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Le Mans 2009 Blog

8 Jun 2009

Evo's man on the spot Brian Laban brings you the action from Le Mans as it breaks

Monday 11.40
A quick PS before heading for home, through the convoys of British classics and classic Brits. The French papers are predictably excited by the success of the Peugeot Lion, and only mildly miffed that the all-French crew finished second. But the best bit was tucked away in the local Le Mans Sarthe-Nord daily, Ouest France. A little paragraph reports that there were 123 police on duty at Le Mans, which doesn’t sound many until you read that there were also ‘more than 400’ CRS – the national hard-squad who dress like stormtroopers, ride big ’bikes, and with whom you do not, under any circumstances, truck. There were ‘autant de gendarmes’, to make up the numbers. But while Le Mans is a boozefest, it was as ever a great natured one, given an official gate of 235,000, and a mix of nationalities better than the United Nations. On the surrounding roads, there were 1734 breath tests but amazingly, only 25 positive results. There were 525 speeding tickets, though, four speeders under the influence, and twenty drivers relieved of their licences. The nearest we saw to anyone really getting their lights punched out was last night in town, where two young Danes were making a nuisance of themselves outside the otherwise quiet bar we retired to. They were wearing tiny thongs (one fluorescent pink, one fluorescent orange) with Audi logos. Let’s be generous and say neither of them needed all four rings, and weren’t exactly Arnold Schwarzenegers. And being from the far north, very pale, obviously. Plus very drunk and very noisy, dancing around the pavement and road, accosting pedestrians for photographs, and shouting at the night: but they only knew three words – ‘Audi’, and ‘Tom Kristensen’. They were last seen falling over outside another bar while the locals ignored them completely. If you live in Le Mans, you’ve seen bigger dicks than these, in every respect. Having slept for one hour in the previous forty (between 7.30 and 8.30 Sunday morning, in the Hotel A6 allroad – a non-en-suite single ro om with views of the media carpark), last night after a reviving hose down and a few sherbets I slept the sleep of the just for eight hours. I woke up to a dull drumming against the windows. It was bucketing down. What Audi would have given for that yesterday. . .

Sunday 15.52
In the end, it wasn’t the paint-swapper some people think of as the only kind of great race, but if you watched it unfold right through, and remember that it’s called ‘endurance’ racing, it genuinely was a great Le Mans. In the end, the outcome was about right. Peugeot won, at last, because not for the first time they had the fastest cars; and for once they also ran two of them, at least, very well indeed.

Audi didn’t win for diametrically opposite reasons: they didn’t have the fastest car, and didn’t even make the most of what they did have. Without naming names, someone who knows said ‘we beat ourselves’. It says all you need to know about them that they were devastated not to win for only the second time in ten years. Once you’ve done it, you can do it again, and they will. Meanwhile, a new winner won’t hurt the sport. A victory should bring Peugeot back as defending champions. Failing to win ought to bring Audi back to restore the status quo – with a car that has had the heavy investment and which by next year should be punching its full weight. If there’s any justice, Aston Martin should come back because this year’s result with the Lola Aston coupé was just reward for sticking with the programme even when the commercial reality said run a mile. They might reckon, too, that if the ACO finally gets the equivalency rules right there’ll be every bit as much mileage in being the first petrol car to beat the diesels as there was in being the first diesel to beat the petrols.

If di Montezemolo recognised what Ferrari was missing by not being in the LMP1 mix when he dropped the flag yesterday, maybe he could see the merit in supporting a budget-capped F1 option, diverting some of the savings to a sports car programme, and trousering the change – of which there would surely be more than a little. Either way, see you next year.

Sunday 11.05
Four hours to run as I type (local time), and what’s that coming over the hill, is it a monster? Not for Audi; it’s the long-threatened rain, and it’s rapidly approaching the point where they would welcome it like an old friend. So far, they’ve lost number 2 in big-shunt reality and 3 in all but name - so far delayed that its only role became guinea-pig for numero uno. Which is super-glued in third, two and a bit laps down on the leading 9 Peugeot and one and a big-but-shrinking bit behind 8. The lead Peugeots are not, as is traditional, crumbling, either in pits or on track; and Audi aren’t, as is equally traditional, finding the race coming to them through better calls, or exploiting safety car opportunities. Of which there were several overnight, including one of 44 minutes - after what looked like a worst-case accident, the kind that brings nervous silence down like a blanket, and screens round the car while the doctors go to work. An aeroplane-size impact leaving what was utterly unrecognisable as the Pescarolo Peugeot, but from which Benoit Treluyer reportedly emerged with survivably light injuries.

