In my earlier blog (Le Mans 24H 2015) I described the build up to Le Mans. In this one, I will be looking for the spirit of Le Mans and give you an insight into the event itself. I have been to Le Mans many times before as a spectator, latterly as part of a group who have got their camping and hospitality down to a fine art with the luxuries of electricity, satellite, TV and ice makers etc. This year saw the debut of a night club standard sound system! We travelled in convoy from Nottingham to Le Mans via the Portsmouth Caen Ferry, a journey that took 24 hours door to door.
After helping the lads establish base camp, and as the party atmosphere began to grow, I made my excuses and made my way to the media centre. The plan was to leave my car on the media car park and commute on foot daily from the campsite to the circuit.
Looking out over the pit lane from the media room, I could see that it was a hive of activity with the public milling up and down watching the crews in the garages so I decided, as a gentle introduction, I would wonder down armed only with my point and shoot Fuji Xpro camera. As I meandered along the pit lane I came across the No17 Porsche team carrying out a full dress rehearsal of a driver change. I was standing on the pit apron of the neighbouring garage right next to Brendon Hartley as he prepared for the driver change. The resultant shot, which was the first of a series, is my favourite shot of the whole event.
There was a lot going on in the pit lane, I took the decision there and then that I would have to be selective with shot choice throughout the week. If not I would be overwhelmed with images and achieve nothing. I had a to satisfy a list of specific requests but beyond that, for me the shots had to convey the spirit of Le Mans. This would be a challenge because those who know my style will know that I concentrate on the detail of the cars and to bring in the surroundings would be a compromise.
Wednesday morning saw me up early and in the media room ready for my appointment with Alistair from Toyota. The rest of the day was spent writing the Toyota blog and to plan the week.
Qualifying 1 was a dusk into dark session, so time to grab some glowing brake disc shots, maybe some flaming exhausts. Mission accomplished! With a premature end to the session as a result of a red flag and armed with a long lens, I tried to get some shots of the pits from trackside and then a few shots into the Audi garage using the available light in the garage. Now I was starting to get the spirit of Le Mans, but still not sure that my images were conveying it.
Although the next track action was 16 hours away, there was image processing, tagging, uploading, meet the drivers, eating and sleeping to cram in. Oh, and commuting to and from the campsite, and this being Le Mans, the daily commute was at least 30 minutes each way. Maybe the real spirit of Le Mans is always having an eye on the clock.
When I arrived back at the campsite in the early hours of Thursday morning there was a battle of the sound systems going on and my tent was in no mans land! It looked like the lads were having a very messy night. I ducked for the cover of my tent and hoped for the best. As I left the campsite a little later on Thursday morning a few stragglers were making their way to bed and others were contributing to the dawn chorus with snoring and other less savoury noises.
Once back in the sanctuary of the media centre the workflow commenced and before I knew it I was out with our scribe snapping while he asked insightful questions of drivers and engineers in the various meet the driver sessions.
Thursday is the last day of track action before the race, so I decided that any shots that required an exit from the circuit, had to be taken today, as it would be pandemonium on the surrounding roads on race day.
For once the light was right so I headed out to Arnage to capture the Rolex bridge shot between Mulsanne and Indianapolis in the soft evening sunlight. The light was magical and as the light faded, I took a few snaps around Arnage and Indianapolis before returning to the car and driving back to the inner confines of the circuit.
Exhausted by the heat and humidity of the day and the cumulative effect of very little sleep, I chose to give qualifying 2 a miss and get some dinner and then catch up on editing the shots from the Arnage trip.
Shortly after returning to my tent in the early hours of Friday morning the area was hit by an impressive thunderstorm which thankfully put paid to the loud music and revelry of the, now full, campsite. Although I was told the storm went on for some hours, I managed to catch up on some much needed sleep, waking to a scene of canvas carnage all around. Fortunately our tents had survived in tact.
I had decided that, to have any chance of getting through the race, I had to make some sacrifices in the events that I covered. So I resolved to have the day off and give the Drivers’ Parade a miss this year. The torrential rain, which began to fall, again during the late morning certainly put the dampers on any retail therapy, so I made for the Audi Hospitality for a coffee and a chat with the guys before returning to the media room to finish off my editing as I was determined to hit the race with a clean sheet.
The weather got worse during Friday and I decided to brave the weather and go to the launch of the 2016 Ford GT car. I think every other media person had the same idea, catching Ford off guard, resulting in a lack lustre and overcrowded launch event. It must be a sign of the times, no press pack, just a little card with a QR code and web address. Personally I think Ford missed the spot!
As I walked back to the shelter of the media room I saw the Toyota drivers gathering in Toyota’s hospitality like excited kids waiting to go on a school trip. They were waiting for the mini bus to take them to the Driver’s Parade.
As dawn broke on Saturday morning I was awakened at about 5.00 am by the sound of a helicopter circling overhead. Living in the outskirts of Nottingham I am used to police helicopters overhead in the middle of the night, but this wasn’t Nottingham. I guessed it was the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure scanning the area for ne’re do wells and scallywags in advance of the Presidential visit later that morning. I just wished they could have been more secret and not woken me so early!
We had been advised that due to the Presidential visit security on Saturday would be tight and the media centre would open earlier so that we could get in early and avoid delays. So when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep I said au revoir to my bed knowing I was unlikely to see it again for at least another 40 hours.
Warm up for the race was the first item on the agenda so a few shots were quickly in the bag and while I was processing them a level of anticipation and excitement was evident in the media room, “the President was on his way”. The ACO were very proud to entertain François Hollande during the build up to the start of the race. I decided not to join the media crush and continued editing the warm-up shots.
