Friday Pit Visit

After spending Thursday on the TGV from Paris to Tours and taking in the old part of Tours, Friday was to be at the track for a special event.  Ten-Tenths forum member extraordinaire James was able to work his magic again and line up a pit visit for a select few forum members.

In 2010, when I became a regular on the Le Mans sub-forum, James was able to orchestrate a visit with the Rebellion LMP1 Team.  Last year, James had been in negotiations with a team and had everything lined up when, in the 11th hour, this team pulled out of Le Mans.  Just a few days later, a representative with Audi reached out to James and they were able to visit the 2011 Le Mans winning Audi team and see their new R18.  From all reports, the visit was incredible and Audi went above and beyond to accommodate the Tenths group.  So much so, that Audi reached out to the Tenthers again this year and invited us to join them in their private suites above the pits to watch this year’s nighttime qualifying.

This year, James was at it again.  20 hand-picked members of the Ten-Tenths forum would get the opportunity to get an up close and personal tour of the new Toyota TS030.  Audi last year and Toyota this year – James has far exceeded any and all expectations.

The tour is set up for Friday – the day before the race – and I’m in Tours.  I have to get to the track, go on the tour, and get back to the station to catch my train back to Tours so I can get to the hotel and meet up with Trevor and the rest of the Grand Prix Tour group.  It was both easier and more difficult than I expected.

I get up Friday morning and check out of my little hotel next to the Tours train station.  I take my bags down the street to the Hotel de L’Univers – I’ll check in when I get back.  I head back to the Tours train station and wait for my 9:00 train bound for Caen with stops in between, including Le Mans.

It’s another wonderful trip through the French countryside stopping at Chateau-du-Loir and Ecommoy before dropping me off right in the middle of Le Mans.

Gare du Mans

Just outside the train station is a stop for the Le Mans local SETRAM light rail.  1.40 Euro gets me a ticket from the center of town down to the new Antares station next to the MMArena – just outside the circuit.  My friend Walter – another great member of the Tenths forum – has offered to meet me at the gate and take me to pits for our Toyota visit.

Walking up to the gate, I’m greeted by a parade of cars with similar graphics that leaves little to the imagination as to their origin.

British Aston

British 430

Just inside the gate, I see Walter waiting patiently for me.  A quick handshake and pat on the back, we’re on our way.  But not directly to the pits.  Walter has a little surprise for me.

The more I get to know my fellow Tenths members, the more I learn about them.  Walter’s experience and knowledge of Le Mans is considerably greater than mine.  I saw my first American Le Mans race in 1999 or 2000 with the Audi R8.  Sure, I know about the great battle between Ford and Ferrari in the late ’60s, but I have a gap from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.  Before Audi, competitors at Le Mans in the ’80s and early ’90s raced in the class known as Group C.  With bubble canopies and massive tails, these cars more resemble wingless aircraft than cars.  And Walter is a bit of a Group C groupie.

Just before meeting me at the Antares entry, Walter and his friends Bryan and Ton were exploring the Group C paddock down in between the Village and the main paddock.  Walking in, Walter has a few words of advice: All you have to do is ask.  The answer is either “yes” or “no”.  If you don’t ask, the answer is always “no”.  Initially, I was a bit confused by this, but I went with it.

Just past the security guard, I’m greeted by a pair of Mercedes legends.

1989 Sauber Mercedes C11

1989 Sauber Mercedes C9

All around us are other legendary cars in various states of assembly.  With noses and rear decks removed, mechanics are repairing or replacing various mechanical parts in preparation for tomorrow’s support race.

In the tent next to the Sauber Mercedes, is the gorgeous Martini-liveried 1984 Lancia LC2.

1984 Lancia LC2

Most of the cars are behind ropes and I’m getting pictures as best I can.

