La Ronde Infernal 2004-Style
Let’s just recap for a moment. Tom Kristensen won his sixth Le Mans 24-hours,
only the second man ever to have done so after Jacky Ickx in 1982 and the first to
have won five straight. He has never been beaten at Le Mans this century, having
also won the Le Mans 1000kms last November with Seiji Ara. Ara was the second
Japanese ever to have won at Le Mans, following Masanori Sekiya in 1995. Audi
won its fourth Le Mans in five attempts to move level with Ford and Alfa Romeo in
terms of outright race wins. The distance record for the current configuration of the
circuit was broken by two laps and now stands at 379, despite the regulation
changes introduced this year that included a smaller rear wing and a smaller fuel
This year’s Le Mans 24 was as close to a competition as we have had since 1999
and there was no doubting the level of professionalism up and down the pit lane.
There was no doubting the passion, too, highlighted by so many outstanding
memories that I will take away from this year’s show:
|·||Allan McNish setting up the car in just 25 minutes on Thursday night after an|
|unscheduled engine change, instant decisions, a test programme undertaken|
at a stunning rate.
|·||Porsche’s Norbert Singer taking photographs of the Goh pit during a walk|
|·||David Brabham as he described his Thursday night qualifying lap that put the|
|Zytek third on the grid.|
|·||Dr Wolfgang Ullrich grabbing a broom and helping the Audi UK team Veloqx|
|sweep up the gravel in the pit after McNish had heroically brought his car back|
having shunted, before collapsing in the garage and being taken off to hospital
for a check-up.
|·||Ron Fellows, hiding behind dark glasses having received a bump on his head|
|too after crashing during the night.|
|·||Paul Belmondo animated, with hair everywhere, after clattering the stationary|
|Corvette in his Courage putting himself out of the race.|
|·||Oliver Gavin receiving some TLC having had a nightmare stint which he|
|genuinely thought he had put their car out of contention.|
|·||Jamie Davies, who looked pressurised at Monza, achieved what everyone knew|
|him to be capable of at Le Mans and was outstanding.|
|·||Guy Smith and Johnny Herbert were both pretty mighty too….|
|·||Don’t forget Pierre Kaffer and Frank Biela, who had to complete 22 hours of the|
|race between the two of them. “You’ll get plenty of laps in during the race,” I said|
to Kaffer on Thursday night, after his long run at night was abandoned thanks to
the necessary engine work.
|·||Dr. Ullrich, Audi’s motorsport boss, again, as he stood on the pit wall to see Ara|
|crossing the line below him, and turning, tears streaming down his face.|
|·||The joy of the Japanese, I presume Ara’s family and friends in the pit lane, as|
|their boy crossed the line. And what a finish it was, too, Ara flat out through the|
final section to rocket home to the cheers of the crowd.
The End of The Road
There is something special about the finish at Le Mans. For those who have never
been before, the start is just another motor race, but the finish marks a truly
remarkable achievement. Twenty four hours is a flippin’ long time and to get to the
end is worth celebration and this year 20 of the original starters ended the race in
the gravel or in their garages.
One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer
The crowd were their usual selves, getting happy drunk rather than violent drunk.
The police never quite sure how to deal with water bombs. “I am arresting you, sir,
for lobbing water at that open-top car…”
Suits You! Sir!
I camped at Le Mans for the first time in my life, and what an experience that was.
The weather held out, which made all the difference. Standing in a field cooking a
mushroom sandwich in the morning sunshine was a great back to basics
experience and far removed from the season long hotel, hire car, restaurant, flight
nightmare that we usually undertake at these events. Being able to walk across
the bridge over the Bugatti circuit to get to work in ten minutes and not having to sit
in traffic was a sheer delight.
Bono of Contention
OK, we had to put up with a U2 concert belted out at full tilt during a firework
display that involved a bottle of beer delicately balanced on a flat piece of ground
and an ignited rocket in it, but I am blessed with an ability to sleep just about
anywhere, at any time. The press room was the chosen boudoir on Saturday
night, the back of the car on Sunday night as we raced home, arriving just after
dawn, but what a way to do Le Mans.
It has to be said that we were blown away by the Audi S4 lent to us for the
weekend. If you take the fuel bill out of the equation, the Avant was just about the
best chariot we have ever taken down there, including the Bentley Arnage last
year. I had asked for a Continental GT but the thought of that sitting in a campsite
sent the Bentley pr people into a wild-eyed look that suggested it probably wasn’t
the brightest suggestion I had ever come up with.
So here we are in the aftermath of the weekend, looking back on what was a truly
remarkable race. The Audis were flat out against each other, the Ferrari/Corvette
battle went to the Americans as the two manufacturers kept slugging until the end.
The Corvette team, by the way, had their two cars hit the barriers three times, and
one was hit by another competitor so hard that he put himself out of the race, yet
they still finished 1-2 in class! What an extraordinary performance. Prodrive was
desperately unlucky not to capitalise on Corvette’s misfortune when a seized
wheel bearing cost them their five-lap lead on Sunday afternoon.
White Heat, White Light
White Lightning won the GT class having got themselves stuck in fourth gear
during the night, but they were relieved when the Freisinger Motorsport Porsche
ahead of them stopped with a broken crankshaft sensor. On such things was Le
Mans decided this year, even victory. Dindo Capello dropped his car in the gravel
twice in the first 12 hours, was aboard when it caught fire in the pits, yet they still
won when the Audi UK car stopped to have a broken pushrod bearing repaired
having led for most of the way.
Carry on Camping
This was a proper motor race, though the result suggests otherwise. Stark
images that will stay with me were recorded this weekend and I am already
looking forward to the next one.