Le Mans

I was finally able to get to sleep last night, but well after 1AM.  The 6AM alarm goes off far too early for my liking, but I’m up and out of bed seconds later.  Today is the day.  Saturday June 11th, 2011.  Today is Le Mans.

Le Mans.  It is the first race to carry the name “Grand Prix”.  In 1967, Dan Gurney’s win in the Ford GT40 Mark IV led to his spontaneous decision to spray champagne in victory lane – the first time ever.  Today is the 79th running of the endurance classic.

Like a kid at Christmas, I spring out of bed.  I’m quickly dressed and I’m going through my backpack to make sure I’ve got everything packed.  Camera and accessories?  Check.  Extra socks?  Quad check.  Overnight clothes?  Check.  Done.  I’m packed and ready to go.

I head downstairs for breakfast.  Most of my fellow Grand Prix Tour group are already conversing over coffee.  The breakfast buffet calls to me.  Fresh croissants, scrambled eggs and bacon.  The only odd thing was the coffee which came out of this automated machine – no real French press coffee.  Oh well.

8:00 AM – time to board the bus.  Before I know it, we’re back in the French countryside.

In what feels like the blink of an eye, we’re quickly approaching Le Mans.

I didn’t capture any good shots driving out of Paris, but all along the French countryside, as you near a town, there are these stylized city signs.  There was an earlier Le Mans sign that highlighted the race with what looked like old Group C cars that I missed, but I caught this one.

As we travel along, Trevor grabs the built-in microphone and announces: “If you look out the left window, you’ll see Tertre Rouge and the Mulsanne straight.”  WHAT!?!?  We’re already there?!?  I scramble for my camera and feebly attempt to capture a movie of the cars heading down the straight.  About the only thing you can make out is the scream of the engines as they tear off away from you.

He continues: “Off to your left is the museum, the front straight, and the airport”

Off to our right, is the Le Mans Exposition Hall and a long queue of cars heading towards the various parking lots.  After about 5 minutes without moving, Trevor announces we’re going onto plan B…into the neighboring town of Arnage.

Trevor instructs our bus driver to head to a small side street, where we’re met by the local gendarmes and told we can’t go this way.  OK…plan C.  We approach a round-about where we’re again met by the police and told to move on.  Plan D.  This time it works.  Trevor has taken us though small neighborhood streets, that, upon initial look, you’d never know there are 250,000 race fans less than a mile away.  We get to the blue parking lot and it’s go time.

Trevor announces that if you’re taking part in the Indianapolis/Arnage field trip, you need to be back at the bus around 6:00 PM.  We’ll be boarding the orange tour bus we’re parked right next to.  In all the excitement of just being here, I’d forgotten all about that expedition.  Well, this changes my original on-track necessities.  Originally, I’d packed my hiking pack for the full day and night.  Camera accessories, Cliff Bars, over-night clothes, everything I think I’ll need for the next 36 hours.  Since I’m coming back to the bus early evening, I don’t need all that stuff for the day.  So I grab some cash, my camera, a few other things, and I’m traveling light.

It’s a glorious partly-cloudy morning, the temperature somewhere in the mid-60’s and it’ll climb into the lower-70’s.

We walk up to the Maison Blanche entry where we’re greeted by a multitude of Ferrari F458s for the Ferrari Challenge support race.

There are 50 competitors from both the Italian and European series competing today.  The field of cars lined up is fantastically impressive.  Enough gawking, it’s time to see the track.

One of the first things I see, towering over the track, is the iconic Le Mans Ferris wheel.

Just beyond the Ferris wheel lies the track.  The race control building dominates the view as we look over the Ford chicane.

Off in the distance, I see the Dunlop Tribune.

Wow…that’s quite a ways off and it’s a lot higher than I was expecting.  I’m distracted by the sound of the Le Mans Legends support race quickly approaching.

65 vintage cars from 1949 to 1965 roar past us at the beginning of a 45-minute timed race.

#22 is a 1952 Frazer Nash Le Mans Mk II competitor and #26 is a 1953 Aston Martin DB2/4

I’m eager to see my seat in the Dunlop Tribune, so I bid farewell to my fellow GPT race fans and I start heading uphill.

