Let’s start of by explaining that this was my first 24 Hours of Le Mans race, despite having visited the legendary track on many occasions in the past. Many of the regulars I had spoken to before the race ‘warned’ me that one 24 Hours is more than enough to get addicted; Le Mans is supposedly right up there with the world’s most infamous narcotics. While my race week started off with the Thursday evening qualifying session, the teams and drivers were out in downtown Le Mans on Monday and Tuesday for the traditional scrutineering on the Place de Jacobins. The two sessions on Thursday were in fact the third and fourth as the cars had already taken to the track the evening before. The following report and 250 shot slideshow
of the proceedings should be seen as my personal account and might not meet all the standards of objective journalism; it’s all fun and games after all.
Qualifying and other pre-race madness
After two scorching hot days of scrutineering, the inevitable, but poorly timed rain came just seconds after the pit-exit light turned green for the first of four two-hour qualifying sessions. Of the cars that went out immediately only the Pierre Bruneau Pilbeam was able to complete a somewhat dry lap and was on top of the leaderboard for quite some time and remained first in class for the day. Throughout the evening the track conditions improved slightly, but with better weather expected for Thursday, many of the teams concentrated on having each driver complete the three night time laps required to qualify for the race. For what it is worth, the two Pescarolos lead the Audis into the night to the delight of the French crowd. The two Audis remained in the pits for most of the first sessions, fueling the rumours that the R10 is not yet equipped with a traction control system capable of the truckloads (literally) of torque. The drivers did not seem to suffer too much when they went out and recorded very competitive times.
With myself in attendance, the fifty cars went out again on Thursday at 7 pm under sunny and hot conditions. All of Wednesday’s times were off the sheets a few minutes into the session. At the head of the field, the fight between Audi and Pescarolo continued, with the Racing for Holland Dome, the Creation and the first of the works Courages not far back. In LMP2, the RML MG Lola continued their dominance and recorded a best in class, two seconds ahead of the similar Intersport Lola. By far the closest of the four classes was GT1; the top six was separated by less than two seconds. Her Majesty’s Secret Service in their Aston Martin Racing guise lead the way with James Bond (car # 007) just ahead of ‘009’. Their nemesis, Corvette Racing was in third and sixth, but the Americans could have just had their sights set on race pace and just let the Brits have this one. The Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari F430 GTC surprisingly did not get the fastest time in GT2 and were second instead behind the local IMSA Performance Porsche. Factory support and the new 3.8 litre engine have clearly elevated the old warrior up to a higher level once more. It was not all good news for the French pole-sitting team as driver Luca Riccitelli hit the wall at Karting, severely damaging the brightly livered car. Peter Dumbreck visibly enjoyed his return to the track he left in such dramatic, flying fashion in 1999 by recording the fastest time of the six Spyker drivers. It was good enough for sixth in class, with the sister Spyker closely behind. The Multimatic Panoz was the first Esperante in the Spyker sandwich in seventh.
Back to the battle for pole, which might not be as important as in a sprint race, but it is always good for moral to see your team beat all others. Whether or not the pole was a priority for any of the leading teams was something we might never know. After the first two hours, all seemed well for Pescarolo, but with a ‘blitz krieg’ in the opening stages of the final session the two Audis recorded times that were not to be matched in the remaining 90 minutes. Much to the delight of tens of thousands of Danish fans that traveled down to Le Mans, the yellow topped number 7 car piloted by their hero Tom Kristensen, Rinaldo Capello and Allan McNish just beat the ‘red’ Audi to claim pole. The fastest lap was recorded by Capello in 3:30.466. Pescarolo seemingly used the last session to concentrate on race setup with neither car coming close to the third session times. Best of the rest were the RfH Dome and the number 13 works Courage. The Zytek team had a troubled final two sessions when one of the conrods was ejected from the engine with considerable force. The mechanics now had to install the race engine a few hours early and completed the work with about a half hour to go. It enabled Danish driver Casper Elgard to record a commendable 3:39.252 with the new ‘06S’, which was good for ninth. With the exception of the Lister, all LMP1 cars qualified ahead of the LMP2s, which might postpone the rumoured rule changes intended to slow the second prototype class down.
