Tuesday, June 30, 2009

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.

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