The list of things I’ve been looking forward to this year goes something like this: wedding (had to put that first, or future Mrs T won’t show up) and the 24 Hours of Le Mans centenary. That should give you an idea about how significant this year’s running of the world’s great motor race is, or that I don’t have a lot going on in life. Or both.
If you haven’t been watching the World Endurance Championship this year, you may not have seen the influx of manufacturer support in the top-tier Hypercar category. Ferrari returned to prototype racing after a 50-year absence with the radical 499P, joined by newcomers Porsche, Peugeot, Cadillac and ‘Vanwall’. And, for one time only, a specially adapted Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 NASCAR would take on Le Mans under the experimental Garage 56 entry. Just for the heck of it.
For the drive down, I’d be pinching Ben’s Dacia Duster long-termer. Can’t say I was all that excited about spending many hours driving from Calais to Le Mans in a budget SUV when we’d made the trip in a Hyundai i30N last year (12 months at PH has spoiled me somewhat) but Ben assured me that it’s the best car in the world and ideal for camping. The rest of Team PH would be heading down in a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S e-Hybrid. Not quite sure how I drew the short straw on this one, but with PH Project Car and a (as yet un-PH Fleeted) Ford Fiesta ST 150 in my stable, I’m in no position to complain. Duster key fob in hand, we set our sights on Le Chunnel.
There’s no better way to kick off the Le Mans weekend than Friday Service at Classic British Welcome. It’s one of the biggest car meets on the calendar (though our PH25 event on 12th August should be even bigger!), with over 1,000 cars from both sides of the English Channel descending the small town of Saint-Saturnin, just outside of Le Mans. As ever, the PH contingent was on top form with a fantastic mix of TVRs, Aston Martins and even the odd Marcos representing the best of Britain.
Later that morning, I nipped back over to the circuit to take a look at Alpine’s new A424 Le Mans car – once I’d been given a telling-off by several track officials for walking down completely empty roads. So if you noticed me looking rather miserable during the car’s launch stream, it’s because I’d unnecessarily walked a marathon to get there. Anyhow, the car looks rather good, doesn’t it? It’s an LMDh car, meaning it uses an Oreca chassis and standardised Bosch hybrid system. Alpine has, however, built its own turbocharged 3.4-litre V6 - custom-made for echoing off the vast grandstands of Le Sarthe’s pit straight.
Race day. The race may get underway at 4pm, but this being the centenary – and with a considerably larger grid of Hypercars – you need to find somewhere to park yourself for an unobstructed view of the start as soon as possible. And what a start it was. Ferrari may have locked out the front row, but I was fully expecting the dominant Toyotas to find their way to the front within the first few laps and run off to the finish uncontested – just as it has over the past five years.
Oh, how wrong was I? A late – and very controversial – change to the Balance of Performance meant all but the sole ‘Vanwall’ were competitive throughout the race, with most manufacturers leading at some point during the opening ten hours. This was also helped by a new safety car rule that bunched up the class leaders, making it more difficult than ever to maintain a gap over your rival. That, and the occasional sudden downpour. The heavens would open several times during the race, drenching the track within seconds. I remember watching a few LMP2s cross the start line when it happened and thinking ‘you’ve had it’.
Speaking of LMP2s, the winning team of Friday’s pub quiz at camp PH was given a tour of United Autosport’s garages in the middle of the race. The team was fielding two LMP2 cars for this year’s race, although one of them had a squabble with the #77 Dempsey Proton Porsche 911 RSR and suffered major damage. How the team managed to fix it, bearing in mind that it returned to the race with its wheels pointing in different directions, in just 24 minutes is beyond me. The team would have to serve a three-minute (!) penalty for it while we were nosing around the garage. Not the fairy-tale race the team was looking for, but it’s fascinating to watch a top endurance team go about such a gruelling event.
Elsewhere, to be completely honest with you, I didn’t have a clue what was going on during the first half of the race. But it doesn’t matter. Not at Le Mans. It’s about embracing the different noises of the Hypercars, GTE AMs and the monstrous Garage 56 NASCAR, and looking out for any battles that emerge on track. There were also a bunch of classic cars dotted around the paddock to mark the race’s 100-year-anniversary, including a Jaguar XJR-9, Porsche 911 GT1 and (for Gran Turismo fans) a 2003 Pescarolo Sport C60. It’s like Disneyland, only with racing cars, jet displays and lots of beer.
With a PH Project Car shoot at Brands Hatch scheduled for Monday morning, I decided to do the grownup thing and head home early. Annoyingly, this meant missing the first Ferrari Le Mans win in 58 years. I did, however, get up nice and early to take in the sights and sounds one last time before heading home. The circuit was quieter than the night before, but still considerably busier than it had been the same time a year earlier. Luckily I’d come at just the right time, with the #51 Ferrari 499P chasing down the #8 Toyota GR010 before eventually passing it – albeit in the pits.
An outstanding motor race to digest on the drive home. A surprise(ish) win for Ferrari, an incredible comeback drive from the #33 Corvette to claim victory GTE AM, having been two laps down during the night, and a 24-hour endurance race that kicks off its next 100 years on an all-time high. The biggest surprise, however, was the Duster. Smooth, economical and nowhere near as gutless as I’d initially feared. Just don’t tell Ben that he was right all along.
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