As always time passed very quickly and I found myself rushing to get trackside for the grid assembly. Access to the grid was restricted to the ‘great and the good’. The majority of the press were left to pick off shots from the service road at the side of the grid and so with a few shots in the bag I made my way up to my chosen spot for the start.
With shots of the start and a few of the leaders of each class in the opening laps captured, what to do for the next 23:30 hours? I made my way up to the Dunlop bridge but the light was harsh, the heat and humidity were intense, meaningful shots were hard to find. By the time I got to the Dunlop bridge I was becoming disillusioned with what I had shot. I took the opportunity to seek shelter from the sun in the shade of the bridge and noticed a potential shot with the cars emerging from a heat haze as they crested the brow through the thick moist air. I snapped away but in a matter of moments the light had changed and the heat haze was gone.
There was one place that I hadn’t visited in the run up to the race and that was the Mulsanne straight, so I decided to get the shuttle to the first chicane aka Forza Motorsport chicane. Unfortunately, the shuttle deposited me at Antares which is spectacular for the speed of the cars but wasn’t very photogenic. The sound and speed of the cars was breath taking.
It seemed to take an eternity to reach the Forza Motorsport chicane, apart from the marshalls and the 3D film crew I had the place to myself. Earlier in the day this had been the site of car fires and crashes into the gravel traps so the chances of this happening again were very slim. After an hour or so I made my way to the shuttle stop and back to the media centre to process the images from the afternoon and prepare for the sunset.
As we all know the weather at Le Mans is changeable and by the time the sun had started to set the clear blue sky had been replaced by cloud, so no sunset this year! Instead, I waited a little longer, and armed with my trusty tripod, I head out to the Porsche curves to capture some light trails and shots of the Ferris wheel in the background. This year, as a result of the newly built Porsche experience centre on the old site of the wheel, it had been moved. From my point of view the new location did nothing for my quest to capture the spirit of Le Mans. I did, however, accept the challenge, returning with a few usable shots.
Until this point the weather had been hot and humid and the thought of dressing up in fireproof overalls to shoot in the pits was something I had avoided. Fortunately, in the early hours of Sunday morning the heat and humidity had reduced so I got dressed and ventured into the pits. There is nothing like the pit lane at Le Mans at night. All of your senses are bombarded. The contrast between the bright artificial light of the garages and pit apron and the ink black sky, the smell of rubber, exhaust gas and the peculiar smell similar to methylated spirit that comes from the Hybrids attack your ears and nose. The scream of the Astons and Corvettes as they pull out of the pits and the thump of the exhaust gas hitting your legs as they power past, pound your ear drums and body. And what of taste? Well the whole intoxicating atmosphere of the pits attacks every sense and, yes, there is a taste. It’s hard to describe but once you have experienced it, you never forget.
The pits and garages at any circuit are my favourite places. You get close to the emotion and drama of the race, you observe the looks of anticipation on the pit crews as they await the arrival of their car, the choreographed driver/tyre change and fuel stop, the looks of frustration, when things aren’t going right, and the elation, when they are, and, unique to Le Mans, pit crews sleeping in the most unusual places and contorted positions ready to pounce at a moment’s notice to service the car.
By now I had been awake for about 23 hours and the race was just about halfway through. It was no good, I needed to get some sleep. Otherwise I wouldn’t last until 15.00 hrs. Mindful of not missing the sunrise I went back to the media centre and put my head down on the desk, rousing every 15 minutes or so to look out the window to check the sky. With mixed emotions I saw that cloud cover would mean no sunrise either this year so I settled down for a longer snooze with the prospect of the Rolex Media Breakfast at the other end.
The peace and serenity of the Rolex suite was a stark contrast to the growing hubbub in the media room and the refreshing coffee and croissants were a welcome start to the final chapter of the weekend, the beginning of the end of the race.
I returned to the pit lane to look for any interesting shots of battle weary cars and crews but just like clockwork without drama the cars were coming in and out for fuel and occasional tyres. Track position seemed to be decided and this was the long run to the end just simply managing the variables and working within the comfort zone of the car and crew.
At around 13.00 I made my way over to the Ford chicane to get stock shots of the top 3 in each class. I was surprised to see that the drivers were still racing, still taking the optimum line and taking huge bites out the kerbs and bouncing their way to the end.
Conscious of the time and making sure I had usable shots of all the cars especially the top 3 in each class I moved away from the Ford chicane towards the Porsche curves when I heard on the radio that Paul Dalla Lana had crashed heavily in the Ford chicane with just 30 minutes or so to go. I made my way towards the site of crash relieved to hear that Paul was physically ok but obviously emotionally distraught, so close but yet so far from class victory. Maybe this was another example of the spirit of Le Mans.
It has been the case during the 24 hours of Le Mans, despite planning, I again found myself rushing to my chosen spot to capture the end of the race. A Porsche one, two and the chequered flag. A rush to the point where the marshals gathered to traditionally wave the finishers home and then a another rush to get to the podium before the spectators were unleashed onto the track. After the podium, came a scrum to get back to the media room to get the last images out.
Before I knew it, it was 20.00 hours, where did those hours go? I was packed up images sorted and away, leaving the media room for the last time this year. Maybe I didn’t capture the spirit of Le Mans this year but I am beginning to understand what it is, and like many before me, I will be back to take the shots that matter and hopefully capture the spirit of Le Mans in 2016.
Written by: John Mountney
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/John Mountney