Sarthe Vaders: Experiencing It All at Le Mans 2010

Sports Car Insider is pleased to welcome two new contibutors to our pages, Stephen Errity and Ed Fahey. Steve (with words) and Ed (with pictures) pursue motorsports on the other side of the pond and have joined SCi to share timely commentary and photos from Europe. We thought we’d kick off their tour of duty with a day-by-day journal of their 2010 adventure at Le Mans. ~ JT

Sarthe Vaders: Experiencing It All at Le Mans 2010

Photos by Ed Fahey and Stephen ErrityThe roadtrip to Le Mans — it’s one of those petrolhead ‘bucket list’ items, along with things like a lap of the Nurburgring, a coast-to-coast US run and a trip to the Monaco Grand Prix or the Indy 500. Mine was more by necessity than by choice, though, as the high cost of car rental in France meant taking my own car there via ferry worked out just as cheap as flying and renting. And any opportunity to avoid the hell that is the 21st-century airport check-in procedure has to be seized with both hands.

TUESDAY: The trip down from the seaport of Cherbourg afforded me the opportunity to tick another item off life’s long to-do list and visit some of the D-Day beaches. As I had to be in the train station in AlenÁon by the early evening to pick up my travelling companion, these were necessarily flying visits, but my time at the Utah Beach museum did coincide with the visit of a US veteran who had come ashore there in 1944, so I was treated to an impromptu, vivid retelling of his ordeal against the backdrop of where it all happened ñ not something I’ll be forgetting in a hurry. There was also just time for a stop at the medieval enclave of Bayeux, home to the world-famous, eponymous tapestry that was created in the 11th century as a means of telling the story of the Norman conquest of England to the illiterate masses.

After a brief back-and-forth to view the remains of the Mulberry harbours in Arromanches, it was time to press on south to the base for the weekend. It’s well known that the true Le Mans hardcore usually have the following year’s trip booked even before the gendarmes have re-opened the Mulsanne straight after the race, but in these uncertain times, such forward planning was not an option for us, so we found ourselves staying in the desolate industrial outskirts of AlenÁon, which is about 40 minutes north of Le Mans, in the hotel equivalent of a Lotus 7 — everything you need (just) and nothing you don’t. Not to worry, we wouldn’t be spending much time there, with plenty of activity at the track to keep us occupied in the lead-up to the race. First stop — the museum.

WEDNESDAY: The Automobile Club de l’Ouest can boast a very impressive collection of cars to its name, stretching right back  to the origins of the automobile itself, and the first part of the museum is arranged in such a way as to take you on a tour of the development of the motor car, stretching from the late-19th to the mid-20th century. The inclusion of old fire and support vehicles from Le Mans races past is a nice touch, but amongst all the Cadillacs, Rolls Royces and Bugattis, it’s the simple, sleek elegance of Citroen’s SM and DS designs that really stand out for me. The second part of the museum is a sort of multi-level ‘starting grid’ of the great and the good of past races. Bentley, Rondeau, Pescarolo, 787B, 917, 956. Each car oozes history, heritage and memories — you’ve read the books, seen the pictures, watched the YouTube videos, and now here they are ñ silent and still, tamed and captive under the lights.

However, one beast was let out to stretch its legs on the Tuesday before the race — the #21 Gerard Larousse/Vic Elford Martini Porsche 917LH that raced in the 1971 event and was subsequently gifted to the ACO by Porsche. A couple of runs up and down the main straight, and that was it, back to join its companions in the quiet of the exhibition hall.

With the museum out of the way, it was time for the day’s first track action — a free practice session for the 24 Hours competitors. Access to the grandstands is free during the practice and qualifying days, so we set ourselves up opposite the exit of the pits to watch the very first car leave the pitlane and get proceedings underway. And of course, indulge in that one aspect of sportscar racing that cannot be conveyed through words and pictures — engine notes!