I finally get to my seat and it’s exactly what I had envisioned.  Off to my left is the Dunlop Bridge, off to my right is the bend just past the start/finish line, and directly in font of me is the Dunlop chicane.  I’m in the first row and, while not as high as I wanted, I’m still higher than the spectators on the ground, so I should have a fairly unobstructed view of the race.

The Legends Race is still going on, and I capture a few more shots.  This one in particular.  It isn’t until I got home, that I realize who was piloting the #7 1961 Porsche RS61.  The legend himself: Sir Stirling Moss.

Sir Stirling Moss

The Legends Race is done and it’s time for the Ferrari Challenge.  I climb the grandstand and position myself at the top to clear the view of the catch fencing and I’m able to capture this:

I can’t believe the driver of the yellow F458 spun as much as he did and rejoined the race in the way that he did.  Stupid.

It’s a little after 11:00 and I’m meeting the Ten-Tenths forum group shortly.  It’s time to check out the ACO Village.  It’s an absolute mad-house collection of drink and food stands mixed in with car manufacturer displays and other groups associated with the race; Audi, BMW, Lotus, Nissan, Guinness, Grand Marnier, Michelin, Playstation/GT5…they’re all here.

Ten-Tenths.com is an online discussion forum dedicated to racing and is populated by race fans from around the world.  We have a sub-forum dedicated to Le Mans, and those of us attending have discussed a central meeting point: a tree in the Village.  I head towards where I think we’re going…nope, there’s a Nissan display there.  I move down a bit.  Wait, I’ve gone too far.  There’s some Audi monument with a band playing right in front.

So I turn around and head back towards where I think I’m going.  There’s a gap in between the Michelin display and a French radio station where a few spectators are gathered.  I approach one and ask: “Is this the Ten-Tenths meeting?”

I’m immediately greeted with: “I’m Tim and this Tony” and suddenly, like that, I’m surrounded with familiar online names;  Aysedasi, Bentley03, PascaLM, Batmobile, GT6, lemansfan, Kpy.  With hardy handshakes and gracious smiles, I “meet” them all for the first time.  But this is not like meeting strangers…this is more like catching up with old friends.  I know all of these guys.  I’ve interacted with all of them on one level or another.  It is truly a special gathering.  Wine and fois gras – as well as some Romanian rocket fuel – are shared with one another.  Word of wisdom are passed along.  What was an online commonality is now a friendship that I won’t soon forget.  To this point, this is the absolute best part of the trip for me.

To James and Andrew, Christopher, Tim and Tony, Walter, Eric, Pascal, William, Simon, and James: it was a pleasure meeting all of you.  Thank you all very much.

And just like that, two hours have passed – not to mention several bottles of wine are consumed – and the race will soon begin.  We all shake hands and go our separate ways.

I’m back to my seat over the Dunlop Bridge.  The cars fly by on their practice laps and soon thereafter, the roar of the Patrouille de France with their tri-colored smoke fly overhead.  Silence…and then:

And we’re off.  The start of the 2011 24 Heures du Mans – the 79th running of the Grand Prix d’Endurance.  The roar of the cars…the hum of the crowd.  The hushed whisper of the Audi R18 diesel as it wooshes past you followed by the throaty growl of the Corvette ZR1, and the high-pitched scream of the Ferrari F458.  Different technological philosophies all aimed at the same goal: finish.  But in order for you to finish first, you must first finish.  Unfortunately, for one of the favorites, finishing became an afterthought and surviving is rushed to the forefront.

Just about an hour into the race, the #3 Audi R18, piloted by Allan McNish, tries an inside move on a slower Ferrari F458 just past the Dunlop Bridge – and me – as he flows into the Esses.  What happens next, is both a triumph of modern safety standards and a miracle.

Before

During

After

The footage of Allan McNish climbing out of the car and the subsequent shot of Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich – head of Audi Motorsport – with a relieved, albeit emotional, smile on his face, are two of the more memorable visuals of the race.