1990 Porsche 962

Walter asks me if I’d like a closer look: “No, I don’t want to bother them.  Besides, I don’t think they’ll let me in.”  If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.  “Excuse me, can we get a closer look so my friend from America can take some pictures”.  Without hesitation, a mechanic looks up and invites us in.  Walter looks at me and gives me a knowing wink.

Dismantled Gear Box

Bungs In

Gear Shift Rod

This one is great.  This is the 1989 Spice SE89, and for about 5 minutes Walter and I watched this mechanic fiddle around the engine bay.  He was working this multi-linked rod from the cockpit, around the newly rebuilt engine, and into a metal sleeve in the back.  I ask what he’s working on. “Oh, this is the gear-shift control rod.”  Sure, I guess that would be kind of important to shift gears.  “No, not just shifting gears. When it gives, you are stuck in one gear.”  Has that happened before?  He looks up at me, smiles and says: “Not after I’ve installed it.”  Just great stuff.

Scattered about the temporary paddock are more great examples of Group C racers.

1990 Jagermeister Porsche 962

Porsche Engine

Walking about, we spot Group C and JMW Ferrari driver Roger Wills giving some friends of his a tour of the Lancia he’ll be driving in the warm up race tomorrow.

Roger Wills

On the Tenths forum, in the weeks leading up to the race, we had been discussing our Toyota tour as well as our annual pre-race get together when we got an unexpected surprise invitation.  It turns out that Roger Wills is a fellow Tenths member and he reached out to us.  He said if we’re going to be down in the pits on Friday, why don’t we stop by his Ferrari team and he’ll show us around.  Not only do we get a private tour with Toyota, but a Le Mans competitor has also directly invited us to visit his team.

Walter and I stick around and listen to Roger give his friends an in-depth tour of his Lancia.  It’s terribly hot, remarkably fast, unbelievably noisy, and an overall blast to drive.  I ask a question or two and he responds.  I tell him I’m a member of the Ten-Tenths and we’ll see him later in the day.  “Great, I’m looking forward to it.”

Unfortunately, some of these incredible machines wouldn’t survive tomorrow’s Group C support race.

With that, Walter and I find his friends Ton and Bryan.

Walter, Ton, and Bryan talking with their Group C friend

We make our way into the Village for a quick bite to eat.  It’s about 12:30 when we find a spot to sit down and relax before heading down to the pit lane.  Over croque monsieur’s, sausage sandwiches, Coke and beer, the four of us chat about the race, getting here, and what it’s like where we live.  It’s great to add two new friends into the mix.

Me and Ton

After some ok lunch and great conversation, the four of us make our way down towards the pits.  From my experience last year at the track, it’s oddly quiet.  But then again, it’s not race day.  It’s about 1:30, we’re supposed to meet up with Roger around 2 and the Toyota team at 3.  We find our Tenths meeting spot across from the Toyota pits.  A few other Tenthers are starting to gather – Nobby, Bernard, Mathias, and Eric just to name a few.

The pitlane is a sea of humanity.  I know there are only a few thousand people here, but it’s packed in.

Several of us make our way down to the JMW Motorsports pit and wait patiently.

JWM Motorsports

JMW Bonnet

Moments later, out comes Roger scanning the crowd.  I raise my hand and he recognizes me from the Group C paddock – I’m sure the Razorback hat made it a little easy.

He waves me and the rest of the Tenths group in, welcomes us and he starts telling us about the car.  Its last year’s car, but updated with the flappy-paddle gearbox.  It has a rear-view camera mounted in the bumper with a small screen in the cockpit showing him what’s behind him.  They’ve broken the car down to its basic components to check and double-check everything so that when its put back together, it’s in tip-top form for tomorrow’s race.

Roger Wills

Roger Wills

My friend Bernard, gives us this TwitPic:

Roger in the garage

The car is disassembled and there’s a long list of things to do to get the car ready for tomorrow.

