This story is from 2010, when a group of kart-racing friends and I went on a European racing vacation. We watched British Touring Cars at Oulton Park, then traveled to Spa for a track day on the fabled Formula One track. We then tried, but failed, to get into the Donington collection (long story), raced karts indoors at a pretty fast London track, and finished with our collective first, the 2010 LeMans 24 Hour race…
If this is cliché, I’m in
If you’ve seen Steve McQueen’s epic movie LeMans, you have a certain vision of what LeMans will look like. The arriving part is similar to the movie, through the French countryside of quaint stone houses with flowered window boxes, fields of vegetables and roads with names like La Rue de Resistance. Also very, very nice kart tracks. The traffic along the roads, both out of Britain and into France, is streaked with cars that make your tongue hang out. Jags and Astons galore, some with wild, bewinged bodywork. Countless Porsches mild and wild, Ferraris, MGs, Morgans, Loti, Ford Focus RSRs, cool kit cars. Many have large national flags on their hood, and club affiliations or driver and co-driver names on the bodywork! But when you approach the track, the reality of Being There is more. Much more.
Welcome to the promised land
The imposing front entrance sits beside the new Museum, and gives the correct impression of a great, classic roadracing venue immediately. Once inside, left and up the sharp slope to the viewing terrace, the first view is of the approach to the Dunlop Bridge. With seats in the Dunlop Grandstand, just before the famous bridge, we had a birdseye view of the cars just after the massive pits, and the start, where the cars would slow from over 170mph to 70, in an F1-car-like insanely short distance. Comfortable stadium seats were more than we expected.
We arrived just after the Porsche Cup race and right in time for the Classic Group C/GTP race. 250mph coupes piloted by some good and some “gentlemen” drivers. Not a classic race by any means. But the cars were wonderful.
The three Silk Cut Jags battled quite closely, chased by an ex-works Mercedes C11, which spun lazily in front of us on the damp start. You could tell he was pissed as he drove banzai laps from the back up to the front. And got a flat tire. After pitting for a new tire, he drove more banzai laps. And spun again. As the race went on, one by one the cars dropped out ‘til there was a winner. Disappointing compared to the 24 hour race to come.
The 2010 LeMans 24 Hour race is noisy, wild, and exciting
The tension was palpable (always wanted to say that) as the start approached. Each car took an “out” lap to warm up the car and make their way to the formal starting grid. As the cars finished their 8.47 mile pace lap, streaking Air Force fighter jets flew over with patriotic fervor. The place became bedlam as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey played wildly loud on the P.A. system, the French announcer going bonkers as the cars approached. The crowd erupted as the cars screamed up to the green flag, the Peugeots leading into the Dunlop Curves and through the Dunlop Bridge in front of us.
The Peugeots were soon first through fourth, easily the fastest cars in the race. They streaked away and clearly had the Audi team’s number. The Audis, slower but with a reputation for bullet-proof reliability, played a strategic game. They put pressure on the lead cars, but trying to make it through error-free. This is the tactical savvy that had won the previous 9 of 10 LeMans races (with apologies to Bentley). Disappointment early for American fans as the U.S.-entered Autocon Lola ground to a halt on the opening lap. Another early and disappointing DNF was the Nigel Mansell-and-sons-driven Ginetta. Itsuffered a slow tire deflation, putting the “Red 5” into the Mulsanne guardrail, with what looked like a slight crash. But the hit was so hard that the Nige had to be lifted out into the ambulance with a slight concussion.
A few hours into the race
Our tour bus took us to the Indianapolis corner, where the cars screamed at us, the fastest cars accelerating to over 200mph, then braking hard for the 75 mph right-left chicane-like turn, for the short run to Arnage and the 200 mph start of the run back to the pits. The cars are impressively close to the spectators all around the course. Even through the 100mph sweeps of Tertre Rouge, cars starting to attain top speeds over 200mph, you can get pretty close to the action.
Our tour took us over to the slow Mulsanne Corner at the end of the long 3 mile straight, where the old signaling pits used to be. There are lots of catch fences wherever there are spectators, making it somewhat difficult to get a clear view over the fences. Fortunately, raised earth berms all along the viewing areas let race-goers get a mostly unobstructed view in many places. Here is where we got our first real taste of the sound of the cars, hard accelerating out of the corner with ferocity. The harsh, loud bellow of the GT1 and the factory GT2 Vettes, the low intensity of the Peugeots, the wailing scream of V12 Astons, the utter silence of the Audis. Here we witnessed the intense battle waged by the Risi Ferrari and the factory Corvette. These two battled for hours until both were waylaid by mechanical gremlins.
The race winds its way from day into night
There is much to see and do at the track. It’s easy to follow the race, giant Jumbotrons around the circuit showing the action and standings throughout the race. Radio LeMans keeps you informed with lighthearted interviews and commentary for the entire 24 hours, inexpensive FM radios for this available at the gate. The infield village is a dizzying array of permanent and temporary displays and shops. Audi had an enormous stage, simulator and sales area.
A Gulf Ford GT40, winner of two LeMans races, sat on an open podium to ogle and photograph. Yes, there was a guard, joined in the middle of the night by a rottweiler. There are rides (including the famous ferris wheel), surprisingly good food , racing artworks and all kinds of apparel to buy. An avid model car collector, I was overwhelmed by the many vendors purveying 1/43rd and other scale race cars. Spark had a sales booth, the company there also to shoot photos of the year’s cars for later model release.