2012 24 Heures du Mans

The United States Grand Prix, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years – they’ve all come and gone…I figure it’s time to finish my Le Mans report.

Le Mans.

The word alone means so many things.  A town in the French countryside.  A challenge for man and machine.  A week-long celebration of racing.  An event that many consider the pinnacle of racing.  There are, without question, people who attend the race for just one of these reasons.  But for me, it is the combination of all these aspects and so much more.

Waking up Saturday morning the 16th, the first thing I notice through my open balcony doors: the sound of rain.  My heart sinks; this will be a wet race.  While it’s rained every day I’ve been in France, I’ve also enjoyed extended periods where it was sunny and dry.  Looking at the radar, there’s an ominous green blob hovering over central France.  Equipment-wise, I’m prepared for rainy weather.  My resolve, however, is less than prepared for a wet race.  The prospect of spending the next 40 hours wet and miserable is less than desirable – especially considering I have an exceptional (not to mention dry) hotel room waiting for me.  I get dressed and head downstairs for breakfast.

Loading up on eggs, bacon, croissants, and coffee, I join some of my fellow Grand Prix Tour patrons from dinner last night.  There are only a few of us having breakfast, most of our fellow tour participants are missing.  Trevor, most noticeably, is nowhere to be found.  He knows what he’s doing, so I’m not too worried.  The 6 or 7 of us are discussing the day’s events that lay ahead of us and what we’ll be seeing.  After wolfing down my second breakfast plate, it’s 7:45 and time for me to head back upstairs and grab my track pack.

Heading back to the elevators, I see Trevor coming out of the room where we had dinner last night. “Where have you been?” he asks.

Up front, getting breakfast, where have you been?

Trevor points into the room: “Eating breakfast with the rest of the tour group”.  Oh…that’s where we were supposed to have breakfast.  Trevor chuckles and I head upstairs.

Upon entering my room, I realize I left my balcony doors open and the sound of rain is ever present, if not increasing.  My first thought: sorry Ayse, I’m not staying the full 24.  I double check everything: camera equipment, clothes, snacks, and socks.  I’m all set.  Throwing on my new REI rain jacket, I head back downstairs.

The Grand Prix Tours group has gathered in the lobby waiting on the bus that pulls up shortly.  Taking my place at the front of the bus as I did last year, I settle in.  A short 15 minutes later, we’re all on board and heading out of town towards the A10 where we’ll pick up the A28 onto Le Mans.

Because of the bleak and dreary weather, I don’t take any pictures of the wet French countryside.  At the same time, I am having a wonderful conversation with a charming couple from the Northeast seated behind me.  She’s a speech therapist and he’s in the auto repair industry who enjoys racing his 70’s Porsche on open-track days.  We chuckled at the New England/Boston accent (where my name is pronounced “Rabbit”) and the Texas/Southern accent (something which I apparently don’t have except when I said I was “fixin” to do something).  The countryside rolls by and like that we’re exiting the A28.  Le Mans is close.  A few short minutes later, I recognize where I am on the D323 and just like that, we’re crossing Tertre Rouge and the Mulsanne Straight – I get chills.

Unlike last year, where Trevor took us from Plan A to B to C to D before we finally parked, Trevor takes us directly through Arnage and around towards Maison Blanche where we finally get to our parking lot.

Pulling in, it’s around 9:30.  It’s still raining and I’m in no hurry to get out into the elements and get wet, especially when I don’t have to be anywhere until noon to meet up with the 10ths crew, so I decide to stick around and chat it up with Trevor.  I’ve promised to show Gary – my fellow GPT’er from Detroit – what I know and where to go and have convinced him to hang out with me and Trevor.

The three of us chat it up about Trevor’s racing past and Gary continues to wow us with his car knowledge.  Gary is a global technical expert for dampers for GM; he covers the specifications (among other things) for all GM vehicles globally – and he knows his stuff.  Gary and Trevor are having a great conversation about XYZ car and how it’s the platform for ABC car sold in France and how it shares suspension parts with LMNO car in Germany.  Trust me, it is actually quite fascinating.  The three of us chat is up for an hour or so and the rain begins to let up a bit.  With that, I turn to Gary and ask if he’s ready to head up to the track.  He nods in agreement and after a quick 10 minute walk, we make our way through the Maison Blanche gate.

As we near the track, the Group C support race has ended and the roar of 28 various Aston Martin race cars coming to life fills the air.  In hindsight, I wish I’d taken Gary up to the track earlier so we could see the Group C cars in action and catch the start of various DBR9’s and Vantages.  We get to the Ferris Wheel and a few Astons make their way through the Ford Chicane.  Pointing off to the distance, there’s the Dunlop Chicane and the Dunlop Tribune where I sat last year.

