June 2010: An Adventure Through France

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June 8th 2010
Published: February 15th 2012
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Le Mans:

After a few hours of driving the world famous Dunlop Bridge came into view on the horizon, I beamed with excitement. When talking to the American about motor sport, he could only picture NASCAR. I explained how racing circuits in Europe were a little more exciting than the oval circuits of NASCAR. I had told him all about the Circuit de la Sarthe used for the endurance race and how most of the thirteen and a bit kilometre lap was on actual roads that we could drive on. When we got there, that is exactly what we did. In my mind I was tearing up the asphalt doing a reverse lap of the circuit, my gear changes, perfect, throttle control, smooth. In reality I was in a 1l Daewoo rip off that squealed in terror as I pushed it to its maximum of around 140 km/h, just shy of the 320 km/h speeds the LMP1 race cars thunder around at!

After the excitement we pitched the tent in our allocated camp-site, located quite some walk south from the main complex, situated centrally inside the track, on the one side, the long Mulsanne straight and on the other side the wide, sweeping, high speed Porsche Curves. The camp-site was an almost empty field, sparsely populated, this was due to the race not taking place for another four days, however, there was practice and qualifying in those four days. We spent the night wandering the camp-site talking to the few that were there.

The next day we headed into the centre ville of Le Mans. There is a convenient tram system that links to the track. We still had the car but it would need to be dropped off in a day. As we drove along the main road in I had a moment of confusion, the tram tracks were wandering all over the place, at some points they were separate to the road, at others, running within the traffic. I took a turn at a set of lights and found I had clear road ahead of me, I also noticed a large crowd of people watching me drive by, what suddenly dawned on me was a tram stop, I looked past the crowd to see I was leapfrogging the stationary traffic, I was driving along the tram lines where I wasn’t supposed to be! I quickly cut across the next section of pavement I could find and muscled my way back onto the road.

Le Mans was a grand place, it had a large stone wall running around parts. The building architecture was varied but none seemed that bland or easily affordable. It was clean and had a mixture of wide open spaces and small side streets, that weren't too straight or level, it had all around character.

We thought it be a good idea to get some supplies from the supermarket, these being, a camping stove, food and of highest importance beer!

As we entered, the atmosphere suggested that they were about to close for the day, we rushed around gathering the required provisions. We were at the alcohol section when a security guard approached us repeating the word 'ferme' to us, this I’m aware, means 'closed'. We saw a bargain, 20 small bottles of beer for 4.08€. With the security guard following us closely we paid and left. As we walked across the car park I said to the American, “this is strange, why was it so cheap?”, it was called panaché, I hadn't heard of this before. I wondered how much alcohol it had, I checked, all became clear, less than 1% ABV....

The next day was first practice. We also needed to drop off the Chevy. It was decided that it was most important to drop the car off first, it took longer than expected. As we approached the northern edge of the track after catching the tram, my first experience of live high performance motor sport began.

Practice was underway, before we could see the track the cars could be heard. There was a range of engine sounds, most were similar squeals and gurgles with intermittent pops and bangs, but once in a while you would hear a thundering much like that of helicopter rotors but with the intensity of canon. What was this noise? Why was it so different? We approached the track and all became clear.

There are a few different categories of cars that race the Le Mans 24hr endurance race, the 'P' classes 1 and 2 these are prototypes, built specially for this type of racing, they all have very similar designs and engines, they all sound very similar. There's also the 'GT' classes, these are racing versions of typical super sports cars that you see on the road (these are slower than the 'P' classes), Ferrari's, Lamborghini’s, Porche's and the machine in question, the source of this roaring howl, the Corvette's. You see the majority of the contenders are European's, here they think of more than just engine torque and sheer power, the American's however, have a different approach. Every time a Corvette went past, the monstrous 7L V8's would cause the ground to shake, you could feel them through your chest. The atmosphere was exhilarating, and this was just practice.

The main compound where the pits lay is known as the Bugatti Circuit, this is the remainder of the track that I din't get to drive on. Within the confines of the compound were a range of shops, stalls, bars and restaurants. The mix of people was varied, there were people who were promoting things, racing officials, spectators and corporate guests. Several areas were deemed out of bounds for the type of ticket I had, it was clear that these areas housed some very important people.

Outside of the main compound, but within the confines of the larger, Circuit de La Sarthe, it was a different story, all the roads that linked the camp-sites together were crowded with drunken Brits staggering and cheering in obvious groups. They were watching the cars that drove past, it seemed that if you had a nice car it was your duty to drive as fast as you can and show boat to the max. This was the same story for the rest of the week, only the camp-site became more and more crowded, and the roads more chaotic.

We decided it would be best to stay at the main compound, spending a bit of time in the largest grandstand, directly above the pits. From here I had managed to get a few good shots of the cars either directly below in the pits or as they sped past the start/finish line.

In the evening we were entertained by the B.B. Brunes followed by our first taste of nigh time motor sport. In the darkness it seemed so different, the cars weren’t so easily identified and the lights were extremely bright. They appeared to be going faster.