458 Engine

Roger tells us about his team, and just at that moment, his fellow co-drivers – Jonathan Cocker and James Walker – come walking by.  I shake their hands and wish them good luck.  Roger continues explaining a stint is about 2 hours for each driver.  Long enough for the driver to get out of the car, visit the team doctor, get a bite to eat and something to drink, and maybe some rest, before hopping back in the car and going back out on the track.

Roger’s now moved us towards the back of the garage, where we meet his data engineer, Oli Harding.   Oli goes onto tell us about their telemetry program and how it all works.  Roger recalls how he was driving during practice when Oli told him to take his foot off the clutch.  Inadvertently, Roger was resting his foot on the clutch pedal and that was giving just enough feedback – 3 to 4% pressure – that the team noticed it.

Oli Harding

I ask if it’s MoteC – a program I’m familiar with from sim-racing – and Oli tells us it’s not; they use a similar program from Bosch Motorsport called WinDarab.  Additionally, race tracks are typically broken down into 3 sectors, but because of Le Mans’ length, they have it broken down into 8 sectors.  Roger tells us their system is so good they can tell him he needs to break later or earlier, be softer or harder on the steering input, and when to jump on the throttle.  Without a doubt, this is the most fascinating and inside look into a racing team I’ve ever experienced.

Our time is up and we bid the team good luck and best wishes for the race.  Just outside, a group of Dutch fans are heckling/taunting/singing to all the teams.

Dutch Fans

We make our way back towards the Toyota pits where I finally catch up with James, Andrew, and Tony – my Tenths friends I’ll be sitting with tomorrow.  With smiles on everyone’s faces, I’m seeing friends I haven’t seen in a year – and it’s a great feeling.  More Tenthers are arriving: Simon, Christopher, Pascal as well as a few faces whose names I don’t know yet.  But thanks to the common bond that is the Tenths website, we’re all smiles and anxiously awaiting our Toyota visit.

Shortly after 3:00, James gathers us together and a gentleman in Toyota gear asks us to follow him.  He and James have a quick conversation before breaking the us up into two 10-man groups.  I’m in the first group and we’re led through security.  Behind the pits, the gentleman in the Toyota gear introduces himself: Alastair Moffitt with Toyota Europe.  Alastair gives us a quick run rundown of the rules: stay together, ask anything you want, and unfortunately – no photos.  There will be a secure place for us to put our packs and cameras.

Before we head in, a few things catch my eye.  This is just common sight at Le Mans.

Interesting

Moments later, up walks Toyota driver Alexander Wurz.

Alexander Wurz

From my brief encounters with Johnny Herbert and Allan McNish last year, both of those gentlemen were slightly shorter and considerably smaller than I am.  It makes sense, the smaller the driver, the smaller and more aerodynamic you can make the cockpit.  But Alex Wurz is HUGE.  I can only imagine him squeezing into the Toyota, last few Peugeot 908’s, and all those little F1 cars he drove.

With that, Alastair ushers us into the Denso Toyota Hybrid tent and pit paddock.

Inside, it is the definition of controlled chaos.  That’s not a knock, it’s just a little overwhelming to me.  Here’s a stack of tires, there are replacement tail pieces, here are replacement noses, and carbon fiber components scattered about.  It’s abuzz with activity as mechanics and engineers are moving all over the place.  In front, Alastair is talking and moving towards the front of the pit, Eric and I are the stragglers.  I’m taking a closer look at the tail and nose pieces and Eric is talking with two of the engineers.

In a corporate collaboration, Toyota has partnered with experienced Le Mans competitor and constructor, Oreca, for logistical help.  Oreca is based in France and, as I understand it, many of the mechanics live in or near Le Mans.  Well, as it turns out, Eric also lives in Le Mans.  He’s stuck up a conversation with a few of the mechanics and I’m lost in the back of the garage looking at all the parts of the car.  Suddenly, out of the blue, a Toyota engineer/mechanic/top-of-the-food-chain guy comes up to me and Eric and asks if we’re with the tour.  Yes.  Well, why don’t you two get back on tour.  With that, Eric and I move quickly to the front of the garage where two dismantled TS030’s are right in front of us – and it’s a bit surprising.

