The number 2 Audi e-tron Quattro of Tom Kristensen, Alan McNish and Loic Duval has won the 90th running of the Le Mans 24 Hour, delivering Audi’s 12th and Kristensen’s 9th victory at the Circuit des 24 Heures in France’s Sarthe region.
Audi were always the favorite to win, however the challenge from Toyota was unexpectedly tough, enough to earn the Japanese manufacturer a place on the podium with the number 8 car of Anthony Davidson, Stephane Sarrazin and Sebastian Buemi splitting the Audi’s to take second place.
Audi claimed the final podium position, with the number 3 car of Marc Gene, Oliver Jarvis and Lucas di Grassi claiming third place. The Audi’s clearly had more speed than the Toyota’s, but it was thought that the Japanese car would require less pit stops, thus evening out the field. That was true to some extent, however in the end Toyota competed mostly on speed, delivering lap times that surprised. Toyota would have claimed third place as well were it not for a wet weather accident late in the race that enabled the Audi past while the damaged Toyota was being repaired in the pits.
Any Given Reason was extremely lucky to be able to attend this year’s Le Mans in person. It has been a dream of mine for many years to attend the 24h, and 2013 was the year it finally happened. An in-depth race report is difficult because when you’re at the track you don’t actually have a great idea of what’s going on – you guys at home knew more about the race than I did. In addition, taking decent photos was difficult because I had no media access and was stuck behind the fencing, so instead this report will simply detail spectating at Le Mans – an endurance challenge in itself.
The 24hr circuit itself is a mix of closed course and public road. The start/finish and pit complex and the run down to Tertre Rouge is a closed course, which loops back around to the final corner as an international circuit at other times of the year. But during the 24hr, from Tertre Rouge the circuit runs on the public road, route D388; a flat out run around the neighboring towns, before joining back onto the closed track at the Porsche curves.
Everyone knows that Le Mans is a public road, but what you don’t see on TV is that shops, houses and businesses line most of the famous straights. Big malls, lumber yards and department stores are just 50m the other side of the Armco. From Wednesday to Friday there’s no on-track action before 4pm, because closing the track effectively shuts down three medium sized towns.
The upshot is that everyday you have plenty of time to drive the track, of which about 2/3 is open to the public. This here is Indianapolis, which was strangely free of police every time I visited. In fact, there were no speed cameras or police to be seen anywhere on the circuit. The closest comparison in Australia is Bathurst, which is positively crawling in police even outside of race week.
With plenty of free time during the day I decided to head into Le Mans. The city itself is just another large French city, nothing special, but the old quarter is something else. There are buildings here dating to the 1500’s.
There is practice and qualifying on Wednesday and Thursday evenings until midnight, and no on-track action on Friday. The annual Friday pit walk is popular, and from 9-6 the pit lane is open to the hundreds of thousands of fans who are keen to get an up-close glimpse at an area usually under lockdown.
The driver’s parade is held on Friday afternoon in the old part of the Le Mans town. I’d heard horror stories of how busy it was and needing to get there four hours early just to see anything, so I decided instead to stay and watch the Mad Friday festivities right outside my campsite. The off track action at Le Mans is deserving of a post of its own so I won’t give too much away now, however security, the police, the police helicopter and 20 vans of riot police were needed to shut this down. It was quite the afternoon.
With the race not starting until 3pm, I intentionally (yes… they’ll believe that) had a rather late night on Friday night, and woke on Saturday just in time to see the parade of Aston Martin’s, celebrating their 100th anniversary.
By about 2pm the pre-race festivities were well underway. Each drivers country is represented, and their flag walked to the centre of the circle as the national anthem is played. I’m not usually an overly patriotic person, but I did feel a great deal of Aussie pride when our national anthem was played to the French crowds. There were a few others joining me in my cheers at the end, and I was happy knowing I wasn’t the only other Aussie in attendance.
Just before the clock strikes 3, the cars leave on their formation lap, timed so that the rolling start begins promptly at 3.
And they’re away! The race initially panned out to be more of a sprint race, with several daring overtaking moves and some hard out racing. A few laps in, Toyota had taken the lead from Audi. It was thrilling to be a part of such a huge, enthusiastic crowd, watching such close racing.
The good racing wasn’t to last long, and just 4 laps in an accident had occurred and the safety car was called out. Nobody really had any idea what had happened – there was a blanket put on the circuit video vision, which in hindsight was a sign, and Radio Le Mans incorrectly reported that there had been a bad accident at the VLN race at the Nurburgring. Hearing that the catch fence was badly damaged, I went for a walk.
Nissan currently powers a fair percentage of the LMP2 cars on the grid, and they were displaying their prototype challenger for 2014. An evolution of Ben Bowlby’s Deltawing from last year, Nissan/Nismo with Bowlby at the helm are re-working the concept with electric/hybrid power, with the aim of breaking 300km/h under pure electric power.