Near the start/finish line, we walk past the various vendors, giggling at the Aston Martin branded thongs and half-shirts for women.  Here’s the ACO grandstand, here’s where I met Johnny Herbert last year and where I’ll be sitting this year.  There’s the main tunnel under the track towards the Village – take note, walk through on the right side – unlike what I did last year where I earned a few disapproving glares from my fellow race attendees for not going the right way.  Here’s the Dunlop Tribune, the Dunlop Chicane, and Dunlop Bridge: excellent photo opportunities here.  We start to head towards Tertre Rouge when I check my watch.  Crap, its 11:30 and the 10ths group is meeting in 30 minutes!  I tell Gary he needs to join me, he’s going to love meeting the 10ths guys.  Without hesitation, he agrees and we head towards the 10ths meeting tree where I have a treat in store for my friends.

Ten-Tenths.com is a website/discussion forum dedicated to racing: NASCAR, WRC, MOTOGP, autocross, F1, you name it.  If it goes fast or 2 or 4 wheels, it gets discussed on this website.  I’ve been a member for the past 5+ years.  We have a subsite dedicated to Le Mans, and it is without a doubt, the best and most intelligent group of fans I’ve ever had the pleasure of interacting with.  Every year, the guys get together for pre-race drinks, snacks, and catching up.

Exiting the tunnel and turning right: the Le Mans Village – in all its glory – is right in front of us.  Immediately in front of us is a Chevrolet booth that Gary absolutely must take a look at.  Given his employer, I can’t say that I blame him.  To our left is the  Grand Marnier crepe booth.  Across the way is the the Dodge booth with the new Viper on display.  And right next to the Dodge display is the Ten-Tenths group.

I know exactly where I’m going and I’m immediately surrounded by friends.  James and Andrew are the first I seek out.  With quick handshakes and pats on the shoulder, I move about the group seeking others out.  Surrounding me are Walter, Eric, Pascal, Bernard, Simon, Nobby, and Christopher – while yes, I saw these guys yesterday, seeing them at the race just has a different feel to it.  Yesterday was just us hanging out at the track checking out the Toyota team.  Today we’re here for something special: the race.

With Gary in tow and introducing him to as many as I can, there are a few faces I don’t recognize.  I introduce myself and the response: Hi, I’m Truckosaurus.  And like that, I immediately know who I’m talking to.  As I prepared for last year’s race, I shared this site with the Tenths guys, one of the first responses I received was from Truckosaurus.  I had concerns on getting to and from Tertre Rouge, concerns quickly squashed by Truckosaurus.  To finally meet him in person is a genuine pleasure.

Truckosaurus

Truckosaurus

After another cup of wine or two, I find Gary.  He’s chatting with two other members I don’t know yet.  “Hi, I’m rblanshard from Texas”.  “Hi, I’m Isynge and this is GTFour”.  Again, I immediately know these guys.  We’ve carried on conversations online and now we’ve finally met in person.

Gary, Isynge, and GTFour

Gary, Isynge, and GTFour

Walking about, I see another forum member and I think I know who he is from previous meeting pictures.  I want to meet him and I want to hear his experiences.  Eos.   Again, we’ve never met, but I know him.  And I know his story.

Eos

Eos

Competing in an online competition, Eos won the opportunity to attend rally racing school and participate in a rally race.  We chat about the various games we have at home and how the raw skill to go fast online translates directly to going fast in real life.  Sure, there are minor tweaks to be made and other skills to learn, but the games and simulations are so good, you can make the jump from the PC/console racing to real racing action.  Good to know.  Now I have an excuse to keep up with GT5 and iRacing just in case Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich decides to give me a call.

I rattle off a few more shots of the group.

Pascal and Ayse

Pascal and Ayse

Bentley and the guys

Bentley and the guys

Kpy

Kpy

The Guys

The Guys

I wish I’d taken more candid shots, but grabbing my camera reminded me I forgot something else: my American treat for the boys.

Last year, Eric and Pascal brought wine that was locally grown and bottled as well as some fioe gras.  It was a great way to kick off my first Le Mans.  In the months leading up to this year’s race, as we made plans to meet up again, I promised I’d bring something local for the group.  Almost instantly, the guys began making jokes about brewing moonshine and having it delivered in the General Lee.  I promised them something better, and I can guarantee I didn’t disappoint.

Shouldering my camera, I reach into my bag and retrieve my bottle of moonshine: Woodford Reserve.  Almost immediately, the guys ask what I’ve brought and when I tell them it’s American whiskey.  They almost all cringe.  There is an American whiskey that is easily available in Europe, and quite frankly it’s a little harsh.  I can’t blame them for their hesitation, but I promise them they won’t be disappointed.