This was my last day with the American. He would be leaving the next day for Holland. As we were heading back to the camp-site, by now it was at least 1.00 am, we bumped into a group of French youths, a few wanted to test their English. We got chatting and they invited us back to their camp-site. As we talked they told of how they were working in the pits, they were tasked with ensuring the teams did not cheat when modifying and tinkering with their vehicles. They were mechanical engineering students. The American needed to be up early, this was his fault as he had booked an early train. So early that it was before the tram, he had decided he was going to walk to the train station, which we estimated at around one to two hours. At 4.00 am after hours of drinking and chatting, the group were starting to head to bed, The American had long since passed out in the grass and it was beginning to rain. This was only part of his problem, he also needed to get to our tent, on the other camp-site, pack his belongings and get to the train station. After about ten minutes of poking and prodding him he awoke, he was still drunk and now confused. One of the French offered us a lift to our tent, which we gladly accepted. On the way, I asked if he would drop the American at the top of the circuit, he agreed. I bundled all of his belongings into the car, wished him good luck, and he was driven off. That was the last I saw of him.

The next day was miserable, the weather was terrible, a mixture of drizzle and thunderstorms. This was the final practice and qualifying. The French guys had given me contact details but were working until late in the evening. Being alone in such miserable weather and with a hang over, hit me hard. It was my worst day of the trip, I sat in my tent for most of the day and evening, cold and wet eventually drifting off at the reasonably early time of 22.00 when, in fact, the cars were still out on track.

It was now the day before the race. This would be a day off from racing, it was pit walk day. This was an opportunity for me to take some great pictures up close.

I got to the pits and it was alive with activity. People swarming outside pit garages, trying to get a glimpse of a particular driver or car. I took several shots, hoping that they would come out, that’s the fear I had, I could be taking some great pictures, or they could be terrible, I wouldn't find this out though, until after I pay the not so cheap developing costs, more than likely long after leaving Le Mans. I had received several missed calls whilst in the pits but did not answer my phone, after being told off for smoking, bearing in mind it is also where they fuel the cars using overhead fuel systems, one of which was directly above me at the time of being barked at in French!

After leaving I called back, it was the French guys. They invited me back to their camp-site, where once again we drank and chatted well into the night. As they would be busy for the next few days I expected it would be the last I'd see of the French, and it was.

It was race day, the endurance race was not due to start until late afternoon, however, before this there were a few smaller competitions, one of which was a retro race featuring previous Le Mans endurance cars. For the race weekend I was unfortunately unable to gain access to the grandstands, as my ticket was the basic type. I picked a spot near the northern part of the circuit on the bank at Tetre Rouge. The drivers started their parade lap, with the drivers so tightly packed, the sound was incredible, almost an orchestra with the high pitch squeals of the LMP's the mids of the LMGT's with the exception of the deep roar of the Corvette's.

Timed almost perfectly with the start was a flyby conducted by the French air force trailing smoke streams that painted a French flag across the clouds. The Race was under way. Within 15 minutes, there had been retirements and the first place car had already started passing the back runners. The back runners were all GT class, these were nowhere near capable of the speeds and cornering agility of the P class. This also gives a great deal of extra excitement, as the P's are constantly faced with the task of passing the lumbering GT's whilst maintaining position, not losing too much time to their competitors.

As the evening drew in, I decided to wander the other parts of the circuit. I attempted to board a bus to the southern most point, at Mulsanne but was told that the roads were blocked and no buses running, due to a Brit in a sports car having a terrible accident whilst show boating.

I headed over to the Porsche curves where I got some good pictures, and on from there to the Ford Chicane, as dusk was setting in. Once night fell I headed to the Esses where it was floodlit, where I thought would be best to try and get some night shots. Eventually I tired and needed to head back to my tent.

I unfortunately overslept dawn, I had been hoping for some nice shots from the Porsche Curves. Instead I strolled to the circuit where I caught up on events. The Peugeot's were struggling after having mechanical troubles but were picking up the pace steadily. They're biggest rivals were the Audi teams, they seemed to be having a trouble free race. The excitement built with only a few hours left as it looked like, if they kept the pace up, the Peugeot's would overtake the Audi's and win. This was false hope, the Audi's were taking their time for a reason, they did not want any mechanical failure to halt their success. The Peugeot's on the other hand did not have the liberty of playing it casual. In trying to catch up both Peugeot's just seemed to push too hard with both having retired by the closing moments.

I guessed the best place to be at the end would be around the start/finish area. I waited close to the track with view of the screens and finish line. The race ended with the number 9 and 8 Audi's coming first and second.

No sooner had the track been cleared of cars had the spectators' invasion began. A gate in front of me was opened and I took the opportunity to flood through with the crowd. I then found myself standing on the pit straight almost directly below the gantry where the podium was located.

The crowd was electric when the winning teams took to the podium. The drivers were visibly exhausted but managed to draw enough energy to partake in the usual ritual of champagne spraying. After about 10-15 minutes the crowd began to disperse, this was the end of the 2010 Le Mans 24hr endurance race, well almost, you see, back at the camp-site was a different story. There was so much happening, it was, madness. There were people everywhere cheering, letting off fireworks, the smell of BBQ's was in the air and their smoke trails rose into the sky, through dusk until nightfall.

I woke the next day to find the camp-site had almost completely emptied, looking out across the field the devastation of the masses was clear, there was hardly any grass left, just large potholes and muddy ditches. There was a lot of litter too, and the odd charred remains of a camp-fire here and there. I packed my tent and set off on the walk to the tram stop, from there to the train station and from there on to Provence in the south of France.

Additional photos below
Photos: 27, Displayed: 27


16th February 2012

Great narrative and photos! Together they give a real sense of the atmosphere and intensity of the event - makes a car novice like me want to attend! Thanks Mark

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