Audi owns Le Mans? Looks that way from up here in the hospitality area...
I've never been to Le Mans before; a shocking admission for the editor of PistonHeads I realise. So over the coming days you'll be getting a wide-eyed first timer's perspective on the French classic. Indeed, before this year I'd never been to a 24-hour race full stop - not sure why - but fresh off my trip to the Nurburgring 24
I'm now on my way to France. It'll be an interesting comparison for sure. And if you're going to do Le Mans there's no place better than from within the heart of the PH gang. So. Here goes...
Friday: Audi hospitality, 2030h
OK, I've totally sold out and am blogging from Audi's monolithic hospitality building. Look, I've done a lap of Le Mans (or so it feels) on foot and in the rain. I think I've earned some VIP treatment!
Kristensen, Capello and McNish meet the crowds
Having departed the home comforts of the PH campsite I took the 'short' walk (actually not...) to the media accreditation area from whence I was more or less kidnapped by a wonderfully keen pair of experienced Le Mans hacks having asked "how do I get into town for the drivers' parade?" out loud. This'll be my first timer's enthusiasm kicking in - I'm determined my Le Mans experience should be all-encompassing so off I went. And got rained on and shouted at by overly officious security guards. But it was good - there were some lovely cars and I totally lucked out and managed to sneak into the 'inner circle' just as the Audi drivers were being driven round in old Auto Union convertibles to meet and greet the extremely adoring public.
A busy, lairy tram ride to the wrong side of the track and a long, damp tramp back to the Audi hotel later I found myself back where I needed to be and signing on for Audi hospitality. And then it hit me. Audi really does seem to have bought Le Mans lock, stock and barrel.
Editor sells out for the corporate dollar...
The scale of the operation here is simply staggering. God knows how many people - all immaculately attired in red and white Audi team gear - running VIP areas, a mobile hotel, fleets of shuttles and the rest there are. And the hospitality area literally overshadows the paddock. No wonder there are grumbles from Le Mans regulars that Le Mans has been totally Audified. The language of the publicity material - littered with 'technical superiority' this and 'dominance' that - is just one more example of it. With a more cynical view it's easy to sympathise with the sense that this is Audi's race, the rest of the field invited to make up the numbers. There's something a little sinister about the way the cars look too - even the names - E Tron and Ultra - sound aggressive.
It's the Audi way of course, the same whichever field it goes racing in. And it's hard not to be over-awed. How they must hate that DeltaWing thing, coming here and stealing all the attention...
Looking back through the historic list of winners in the Audi pamphlet it's easy to identify other periods when certain marques dominated - Bentley four years in a row in the late 20s, Ferrari six years straight from 1960, Ford four in a row after that and, of course, Porsche in the 80s. Was it the same when these guys ruled the Le Mans roost? I don't know but I'm sure all those serial winners had similar swagger in their respective eras.
And on that reflective note it's time for another soggy tramp, this time back to the home comforts of the PH campsite...
Friday: PistonHeads Friday Service, a field near the Porsche Curves, 1515h
OK, so our meets are usually on Sundays. But normal rules are suspended for Le Mans and an otherwise unused field nearby the Porsche Curves is, for the moment, PH territory.
If you book them...
We've been here for the last couple of hours, the gates opened to PHers of all hues who fancy a bit of tyre kicking and top quality grub. Not the hardest sell it has to be said. And there's been a steady flow of cars and folk coming and going, early arrivals including a gaggle of Ariels (which seemingly make ace grass karts too...) and the guys from Ginetta, who accepted the return of the invitation to their bash last night by bringing a couple of G40s and G60s along to ours. Which was nice of them.
As with any UK Sunday Service the best thing is the sheer variety of metal on display. We've had a couple of converted Ford Granada funeral limos alongside Ferraris, Nobles and other supercars. And loads more besides.
...they will come!
The ACO will want their field back soon so I'll be heading off to the track proper to get myself accredited and actually dip my toe into the actual race. So far Le Mans for me has been campsites, cars and a few fizzy French beers. Which has been fun. But I think there's a race on. And I'm keen to immerse myself in that too!
Friday: camping Bleu Nord, 0845h
Camping has come on in the last few years, the PH site having both lovely organic food from Laverstoke Farm and wifi, meaning the editorial team is both fuelled and able to put stories up live and direct from the site! The sound of rain on canvas in the night wasn't too promising but it's thankfully stopped now and our neighbours with the Murcielago have been joined by some mates with a very nice E28 M5. Plenty of other cool stuff parked up here in the PH campsite too, much of which we'll be hoping to see later on at our Friday service.