With an air of apprehension, one by one they extend their empty cups.  First the smell test: passed.  Next the sip test: passed.  Finally, the empty cup and refill test: passed.  One of the members partaking in my treat is Mathias.  We haven’t previously met, but again, we know each other online and begin talking.  He’s from Denmark and is really enjoying the Woodford Reserve.  Nobby walks up and he too is pleasantly surprised.  We chat for a while about the flavor and how it’s different from what they’ve previously experienced.  Several others have all come up and said how much the enjoyed the whiskey.

*Post-race whiskey update.  Several weeks after returning home, I received notes from Nobby and Mathias that they were successful in tracking down bottles of Woodford Reserve from their local shops and have added it to their rotation.

A few sips here, a few refills there, and like that the bottle is empty.  It’s about 2:00, the race is an hour away, and it’s time to make our way to the ACO Tribune.

But before we head to our seats, it’s time for a group photo:

The Tenths Guys

The Tenths Guys

The get well message to AllonFS is directed at a fellow Tenths member.  AllonFS is a frequent Le Mans visitor and a respected member of the forum.  Earlier this year, Allon announced he would not be attending the 2012 race.  He had recently been re-diagnosed with leukemia.  Having won his first battle 5 years ago, he’s once again undergoing treatment.  Just as the message says: get well AllonFS.  We’ve never met, and although you weren’t here in person, you were still a part of my trip this year.  Take care and get well.

It’s only now I notice someone is missing.  Nirav.

Several months ago, I received a notice that someone had posted a comment on this site that needed my approval.  It was some random reader who found my site through Google or some other search engine.  He liked my site, had a few questions and asked if I would send him a note.  It was too personal for it to be generated from some spam-bot, so I responded.  I dropped Nirav an e-mail and addressed some of his concerns.  Much to my surprise, he responded quite quickly.  This was going to be his first trip to Le Mans and he received most of his advice from Beer Mountain – another Le Mans fan website.

He was – at the time – in med school in the University of Florida program.  I told him I was a Razorback and there were several friendly SEC shots across the bow in our communication.  I told him where we’d be and what time we were meeting.  I would, again, have my Razorback hat on and it would be easy to find me.  Alas, he didn’t join us.  Next time, Nirav.

Slowly, the group starts to break up as it’s time for us to find our seats.  It was another successful meeting of the Ten-Tenths Le Mans crew.  It was great to see my friends again and equally great to meet new guys.  Guy, Ian, Remko, and Mathias, it was great to finally put names to faces.

James, Andrew, Tony, and I gather up our stuff and make our way to the rather impressive ACO Tribune.  Late last year/earlier this year, after deciding to return to Le Mans, James reached out to me and invited me to join him and Andrew and Tony in their seats.  After joining the ACO, having to upgrade my membership, buy tickets, reach out to the ACO to exchange tickets, and finally get in touch with Caroline with the ACO ticket office, I finally got my tickets with the boys.

With the Audi pits directly in front of us and the JMW Motorsport pits just to the left, the start/finish line and the main race control building is off to our right and the Dunlop Bridge and Chicane is around the bend to our left.

The cars are lined up as the engineers make their final adjustments.  Just a few hours ago, it was raining and the track was drenched.  The track is still slightly wet, but sun is peaking in and out from behind the clouds.   It’s been rain-free for the last 3+ hours, looks like could have a dry race.  My thought of returning to Tours for the night is quickly fading.

Toyota and Audi

Toyota and Audi

The Field

The Field

Le Mans Ferris Wheel

Le Mans Ferris Wheel

Slowly, the cars begin heading out for their reconnaissance laps.

Heading out

Heading out

There’s a buzz in the air as we’re getting close to the waiving of the drapeau tricolore.  The Patrouille Acrobatique de France has flown over the front stretch with their blue, white, and red smoke trailing behind.  Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, made famous from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, plays over the loud speakers.  The cars exit the Ford Chicane, it’s 3:00 and time to start:

It’s a glorious sound, the roar of 56 cars moving past you.  James, Andrew, Tony, and I enjoy the show playing out just a few yards in front of us.

Nissan DeltaWing

Nissan DeltaWing

Flying Lizard

Flying Lizard

LMP2 and LMP1

LMP2 and LMP1

Papparazzi

Papparazzi

I head inside and grab the four of us a beer.  We sit there, listening to Radio Le Mans as the cars roars past us and hang out for a few hours.

Around 6:00, James and Andrew suggest we go for a walk.  With James and Andrew in the lead, Tony and I take up the rear and begin our trek towards Tertre Rouge.  As we near the Dunlop Chicane and the ACO Museum, Tony and I notice James and Andrew are nowhere to be found.  We search for a bit, shrug our shoulders and keep moving on.  Tony doesn’t post much on Ten-Tenths and I don’t know him very well.  We met last year when he brought his son Tim to the Tenths meeting so this gives us a chance to chat and get to know each other.  We settle in just below the Dunlop Bridge around 7:30.