For that evening’s night qualifying, we decamped to the Dunlop Esses. I am too young to have personal memories of the former configuration of this part of the track, and as far as I know neither the old hands nor the drivers are particularly enamoured with it in its current state, but I must confess to absolutely loving this quite fast, sweeping, downhill-then-uphill, right-left-right sequence of corners that precedes Tertre Rouge. It’s a great place to truly appreciate the speed and grip of the LMP1s, particularly the works Audis and Peugeots, which seem to be binded to the track by some unseen force. Equally, it shows up who isn’t fully committed — JLOC Lamborghini, I’m looking in your direction…

THURSDAY: The second day of our odyssey saw a band of extremely heavy rain arrive at the track, so we ducked into the Dunlop grandstand just in time to avoid a thorough soaking. The afternoon’s entertainment would be provided by the good folk at Group C Racing, who have underaken the noble task of returning the World Sportscar Championship/Le Mans machines that captured the imagination of fans in the 1980s to the tracks on which they originally raced. As someone who arrived too late to appreciate these great cars in their heyday, and having already witnessed the fruits of Group C Racing’s labour at the Silverstone Classic in 2008 and 2009, I will be eternally grateful for their efforts! The torrential downpour meant they were unable to show their best hand in this particular session, however, although a handful of cars did seem to be pushing fairly hard, and there were one or two visits to the gravel trap to prove it.

After a brief spell observing proceedings at the Ford Chicane, we set out for the Indianapolis/Arnage complex for Thursday night qualifying. Leaving the boistrous surroundings of the pits, paddock and grandstands behind, we headed out into the peaceful French countryside, driving down tree-lined roads and passing through picturesque villages. We parked the car as directed in what was either a small field or a large garden — I couldn’t tell which — and walked into the forest clearing that forms the Indianapolis/Arnage spectator enclosure. The chief appeal of spectacting at these corners is that the cars are much more of an alien presence here than they are back at the start/finish straight. There, with pits, grandstands, kerbs and huge gravel traps very much in evidence, you expect to see racing cars being driven on the very limit. It is, after all, their natural habitat. Indianapolis/Arnage, however, looks just like what it is — a quiet section of French regional road. Then, far away in the forest, you hear the rising crescendo of a race engine. Harsh light sweeps through the trees and spills out onto the track. A blur of colour flashes into view, its driver frantically scrubbing off speed as he approaches the apex of Indianapolis. Once that’s cleared and the nose is pointing the right way, the taps are opened again for the very short squirt on to Arnage, where the anchors are deployed once more before negotiating this 90-degree right-hander. It’s a short, sudden and violent sequence of events and direction changes that is enhanced further at night-time by glowing brake discs and tongues of overfuel flame. The session lasts from 10pm until midnight, but I would gladly have stayed there all night.

FRIDAY: There’s a lull in track action on Friday as the drivers rest up ahead of the race, but it’s by no means a day off for everyone else, least of all the people of St Saturnin, a suburb of Le Mans that each year throws a welcome party for the thousands of vistors who are in the area for the race, and in particular the British, who are always among the largest foreign contingents. The centrepiece of this ‘Classic British Welcome’ is a car show held on the sports fields of the local school. This year’s featured marque was Chevrolet, in honour of the 50th annivesary of the Corvette’s debut at Le Mans, and current Corvette Racing programme manager Doug Fehan was the guest of honour.

While I could spend all day recounting the many gorgeous classic and contemporary cars on show outside, pehaps the most interesting thing I saw there was a collection of pupil’s drawings of racing inside the school building. It really brought home how proud this place is of its race and how every member of the community comes to share in the excitement — I’ve no doubt the same can be said for other ‘capitals of racing’ around the world such as Indianapolis. Back home, I’m accustomed to racing being a barely tolerated nuisance that is generally met with indifference by the wider public and often comes under threat from noise complaints, so it was encouraging to see that Le Mans continues to wholeheartedly embrace its own very special race.

SATURDAY: And so we arrive at race day. We rise earlier than we have done on any of the days thus far, which seems absurd given that we plan on not sleeping that night, but there are support races to be watched and traffic jams to be beaten. Indeed, later in the day we observe, with a certain degree of satisfaction, total gridlock on the road that we had driven into the circuit on several hours earlier. In the hours leading up to the race, there is no doubt that the pitlane is the place to be. Some of the smaller teams are frantically working on their cars or practising driver changes, but in the corporate cocoons of the Audi and Peugeot garages, all is serene as the famous pitlane clock counts down the minutes and seconds to 3pm. When the time comes to wheel the cars out onto the grid, the pitlane is positively heaving with people, and the progress of some cars through the sea of bodies can be very slow, but this is all part of the unique atmosphere. Grand Prix racing, after all, does not let its fans anywhere near this close to its cars and drivers in the final hours before the race start. Close by me in the crowd, drivers Emanuele Pirro and Warren Hughes are just two more bodies in the throng, trying to get to where they need to be.

