June 17th, 2010

The 2010 Le Mans diary

Let me just get something straight first. If you are reading this expecting some analysis of the victory of Audi and the inefficiency of Peugeot in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans you are not going to get it. I want to give people who have never been to Le Mans, or have been to Le Mans but want to know what others do at Le Mans, an insight in to my yearly pilgrimage to the Mecca of motoring - the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Wednesday: Getting there and getting set up

After months of meetings, emails and logistic planning in war cabinet (the Pub), the day had come for everyone to put the plans in to action and make their way to Le Mans. Some enthusiasts choose to take the ferry but we - the Le Mans Curry Club - choose to take Le Chunnel. Meeting at the terminal we were all reunited for another year of drinking, driving (not in conjunction) and partying.

This year we were lucky enough to borrow a long wheel base Mercedes Sprinter van with only seven miles on the clock. Loaded to the roof, with TV’s, Satellite dishes, fridges, freezers, table football tables, scaffolding and what seemed like a chefs kitchen, we were pretty much set to get going. Our convoy included the motormorph BMW 120i, a Porsche 997 4S Cab, an Audi RS4, an Aston DB9 and an Audi S5 which had been picked up the day before. A nice mixed bag of motors.

We entered the Chunnel, stickered up, strapped ourselves in, entered France and made our way to Le Mans at a good pace whilst making lots of noise through the tunnels on the way down. Stopping off for our traditional ‘Rat in a Satchel’/Kebab stop we exchanged stories from previous years and were all glad to be away from work for a couple of days.

On the way down we were greeted with a nice surprise after exiting one of the Peages as either the Aston Martin owners club / works team were waiting for us. There was at least one of every model that Aston Martin produce, including the new Rapide which is chubbier and looks less sharp in reality. Having a couple of conversations about the run down we let the Aston’s go just to hear the V12’s roar simultaneously. What we didn’t expect was that we overtook them 5 minutes later as they were taking a very relaxed pace through France.

We arrived at Le Mans in the mid afternoon which brought back memories from the previous year. Pitching up in Maison Blanche we found that the pitch sizes had shrunk as there was no room for the volleyball pitch – shame.  Erecting our tents in the dry and in the light was a relief as we normally do it with torches in our mouths whilst getting drenched. After a good day we sat down for a well deserved cold beverage on the tyre walls and watched practice. We had arrived.

Thursday: Housekeeping, car spotting and photographic expeditions

At Le Mans you don’t need an alarm clock; you are naturally awoken by being too hot and drowning in a puddle of your own perspiration. Feeling peckish we headed for the shops, but shopping at Le Mans for 14 people is a very different experience than a normal trip to the shops at home. Buying three days of food and more importantly three days of alcohol requires military planning, many lists and some muscle power - oh, and someone else’s credit card.

Probably the best thing about Le Mans is that you are surrounded by like minded people, people who like cars and like talking about cars. At any other time of the year you can feel a bit like a geek for talking about cars. When people ask you for advice you feel a bit nerdy for knowing the differences in spec and engine options. But at Le Mans you can talk about camshafts, coilovers and straight pipes all you want. So on the Thursday we all went round for a little car spotting to see what others had brought along. There were some real gems which you never see on the road but seem to multiply in Le Mans campsites. Examples include, a selection of Renault Alpine V6 Turbo’s, a 3.0L BMW CSL ‘Batmobile’ and a Peugeot 306 with over 400 horses going through the front wheels – mental.

During the evening I went on a photographic mission to try and get some decent night shots of the Le Mans racers. Armed with a camera, a few lenses, a tripod and some umbrella’s we headed to Tetre Rouge via the Dunlop Bridge to get some high exposure/slow shutter speed shots. Being in no way shape or form a professional photographer we tried to get some shots other than the standard boggo shots which everyone else gets at Le Mans. After scratching our heads and trying to work out how the camera worked for an hour and a half, we let the sun go down and started shooting. We ventured in to the woods and on top of wheelie bins in the name of creativity. We looked at the shots and like the big man in the sky we were happy with what we saw.

Friday: Madness and pit lane action

Mad Friday goes hand in hand with Le Mans, well, in my eyes. Now I want to settle the score because I have read loads of slanderous comments on various forums on what happens during this so called ‘Mad Friday’.

Lined outside the campsites are various local roads which give access in and out of the circuit. On the Friday these roads are lined with motoring fans and car spotters who like to see some cars which they will never normally see on the road. Some of these fans have been drinking, but why not? They are on holiday. People driving their cars are encouraged to rev and do a little wheel spin for the fans. It is only human for people who see a supercar to ask these sorts of questions. Remember when Lewis Hamilton did the same thing in Australia at the beginning of the year? Well it is the same sort of scenario. I have never seen anyone being ‘threatened’ or ‘assaulted’ for not complying with the fans requests. The worst I have seen is that there is the occasional boo for not embracing the Le Mans atmosphere.

This year most drivers were very accommodating with the crowds wishes, you see cars from Vauxhall Cavalier’s to Aston Martin Vanquish’s doing burnouts. There was specialist anti-wheel spin police on patrol outside Maison Blanche who tried to kill the fun, but after realising it was all under control and in good spirit they left. However for one unlucky owner of an E55 AMG who lit up the rear tyres and covered the whole road in smoke, he did it right in to the arms of the suited and booted Gendarmerie. After exchanging licences and passports they left with a slapped wrist and a soiled pair of pants but was thankfully let on his way - lucky boy.

