Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Le Mans 2009 - part 1

Whisper this, but I’d never actually been to Le Mans before this year. It seemed any petrolhead worth his salt considered the place a sort of spiritual home, but not me. I was a Le Mans virgin. I suppose there is a first time for everyone though and in my case that was earlier this month.

Day 1
It was an inauspicious start to be honest; moderate traffic and light drizzle for an unexceptional run down to the tunnel on Wednesday morning. One villainously over-priced croissant, a slurp of orange juice and a few chapters of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and I was out into the overcast gloom of northern France.

Somehow the Focus didn’t quite cut it with the Ferraris and Aston Martins disembarking at the same time. I’d sold the TVR a week and a half previously, so I had no real choice in the matter, yet part of me was actually quite glad of this as the heavens opened near Rouen. It may have about as much charisma as any other metallic gray repmobile, but the humble Ford really does impress with its refinement. The engine is barely audible at motorway speed and even though wind and tyre noise are a bit more pronounced the Focus is still streets ahead of many of the more evocative Le Mans choices in this respect. Likewise, the route – straight down the A28 – may have been a little unadventurous, but with a tight schedule to keep and zealous gendarmes potentially perched behind every tree I set a steady 130kph and cruised on to Le Mans. After all, I was on business.

The first job when I arrived was to rendezvous with the rest of the Race Tech crew at the press accreditation centre. It was also my first chance to take a proper look at editor William’s 1938 Bentley special, which to be honest figured pretty high in my list of priorities. I’d been keen to see the car since I’d joined the magazine last September. And so, curiosity satisfied and accreditation complete, it was time to head back to my first hotel, the Mercure in Le Mans centre.

That evening we were due to attending a dinner near the circuit, so after a brief rest, William brought the Bentley round to the hotel and I followed him and publishing director Soheila out to Arnage. Or at least I tried to. Slight navigational issues intervened to give the evening a rather surreal atmosphere. Chasing the Bentley’s art-decco tail through the gloomy half-lit back streets of Le Mans was pure film noir, and the plot was about to thicken. It dawned on me that were starting to pass familiar landmarks and in fact we were going round in circles.

This trend developed as we somehow progressed into the countryside only to continue driving in circles. It didn’t matter though, we were close enough to here the racing engines scream past as free practice unfolded, and the Bentley’s elegant frame blended perfectly with the time-warp landscape that bordered the circuit. Le Mans had begun.

Day 2
That morning, still fuelled by what was undoubtedly the best dinner I’ve ever had the previous night, I ventured out towards the circuit. It was due to be a day of preparation – both for us and the teams. While they performed last minute setup changes before the evening’s qualifying session, we secured a prime spot in the Le Mans press office and, later, I headed into the town centre to pick up the latest addition to our squad.

Steve Bridges’ day job is promoting industry (and in particularly motorsport) for the Commonwealth of Virginia, but in his spare time he’s also a track marshal and unofficial ambassador for Virginia International Raceway – the hidden gem sometimes referred to America’s Nürburgring. And now he was about to add another title to his collection: Race Tech’s official photographer.

After meeting at the station and proceeding to accreditation again, we decided to head back to get some rest ahead of that evening’s qualifying. For the rest of the week we were both staying in a small farmhouse near Teloche, about seven miles away from the circuit. The route out into the sticks seemed straightforward enough but, as we were about to find out, things were a little complicated. Thanks to the unique nature of Le Mans, most of the roads out to the BnB either formed or intersected part of the circuit and we came to numerous roadblocks only to be turned away by stony-faced gendarmes. Eventually we made our way down a narrow gravel track to the farmhouse, sheltered from the afternoon sun by the shade of an old barn.

That evening, after struggling through the pleasantries with our hosts in broken Franglais, we returned to the circuit. At this point two joys of being a member of the press highlighted themselves. Firstly, we had access right up to the crash barrier on several parts of the circuit, including the Esses just before the Dunlop Bridge. The sense of smugness this generated in both of us was palpable as the pietons sat some 50 yards further back crammed behind the catch fence. Secondly, this jammyness only increased as we discovered the various hospitality units were open for business.