Under the Bridge

Under the Bridge

GT Action

GT Action

Leading Audi

Leading Audi

We move into the Esses.  We’re standing right next to this 6 to 7 foot tall old cement wall.  I attach my camera to my tripod, angle down the LCD screen and rattle off a few of these shots as well as this video.

LMP2

LMP2

Murphy Prototypes and AF Corse

Murphy Prototypes and AF Corse

Around 8:00, there’s a loud gasp from the crowd and the French announcer is screaming over the loud speakers.  Tony and I look at each other wondering what happened.  Just off to our left is a jumbotron tv.  Many spectators have jumped the waist high chain link fence to see the replay.

Checking out the jumbotron

Checking out the jumbotron

I plug in my radio and tune into Radio Le Mans – Anthony Davidson driving the # 8 Toyota TS030 was clipped by the slower GTE AM driver Piergiuseppe Perazzini in the AF Corse Ferrari 458 heading into the Mulsanne Corner.  But words don’t do it justice describing what happened to Toyota and Anthony Davidson.

Having gone back and watched the replay several times, while I know it’s the faster drivers’ responsibility to pass in a responsible manner, this is totally Perazzini’s fault and another example of the flawed thinking by the ACO to have “amateur” drivers at this event.  While Perazzini was able to walk away from his overturned Ferrari, Davidson suffered two broken vertebrae.  Due to the damage of the safety barrier, we’re under an hour-long safety car period.

Tony and I cross under Tertre Rouge and make our way to the hill overlooking the inside of the corner as the cars file past us down the Mulsanne Straight.  Tony taps me on the shoulder and points off to my right.  Standing there, about five feet from us are James and Andrew.  It’s easy to lose two guys in a crowd of 250,000+, but to accidentally stumble upon two friends is entirely random.  Granted it wasn’t hard to miss Andrew in his bright yellow coat, but still.

It’s around 9:30 and the cars are back racing.  It’s still fairly bright outside.  The combination of the ambient light, the speed of the cars, and the right settings on the Nikon, I get my favorite shots of the race.

Rebellion Racing

Rebellion Racing

Flying Lizard Porsche

Flying Lizard Porsche

Audi #1 e-tron quattrp

Audi #1 R18 e-tron quattro

Murphy Prototypes

Murphy Prototypes

JMW Motorsports

JMW Motorsports

Just as we go back to racing, not far from us, in the Corvette Corner, the 2nd Toyota TS030 is in a gaggle of other cars, including the Nissan DeltaWing.  As Toyota driver Kaz Nakajima tries an inside move on the lead Audi, he clipped the radical racer.  My Tenths buddy Nobby caught these great photos.

DeltaWing

DeltaWing

DeltaWing

DeltaWing

Satoshi Motoyama

Satoshi Motoyama

Satoshi Motoyama working on the DeltaWing

Satoshi Motoyama working on the DeltaWing

Each car carries a basic set of tools.  If something happens on-track, the driver is allowed to use those tools to try to repair any damage.  If the driver exits his car, he has to stay within 10 meters of the vehicle otherwise it’s considered abandoned and you’ve retired from the race.  You can see Motoyama doing his best to get the DeltaWing back up and running again.  He’s about a half mile from the pit entry and members of his pit crew are just outside the fence, telling him what to try to fix.  They can’t give him any tools or assist him, but they can tell him what to try next.

I love the applause the fans give him for his valiant efforts to restart the DeltaWing.  Talk about being in the right place at the right time.  Thank you Nobby for letting me use your photos.

Back where we are at Tertre Rouge, it’s getting dark and I’m having very strong memories of being here last year.  In 2011, I was here about this same time, but I was alone.  My fellow Grand Prix Tourers were boarding the bus and heading back to Tours for the night.  I was very cold, alone, and quite frankly, a little worried.  This year, it’s a completely different feeling.  Checking my watch, the GPT group should be heading back to Tours.  The funny thing is, it isn’t until now did I think about heading back to Tours.  There isn’t a hint of apprehension, regret, or fear.  I’m staying the full 24.  I’m with excellent friends sharing an incredible experience.

Aston Martin LM GTE Pro

Aston Martin LM GTE Pro

Le Tertre Rouge Restaurant

Le Tertre Rouge Restaurant

Turning around to see the cars scream off into the French countryside is amazing to see and even more amazing to hear as the engine noise is reverberated off the trees.

You can see how the faster prototype cars will flash their high beams at the slower GT cars telling them “I’M FASTER THAN YOU – PLEASE DON’T DO ANYTHING STUPID.”