In our case, where we need to be is somewhere decent to watch the race start, and lingering in the pits to soak up the pre-race atmosphere has meant that the terraces opposite the start-finish straight are now full to capacity, so we quickly make our way to the Porsche Curves enclosure. This, too, is pretty full, mostly with several coachloads of Danish fans all wearing the same design of baseball cap, but there are two very vocal French Peugeot enthusiasts down at the fence who lead the cheers when the polesitting #3 car leads the field around on the formation lap and again at full race speed on lap one. The race is barely 10 minutes old when the first drama occurs — 1992 F1 champion Nigel Mansell crashes the car he was to share with his two sons after suffering a slow puncture and a blowout at very high speed. It may only be young, but already this race means business.

We spend the rest of the afternoon at the Esses, Tertre Rouge, and the bar that overlooks the pitlane and start-finish straight. Viewed from ground level, this place has the look of an exclusive VIP area, but when you get up there, you find that all you actually need to get one of the best views in the house is a strong pair of elbows and a dim view of the attempts of some German fans to construct their own ‘VIP’ area by re-arranging the seating.

Dusk approaches, and with it comes the certainty that you are not at any regular motor race. This is normally the time when things finish up and everyone heads home, but at Le Mans, we’re only a quarter of the way in and there’s no looking back. After watching the sun set from the aformentioned panoramic bar, there’s only one place we want to be when it gets properly dark — Les Hunaudieres. Inspired by YouTube videos of cars going properly flat out down the iconic straight, with not a hint of lifting off either as they approach or head away, we get into the car and once again leave the confines of the ‘stadium section’ of the track.

Now, public viewing on the Mulsanne straight, as the Brits call it, is, of course, strictly prohibited, but there are those who are willing to risk an ill-advised confrontation with the gendarmes for the thrill of just a few minutes next to the barrier with the cars screaming past. Such foolish behaviour is patently uncessary, though, thanks to a little gem of an establishment called the Hotel Arbor. Like all truly worthwhile destinations, finding it is not especially easy, but thanks to the guidance of a stern but polite female gendarme, we eventually make it. For one day a year, the manager of this modest hostelry becomes the gatekeeper to what, if more people knew about it, would surely be the most popular spot on the entire Circuit de la Sarthe. For the time being, though, it remains something of an insider secret. The car park of the hotel is located right next to the straight, just after the second chicane, and to get in all you have to do is pay the enterprising manager the sum of 10 euro. The armco stands about 20 feet in front of us, and beyond the that, the cars are pounding down the straight at full chat, their presence made all the more arresting by the fact that it is by now absolutely pitch dark. We resolve to stay here for a while ñ this is the stuff memories are made of.

SUNDAY: In the early hours of the morning, the tiredeness really begins to set in, but you convince yourself that if you can just make it to first light, everything will be okay. As we were in the vicinity of the Mulsanne corner spectator enclosure, we decided that we be our next stop, and the place where we would welcome the dawn. There’s actually a decent bit of straight to see there as well as the corner, and this, combined with the presence of a big screen and our general state of tiredenss, meant that we stayed for a good few hours. With the arrival of daytime proper, it was time to head back to the main spectator areas. At approximately 8am, the crowds were a good bit thinner than the previous day, but they had left plenty of physical evidence behind in the form of mountains of drinking containers discarded as far as the eye could see. One fan, whose T-shirt proudly proclaimed him to be a member of the ‘Drinking for Holland’ crew, had seen far, far better days, but even in his barely conscious, staggering state he was able to raise his hands in a shaky salute to each car that flashed by. And there were noticeably less of them than there had been when the sun set, as this was turning into a race of heavier-than-normal attrition.

The most significant retirement, of course, was the leading #2 Peugeot, which had succumbed to engine failure at around 7am. Over the next few hours, as the sun rose higher and got brighter and hotter, Peugeot’s fortunes dimmed and flickered away to nothing, as first the #1 car’s engine gave up the ghost with just two hours to go, and, finally, the privateer Oreca 908 succumbed to a similar cruel fate, leaving team boss Hugues de Chaunac looking like he had lost a child. Audi’s strong but measured application of pressure had come good. Having remained within a lap or two of the Peugeots for the majority of the race, they were now able to serenely cruise across the line in the 1-2-3 formation that is favoured by every car manufacturers’ marketing department, leaving the stragglers in their wake. We witnessed it all under the baking heat of the June sun on the terraces opposite the finish line, now utterly and comprehensively exhausted but happy in the knowledge that yes, we had made it, and whatever else we got up to in our lives from this point on, we had over the past week managed to put a large tick in the box marked ‘experience the Le Mans 24 Hours — ALL of it.’

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