortunately the as the Audi took the inside line at the second kink, the Ferrari move across and clipped Rockenfeller sending him head on into the barrier at 200mph. The car was sent spinning across the track and into the barriers on the other side before coming to a rest. Everyone waited patiently for news before finally it had filtered through that Rocky had got out of the car unaided but was off to the medical centre for checks. A two and a half hour safety car period ensued as over 120 pieces of Armco barrier were replaced. Liz and I took a night time trip on the Ferris Wheel just as the safety cars came in at 1 am and despite not looking it very big from the ground it was a long way up at the top but you are rewarded of great views, so that is another recommendation.
As day broke the racing was still close as the lead was changing with each pit stop and there were a number of battles throughout each class taking place. From my Grandstand seat I witnessed the unfortunate mistake from Jan Magnussen in the lead Corvette exiting the Porsche curves before the Ford Chicane. Losing the back end the Corvette took out the GTE-am Felbermayr Porsche which smashed into the concrete wall on both sides of the track leading to another safety car period as the cars and debris were recovered.
As the race went on and despite the remaining Audi having to pit slightly more frequently than the chasing Peugeots, it was holding onto the lead. Then, into the afternoon and as the race drew near, I witnessed probably one of the most disgraceful events in motorsport I have ever witnessed. The leading Audi had caught the number 7 Peugeot which was running in fourth place with Marc Gene at the wheel. Already three laps down the Audi attempted to pass at the second chicane on the Mulsanne straight to put four laps between them. Gene had already been weaving to kept the Audi at bay and give the second place Peugeot a chance to catch up slightly. However, this time they were side by side with the Audi on the inside line. This didn’t deter Gene, who was no doubt under instructions to hold the German team up, to cut across the front of the leading car on the turning leading to slight contact. Thankfully it was only minor bodywork damage but had Andre Lotterer not reacted quicker it could have been game over. It was a disgraceful move especially after the other two Audi’s had succumbed to dreadful accidents. The guys on Radio Le Mans were incensed and rightly so and sent their pit reporter to ask the Peugeot team boss Oliver Quisnel why that had happened. His casual response was that there were no blue flags. This was a poor excuse as the TV screens had shown there were indeed blue flags being waved. It was an utterly disgraceful show of sportsmanship and totally dangerous. Possibly a result of Peugeots win at all cost attitude at Le Mans maybe?
With half an hour left on the clock the leading Audi and the leading Peugeot in second place pitted for a final fuel stop. It was to prove very close as Audi had decided to put fresh tyres on which, under the rules you cannot do whilst the fuel hose is attached to fill up the car so their pit stop was longer. This was obviously carefully calculated as the Audi left the pit lane just 2 seconds ahead. Thankfully they held on and took the victory by just 13 seconds. The closest finish since 1969.
Other stories worthy of note were, the second placed LMP2 Oreca Nissan and the third placed GTE AM Robertson Racing Ford GT. The Oreca Nissan featured Lucas Ordonez as one of their drivers who less than three years ago had only raced a car on his Playstation. He won the Nissan GT academy and was picked out and trained up to race in the Dubai 24hr race a couple of years ago as the prize. He impressed so much he has since become a professional racing driver and made his Le Mans debut complete with a podium finish in second place. From PS3 to LMP in a couple of years is seriously impressive stuff and shows what a great initiative the GT Academy is. Other debutants were the Robertson Racing team. The Husband and wife team of David and Andrea Robertson were achieving their dream of racing in the 24 hour race alongside fellow American David Murray. Many, including myself had written the team off before the race and assumed they wouldn’t even finish. But, at 3 o’clock on Sunday, Andrea took the Chequered flag and with it third place on the podium in their class. What made it even more special was that they were also celebrating their Wedding anniversary. They were the first husband and wife team to compete in the race and Andrea was the first woman to take to the podium since the early 1930’s.
So the 79th Le Mans 24 hour race had drawn to a close with some great stories and history being made. A drive along the Mulsanne straight round to Indianapolis, through Arnage corner and up to the Porsche curves in my Astra on the Sunday evening completed the weekend and left both me and Liz looking forward to next year.