After a very pleasant meal care of Peugeot – Chris Harries once remarked the free dinners were the best part of this job and he’s not far wrong – we headed back out to watch the end of qualifying. Despite the 908’s general air of dominance, Allan McNish had set a blistering time in the Audi in the first half, which seemed unbreakable. However, as the final session drew to a close, with the track now engulfed in darkness, Frenchmen Stephane Sarrazin flew through to take the pole for Peugeot. Things were looking very good indeed for the car I’d witnessed the birth of back in February.

Day 3

Friday is rebuild day for the teams at Le Mans. An army of mechanics take to the cars changing engines, gearboxes, bodywork sections and just about anything else that bears any risk of detaching itself or degrading over the course of the race. We, meanwhile, set to delivering magazines and securing interviews with the various team owners and race engineers floating around.

The paddock at Le Mans has a unique atmosphere, which seems so much more organic than the rather clinical condition encountered at a grand prix. Access is far less restricted and, despite a very serious job in hand, the feeling is far more relaxed. All of this seems to put the teams at ease, but if you really need to break the ice, I found three little letters which were guaranteed to do the trick. The ACO, or Automobile Club de l'Ouest, has been running the race since its inception in 1923, and in the 86 years since then they have rarely seen eye-to-eye with the competitors. I rapidly discovered this was a favoured topic of conversation and guaranteed to produce the start of a long, frank conversation.

After a productive day at the coalface it was time to experience the carnival atmosphere that surrounds Le Mans. All four of us clambered into the twin cockpits of the Bentley – separated fore and aft like the pilot and gunner in a vintage fighter plane, with William and Soheila up front and Steve and I in the back. As we set off into the twilight, the circuit’s floodlights glowing in the background, the evening once again took on a slightly surreal aspect, however this time it was an altogether more visceral experience.

We were just approaching the exit when the first barrage of Mad Friday began. A large crowd lined the road and a torrent of water pistol fire came from both sides. Then – bam – a water bomb landed square on the cowl in front of the rear seats, showering me and Steve. We ploughed on towards the town, dodging the broken bottles on the side of the road and attempting to pick our way past the drunken revellers.

A circuit of Le Mans on Friday night is a must. The mood hovers somewhere between good-natured fun and a full-on riot, but somehow it stops just short of being excessive. The Bentley proved extremely popular, particularly with the hordes of Brits who lined the streets, and every so often William would open it up to unleash a deep rasp from the exhaust and a great cheer from the crowd. Because of this we probably got away rather lightly as we cruised through Mulsanne and onto the town centre, but it still remained an exciting – and damp – experience.

As we drove through the centre, past the floodlit cafes, and the cathedral front that Steve McQueen drives past in the famous movie homage to the event, we shared the streets with a mouth-watering array of machinery. A Ferrari 599, a vintage Aston Martin International and an enthusiastically driven French-registered Lotus Esprit V8 were just some of the ‘spotteds’ along the way. And then we turned off the main roads and down a narrow side street, which it later transpired was jam packed with Brits. Yet again the car acted like cat nip for the drunken fans, with a wall of camera phones raised in front of us and drunken greetings issuing from every direction. It looked like we would have to come to a halt but, wisely, William kept us crawling through the dense crowd until an opening appeared. As he opened the taps the old Bentley catapulted forward with surprising force, the crowd cheered, and we drove off into the cool night air.

Le Mans 2009 - part 2

Having survived Mad Friday and the drive down, the race itself begins...

Day 4
By Saturday we’d figured out a nice back way into the circuit, which brought us in away from the increasingly congested main entrance. However, as we approached on the morning of the race it seemed the gendarmes had blocked this off and we approached a typically humourless officer, who explained to us (we thought) in French that we needed a different colour parking sticking to enter this way. For a second the thought occurred, why not just go for broke, dump the clutch and steam our way past the road block? “Better not,” mused Steve, “he’s got a gun.”

We reached the track just in time for the start of the historic race. This was a slightly mixed affair, with some of the racers treating us to a fantastic display of four-wheel drifts with a classic soundtrack, while some pottered around at a more sedate rate. Given many of the cars were worth more than my house the latter is probably sensible. It’s just not quite as fun though.