If you haven’t seen it, it truly is amazing that McNish walked away from this shunt and the only thing he broke: his cell phone.

It’s around 5:00 and I’m meeting the tour group in 90 minutes, I’ve got time to head down to the Village, grab a bite to eat, and see what I see.  Crossing the Dunlop Bridge, I grab a Guinness and an “American Burger” – although I’m curious what a “non-American burger” is.  I check out a few of the sights and head down through the tunnel under the track and back the way I came.  I pass the Ferris wheel and I keep walking.

Just like in Paris, I’m walking, I’m looking, I’m walking, I’m looking…there’s a sea of humanity and it’s a little confusing.  There’s an exit gate where they scan my ticket noting that I’ve left but with the option of returning.  I get outside and I don’t see anything I recognize.  Well, how hard can it be to find a bright orange tour bus next to a sliver Mercedes tour bus?

Outside the race track, it’s just a sea of cars parked in open fields.  Crap, I’ve gone too far.  It’s just before 6 and the bus departs at 6:30.  15 minutes of walking, I finally find the bus – both ours and the neighboring orange bus.  But no one’s on it.  There’s a driver walking around the orange bus and I ask him where everyone is.  He points back towards the track and tells me that’s the Arnage bus.  A quick walk/slight jog and I finally get there to an exasperated looking Trevor.

“I was beginning to worry and thought we’d have to leave you”.  After a quick apology, I hop on the bus and see Clayton as well as Kris and Jim, all from Atlanta.  Only four of us from our group are heading to Indianapolis/Arnage.  GPT has partnered with another group – hence the orange bus – and the four of us are with a group of racing fans all from England.  Just like that, we’re on our way.

A few minutes later, we’re parked and make our way through a ticket gate.  The viewing area is rather small with a grass covered, man-made viewing hill overlooking the short straight in between the Indianapolis and Arnage corners.  Off to my far right, is the right-hand kink that becomes the left-hand, banked, Indianapolis corner.  I can’t get too far down because of the barriers, but I’m able to capture these pictures:

The catch fencing again obstructs my view, but we’re 20 feet away from the cars.  From the scream of their engines, I can “feel” the cars as they fly past me.

Moving to the Arnage corner, I’m able to see the cars take the slowest corner on the track and then rocket off towards Maison Blance and the Porsche Curves.

As I’m standing in the back, behind several rows of fans, trying to capture some of the cars through the catch fencing, a random spectator approaches me and says: “If you stand next to this tree, you can get a great shot through the fence”.  At first, I’m a little confused.  “Uh…ok, thanks.”  He tells me he saw my Arkansas Razorback baseball cap, figured I was from the States, and would reach out to me.  We introduce ourselves, exchange pleasantries, and show each other our photos.  He’s Matt from South Florida and he tells me I’m the first American he’s met here in Europe.  We chat a bit and go our separate ways.  Small world…

Two quick hours later, it’s time to head back to the main part of the track.  We get back to the blue parking lot where our tour bus and my overnight pack awaits.

Inside is Trevor, where we catch up and I repack my night pack.  He tells me I need to check out the Porsche Curves.  Right, I’m all set.  I get to the Porsche Curves, and just like at Arnage, there’s a hill overlooking the track and you can see the cars find their rhythm as they head to the start/finish line.  I stick around for about 30 minutes and begin my trek back up the track and to my seat.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the rotary powered Mazda 787B win at Le Mans.  To date, it is the first and only Japanese manufacturer to win overall at Le Mans.  To celebrate it’s victory, Mazda dusted off the old girl, got her back up and running, and invited Johnny Herbert, who crossed the finish line in 1991, to come back and take this beast out on track.  He took the 787B out for two parade laps when I was meeting up with the Ten-Tenths group a few hours ago.  Where we were standing at pit exit, we could hear the 4-rotary engine screaming all the way down to Tertre Rouge…and I mean this thing screamed!

When I got interested in sports car racing in the late 90’s, the Audi R8 was conquering every race it entered.  Johnny Herbert was in F1 with Stewart Racing, but in 2001 he joined the Champion Racing squad and that’s when I first became aware of him.  I always enjoyed his interviews and I rooted for him on-track.