That'll explain the noise last night then!
Meanwhile there has apparently been some sort of racing going on too, or at least qualifying. Unsurprisingly Audi look dominant, locking out the front row of the grid with Toyota in third and the Deltawing back in 29th. The GTE-Pro class looks interesting too, the top three comprising Ferrari, Aston Martin and Chevrolet respectively. Looking forward to actually seeing some of this at some point, once I've done with the ACO bureaucracy and gotten myself accredited. I'll then be making contact with my hosts at both Michelin and Audi and seeing what's going on there.
Before that there's a whole lot of tyre kicking to be done, my Le Mans introduction to include - on Stuart's recommendation - attendance of The British Welcome and then of course our own Friday Service. Pics to come in due course so stay tuned!
Thursday: camping Bleu Nord, 2240h
So, we're installed in our campsite but while the rest of the crew got stuck into the traditional Le Mans refreshment I headed off along various back roads - most of them leading to the track and therefore closed it seemed - in an effort to meet up with the guys from Ginetta.
A little corner of Yorkshire, en France
I did accidentally end up almost at Indianapolis corner and somehow managed to get around on an improvised track along the fence and round the back of a load of Gendarmes and eventually found Ginetta's chateau. I always like hanging out with them, mainly for the fact that wherever they go, even if it's a posh chateau in the middle of France, a little corner of Yorkshire travels with them. Gets me all misty eyed!
They'll hopefully be bringing a few cars along to our Friday Service tomorrow, the G60 looking good but my eyes drawn to the little G40. I've driven a few in various forms over the years but only on track and as I was making to leave boss Lawrence Tomlinson said "go on, you should take it out for a little drive..." Well, when the owner says so it'd be rude not to!
"You should take it out for a spin..."
So off I popped, the little Ginetta as no nonsense as the chaps that build it and a bit of a hoot along the short section of twisty D-road I managed to find around the back of the house. And then back into the Audi for a lap of Le Mans, well, the roads around it, many of the shut. Amazing atmosphere though, I can't believe quite how big an area is affected by the event and how the locals just seem to get on with the massive inconvenience with little more than a collective Gallic shrug. And they put up with this every year. You can't imagine it happening back home, that's for sure.
And now I'm here, in the dark (and thankfully dry), talking cars with our new neighbours who've rocked up in a very cool manual Murcielago while somewhere not so far away racing cars are ragging around on night qualifying. Vive Le Mans!
Thursday: somewhere in France, 1530h
The legendary Le Mans convoys I'd read about for years are, I'm reliably informed, a shadow of their former selves and these days it's a cruise control-regulated 130km/h and a nervous eye for Les Flics. Who we've just seen, Stuart and the Merc thankfully on the righteous path and swift radio messages back to the following TVR.
If the speeds and debauchery are a little restrained these days there are still plenty of tasty vehicles on the road, this 80s/90s themed photo scene taking place at a fuel stop a little way back on the road.
The Khamsin from earlier isn't on his way to Le Mans as it turns out - there's a meet for the cars going on in Dijon - but the lovely C63 Black on the ferry is, likewise the various Astons, Porsches and more besides. Wonder how many of this lot we'll see at tomorrow's Friday Service? A few I'll wager.
Here's hoping the weather holds too. I did wake from a snooze to find wipers going and radio calls to Garlick to see if wanted to stop and put his roof up but, thankfully, it seems like just a passing shower. Fingers crossed...
Thursday: PH Towers, 0600h
An early start for the PH convoy today, Stuart and I aboard an Audi S4 with MissionMotorsport
(a charity supporting injured servicemen) guys Dan and Jimmy who've hitched a lift with us. Garlick and designer Darren are in the TVR and the tech team are in the support truck, AKA a diesel Mercedes E-Class wagon. Which, given the way things are these days on the run to Le Mans with Les Flics, is probably the most sensible choice.
Lovely Maserati Khamsin in the ferry queue
We're now at Dover queuing for the ferry, Dan and Jimmy describing learning to live with prosthetic limbs in disarmingly straightforward squaddie language while we all indulge in a bit of car spotting in the queue. Best we've seen so far is a gorgeous Maserati Khamsin, but top Le Mans marks to the guys in the Bentley Brooklands coupe too.
So, the British invasion fleet is assembling at Dover. And the French are responding as they know how ... by delaying the ferries to do some minesweeping in Calais harbour. So we'll be here for a while it seems.