Every year the trip to the famed Le Mans 24-Hour race in France holds a special place in our hearts. This year we decided to do it differently, and to mix it with the campers! It was a great way of taking in the atmosphere from the spectators’ point of view who were there for a good time and to see their team/driver win! All the national flags were out, music was blaring, beer and alcohol were flowing freely and nightly discussions were held with great passion. No thought was given to the dirty showers and toilets, and the dust and heat one had to contend with on the long walk to the track.
And so to race day…the Carrera Cup race finished at noon and although the official starting procedure for the main race only began at 14h22, activities on the ground began to focus towards the main event. During this time, the atmosphere begins to ramp up as the teams bring their cars out into the pit lane, a few engines are fired up as last minute checks are carried out, and the cars are then rolled out onto the track. The grid walk ensues during which time the photographers grow very sharp elbows as they jostle to get those all-important shots of drivers wishing each other well, team managers talking to their crew, and the lovely grid girls strutting their stuff.
And as the 24-Hour trophy arrives, a group of sky-divers entertain the crowd by landing on the grid. The cars are then flagged away one at a time, to do a warm-up lap after which they form up on the grid in their positions and at around 14h55 they depart for the last lap behind the pace car, before about 30,000 bhp is unleashed as they round the final bend and the lights turn green. For the next twenty-four hours it will be non-stop action, drama and ultimately joy for one team, as the most legendary endurance race of all unfolds before a quarter million spectators.
You can imagine what a battle must have taken place on the race track if you consider the grid line up for LMP1 on Saturday with Toyota #7 on pole, Porsche #14 in 2nd, Toyota #8 in 3rd, Porsche #20 in 4th positions, followed by Audi #3, #2, #1 in 5th, 6th and 7th positions. The pressure is unrelenting throughout the race, and it has often been referred to as a 24-hour sprint. Indeed it might seem that way, but the first 21-hours are all about position and being in contention, so driving fast and keeping your car reliable is key, but as one Le Mans veteran put it, “After lunch on Sunday, you go racing.” That is assuming that there is still a race to be run, as in past years the last hour has often turned into a one-horse race with the Audis circulating in a procession as the clock runs down to the 15h00 finish. This year Porsche were still in with a very realistic chance of a second place finish which would have been mind boggingly fantastic for the new LMP1 team, but a glitch put the #20 car in the garage resulting in a retirement for the team.
It was also a tragedy to see the #7 Toyota which had been in the lead throughout the night, to suddenly stop at 5am at Arnage corner. The car was officially retired from the race due to an electrical problem. Audi then battled it out to the end with their #2 car finishing first and the rebuilt #1 car in second place. Toyota’s #8 came third and the #12 Rebellion in fourth place, while the #14 Porsche crossed the line in eleventh spot. It just shows that in a 24h-hour race nothing is ever a foregone conclusion, anything can happen and usually does!
The #0 car, the Nissan ZEOD RC had its fair share of problems and was not seen much during practice while in the race its gearbox failed after five laps, a disappointing end to say the least.
And for those number crunchers here are a few facts from the ACO on the Le Mans 24 Hours: there were 24 000 spectators at the test day (Sunday 1st June) and for the race itself 263 300 spectators were at the circuit, 18 300 more than the previous year. 29 500 spectators attended the first day’s practice (Wednesday 11th June) and 54 000 the second day (Thursday 12th June). An official at our campsite told us that by Saturday there were 100 000 people on that campsite alone, but that was probably a bit of an ambitious estimate. 1 423 journalists (written press/radio/photographers/new media) were accredited (1 405 in 2013) and they came from 49 different countries (42 in 2013) plus 1 023 TV personnel with 104 teams of TV reporters.
Audi has announced that it has increased its Le Mans 24 Hours success rate to 81.25 percent with 13 victories in 16 events. Porsche with a tally of 16 victories remains the historic record holder (wins are spread out from 1970 onwards). And the distance travelled by the victorious #2 Audi driven by Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer amounted to 5,165.391km, the longest distance covered at any Le Mans 24-Hour race ever due to shorter safety car periods and virtually no rain to speak of. And we have to mention Audi’s mammoth effort in completely rebuilding the #1 car after Loic Duval’s catastrophic accident in practice! It is just mind-boggling to imagine that anyone could have got out of that car virtually unharmed after such a horrendous crash, but thanks to God that he is well. This says a lot about Audi’s philosophy of Vorsprung durch Technik.
This year we were blessed with excellent weather almost right from the start, with crisp nights and clear days…except for a couple of sharp downpours on race day about an hour or so into the action. There is quite literally nothing like the Le Mans 24-Hour spectacle for action, atmosphere, entertainment and of course racing and year after year it never fails to impress one how well the whole show is organised. Of course there are the odd hiccups here and there, one would expect that with an event of this magnitude, but from the security personnel (very pleasant, and quite different from the troops operating at Silverstone!) to the infrastructure, the well-run media centre – the whole event runs like clockwork, but I suppose they have had enough experience.
The results aside, the 82nd running of this legendary race kept most spectators on the edge of their seats as Toyota took the fight to Audi, and with the Porsches in the mix too, it was great racing. Next year we expect Nissan to enter the LMP1 fray which, with four manufacturers in the top category, will be a race to remember.
Just like this year, the next Le Mans 24-Hour race will be held during the 24th week of the year. It’s the seventh time in 92 years that the Le Mans 24 Hours will be run on 13/14 June, and the test day will take place on Sunday, 31st May, two weeks before the race. Scrutineering and administrative checks will be on Sunday and Monday 6th and 7th June 2015, very probably at the Place de la République in the centre of Le Mans. So, the same procedure as every year…
For this race though, it will be remembered for close battles all the way down the field and for the fantastic memories of the whole spectacle. Roll on 2015…au revoir for now, see my French is not so bad…now where did I put those baguettes again…
Written by Glen and Elke Smale