I find the Porsche Curves a bit frustrating – it’s hard to see anything from where I am – so I decide to head back to my seat at Dunlop.  I’m walking past the start/finish line where the main ACO offices and grandstand are and I see a guy with a familiar look talking to two other gentlemen.

As I get closer, I do a double take and it’s Johnny Herbert!  He’s shorter than I expected.  My first thought: shake his hand.  I curl around one of the two gentlemen and I extend my hand: “Excuse me.  Mr. Herbert, my name’s Robert Blanshard and I’m from America.  I just wanted to say thank you.  I enjoyed watching you when you raced in the States and I sure do miss seeing you behind the wheel.”  He takes my hand and replies: “Robert, I’m Johnny.  It’s a pleasure meeting you.”  He shrugs and continues: “Yea, it’s a shame I’m not racing over there anymore .  Don’t tell anybody, but I’m working on something.”  He smiles and winks at me.

We wave goodbye and I head off.  Why I didn’t take a picture is beyond me.  There are hundreds of people in that immediate area and, other than the two guys he is talking to, there isn’t a soul asking for an autograph.  I’m not even sure anyone is aware he is there.

It’s about 9:30 and it’s starting to get dark.  Christopher, one of the Ten-Tenths members I met earlier in the day, told me he was camping at the track and invited me to join him and some of his camping buddies for a drink.  He gave me his phone number and told me to call.  I told him I was heading to Arnage, but would be back around 8:30.  I’m about an hour late.  I try calling him, but he doesn’t answer.  I walk around for a while, trying to find his campsite.  The maps that are randomly located around the Village aren’t exactly to scale and simply point me in the general direction of the Houx campsite.  I figure I’ll just try to find the campsite, and when I get near, I’ll call him again.  After wandering around for an hour and change, I give up.  It would have been fun to join Christopher, but I don’t have a clue where I’m going.  I head back into the Village and decide I’m going to down to Tertre Rouge and catch some of the action down there.

Just past my seat, below the Dunlop Bridge, are the Esses.  This is where Allan McNish had his shunt seven hours ago.  The Esses are a downhill, flowing series of curves that lead into Tertre Rouge.  I’m at the Dunlop Bridge and I see people going down through a tunnel that goes below the Bugatti circuit.  I make my way though the tunnel and head off to my left and find a spot where I can sit down and take a break.

I settle in and it’s eerily quiet.  I look up to the Dunlop Bridge and see a safety car coming down the hill.  Just a few minutes ago, Mike Rockenfeller in the #1 Audi R18 collided with the AF Course Ferrari F458 driven by Robert Kauffman in one of the kinks on the way down to Indianapolis.  It is another violent wreck that destroys the car and severely damages the armco safety barrier.  So much so, we’re now in the middle of an almost 2 1/2 hour safety car period.  There’s very little video footage of the shunt, but from what little is available, it’s quite violent.  But just as with the McNish incident, Rocky exited the car under his own power.

It’s around 11:00 PM, and, while there’s a faint glow from the sunset – yes, really – it’s starting to get cold.  I hang out at the Esses for a little while longer and decide to head down to Tertre Rouge.  Both to see the famous corner and try to warm up a little.

On the inside of the track, near the straight towards the corner, and the corner itself, there is another man-made viewing hill similar to the one at Indianapolis/Arnage, but significantly bigger and taller.  I find an empty spot on the hill and set up camp.

Off to my right, just a short walk away, is the corner itself.  I head down there where I settle down next to a group of English-speaking gentlemen.  We’re still under a full course yellow and groups of cars just casually cruise past us.  With this break in the action, I put on the rest of my cold weather clothes – basically wool socks, my polar fleece, some cotton lined sweat pants from my days tending bar and swap out my Hog hat for a wool cap.  Ahh, that’s a little better.

There isn’t any action going on here, so I don’t really think about taking pictures, but I capture a few.

