...SMITTEN BY THE LEMANS THING
It was 3.15 am. I trekked my way up a small hill and stood next to a barrier. There were puddles of water and crushed plastic beer glasses all around. A few people were around too, mostly wearing transparent rain coats, smoking or drinking beer. The night was moist, quiet and dark, except for a shaft of light thrown on the sweeping corner of tarmac a few feet ahead of us. Almost without warning, the crackle of a downshifting engine startled me and my eyes were led to the far end of the corner, now lit by a pair of headlamps. Then the car appeared. Actually cars. An Aston Martin being gulped down by a Pescarolo as it swept past the corner at tremendous velocity. The earth shook, raincoats fluttered and all the available heads turned. The corner is known to the racing fraternity as the ‘Porsche curve’ and I was watching my first ever Le Mans race with my own eyes. I took my hand out of my denim pocket and pinched myself. It hurt.
As you would agree, 3.15 am is a good time to be in bed, curled up and all. But as some of my friends bid good night to me around midnight, I couldn’t believe my eyes, let alone justify them. Hell, we came all the way to watch a 24-hour race – that too, THE 24-hour race – and you’re talking of sleep? Well, I didn’t ask the question, instead I ensured that one of my good friends from numerous press trips stayed back with me as I soaked the night in. ‘Being at Le Mans is one thing. Staying through the night and watching it from different corners at Sarthe is another,’ I told him with a certain severity. And I was not going to let physical exhaustion from a long flight and a bit of walking come in the way. ‘Nothing a chilled beer cannot cure,’ I assured my friend as we settled down to watch headlamps morph into cars and taper away into streaks of red. Thrumming V8s, exploding 12s and whistling diesels provided music. It will remain one of the best experiences in my life.
I don’t think most of you need a primer on Le Mans. We all know it as a 24-hour race held in and around the small township called Le Mans some 240 km off Paris in the Pays de la Loire province. Well, I knew that much and also knew that some Bentleys won quite a few races in its early days, Ferraris and Fords fought it out in the sixties, Porsches won a lot in the seventies, a Mazda struck gold once in the nineties. And yes, I also knew that Audi has been unbeatable for the past I don’t know how many years. Every time I read about the legendary, almost mythical race, the reports talked about ‘the village’, beer tents, people camping out and someone eventually winning. And yes, I had noted it down in my must-do-before-you-say-goodbye list (Pebble Beach, Le Mans and the Goodwood Festival of Speed are what it is made up of). So when Audi invited me to join a group of scribes to witness the 75th running of the event, I was more than willing to change travel plans and ensured that Srini took my place at the Bosch annual conference – ‘He likes German stuff,’ I told the PR friend from Bosch.
Unfortunately, most of you didn’t choose to become motoring journalists, so you won’t really be able to enjoy Le Mans the way I did. Audi literally owned the place and that meant Q7 shuttles to frisk you from Paris CDG, cosy makeshift accommodation, shuttle buses to move around, passes that let us wander into the pits, three different hospitality areas and a live performance by Seal if the racing got a bit too much for one to handle. But herein lies the point – there were enthusiasts from across Europe who drove in to Le Mans in exotic cars, camped on wet grass and walked with haversacks and beer to enjoy the event. Alright, let us call it pilgrimage. A ceremonial driver’s parade and a nice barbecue later, I was ready to get some sleep. Then it rained... actually, it poured. From the comforts of the Audi Racing Hotel I could see lights of the village, there were a million, faintly glinting, horses in the parking lot and the stage for yet another 24 hours race at Le Mans was set. Complete with props.
Race day. We still had to get a hospitality pass that would assure us a choice of locations, beer and food through the race. By the time that was done we could hear the engines in anger. The race day warm-up had started. We ran to the gallery on top of the Audi pits to see the cars for the first time. Teams were busy testing the final setup for the race. Cars ran in anger but an off, anywhere in the 13.6 km track during warm-up would mean disaster. The open-top Audi R10s with the driver exposed to the elements was the expected, familiar sight. But pole-sitting Peugeot 908s looked like automotive mutations of Darth Vader himself. The black wraparound fighter jet cockpit and white fenders along with the diesel whoosh making them an almost eerie sight. Maybe this year belongs to the French, was the collective thought process around me. You see, I didn’t have to take sides – but once you wear an Audi R10 cap and are surrounded by numerous people wearing R10 apparel, you do start feeling part of the clan. This, despite the fact that my favourite F1 driver ever, Jacques Villeneuve (1997 world champion, let me tell you) was slated to drive for Peugeot. Warm-up went without incident and the barks of the endurance engines died down deep into the bowels of the pits.
There was no letup for us though. ‘Course Le Mans Legend’ or the Race of Legends was scheduled next. Sixty cars from the 1956-68 era were parked side by side along the pit wall on the track. And what cars! Ferrari P3s, LMs, 250 TRs, Matras, Bentleys, Aston Martins, Ford GT40s, AC Cobras, Lister Jaguars, Alpine Renaults... a stunning display of sports cars that were to have a go at each other for one whole hour. Some cars I could recognise, some I had never seen even in pictures. A flying start ensued and oh boy, did they drive those old cars hard. From where I was watching, I could see Ferraris being passed by Fords and Jaguars gobbling up Alfas. If only I could add a bit of sepia tint to the surroundings. What a treat!