We stay at Tertre Rouge till around 11:30.  It’s finally dark and we decide to head back to our seats in the ACO grandstand.  We gather up and make our way down the hill and around the outside of the Esses when we come to a food tent.  It’s the same tent I visited last year when I was exposed to the pomme frites covered in mayonnaise.  My memory is a little foggy, but I think Andrew stepped up and offered to buy us dinner.  I see something on the menu board that catches my attention: American Steack.  American Steack?  Ok, I’ll give that a shot.  What I receive is both an unusual site and oddly familiar.  Two hamburger patties, cut in half, laid out in a line on a baguette, covered in french fries and ketchup.  Add in a Kronenbourg and it’s an all-in-one French Happy Meal.  We grab a seat on a picnic table and wolf down our dinners.  After some conversation and a brief break, we begin out trek back uphill.

Nearing the Village, our ACO memberships grant us entry into the ACO Club.  It’s a fenced in, private club with snacks and drinks available as well as chairs, couches, and TVs.  We sit down to warm up a bit and enjoy a cup of coffee.  Just outside,  you can hear the thumping of dance music coming from the Village.  Here’s a poor photo merge of some pics taken with my iPhone.

ACO Club

ACO Club

Heading back through the Village, it’s just like last year – a massive party.  The Nissan display has two Juke hatchbacks with rear gates open and deafening dubstep music blaring with several dozen ravers bouncing up and down.  Quite a sight.

Soon enough, we’re back in our seats.

Our ACO Grandstand is a wonderful spot.  Directly behind our seats is a one-stop shop where you can get a beer and a sandwich.  There’s also a lounge with dozens of tables and several TVs showing the international feed and live timing and scoring.  We return to our seats around 1:00 and watch the nighttime racing for an hour or so.

Around 2AM, James motions for us to get up, we’re once again on the move.  Down the stairs, across the street, out the gate and onto the grass parking lot, our chariot awaits.  James, Andrew, and Tony drove to the track from their hotel and their reserved parking space is almost right outside the gate.  We dump our equipment in the boot, pile in, and we’re off to Arnage.  The roads are lined with people coming and going to and from various parts of the track.  Some are walking, others are biking.  It’s quite dark and the road feels quite narrow – even more than usual when you mix in people walking/riding on the side of the road.  We take our time and get to Arnage around 2:45 or so.  There’s a great crowd on the hill overlooking the track.  Some have makeshift scaffolding to help them get a better view over the catch fencing.  One of the best spots for photography is a tree to the far left, close to Arnage.  There’s an orderly line of fans moving to and from the tree.  I get there and get the best I can.  My lens aperture just doesn’t open up enough to get good shots at night, but here’s some of what I took.

Murphy Prototypes

Murphy Prototypes

Action at Arnage

Action at Arnage

The stretch of track from the Indianapolis to the Arnage corners isn’t very long.  Andrew’s told me this is his favorite spot, and he’s grinning from chubby cheek to chubby cheek.  We’re just 15 – 20 feet away from the cars and the track.  You can feel the cars rumble and scream in your chest.  The ACO re-profiled the exit of the Arnage corner.  Last year, there was a row of trees in someone’s backyard and the runoff was maybe 6 – 8 feet deep.  This year, they tore down those trees and took a chunk out of that person’s backyard to give the cars a little more runoff room.  You can see one car taking advantage of the new corner in my video.  This is the public road section of the track, and for the ACO or the FIA to change the corner is just a little disappointing.  I’m all for driver and spectator safety, but you need to retain some connection to the races of the past.

It’s now around 4AM, and the activities of the day are starting to catch up with me.  My knees are suddenly quite sore and my back is killing me.  Getting old sucks.  There is a concession stand behind me with picnic tables, but most are filled.  Although it hasn’t rained in over 17 hours, the ground is still wet.  The four of us have spread out, and while there are still quite a number of people here, I go looking for and find James.  I ask if I can have his car keys, I just need to take a breather and get off my feet.  He hands me his keys and I head out to his car.  I dump my equipment in the boot and plop down in his back seat.  The next thing I know, there’s a tapping on the window and Tony, James, and Andrew are standing outside the car, chuckling at me.

The boys informed me I missed this while I was catching up on my beauty sleep:

Allon had this to say on the Tenths forum on September 23rd:

I had my stem cell transplant on Friday 21st Sept, now in an isolation room in hospital for the next 3-4 weeks. I’m lucky it is a new room and very nice as hospital rooms go; I’m also allowed 4 named visitors so can see my family (but not my kids who aren’t allowed – boo).

Today is my 40th b’day, I know some people try and avoid ‘big 0s’, but I think I might have found the most extreme way yet! I was pretty rough yesterday, but better today which is good. However I know the next few weeks will be pretty ugly at times, so I thought I would say hi now while I feel up to it. As you can tell I’ve got a laptop here and in my slide show screensaver (Porsche racing posters 1960s-1990s!) I also have the photo you guys did at Le Mans this year and it is a real morale booster – so thanks again.