If you are not a fan of the hoonage going on during the day on Friday, you can always make your way to the pit lane to see teams tinkering with the cars before race day. Thousands of fans embrace the opportunity of an open pit lane to see the Le Mans prototypes close up and the array of multi million pound technologies on display. Aston Martin was practicing changing tyres under simulated race conditions which you can see here, it puts your local Kwik-Fit to shame.

Saturday: Race day

I somehow woke up on Saturday with a horrendous hangover as the night before I managed to exit a marquee through a side wall, but that didn’t get me down. With the smell of race fuel in the air and the sound of engines revving we quickly made our way to watch the Carrera Cup support race.

Each year the support races use the Maison Blanche campsite as a Parc Ferme/Pit Lane/Race Village set up. You have the opportunity to see the cars up close and go out onto the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe then come back muddied and bruised. Le Mans gives you the access to motorsport and what goes on before and after a race more than any other event.

For race day we treat ourselves to a meal at the pit lane restaurant which offers a spectacular view down the pit lane and into the first bend. Greeting us on our arrival was the pinnacle of Le Mans motoring racing, Group C race cars. Now these are cars which I only thought existed in racing games such as Gran Turismo. Seeing Porsche 956’s and Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-8/9 at full chat around the circuit was like entering a time machine. I never thought I would ever be able to see a race like this apart from on various videos on YouTube. The sound of the vintage turbocharged petrol brutes is something that will ring in my ears for a long time.

After we had a blast from the past we got shot straight into the future with a showcase of the latest technical advances in motorsport. The collection included the 911 RSR Hybrid, a Tesla Roadster, a BMW X6 Efficient Dynamics and surprisingly a Ferrari 599XX which is in no way a sign of what is to come in long term future technological development. The 911 RSR Hybrid was very impressive and looked very quick but my eyes and ears were instantly drawn to the 599XX. Although this is no way a crystal ball into the future of motoring it didn’t half look the dog’s knackers. The V12 rev limiter is raised to 9000 rpm and is just heavenly - if your ears could orgasm they would. After we saw the future being showcased we set up the cameras for the main event. We took deep breaths, sang the national anthem and prepared for the start of the 78th running of the Grand Prix of Endurance.

The race started very interestingly with the Audi’s and Peugeots tussling down the Mulsanne and Mansell losing his Moustache and crashing out. But we are not commenting on the race remember, we are commenting on the atmosphere. So after seeing the cars fly by I chilled with my friends and soaked up the sun in the best company possible. Then something interesting happened. I met a girl, but not a normal girl because we had an in-depth discussion about Lamborghini’s. Now I am in no way sexist but meeting a girl who knows the specs and benefits of a LP 550-2 Valentino Balboni over a standard Gallardo is pretty rare. I was quite taken back by the whole situation and nearly fell off the five storey building in pure admiration of her knowledge. I was literally in awe.

After speaking to the Lamborghini loving blonde I went to take more photos and returned to my tent sunburnt, drunk, but most importantly happy. It was another good day.

Sunday: The end for another year

Waking up to the soundtrack of various high power petrol and diesel prototype cars is something that only happens once a year for me. You get led into a false sense of security that the cars going around the track are on rails and that they will always go round. It is only when you sit down and think that there is a man behind that helmet and visor who has been piloting that car at hundreds of miles an hour continuously for hours straight that you appreciate why you have come to this event at all.

Le Mans is an extreme test of mechanical parts, human endurance and fan exhaustion levels. After you have rubbed your eyes early on Sunday morning it instantly strikes you that you have to go home soon, so you make the most of it by doing one last lap of the track before packing up for another year.

We shed a mental tear and saluted Maison Blanche and the new friends we had made for another year then hit the road in our convoy. We settled in at a nice cruising pace because we wanted a calm and soothing sunny drive on the way back but then things literally went up a gear.

Out of nowhere we were joined by a Ferrari 575 Maranello an Audi R8 Spyder, a CLS 63 AMG, a Porsche 997 Turbo, a Nissan GTR and a Kermit the Frog green Focus RS. Naturally the pace quickened and what ensued was the best run back from Le Mans ever.

We parted at the final Peage where France’s finest cheekily pulled us over to take pictures of the cars. Unfortunately the Lamborghini Diablo SV owner above didn’t have quite the same luck as his photo shoot cost him a nice wodge of Euros. We made our way to the Chunnel terminal and waited to board our train.

I did the usual thing of walking up and down to the aisles to see what motors were laying there hot on tick over. One that stood out was a bright yellow 997 Carrera S decked out in full GT3 clobber which was seen doing donuts at a petrol station a few miles away, but my eyes were drawn to an Aston DBS but not for the normal reasons. I saw a small, hairy being in the back seats. No, it wasn’t Frodo Baggins it was a miniature Schnauzer! A dog in Aston Martin’s flagship model! Sacrilege! I spoke to the very calm and welcoming owner and it turned out that the dogs name was Saffey and she didn’t like riding in the Range Rover - talk about a dog with style. Speaking to the owner really drummed in how friendly the whole Le Mans experience is. He didn’t mind talking about his car but didn’t do it in such a patronising way that made you feel insignificant and that you were only there to aid the enhancement of his ego like talking to many supercar owners can feel like.

When people describe Le Mans as a music festival I agree with them, it is a fun, friendly and well spirited event where you feel safe and welcome. But think of Le Mans as what Carlsberg would do if they did music festivals with cars … it is epic.

If you want to see more of our photos from the trip check out our Flickr page here.

Words: Rowan Horncastle

Photo Credit: Rowan Horncastle

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