It’s now getting really boring and when you combine the cold and fatigue, doubt is starting to settle in.  Checking my watch it’s 1AM.  The tour group left the track two hours ago to head back to the hotel in Tours.  By now, all – save for 4 of us – are back in their warm beds.  I’m sitting on a REI tripod seat with over $1,000 in camera equipment in my backpack and 300 euros in my pocket – needless to say I’m a little worried about some of the questionable elements I’ve been warned about here at the track.  And I’m beginning to fear I’ve made a mistake.

When I first started planning this trip, I reached out to the Ten-Tenths guys.  Andrew was the first to speak up and tell me I have to stay the full 24.  I need to see the party in the Village and I need to see sunrise.  So I set for myself the goal of seeing sunrise.  At this point, I’m wondering if this is a good idea.

Back behind me is one of the three Houx campsites and someone is firing off fireworks.  It’s both a friendly reminder of the party atmosphere as well as a warning of the potential madness that lies before me.

They start racing again around 1:30AM and I watch a the cars for a few more laps before I start shivering.  I need to get up and move about.  I gather up my equipment, repack and decide to make my way back towards my seats and the Village.  Back where my seat is in the Dunlop Tribune, it’s a considerable hike.  And all uphill.  Yea, yea…I know.  Uphill, both ways, in driving snow….but I’m absolutely beat.  But wait, there’s a food/drink booth, just what I need.

I’m standing in line and I see people ordering french fries – pomme frites.  The maiden behind the counter asks a question that I don’t understand.  The answer is “qui”.  She spins and douses the french fries in mayonnaise.  Not just a quick squirt, but several pumps out of a Sam’s Club jug of mayo.  Needless to say, I lose my appetite rather quickly.  But I am thirsty and get myself a grande Kronenbourg – a French beer that’s rather quite good.  Keep your eyes open and get it at your finer establishments.

I’m just past Tertre Rouge and heading back up towards the Esses.  I finally get back into the Village.  The Guinness tent is now a dance hall.  There’s a party breaking out in the middle of the race.  Or is there a race going on in the middle of a party?  Either way, I’m just walking around.  And it is now quite cold.  Depending on the weather report, it was either 42 or 43.  I’d really like to find a place to warm up.  I look off to my right and see an Audi R18 on display.  It’s very cool looking, but what’s even better is it’s parked in front of the Audi Fan Area.  Inside, there are a handful of people wearing Audi gear and a few people sitting at some bar tables watching the race on a couple of TVs.  It looks closed, but I find an open door and move in like I know what I’m doing.  I figure if I’m not supposed to be in there they’ll ask me to leave.

It’s not heated, but it is warmer in here.  They have two TV’s – one showing the international broadcast feed and the other showing live timing and scoring.  Perfect.  It’s about 3:30 and it feels good just to sit down and get out of the cold.  They have various Audi pamphlets for reading, so between the TV and the Audi magazines, an hour flies by.  I look up at the TV, and they have an on-board shot of one of the cars as he’s heading towards Tertre Rouge.  Wait…is that the sunrise glow on TV?

I look outside, but the glare from the Village lights makes it hard to see the sky.  It’s about 4:30 and we still have 10+ hours of racing.  Another 30-45 minutes pass and they show another on-board shot.  I look outside again, it’s definitely getting lighter.  I gather up my stuff and make my way back to my seat.  A quick 20 minute hike and I’m back to the Dunlop Tribune and the glow is substantial now.  The sun hasn’t crested the horizon yet, but there’s a glorious warm glow.

It’s 6AM.  And suddenly, a wave sweeps over me.  Four hours ago, I was filled with self-doubt, regret, fear and countless concerns.  And like that…they’re all gone.  I set myself the goal of seeing the sunrise, and I did it.  Everything I felt just a few hours ago is now gone.  New emotions are rising up…and I find myself tearing up.  I can’t explain it.  The history of the race itself, the significance of being here, the spectacle of the race, my personal accomplishment…it’s overwhelming.

The teams who have competed here, speak about the sunrise giving them a second wind.  And they’re right.  I dry my eyes and move off to my right, towards the start/finish line.  It’s 6:30 and we’re in the middle of another safety car period for several unrelated racing incidents.

But five minutes later, we’re racing again.  Here you can see the unique Audi tail lights as he goes under the bridge.