There was more nostalgia as people who drove into Le Mans in exotic classic and vintage machines paraded through the track. Around me people of all kinds were busy getting drunk in anticipation of the start. Sure, some were trying to settle down in vantage positions, some were enjoying a bit of shopping at the village and the rest were, er, busy getting drunk. We finished an early lunch so that we were back on top of the Audi pits to get our share of the action.
This year the race was to start at 3 pm. The grand stand was filled to the brim, ‘Welcome Mr Le Mans’ proclaimed a banner in the stands (obviously alluding to Tom Kristensen, the Swede who won the event no less than seven times), lots of British, German and French flags fluttered and helicopters hovered over the start/finish line as the 50 starters rolled on for the warm-up lap. As they came around for the first time, the pace car (an Audi, what else) would give way and the race would start.
If you are still wondering why Le Mans has different types of cars, here’s a small explanation. There are four different categories at Le Mans these days. LMP 1 (Le Mans Prototype 1) is of course the big league and this year the lineup – apart from Audi R10s and Peugeot 908s – included Judd-powered Pescarolo, Courage, Creation, Zytec, Dome and Lola. Cars in the LMP 1 category have 6000cc normally aspirated/4000cc turbo petrol engines or 5000cc turbodiesels. Almost all the low-budget teams (compared to Audi and Peugeot) participate in the LMP 2 category which stipulates that engines be either 3400cc V8 petrols or 2000cc turbo six-cylinder units. Then comes the sports cars in the LM GT1 category contested by the likes of Aston Martin DBR9, Corvette C6R, Ferrari 550 Maranello, a lone Lamborghini Murcielago and the Saleen S7R from across the Atlantic. The LM GT2 category this year had a field made up of Ferrari F430 GTs, Panoz Esperante, Porsche 911 GT3 and the Spyker C8.
In short, ‘normal’ supercars to Formula One race replicas with covered wheels were to battle it out for 24 hours. This mix ensures that there are more overtakings in a single Le Mans lap than in an entire season of Formula One. Now that is one formula I really appreciate. A word of appreciation here for French teams such as Pescarolo and Courage – they may not have won many laurels against the might of corporate giants but there is a loyal following for these underfinanced, underdog teams. But no works team can take them lightly, since 24 hours is a long time and a Pescarolo will pounce on an Audi or Peugeot if they hit mechanical trouble or the wall.
3 pm. The cars that went on the warm-up lap came back and thundered through the start/finish lap as Roland du Luart, president of the Sarthe general council and the man responsible for revamping the circuit for this race flagged it off. The 75th edition of Le Man was on. From then on I watched the cars come around from various parts of the circuit. It must be a daunting task for a team principal when he has to wait for close to three and a half minutes for his car to make an appearance. Cars pitted every 12 laps, drivers changed every two hours. Several beers and nearly deaf ears later the sun finally set. Cars were being subjected to the ultimate endurance test. Ditto people. I saw a Porsche 911 run back to the pits on almost three wheels. I watched Peugeot 908s chase down Audi R10s at the Ford & Raccordement corner, I saw brake discs of Pescarolos glow in the night and I aimlessly walked around wondering who will be leading the race.
As I told you before, I sat through the night. Saw the cars in the night setting deep inside the village. At six in the morning, I gun for coffee and the chef at the Audi counter teases me into having another beer. Insanity, but I agree nevertheless. After the sun rose on Sunday, I decided to sleep for two hours and woke up feeling terribly guilty for leaving the cars and drivers at the track. The race was now well and truly on in my bloodstream by then.
Audi had claimed the lead in the very first corner itself as the pole-sitting Peugeot 908 ran wide. Amongst the GT1s, the majestic sounding Aston Martins were being given a good fight by Corvette.Soon Audis were running the top two positions – they would never ever let the lead go despite two out of three Audi R10s failing to finish the race. Yes, Audi would win again. No other team other than Bentley has won Le Mans in the new millennium. And everyone knows that the winning Bentley of 2003 was an Audi under its skin. Peugeot who had conceded prior to the event that their real challenge will only come in 2008 finished second after a few anxious moments. My interest in Peugeot was over since the second Peugeot with Jacques Villeneuve amongst the drivers was already out of the running. Pouring rain added drama in the final two hours of the race and lots of fingers were crossed for the drivers on duty.
So at 3 pm on Sunday, the R10 driven by Marco Werner, Frank Biela and Emmanuel Pirro rolled over the start/finish line. The threesome had won last year too. Pit crew hugged each other and waved white Audi flags, souvenir hunters invaded the pit lane and Audi domination was celebrated. People went back to beer tents to celebrate the win of Aston over Corvette. As if they needed a reason. It was time to leave.
But then Le Mans is not about coming and going, who won and who lost, but it is about an insane racing adventure. Lucky me indeed.