Whilst in 2013 they were still racing the older C6R model, Chevrolet had the new C7 Stingray on display. It looks great in person, and whilst not quite as refined as its European competitors, it’s an American muscle car, so it doesn’t need to be.
Across the path Chrysler had the new Viper on show, both in road and GT3 race specification. Am I alone in saying that there’s more than a hint of Ferrari 599 and Maserati Gransport in this car? That’s not a bad thing, though.
There were also a lot of fascinating trade stalls, the most impressive being this new type of paint which peels off when you want a different colour, not leaving a trace. Peeling it was strangely satisfying, quite similar to sunburnt skin. Wheels are its obvious application, but they also had an entire car painted with it.
Model cars ultimately proved the biggest temptation, and there were lots of stalls selling every imaginable type. A 1/43 model of Dad’s Alfa Sprint was nearly purchased, but in the end I passed it up because you can almost buy a real one for $115 these days.
Saturday 5.00pm, campsite
I had grand dreams of staying awake for the full 24 hours, but I soon realized that these days that simply wasn’t going to happen. Seeing the full night was a mandatory, so I had a 3-hour disco nap to keep me going.
Saturday 8.00pm, tent
A quick check of Facebook when I woke revealed shocking news – Allan Simonsen had died in the accident earlier on in his Prodrive Aston Martin V8 Vantage. This is such a loss, because Allan is well known as an honorary Australian and he was my favorite driver in the field. I met Allan during Classic Adelaide 2009 at the start of the Paris Creek stage, and he was such a lovely, relaxed guy to talk to. And talented behind the wheel – his avoidance of being taken out during the Friday night GT race at the 2012 Clipsal 500 showed incredible spatial awareness, and his ability to jump into a V8 Supercar with little experience and finish third at Bathurst in 2011 with Greg Murphy further highlighted his talents. He had forged a career travelling the world racing GT cars, and almost every GT race around the world featured his name on the entry list.
I visited Prodrive just a few weeks ago and I saw first hand what a close-knit team that is. His death will be felt greatly there, just as it will around the world.
Nighttime at Le Mans is best experienced away from the main complex. Surprisingly, the entire track isn’t open to spectators. Access is restricted to the closed course section from the Porsche curves, through the pit complex to Tertre Rouge, and a viewing area each at the towns of Arnage and Mulsanne. It is theoretically possible to hike through the forest and find a spot right on the track, but security and the Gendarmerie are pretty hot on stopping people. On Thursday morning with the roads open I spent 3 hours finding a route through the forest to the Mulsanne straight, but on Saturday night when I attempted to try it I got literally five meters into a 4km hike before I was stopped. So much for the cover of darkness.
Spectating at Le Mans is a lot like spectating at a stage rally – everyone moves between the spectator points. The roads surrounding the circuit are in constant traffic jam, and it was here that the little Vespa made up for her poor performance earlier on. I zipped through the traffic with no delay, passing 458’s and Murcielago’s like there was no tomorrow.
The night racing seemed even fiercer than during the daytime, and brake rotors glowed bright orange as they slowed the racers. Each car has three large LED lights on the side which display the current position in class – first, second or third. This Toyota was running third in LMP1 when the photo was taken.
With midnight passed it was getting mighty cold, yet still the crowd kept their vigil to speed.
The speed difference between the top LMP1 cars and the GT cars is huge, and it seems even moreso at night. The Audi’s and Toyota’s have the speed of Formula 1 cars, and the diesel Audi’s whoosh by with an evil hiss. Not a nice sound, but a damned impressive one. It’s a huge challenge for the LMP1 drivers to constantly thread their way through the traffic without clipping anyone – picture the speed of the top Australian GT cars at, say, the Clipsal 500. The LMP1 guys look to be going at least 50% faster again, particularly through the corners.
It’s 2am and I’m standing on the Mulsanne straight watching the Le Mans 24hr. This was exactly what I dreamed of. It’s something you just have to do at least once. It’s very cold, and being in the middle of the forest, it’s very dark. If you go far enough down the end of the spectator point you can’t see your hand in front of your face, the only light coming from the cars as they illuminate a path through the trees. There is minimal circuit lighting on the big corners, and the straights lie in complete darkness.
A lot of the circuit has changed since the glory days of the 60’s and 70’s – the corners are safer, the runoff’s bigger. But these straights, they’re exactly as they were when McQueen raced here. Resurfaced maybe, but they’re still narrow, bumpy and dark. I peered down the straight into darkness, and it would take big balls to keep a car flat at 300+ km/h in the middle of the night down here over those crests.