In addition to wishing a speedy recovery to Allon, the Radio Le Mans boys reference Gavin Ireland’s book Le Mans Panoramic (get it here, it’s an absolutely incredible book with stunning photos.  Well done Gavin) and the panoramic photo where you can see yours truly in the middle – slightly under dressed for the coolish weather last year, but sporting the same Razorback hat.

2011 10ths Meeting

2011 10ths Meeting

After a few good natured jabs at my expense, we make our way towards the Mulsanne Corner.  It’s around 5:00 or so and it’s getting brighter outside.  We drive though several neighborhoods before coming upon another parking lot carved out of the trees just to the north of the town of Mulsanne.  Just through the trees, you can hear the cars screaming out of the Mulsanne Corner as they head off towards Maison Blanche.

Aston Martin

Aston Martin

Through the trees

Through the trees

The Sun

The Sun

As I notice the wonderful glow of the sunrise coming through the trees, it hits me: another Le Mans night has come and gone.  Just like last year, a tear comes to my eye.  I can’t explain it, but there’s something emotional about being at Le Mans.  Remembering the feeling of “surviving” last year’s Le Mans and embracing the emotion of what’s happening right now, this is truly an amazing place.  As special as 2011 was, this year is substantially better.  I’ve spend the last 16+ hours with good friends, sharing experiences with three incredible gentlemen that would not have been possible without something as special as Le Mans.  Thank you Andrew, James, and Tony.  Our time together will not soon be forgotten.

I dry my eyes and get back to the racing action at hand.  We settle in just past the parking lot where the cars are nearing full speed.

There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of the sounds.  The birds chirping in the trees, the roar of the Corvette, the scream of the Ferrari, and the whoosh of the Audi.  We hang out for a little bit and just randomly, I turn around in time to see Pascal walking up the path with his son and daughter.  Flagging him down, he joins us and we move to the spectator hill overlooking the Mulsanne corner.

Pascal

Pascal

The sunrise is cresting the trees and there’s a glorious warmth to another Le Mans sunrise.

Mulsanne Sunrise

Mulsanne Sunrise

The cars break hard into the corner, just clipping the apex, gently get on the throttle as they exit the corner, before they floor it and make off down through the trees.

Into Mulsanne

Into Mulsanne

Audi at Mulsanne

Audi at Mulsanne

Audi in 3rd

Audi in 3rd

Just at the bottom of the spectator hill is a food tent where they must have breakfast.

Breakfast Awaits

Breakfast Awaits

Our overnight crew, which now includes Pascal and his children in tow, head down for croissants and coffee.  It’s hard to beat a French sunrise with good friends, warm coffee, fresh pastries, and good conversation.  Looking back on it, I can’t help but smile thinking that morning.

Pascal and Ayse

Pascal and Ayse

Back to the spectator hill and we enjoy the racing for a bit more.  I’m not sure how much longer we stayed, but at some point James and Andrew gather us all up and we start making our way back to the track.  With James behind the wheel, we make our way through the back roads outside of Mulsanne and Arnage.  Andrew explains that they are dropping me off at the track and the three of them were going back to their hotel to freshen up and would catch up with me shortly.  Perfect.  Just outside the main gate, I jump out as the boys head off.  Back through the main gate, down the walk and up to the ACO Tribune.  Again, just behind our seats is an indoor bar/restaurant.  Some of my fellow spectators have found several surge protectors and most AC slots are filled with camera battery chargers, iPhone chargers, and other electronic devices getting a second lease on life for the day.  I find an open seat at a table and I set up shop.

Changing socks and removing various layers of cold/night-time weather clothing there’s a slight sense of relief – we’re nearing the finish line.  While it’s still loud in here, it’s quieter than being outside.  I plug in my headphones that provide considerably good noise protection and I settle in to watch the live feed.  Getting as comfortable as I can, I nod off for a bit.  I’m not sure how long I was out, but I snap myself awake and catch one of my fellow spectators grinning at me.  He gives me a knowing nod.  I smile and return the nod.  I get up and get myself a Coke.  Turning around, I see Andrew, James, and Tony walking up the stairs and head to our seats.  Perfect timing.  I gather up my stuff and meet them outside.

We settle back in our seats for the stretch run.  It’s about 10:00 and only now that I realize one of our pit visit hosts – JMW Motorsport with their yellow and black Ferrari 458 – are missing.  Turns out while were down at Mulsanne having breakfast, their newly installed carbon fibre drive shaft snapped down the Mulsanne Straight.  What should have lasted 48 hours barely made it 18.  Unfortunate, better luck next year Roger.