All I see is the floorboard, the cockpit, and the engine.  I know the engineers want to keep everything as low as possible for the lowest center of gravity possible, but what in front of me is surprising.  A 3.4 liter V8 that can produce 500+ HP, literally sitting on the floorboard that then sits an inch or so above the ground.  It’s a marvel of engineering.

Catching up with the group, Alastair is talking about the hybrid system they use and how it’s different from the “other guys”.  The “other guys” are Audi.  Their hybrid system powers the front wheels, the Toyota system powers the rear wheels.  And Toyota built theirs in-house.  “They bought their system” Alastair says with a respectful/playful shot at Audi.  After a few more questions and answers that are hard to make out due to the loud public address speaker, we make our way towards the back of the garage where we gather our packs.  We’re taken outside to the Michelin tire engineers who are hand inspecting each of the tires.  We chat with the tire guys a bit before our tour is over.

We get back to the pit lane where Alastair and James corral the second group and the rest of us talk about what we’ve just seen.  Initially, we were told each group would have 15-20 minutes with Toyota.  Looking at my watch we’ve been with Alastair for almost 45 minutes!  And now a small problem has presented itself.  But so too have solutions.

When we were first told about our visit, James told me I would have a spot in one of the two groups.  I planned accordingly.  Staying in Tours, I would take a regional train to Le Mans, catch the SETRAM to the track, and just reverse course to get back to Tours to catch up with Trevor and the rest of the Grand Prix Tour group for dinner.  With the train schedule finally set – the SNCF doesn’t release the train schedule until a few weeks before traveling – I purchased my tickets.  Leave Tours at 9:30 and get to Le Mans at 11.  Leave Le Mans at 4:30 and return to Tours by 6.  Absolute perfect timing.  However, Toyota had other plans.

Our pit visit wasn’t planned until 3:00.  Dramatically narrowing my travel window.  There was another train bound for Tours, but that wasn’t leaving until 6 or so, and I would miss or be late for dinner with Trevor.  And, quite frankly, I didn’t want to miss dinner.  So, in the Toyota visit discussion thread on the Tenths forum, I threw out my problem.  But the guys online were more than willing to help.

First to speak up was Christopher.  He gave me some assurances, that with good timing, I could make my train and in the grand scheme of things, it’ll all work out.  Next up was Eric – our Le Mans local.  He said if the weather was good, he would take his motorcycle to the track and he’d get me back to the station in no time.  Finally, Pascal speaks up and offers me a ride in his Peugeot.  He doesn’t live far from Tours and he would take me back to my hotel if need be.

The first group is out in the pit lane and we’re all talking about what we’ve just seen.  Eric and Pascal check on me and my schedule.  Looking at my watch, there’s no way I’ll make it to the SETRAM and then onto Gare Le Mans.  Pascal says tells me to come on and we head to the parking lot just outside the track.

We get to his car and he pulls out his trusty TomTom GPS and plugs in the address to the Gare Le Mans.  The funny thing is, as we get going, the TomTom is issuing directions in French.  Of course it would, but it gave me a giggle nonetheless.  One small problem, it keeps telling us to turn left onto one way streets.

We make our way through town as best we can – his knowledge of Le Mans is a little rusty and mine is near zero.  We spend the time talking about ourselves – what we do in the real world outside of the Tenths forum.  He’s in information management and, while living in Blois, he spends his work week in Pairs.  Blois and Tours share the Loire River and he lives about an hour from where I’m staying.

Turn here, the TomTom says, but we can’t – it’s one way.  Turn here – nope can’t do that either.  Finally, we make our way onto Boulevard des Riffaudires that’ll take us to Boulevard Demorieux and straight to the station.  Checking my watch, we’re cutting it close.  Finally, we make it to the station and with a quick handshake and a poorly spoken “merci beaucoup”, I hop out of the car and sprint into the Gare Le Mans lobby.  I find a ticket kiosk, key in my reservation code and last name, and grab my ticket.

