Part 3: The 24 Hours of LeMans
Race day! Before heading into Le Mans, we stocked up at a shop around the corner from the hotel – wine, Orangina (Europe’s favorite soft drink), assorted fromages, and jambon. Across the street was a boulangerie where we packed in a dozen baguettes. We were determined to eat comme les Francais.
The Le Mans start signal was scheduled for 3:00PM. Hoping to avoid traffic, we reached the City around 11:00 AM but still got caught in gridlock. Nevertheless, we made it successfully, to the front rows in the Rouge lot. I was a happy camper!
We found our Tribune seats, watched a Porsche Super-cup support race, and then retreated to the Chateau Volkswagen for some good ol’ American tail-gating. Jimmy’s camembert cheese stunk up the van, so we stuck out on the rear tire.
Afterwards we headed back, through the twenty-deep throngs. LeMans gets about 300,000 spectators, and it felt like they were all at the Dunlop Bridge. Nevertheless, our seats were outstanding!
At 3:00 PM Formula 1 racer Fernando Alonzo waved the French Tri-color, and, from a rolling start, Le Mans was on! Excitedly cheering, we stood up waving as the cars roared by! Apparently, this was a no-no. A Frenchman yelled at us in English “Sit down, as everyone sits in the tribunes!” By the time we acknowledged the French custom, the first pack of prototypes had driven by. We studiously remained glued in our seats for lap 2.
The Toyota was clearly the fastest, with the Porsche 919s keeping pace. The three Audi’s were further back. About half-hour into the race, Porsche #14 pitted with fuel system problems. Fifteen minutes later #14 was back on track, but several laps behind. An hour later, the skies opened up, causing problems for the cars that were running slicks.
One of the Audis crashed on the Mulsanne straight, dropping out. One of the Toyota prototypes also crashed, limping back to the pits. Our friends on the ground got soaked during the twenty minute shower while we remained dry, feeling thankful we had decided to stay put. The sun came back out, the skies turned blue, and the temperatures remained in the 70s.
We wandered about the track and reached the Porsche Curves just before dusk. It’s a part of the track that I didn’t see in 1998, so it was a new experience. The Porsche Curves are about a mile long, very high speed, and located before the start finish straight. We saw a P2 car get it all wrong and slide into the concrete barriers on the far side of the track. That brought out a full course caution. Several of the camping areas were along the Porsche Curves, and we got the bonus entertainment of watching the British fans partying their hearts out.
By the time we got back to the main grandstand area and the Village it was about 11:00 PM. It was now a true test of endurance, for cars and spectators, with grandstands nearly empty. The Audis were coming to the front but the lone Toyota still led. We sat in our seats, stuporous, until 1:30 AM before retiring to Chateau Volkswagen.
The night was cool, but not cold. I took the front seat and ran the Chateau’s heater intermittently overnight and we all slept. Sunrise came before 6:00 AM. Jimmy was up first, and had disappeared. David and I arrived trackside around 7:00, paying a king’s ransom for coffee. It was worth it. I took off with my camera to take advantage of the early morning light. I found a great spot downhill from the Dunlop Bridge, photographing the cars coming under it, into the bright sunlight.
It turned out, that front-runner Toyota had broken down overnight, and was out of the race! Now it was a fight between Porsches and Audis, with each taking turns in the lead. Hey! We got a race going on here!
The light stayed good, so I headed to the Ford Chicane, taking photos at the start-finish grandstands until noon. There, I heard the PA announcement: The lead Audi was in the pits with turbo issues, and Porsche # 20 with Mark Webber driving had the lead! Porsche was winning the race in the twenty-second hour! “Two for two, at LeMans!” I thought to myself. But the Porsche was underpowered and once the Audi got back in, it caught up fast. Could Mark Webber hang on another two hours?
Unfortunately, Weber’s #20 pitted at 1:00 PM, with motor problems. A half-hour later, Porsche #14 came in with drivetrain malfunction. Then Audi took over the lead for good. The best that Porsche could do was getting #14 on track for the last lap, qualifying as a finisher. I felt some consolation that a Porsche 997s came third in GT-Pro. Jimmy and David were in the tribune while I was taking photos, and after the finish we caught up. They had really enjoyed the race, despite Porsche’s loss, and David suggested we do it again next year!
Surprisingly, the traffic exiting the track wasn’t bad. But, as we drove out, we heard a thump-thump at the rear wheel. We had lost Jimmy’s camembert! Commiserating with him over this serious loss, I followed Garmin’s directions to Orleans and our next hotel. But it kept taking us into the teeth of the exiting traffic, doubling us back to where we started. I finally ignored the Garmin, pointed the car in what I figured was the right direction, headed down back roads, and we emerged into the scenic countryside of the Loire Valley.
Part 4: Guys trip to Germany.