The next two hours fly by, about the only excitement we get is when Allan McNish in second place, closes the gap to within a few seconds on Benoit Treluyer.  But considering they’re on different pit schedules, I’m sure Dr. Ullrich told Allan to back off.  Suddenly, the French voice on the track-side loud speakers is screaming at something.  The big screen shows the #3 Audi with Marc Gene at the wheel taking the first Mulsanne chicane a bit too hot as he noses the R18 into the outside tire barriers.  The orange clad marshals jump the wall and, with a few tugs, remove the damaged nose.  It didn’t look like a particularly hard hit, but the front right suspension is damaged.  Gene has the car back on the road, but it’s crabbing down the Mulsanne Straight.  Normally, they’re nearing 200 MPH on this stretch of road, but he’s lucky if he’s doing 20.

We’ve barely had time to catch up from Gene’s shunt, when we catch footage of a white Audi R18 clubbing the wall near the Porsche Curves.  I’m gasping!  Is it the leading #1 or #2?  It’s #2 with McNish behind the wheel.  Just like Gene, he took a little too much speed in the already high-speed Porsche Curves and dropped a wheel off into the grass and then into the Armco barrier strewing debris all over the track.  Luckily, where he is on-track, it’s not too far to get back to the pits.  And when they come in for repairs, it’ll be right in front of us!  And just like that, here they come.

Audi #2

Audi #2

Shortly thereafter, here comes Gene

Audi #3

Audi #3

The safety car has been deployed, and knowing Audi, this shouldn’t take too much time so hopefully the #2 team won’t fall too far behind.

A quick 30 minutes pass and the #2 is ready to return to racing, only two laps down, but with only 2+ hours to go, it’ll be hard to make up that much time lost in the pits.

Returning to Action

Returning to Action

And just a few minutes later, here comes #3.

Audi #3

Audi #3

The Audi mechanics not only had to replace the nose section of both cars, but they had to replace the front suspension of the #3 and who knows what other components on the #2 car.  The fact they got them both on and out in around 20 minutes is a testament to Audi’s engineering and mechanical teams.  Just brilliant work.  The safety car is back in and we have another 2 hours to the finish.  At this point, we’re back to regular racing.  As we near the end of the race, we’re visited by our 10ths friend Eric and we congratulate one another on the completion of another 24 Hours.

Eric

Eric

2:58 and we have one more lap to go.  The cars are lining up for an Audi grand procession.

Last Lap

Last Lap

The official Rolex hits 3:00.  We’ve made it.  The televisions show the cars entering the Porsche Curves.  The marshals are waving their flags in traditional post-race celebration.  At long last, here comes the victorious team.

Winning Audis

Winning Audis

Prior to dropping me off at the front gate and returning to their hotel, the boys informed me of their typical post-race exit strategy.  As the cars pass in front of us and double back down the pit lane exit, the 4 of us collect our equipment and make our way downstairs and outside.  Just outside the ACO Grandstand we gather together.  With hearty hugs and handshakes, we congratulate each other for another successful 24 Heures and bid each other safe travels.  James, Andrew, Tony, and I make our way outside the track and into the parking lot – they head towards James’ car and I off towards my tour bus.

I find our bus in the blue parking lot and climb inside.  Trevor is right behind me.  Slowly, my fellow members of Grand Prix Tours climb aboard the bus.  Among them is my friend Gary.  He too stayed the full 24 and his outdoors/hiking experience and equipment served him well.  A short time later, we’re all on board and heading back to Tours.  It’s a quiet ride back to our hotel.

Trevor

Trevor

A quick nap later and the next thing I know, we’re pulling up to Hotel de L’Univers in Tours.  I head back upstairs and unload my backpack and equipment.  Time for a quick shower and then I need to find something to eat.  Back downstairs and out the door, I’m getting hungry and I’m on the prowl.  Nearing the Tours train station, I hear “Rob…Rob!”  Sitting at an street-side table at Le 16 Congres bar enjoying a beer is Trevor and he’s waving me over.  I join him for a few drinks and another great conversation.  We sit there for a while before I start getting hungry.  I’ve had some wonderful French cuisine the past two weeks, but I’m having an urge to get something a little closer to home.  Just around the corner is a McDonalds where a Royale With Cheese is calling my name.  In keeping with the Pulp Fiction theme, allow me to quote Jules Winnfield: “That is a tasty burger”.  After dinner, I pack my belongings and turn in.  Tomorrow we’re headed back into Paris.

We’re back in Paris Monday morning and I call Séjours & Affaires to come pick me up.  My driver Jean Pierre pulls up and we head back to the apart-hotel.  There’s a slight mix up with my reservation, but we get it sorted out in quick order.  I’m still pretty tired from Le Mans, so I just walk around town for part of the day before returning to my room to prepare for my trip home.