Checking the train information board, I’m departing from platform 6.  Another quick sprint and I find my train, hop on board, and grab a seat.  Two minutes – and I’m not exaggerating – two minutes later and the train is pulling out of the station.  Talk about by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin, that was close.  Not that it would have been a bad journey to Tours with Pascal, I honestly didn’t want to put him through the trouble.

With that, I’m again rolling through the French countryside.  I don’t know how to describe it, but there’s something magical about riding the train through Europe.  This is something I will definitely do again.  I’m back in Tours in no time where I check in and grab my bags at the Hotel de L’Univers.  Up to my newly remodeled room where I take a much needed shower and shave.  It’s almost time for dinner, but more importantly, time for a drink in the hotel bar.

Exiting the lift, walking right in front of me is Trevor from Grand Prix Tours.  Last year, Trevor and I hit it off and he was one of the selling points in using Grand Prix Tours again this year.  He’s a wonderful English gentleman with a racing background and he knows his stuff.  In the months after returning from last year’s trip, I was able to find Trevor on Facebook where we would chat online from time to time.  Calling out to Trevor, he turns around with a smile and it’s like catching up with another old friend.

Trevor and I make our way to the bar where we get a drink and he gives me a Le Mans history book that was a Sunday newspaper insert a few weeks ago.  It’s a wonderful gesture and a prize I have and will read often.  Finishing our drinks, we move into the main dining room where the rest of our GPT group is waiting.

At our dinner table are two couples who have visited Le Mans before as well as first-timer, Gary.  Gary lives in Detroit and is an engineer of some sort with General Motors.  Over dinner, he and Trevor discuss certain automotive technicalities like the spring and roll bars of various racing cars.  I knew some of the things they were talking about, others, not so much.   Afterwards, Gary strikes up a conversation with me and Trevor about what he wants to do and where he wants to go.  Some places: yes.  Others: no.  I offer my experiences from last year – he takes some with a grain of salt, others he clings to.  Trevor turns in while Gary and I head to the bar to discuss more of what to see and where to go.  After a drink, it’s getting late so we call it a night – Gary, you still owe me a beer.  Tomorrow is Le Mans, and we have a long day in front of us.

I head back to my room and open my bedroom window to let in some fresh air – and to help air out the smell of freshly painted walls.  Going over my equipment for tomorrow’s race, it’s starting to rain.  This will dramatically change my plans for staying the full 24 hours.  A wet Le Mans without the sunset or sunrise is not what I want.  Things could change, but right now, I’m leaning towards not staying the entirety of the race.  And with that, I turn in.

It was an incredible day.  To James, Walter, and Pascal, Roger Wills and the whole JMW Motorsports team, and Alastair Moffitt with Toyota Europe, a massive thank you for providing an incredible experience and an amazing inside view of racing at Le Mans.

Thank you very much.  Experiencing the Le Mans in the stands is one thing, but seeing what goes into fielding a competitive team to challenge Le Mans is a different thing entirely.

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6 Comments on “Friday Pit Visit”

  1. Remco van Stroe a.k.a. 'GTfour' says:

    Very nice read there, Mr. Blanshard.

  2. Simon Matthews says:

    That was good reading. Makes me sad it will be 11 months until we are there again.

    Simon (GT6)

  3. Aysedasi says:

    Great stuff Robert – a very enjoyable read. 🙂

    Andrew (Ayse).

  4. Walter says:

    Nice Story Robert . Was a Plessure for me !!

    Walter !!

  5. The Aston and the ferrari were part of our group, I was thrilled to stumble across these, I took my father to Le Mans for the first time and that was him in the passenger seat of the f430 being given a thrill ride (his face suggests otherwise!)

    Many thanks for sharing.


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