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.

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