A little further towards the start/finish and I’m able to capture some of my favorite photos.

From here, I head to the other side of the Dunlop Bridge, to the outside of the Esses.  Now the sunrise is in full glory.

Turning back towards the bridge, the cars crest the hill and swoop down into the Esses.

The beer booths are starting to reopen, but now they’re serving breakfast.  I grab two small cups of coffee and two delicious, fresh-baked croissants, and take time to reflect on the last 17+ hours.  After taking in the scene for a little bit, the exhaustion is moving in with a vengeance.  The GPT bus won’t be back for another few hours, so I head back to the Dunlop Tribune where I catch a few 5-10-15 minute naps.  It’s now around 11:00 AM and the tour bus must be back.  I grab a beer and a quick bite to eat before finding Trevor napping in the tour bus.  We chat briefly and I give myself a Wet-Wipe shower.  It’s incredibly dusty here and I have dirt everywhere.  I strip off my overnight clothes and catch another nap.

After an hour+ nap, it’s about 1:30 and time to head back one and 1/2 hours to go. The clouds have moved in and it’s starting to sprinkle.  I wander around for about an hour but I need to find a place to watch the finish.  I head up to one of the start/finish grandstands where the crowd has flooded back in.  I can’t see the track, but I can see the podium and the Rolex clock.  As the minutes tick off, we’re getting ever so close.  Finally, 0:00…but we’re not done.

The #2 Audi driven by Andre Lotterer crossed the line some 70 seconds ago and he was trailed by the #9 Peugeot by about 14 seconds.  This is not going to be a ceremonial last lap.  In fact, it’ll be the first fast lap at Le Mans since 1969.  Finally, the lone running Audi R18 crossed the finish line 2 minutes and 20 seconds later with the Peugeot 908 crossing 13.854 seconds later!  24 hours of racing and it’s decided by 13 seconds.  763 meters.  2500 feet.  Half of a mile.

A quick thank you to my fellow Gran Prix Tourers Bob and Sue for sharing this photo.  My vantage point was nowhere near as good as theirs.  He showed me this photo on the bus back to the hotel and I asked him to send it my way and he did.  Thanks Bob.

Finally the race is over and the car is back in the pit lane.  Here are the drivers standing on the cockpit of their car.

The winning car and the winning team – Benoit Treluyer, Andre Lotterer, Marcel Fassler along with race engineer Leena Gada, the first female race engineer ever to win the race – survived a Le Mans 24 Hours that was a dramatic and closely contested race.  Marred with heart-stopping accidents and mind-numbing mechanical failures, this was an incredible race.

I watch the awards ceremony – what little I could see – before I head back to the tour bus.  Slowly, the rest of the tour group returns to the bus and in short order, we’re back on the road heading back to Tours where room service, a shower, and a comfortable bed await me.

Traffic out of the track was fairly thin thanks again to Trevor and his knowledge of the local back roads.  A quick nap later and we’re back at the hotel.  I head upstairs and take a quick shower before ordering room service and settling in to watch the F1 Canadian Grand Prix.  After watching Jenson Button pass Sebastian Vettel on the last lap, I turn off the lights and get a full night’s rest – 40 hours after I woke up yesterday morning.

Thank you to everyone who was a part of this trip – Mom and Dad, Emily and Claire, Ted and Peter, Smades, Maureen, Laura, Sherry and Phil, Tessa and everyone at Grand Prix Tours, Trevor for his invaluable experience and priceless race tid-bits as well as all my fellow tour group members – Clayton, Paul, Sue and Bob, Kris and Jim, Lauren and David, Lisa and John.  This was a trip of a lifetime, and I thank you all for your support and for being a part of this trip.

These days, people ask me: What are you going to do next?  Are you going to get something to eat?  You going to hit the range?  What’s the plan?  Well, I think I’ve got something smaller planned.  Something a little more Petit…

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One Comment on “Le Mans”

  1. Wilbertt says:

    Great post – really. Even though I have heard about the trip from you firsthand I really enjoyed reading this. Did you ever find out what was going on in the terminal?

    I’ll meet you at the range!


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