The casual onlookers are long gone, it’s just the diehards out now.
It’s an odd sensation when I head back to the main area around turns 1 and 2 in the wee hours of the morning. On the track, the most important race in the world is unfolding and there is almost nobody watching it.
Ah yep, that makes perfect sense. The track is empty, but the bars are absolutely pumping. Top level DJ’s spin tracks and people rip it up on the dance floor, and then stagger about the place outside. I must admit I don’t really understand these people – you can go and party any night of the week, so why would you do it when Le Mans is happening just outside?
The rain comes in, so now it’s cold and wet. But most of the cars are caught on slicks, and watching them deal with the wet track is reward enough to fend of the drowziness. It’s now that the race comes alive. The goal for everyone is to just get through the night, and daylight is in near.
The pit straight grandstands are expensive during the day, but they don’t both guarding them at night so I head over and grab a seat in the dry. It’s fascinating watching the early morning stops. For these guys this is the centre of their world right now, but everyone else is still asleep.
Daybreak. We made it through the night.
Daybreak is one of the most fascinating times to be at Le Mans, and it’s a pity most miss it, for two reasons. The first is the fans – it’s a mixing of cultures and attitudes unlike anything I’ve seen before. At 7am the party animals are being chucked out of the bars and are stumbling around the place trying to figure out their way home. They are met by hardened race fans, fresh from a good night’s sleep, on their way to their favorite spot for a full day’s racing. Both are as different as each other.
The second is for the racing. Daybreak is known as the golden hour – the cars are run in, the drivers are in the groove, the air is cool yet the track is warm. At Le Mans, fastest laps are almost always set at daybreak and the cars are visibly faster now than at any other time. It’s rare that you’re genuinely left speechless watching motor racing, but spectating during the golden hour from Tertre Rouge is a memory that will last a long time. Its reputation as one of the world’s great corners is deserved.
Doesn’t it just suck when you’re trying to sleep it off and there’s a bloody Le Mans race keeping you awake? I felt for this poor guy. I was cold standing there, let alone trying to sleep on the ground.
It eventually got to the stage where I needed some rest, so at 8am I headed back for a nap and to cook some pasta for breakfast. Here’s a travel tip – if you go to Le Mans, take cooking equipment and your own food. Circuit food is both hideously expensive and not that good, and whilst a day or two of it is okay, a week is not. For a proper sit down meal you’ll spend minimum $45 at the track and well over $150 if you want to, so when you’re tucking into a huge hot bowl of $3 self cooked pasta, you’ll thank me.
When you go to bed at 8am, and then wake up at 10 and eat a big meal and there’s motor racing going on in the background, it really messes with your sense of time. I camped with Speed Chills who had a tent set up with the live race feed in English we could watch while eating. As an agency to camp with, I can’t recommend Speed Chills enough – but I’ll get to that, and how to buy tickets (we’re dealing with the French, remember,) in a future post.
Sunday 1.00pm, Ferris Wheel
The Le Mans ferris wheel is an icon, so I just had to ride it. It was an interesting way to remind myself that I’m scared of heights and it rained heavily while we were right at the top…
As everyone was preparing for the finish, the weather God’s let us know that it wasn’t over yet. With 15 minutes left to run, the wind changed, the temperature dropped and the grey clouds blew over quickly as it started to rain. Do we stay out on slicks and hope not to come off? Or do we come in for wets, with only a lap or two remaining?
But the rain didn’t last, and exactly 24 hours later and in bright sunshine the number 2 Audi crosses the line to take the chequered flag first.
It’s a Le Mans tradition that after the race everybody surges to the podium, and I wanted to be a part of it. We lined up at the gates (pushed/shoved/merciless killing) and as soon as they opened, we flooded the track. It was like the fall of the Berlin wall as everybody crowded to get out.
Before the trophy presentation the ACO delivered a speech to the memory of Allan Simonsen. Or at least I thought it was, it was in French. But the reaction of the crowd seemed to indicate that it was.
Pit lane was open, but the paddock remained closely guarded. Except for one small alleyway, where the guard had disappeared. A few of us snuck in before they closed it up again, and we got to whiteness the rare behind the scenes world of the aftermath of a 24hr race. The crews looked exhausted but satisfied, and mostly just rested as they had a quiet beer. A few crews launched into pulling their garages apart and packing up.
And just like that, it’s over. After so much planning, preparation, excitement and struggle, it’s done with. A good night’s sleep. A hot shower. Back to normality. I’m extremely grateful that I’ve been fortunate enough to see Le Mans in person; it’s one of the world’s great sporting events that really needs to be witnessed first hand. But 2014? That’ll be the year to watch. The most successful marque in Le Mans history, Porsche, is returning to top flight competition with a certain Aussie leading the charge. It will be one not to miss.