Friday is a relatively quiet day, which is reserved for the pit walk and driver’s parade in downtown Le Mans. The organizing Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) also used the spare time to give their annual press conference. The most important announcement was that from 2010 onwards LMP1 will be reserved for closed cars. This move was intended to attract more major manufacturers, who were reluctant to join the sport as the current generation open cars looked very little like the road going equivalents. In the current regulations both open and closed cars are eligible for LMP1 and some of the latest cars were already designed to be easily converted. Peugeot held a press conference a day earlier where they revealed the first details of their upcoming Le Mans car, which will be dubbed ‘908 HDI’. Powered by a 100 degree diesel V12 engine, it could very well be the first closed LMP1 when it is officially unveiled at the Paris Motorshow in September.
The day was rounded off by a visit to the boys of ‘Drinking for Holland’ at the Maison Blanche Campsite to watch a football match; Holland won, so the race weekend started off at a high!
The start and the opening hours
Due to the severity of the damage suffered earlier, the IMSA Performance team was allowed to replace the pole sitting Porsche with another chassis, although they now had to start at the back of the field. The yellow Audi had a troublesome Saturday morning warm-up session and the mechanics were off to an early start of the very long day. More problems in their second car forced the team to pull it off the ceremonial pre-race grid and back into the garage for what looked like serious repairs to the rear end. The work was completed with time to spare and the red Audi was back alongside its sister car to start the pace lap behind the all new Audi TT. Yes, the Audi presence was noticeable everywhere.
Perfectly timed as always, the lead cars passed the control tower at exactly 5 pm for the traditional start of the 24 hour marathon. With obvious ease, the two Audis quickly started to build up a lead over the Pescarolos, who in turn took both pulled away from the other LMP1s. It was all in vain as four laps into the race the BMS DBR9 met up with the wall at the exit of the Porsche curves, dispensing debris all over the track. The two safety cars were called out to allow marshals to clean up after the first retirement of the race. When the cars were let loose again things started to settle with Audis leading the Pescas once again. In LMP2, the RML MG Lola was getting a hard time from the similar Chamberlain Synergy Lola and the Rollcentre Radical. Behind them the fragility of the smaller prototypes was already starting to show with a lot of cars having technical problems early on in the race. In GT1, the expected close battle between Corvette Racing and Her Majesty’s Secret Service was on with the 64 Corvette and the 009 Aston Martin changing the lead several time, with the Brits in the lead as night fell. The other two cars had their fair share of problems and looked to be out of contention for the class win. Former Alpine Ski World Champion and this year’s Rallye Dakar winner Luc Alphand and his team were in an already-distant third in class with an older Corvette. IMSA Performance newly rebuilt GT3 proved to be up to the job and within the hour, it was at the head of the class. It was followed closely by the sole Ferrari, the White Lightning Porsche and the two Spykers. Tragedy struck for the #85 Spyker just as Peter Dumbreck took over from start driver Tom Coronel. The quick Brit did not fly into the trees this time, but ground to a halt on his out lap with engine problems caused by overheating. He did manage to return to the pits, but the garage door was closed soon after. At the head of the field the first dramas occurred with the yellow Audi in the pit with injector problems and electrical problems for the #16 Pescarolo, throwing them back 6 and 14 laps respectively. Like GT1, LMP1 was now reduced to a two car race, although with a considerably bigger gap. Behind the leading two, the Racing for Holland Dome was best of the rest two laps ahead of the second Audi.