About an hour before the start of the main race we pitched up at the Peugeot hospitality unit overlooking the pits and secured a spot by the window. As 3pm approached the cars went off behind the safety car for the formation lap, and then silence. The procedure may have changed, but you could feel a tangible link to the famous start sequence in the Steve McQueen film. The grandstands went quiet and the crowd’s collective pulse began to rise, faster and faster. Then came the noise. The combination of cheering fans and angry racing cars reached a crescendo as Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo dropped the flag, and Le Mans 2009 was go.

The beginning of the race was eventful to say the least, with GT1 Lamborghini retiring after two (although it has since been suggested the remarkably relaxed team were in fact there to boost its resale value and had no intention of going any further). Two of the Audis went for off-track excursions during the first couple of hours and, not to be outdone, a pair of Peugeots T-boned each other during the first round of pitstops.

As the race progressed a beautiful sunset lit the sky with a rich purple glow that provided ideal photo conditions. I headed up to the Dunlop Bridge to take a few shots and, on my return, came across one of the stricken Audis under a tarpaulin. The car was completely covered and unidentifiable barring the branding on the dust cover and the fact it was boarding an Audi transporter, so there seemed no harm in recording the moment.

The marshals, it seemed, did not agree and all hell broke loose. One of them charged at me furiously yelling something in French. Quite why – given I was yards away from a see-through fence behind which were 300,000 spectators armed with camera phones – I’m not sure, but the ranting Gallic lunatic then tried to physically grab my camera. Holding it at arms length and fiercely protesting my innocence I retreated to the gate frantically gesturing towards my press pass and photographer’s bib. I later found out there’s a gentleman’s agreement between the French photographers and the organisers not to take photos of broken cars, even when the interesting bits are safely covered and it’s in full view of the public. Now how did I not work that out in the first place? Still it’s not every day you get physically assaulted by a moronic jobsworth in a dayglo orange vest.

Day 5

As we came back to the circuit on Sunday morning the drone of race engines reverberated around the grandstands. The field was quite well separated by sunrise and the sound of the individual cars going past took on a rather more sombre note than the cacophony of the early stages. As ever the diesels provided one end of the spectrum with an eerie whoosh – more wind noise than revs – while the GT1 Corvettes provided a dramatic counterpoint with their old school V8 bellow and sheets of flame on overrun.

The race had settled into a rhythm, with the leading Peugeots first and second, Audi in third and the Gulf-liveried Lola Aston Martin of Thomas Enge and friends in fourth. I headed out to work exchanging magazines for interviews, until about an hour before the end, when we all converged on the Peugeot hospitality area once more.

With ten minutes to go the lead car appeared to slow down. Confusion reigned around the cheeseboard – did he have a problem? Far from it actually; it seems Peugeot had slowed the car down as part of a carefully orchestrated photo-finish. Confidence was evidently high in the team, and so it seemed at the bar, as the waiter lined up a row of glasses and filled each to the brim with champagne. Sure enough, three and a half minutes later there was a deafening roar from the elated home-crowd as the 908s swept past the grandstands to take the chequered flag. Inside the mood was similarly ecstatic as the drivers’ families watched the car cross the line, and we stayed to soak up the atmosphere, not to mention what remained of the Lanson.

After braving the pitlane crowds for the podium celebrations, we went for a walk around the site. It was quite strange how quickly the event died down – before long the grandstands were thinning and the seats on the iconic Ferris wheel were being taken down. However, it turned out the party was about to begin.

The Peugeot team’s after race celebrations began quite sedately, with a rather corporate presentation to the winning drivers and a succession of somewhat restrained speeches. Then something we didn’t expect happened – the Germans turned up. Audi walked over to congratulate their adversaries in what could have been rather hollow move, but instead turned out to be a deeply sporting gesture. They received a standing ovation from the victorious French team as they walked up the stairs to the main part of the suite, and there was a feeling that the pre-race mud slinging between the two companies had well and truly been left behind.

From that point the music rapidly got louder and livelier, the corks started to pop and atmosphere became electric. Along the top of the bar an assortment of Le Mans winners, mostly past or present Formula One drivers, in various states of undress were spraying the crowd with champagne. Beneath them Audi motorsport supremo Dr Wolfgang Ullrich and drivers like Allan McNish were taking to the dance floor. And so, as the evening unfolded, Sunday night at Le Mans morphed progressively into Friday night at Austin Powers’ pad.