Tuesday morning I’m back at Charles De Gaulle airport and it takes forever to get through the check-in line.  I’ve already checked in online, I’m just waiting in line to check my bags and board the plane.  Eventually, an American Airlines representative walks down the line asking who’s going to DFW.  There are about 4 of us who raise our hands and we’re quickly escorted to the front of the line.  Bags checked, we’re ushered through the maze of construction towards our gate.  We’re at our gate waiting for our boarding call when they announce we’ve been delayed.  Turns out the French version of the FAA was doing a surprise inspection that day and we were just unlucky enough to have our plane picked.  An hour later, we’re in the air.  We still land on-time where Mary Cook is waiting for me outside.  Another trip to Le Mans has come and gone.  The second of what I hope will be many, many more.  I’m afraid, however, I do have some bad news: I won’t be back in 2013.

My original plan was “watch” in 2011 and “do” in 2012.  That all changed after what I experienced in 2011.  I had to come back to Le Mans for 2012.  The ACO and FIA announced a new rules set for 2014, and I don’t think anyone is going to do anything different in 2013 than what they did in 2012.  I’m not saying the competitors will rest on their laurels for 2013, I just think all the teams will stay the course for 2013 and focus their efforts for 2014.  Plus we’ll have a slew of new cars in 2014 – the new Porsche GT and LMP cars, the C7.R, hopefully a more competitive Viper and who knows what from Audi, Toyota, and now Nissan and Renault and maybe even Peugeot.

So, as of this writing, the “do” portion of my plan is to take on the Nordschleife at some point in 2013.  I’m in the initial stages of planning my trip to Germany.  Right now, it looks somewhat similar to my trips to Le Mans.  I’ll fly into Paris and take in the city for a day or two.  Take the train to Cologne where I’ll rent a car.  Whether I take that car on-track or get something  track-ready, I’ll have to make that decision once I know more.  After talking with Walter, there are VLN races at the end of both August and September, so I may have to mix in a little “do” and “watch” in the same trip.  Looking at my schedule for this year, I may have to tackle the Green Hell in August.  I’ve got V8 Supercars down in Austin in May, the WEC/ALMS race in Austin in September, Petit Le Mans in Atlanta in October, and finally F1 down in Austin in November.  I’m not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse to to have a world class racing facility 3 hours away.

In the 8 months it’s taken me to write this, I’ve had a lot of time to look back on this trip.  I’ve written, deleted, rewritten, deleted, and gone back to what was originally written.  I’ve lost some minor details, a few memories have gotten fuzzy, and others still have remained as strong as if they happened yesterday.  I smile when I think about our Tenths meeting.  I chuckle thinking about our Woodford Reserve experience.  I still get chills thinking about the start of the race.  I can still feel the Corvette roar past me.  I can hear the whoosh of the Audi R18.  On occasion, I even tear up thinking about sunrise.  I will, however, never forget my time with Andrew, James, and Tony.  James, thank you so much for reaching out and inviting me to join your group.  Andrew, I can’t tell you what a treat it was to experience the race with a knowledgeable veteran.  Tony, it was a genuine pleasure to get to know you and hear how Tim is doing back home.  The timing of moving from start/finish down to Tetre Rouge, onto Arnage and Mulsanne, and then back to the start/finish – it was the perfect way to experience the race from the best viewing spots.  As amazing as 2011 was, 2012 was simply incredible and it was because of you guys.

With this finally done, I can take the time to write up my United States Grand Prix report.  Thank you to everyone who was a part of this trip.  I’m sorry it took so long to get this done, but I hope it was worth the wait.  See you guys in 2014.

-Robert

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4 Comments on “2012 24 Heures du Mans”

  1. Clayton says:

    Glad you got in a good picture of Trevor !! A real pro and gentleman….

  2. Good report RB, you’ll have to make the effort to camp out at the circuit for 2014.

  3. Remco van Stroe says:

    Absolutely fantastically done peace of writing dear Mr. Blanshard ! I really enjoyed reading and viewing it. Some pretty good photography and some pretty nice video’s shot.
    A very gripping report of one of the worlds epic sportscar events.

    Thanks a lot and hopefully untill 2014.

    Cheers,

    Remco van Stroe a.k.a. ‘GTfour’

    Utrecht
    Holland.

  4. Roc Ingersoll says:

    Great write up! I really enjoyed it. I loved the posted videos – 1) it made me feel like I was there and 2) it reminded me of being on that wall with you and Bob in Atlanta, a trip that was so much fun and one that I will always remember. I was really reminded of it watching that first wall and seeing all those people along the fence. BTW – your photography is really improving, you have some really nice pics there. Again, I really enjoyed it. Hopefully I can make the trip with you one day.


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