A short night followed by a very long day
Shortly after midnight, it was time for a few hours of sleep. Although it ended up being just maybe two hours as a car seat does not make for a particularly comfortable bed and those bloody noisy cars (with two exceptions of course) and fans did not help much either. After a quick peak at the standings, it was back out to the track to shoot the sun rise over the legendary Dunlop bridge. There was bad news for the many Dutch fans as Alex Yoong destroyed both steering arms in a close encounter with the Armco barriers just before sunrise. He struggled on for a few hundred yards, but eventually parked his Racing for Holland Dome ending a good run that could have given Jan Lammers’ Team a much deserved podium. Yoong claimed the throttle stuck open, but the data clearly showed the young Malaysian’s right foot malfunctioned. The Drinking for Holland guys must have woken up with an even worse hangover than after Friday night’s party as the second Spyker was added to the retirees with engine problems around 8 am; Le Mans 3 – Holland 0. At that time the #85 Spyker was running second in class. The Danish fans must have had a rough a morning as well as more problems for the yellow Audi meant that an eight victory for Tom Kristensen was ever more unlikely. Reliability problems did not only affect the smaller prototypes as at the brink of day only the leading Audi and Pescarolo were enjoying a relatively trouble-free run in LMP1. The only other solidly running prototype was the RML MG Lola with the remaining examples either out of the race or many laps behind after lengthy pit stops. All this meant that the lead GT1 cars were now up in fourth and fifth, with the works Aston ahead of the works Corvette, but only just. Competition in the GT2 class was close, but one by one the Porsches dropped out with technical or driver related problems; there was an abundance of them anyways so a Porsche win was still likely. The lead car at the break of dawn was the #83 Seikel/Farnbacher Porsche, which was added to the entry list just days before the test week after the late withdrawal of the Team Icer Brakes Ferrari. After the retirement of the Spyker, the top three was completed by the Scottish Ferrari and the Team LNT Panoz.
There was rain expected for the final hours of the race, but fortunately it held off, although a humid and very hot afternoon proceeded. As his chances of winning as an entrant waned, four-time winner Henri Pescarolo explained that the diesel-engined cars were favoured by the regulations allowing the Audis to run a lot more downforce than the petrol-powered competition and still achieve similar top speeds. On top of that, the diesel engine’s efficiency enabled the R10s to complete two more laps per stint. Fortunately for Audi all the reliability (or lack of) issues fell on one car and at 5 pm on Sunday afternoon, the red R10 scored the first ever Le Mans victory with a diesel engine. It was quite remarkable as with less than two hours to go before the start, the winning car was still in pieces in the Audi garage. As the Audis crossed the line side by side, the Radio Le Mans presenter exclaimed “Welcome to the dark side”, proving once more that the prejudices of old about diesel engines have not yet been completely removed. Four laps back, the #16 Pescarolo finished second well ahead of the second Audi. After a clean run for many hours, problems finally struck for the RML team, but they proved to be minor and with well over a dozen laps to fix it in, the back-to-back win for the strikingly livered MG Lola was never at risk. There was some real drama in the GT classes though with both the lead cars being dropped down the order with mechanical problems in the closing stages. The 009 Aston was forced to give up its demanding lead to the #64 Corvette. It was the third victory in a row for the three Corvette drivers Beretta / Gavin / Magnussen (a Danish win after all). For the first time since the GT / GT2 Class was created, the winning car was not a Porsche! In the last 90 minutes of the race all kinds of problems hit the Seikel car and the repairs necessary threw it back behind the LNT Panoz. Even a last minute ‘splash and dash’ for the Panoz was not enough to make up the time lost. It was a well deserved victory for the British privateer team and an appropriate celebration of the tenth anniversary of Panoz presence at Le Mans. A few days earlier at the ACO Press Conference, Don Panoz was awarded the “Spirit of Le Mans”, and then was there to enjoy the biggest day in Panoz history.
Looking at it rationally there is little point in driving around in circles for 24 hours at a death-defying pace, but it is just so much fun to do and watch. That’s why hundreds of thousands of fans come back every year and camp out around the track in horrible conditions and still go home feeling they can handle another year. It is also why drivers like Yojiro Terada and Jan Lammers are still going strong after nearly fifty entries between them. For a variety of reasons, the 74th 24 Hours of Le Mans will go into history as a classic. Maybe not because it was a particularly good race, but with a diesel winner, a non Porsche win and crazy (in a very good way) fans like the Drinking for Holland group, it will be talked about for many years. So did Le Mans live to its expectations for me? The simple answer is: Hell yes!