Many hours later, as the crowds finally began to thin we emerged. Steve and the others had consumed several bottles of champagne by this point but, as designated driver, I was alarmingly sober. This did, however, have an upside. It meant when the urge to drive round the recently re-opened road sections of the course hit us at about 2am we were perfectly positioned to respond. Sat-nav armed with the start of the D338, we set out and picked up the circuit at Tertre Rouge.

Even the Focus proved a pretty special place to be as we accelerated down the start of the Mulsanne Straight. Rapidly the wind noise took over from the hopelessly un-Porsche-917 engine note and we cruised past the first and second chicanes (cordoned off now the race had finished) and on to the roundabout that forms Mulsanne Corner. Back on the gas, we followed the road as it kinked to the right, flanked by Armco to the sides and bordered above by a Shell advertising banner.

Next Indianapolis Corner appeared in the dim light of the Ford’s headlights and we swept to the right, clipping the rumble strip on our side of the road, before braking hard into the left hander that follows. Off the brakes, I turned into the corner with Focus’ tyres complaining bitterly and its inhabitants grinning like imbeciles. “Curb on the left, curb on the right, second gear, third gear, fourth gear” recited Steve doing his best Allan McNish impersonation as a slight lift brought the Focus’ wayward nose back into line. Next, the road reached a junction where we took a square right to follow the circuit around Arnage Corner. A short distance further up the road the track veered off to the right in what becomes the Porsche Curve. Alas a pair of substantial looking barriers forced us to continue along the road towards Arnage instead, and with that our trip around (part of) the Le Mans circuit came to a close. But the night was young and gendarmes appeared to have gone home, so instead we elected to turn round and do the whole thing again. Twice... Well, it would have been rude not to.

Day 6
Monday morning began early as I took Steve to the train station in Le Mans for the 7:30 train. As with the rest of the week it was something that could have been a chore, but turned out to be anything but. The whole event had been fantastic and, along with the rest of the Race Tech team, Steve’s knowledge and humour had made it far more than the corporate business trip it could have been.

After dropping him off I headed for the channel, with the roads once again deserted as the remaining fans slept off their hangovers. The gendarmes, however, were up and out, but thankfully still not in the sort of force I’d expected. I managed to spot a couple of lightly camouflaged speed traps on the latter stretch of the A16 heading in towards Calais and boarded the Eurotunnel unscathed. Emerging on the other side, and for perhaps the first time ever, I felt rather glad to be on roads with UK speed enforcement and not their altogether sneakier continental cousins. And, with that, my first Le Mans week drew to a close. It had been a fantastic introduction to the race and one which cemented many lasting memories. What’s more it was a rite of passage; next year I won’t be approaching the event as a Le Mans virgin.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Struck down

Do you remember swine flu? Last month it was destined to kill the entire population of Britain within the week. We were told the streets would be thick with the stench of rotting corpses once the plague pits had filled up and the quick lime had run out. So where is it? Well... No idea, but I think I might have found another ailment previously unknown to science.

I’m sat here sweating profusely; muscles tensed and brow furrowed. Upon examination I would be found tearing my hair out in perpetual anguish and ranting feverishly (arguably not for the first time) with same questions re-occurring: Rover or Vauxhall power? Superlight or Roadsport? Do I really need a limited slip diff?

The cause of these symptoms is, it appears, not strictly physical, but rather a psychological condition soon to be known as manic car buying disorder. You may laugh, but it’s all proving to be a rather stressful experience. There are so many options to consider and every one of them seems to be worth paying a little extra for until you eventually end up having to place all non-essential organs up for sale to fund the purchase.

Specifically speaking, I’ve decided to concentrate on Caterhams. Ideally I’d like to get an early noughties Superlight, with parts like a limited slip differential, close ratio gearbox and bigger brakes already fitted. The problem is that sort of spec falls right at the top end of my budget, and at £15,000 for a ten year old car that’s starting to become quite serious money for a junior hack.

