June has not only been a classic month for Grand Prix racing, but it was also a classic for endurance racing too. The infamous Le Mans 24 hour race was an absolute blinder this year – It genuinely had everything – Big-time, life endangering crashes, glamorous machinery, international flavour and the closest finish in decades!
I made the journey from Manchester to my first ever Le Mans this year having wanted desperately to go for the last 10 years or so and never quite managing it. After a very clumsily booked package deal was hastily cobbled together, a friend and I embarked upon the 1200-mile round trip in a diesel van and a Eurotunnel train, hoping to find the amazing sights and sounds this legendary race is famous for.
Well, what we found was an experience I have already pledged to repeat as often as I can. Right from the moment we arrived the fun began (well, perhaps just after we arrived and had some deranged French teenager on a bike - staff - take us to the wrong campsite).
The camping grounds were instantly recognisable as an international affair, with Danish, German, French and British campers amking the majority, but plenty of Dutch, Belgians, Spaniards and Swiss intermingled too. They were loud but friendly, orderly too, with festival-style facilities in non-festival style conditions (read CLEAN!). A perfect crowd to immerse yourself in to soak up the anticipation.
The race itself was a classic, with exception to around three hours in total behind safety cars – including one stint where they had to bring out a spare while the original refuelled!
Audi vs Peugeot was the big rivalry again, with both manufacturers once again running diesel power, and there was extra interest thrown in with the Aston Martin team running in the top class. Resplendent in the all-time great Gulf livery and carrying the numbers 007 and 009, they were by far the best supported team. Unfortunately their two cars managed only six laps between them before retiring.
|Le Mans AUDI Safety car, 2010|
Lower down the classes, Signatec Nissan had a driver line-up that included a Spaniard by the name of Lucas Ordonez. He had won his place via winning a competition on the Playstation game Gran Turismo 5 and coming through the Nissan/GT5 drivers academy; quite a story for one of the most promising young drivers on track, finishing an impressive second in class in the Playstation sponsored Nissan.
|PlayStation stall, Le Mans|
Corvettes won both of the GTE classes, and in close proximity they sound like angry thunder (video), providing a soundtrack to the night time that made it almost impossible to fall asleep. A Ford GT, entered by husband and wife team Robertson Racing, managed to finish 3rd in class, despite it being by far the slowest thing on track. It must have been terrifying to have been overtaken constantly for 24 hours solid, but they earned their place on the podium for fantastic reliability and composure on track.
There were two huge crashes, both involving Audis that provided heart-stopping moments. Both Alan McNish’s and Mike Rockenfeller’s involved clipping a slow GTE car whilst overtaking, sending them hurtling into the barrier, both left wreckages that it looked almost impossible that a human could walk out of alive, but both did exactly that, a testament to the amazing safety structures now mandatory in the sport.
So Audi won overall by just 14 seconds from the chasing 3 Peugeots. Staggeringly close considering how long the race is. Dr Ullrich, team boss of Audi, showed just how much the race meant to them with his outpouring of emotion after the chequered flag had fallen.
|Le Mans pit lane, after the race|
|Crowds flood the track after the gruelling 24hour race|
And as for my experience? Well, much beer and broken sleeping patterns mean I can’t coherently explain what it was that made my Le Mans 2011 so utterly compelling and satisfying, beyond a great race, and awesome venue, wonderful people and an atmosphere you wish you could bottle. Worth a week’s camping in changeable weather, worth the marathon drive and even – dare I say it – worth the horrific queues on the Eurotunnel!
Try it yourself, you will be glad you did…