The other option is to find a standard Roadsport model that’s been modified. This is proving surprisingly difficult to do, with the only real candidates being ex-race cars. One in particular has caught my eye, but that’s in Scotland – about as far away from my London home as it’s physcially possible to get in the UK. The car appears to be excellent value for money, being virtually Superlight spec mechanically, but for 50% less. The downside, however, is that it sports what could politely be described as the lived in look, following four seasons of hard racing.

The other side of the dilemma is an apparently excellent factory Superlight for sale in Essex. It doesn’t require any tidying, unlike the Scottish car, and the spec is higher still, but it’s three times the price of any car I’ve ever bought. I’ve got the money – just – but should a wheel fall off on the way home I’d be walking the rest of the way as I have literally no more cash. Each car is worth the money in its own way, but it’s a question of balancing the time, effort and risk inherent to each. Hmm.

So, until that point, the sweat continues to seep down my increasingly wrinkled forehead. Which should I go for? I honestly don’t know.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

2009 Brabus Tesla Roadster Pictures

2009 Brabus Tesla Roadster2009 Brabus Tesla Roadster

2009 Brabus Tesla Roadster2009 Brabus Tesla Roadster

2009 Brabus Tesla Roadster2009 Brabus Tesla Roadster

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thursday, June 11, 2009

2010 BMW 320d EfficientDynamics Edition Best Picture

2010 BMW 320d EfficientDynamics Edition2010 BMW 320d EfficientDynamics Edition

2010 BMW 320d EfficientDynamics Edition2010 BMW 320d EfficientDynamics Edition

2010 BMW 320d EfficientDynamics Edition2010 BMW 320d EfficientDynamics Edition

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

2009 Bentley Arnage Final Series Best Classsic Car

2009 Bentley Arnage Final Series Best Classsic Car2009 Bentley Arnage Final Series Best Classsic Car

2009 Bentley Arnage Final Series Best Classsic Car2009 Bentley Arnage Final Series Best Classsic Car

2009 Bentley Arnage Final Series Best Classsic Car2009 Bentley Arnage Final Series Best Classsic Car

Sunday, June 7, 2009

2009 Premier4509 Bentley GT

2009 Premier4509 Bentley GT2009 Premier4509 Bentley GT

2009 Premier4509 Bentley GT2009 Premier4509 Bentley GT

2009 Premier4509 Bentley GT2009 Premier4509 Bentley GT

Thursday, June 4, 2009

2009 Aston Martin LMP1 Picture

2009 Aston Martin LMP12009 Aston Martin LMP1

2009 Aston Martin LMP12009 Aston Martin LMP1

2009 Aston Martin LMP12009 Aston Martin LMP1

Broken up

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to update the blog and it’s been a period of turmoil. Break ups can be hard and this one was no exception. Indeed it followed a fairly standard emotional rollercoaster; first came the realisation that it was time to move on, then the deed itself, followed by a period of deep regret and eventually a rebound period where I just wanted to get inside anything new. So that’s my story for the past week. What about my girlfriend you may ask? She’s fine – to be honest she never understood why I was so obsessed with the car in the first place.

Alas, it’s true, the TVR is gone. I’d been toying with the idea of something more track focused for a few months and on something of an impulse I put K7 VRS for sale last Saturday. What followed was quite unexpected. I’d got so attached to the car that I was half hoping I wouldn’t get any serious offers and this would prompt me to reconsider the idea. Instead, three hours after the ad went on Pistonheads I received a call and less than 24 hours after that it was gone.

Gone. Bugger. What am I going to do now? I hadn’t really expected it to be quite that smooth. I do bitterly miss the car, especially now the long sunny evenings are upon us. Every time the urge catches me to go for a quick blast down round the local B-roads the depressing reality hits home. However, it’s all done for a reason. My garage now has the capacity sufficient to accept its new occupant, as does my bank balance. Project ‘find a track car’ is go!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

2009 Alfa MiTo GTA Concept

2009 Alfa MiTo GTA Concept2009 Alfa MiTo GTA Concept

2009 Alfa MiTo GTA Concept2009 Alfa MiTo GTA Concept

2009 Alfa MiTo GTA Concept2009 Alfa MiTo GTA Concept