Aston is effectively down to two cars, but 007 is a comfortable fourth, neither threatened nor threatening so long as it stays together. The bad news for Audi is that after an hour’s posturing, the clouds are moving away without so much as a sprinkle. Even if it had bucketed, rain-master McNish was virtually out of seat-time, and McNish plus water may have been Audi’s best throw of the dice to break the impasse. Right now, it’s hard to see anything other than a French winner. But never forget the fat lady factor that makes this Le Mans.

Saturday 18.20
There’s a lull, giving a little window to scribble in, three hours down, 21 to go. I love saying that - it reminds you how long Le Mans is. Mid-typing, 18.15, the leader’s race is already 53 laps old. That’s almost 450 miles, and it’s Peugeot, Peugeot, Audi, Audi, Aston, Aston. Each lead car recently had a first driver swap, so those who started have had a decent workout. And I find this hard to believe, but Montagny, giving the 8 Peugeot a two-and-a-half-minute lead mainly by lapping seconds quicker than anyone else, has a broken leg. Yes: a newly broken leg, damaged in pre-race training camp. God knows how fast he’d be otherwise. He’s fitter, however, than Narrain Karthikeyan, who will miss his Le Mans debut after dislocating his shoulder jumping over the pitwall to the pre-grid. His two co-drivers face a long haul in their Kolles Audi R10, but they’re ninth. Biggest news is that Peugeot took the shine off by pushing the destruct button on the 7 car’s chances early on, releasing it from its first pitstop into the path of the incoming Pescarolo Peugeot. Its right rear tyre disintegrated halfway down the Mulsanne, taking much car with it and costing seven laps of limp-back and repair. Sceptics say a] Peugeot should be careful with the pit-release lollipop, and b] if you slow down, a damaged tyre won’t take half the car with it. File under tough lesson. The safety car shuffled the pack, but the gist is that a fully healthy Peugeot is very fast, Audi might be more economical, and Aston are giving the R15s a surprisingly hard time. While I’ve written that they’ve added 12 laps, another hundred miles. And it’s sunny.

Saturday 10.57
So now we’re counting down in hours rather than days, and it’s zero minus three. Have I mentioned the weather recently? Since Monday it has gone from abysmal to promising, back to nothing special, then whoopee, opening the curtains this morning (I’m in a proper hotel) it was finally clear blue sky, looking set for a proper, hot Le Mans day. Now it’s clouding over again, and they reckon it could rain sometime today and again tomorrow. Given the pattern so far, nobody narrows it down beyond that, but if I had to guess I’d say early to mid evening. It bothers some less than others.

I gave Allan McNish’s dad a lift into the circuit this morning and he said ‘oh no, Allan’s always been happy in the rain, even in karts – you should have seen him’. I never did, but I’ve seen him in these things on days when Noah would have wept, so I get the idea.

Before the R15 TDI debuted in Sebring they stood more chance of finding rocking horse manure than a dry day’s testing, so they know all about wet set-up. And on previous evidence, notably here last year, Audi deals with extreme rain better than anyone. Anywhere else, you’d hate a rain-drowned race, but with 24 hours to fit a few showers into and still leave a dozen dry GP distances, it’s another of the variables that make Le Mans the unique challenge it is.

I passed on the sherry last night, but I did have a couple of chilly beers and talked much tosh with people who know, and we all think this could be monumental.

Friday 17.20
Bear with me on this: I’m writing early because it’s Friday, and Friday isn’t like other afternoons at Le Mans. Once post-qualifying press calls are over, Friday is playday for anyone without a spanner in hand or PR mailing list on their desktop. Friday is wandering round the Village - and after the shock of losing the ratty but characterful wood and canvas bars and tat-stalls a couple of years ago, the new concrete canyon is weathering surprisingly well; another 25 years, it might be OK.

Brits, Danes and Germans have leapt the language barrier and are managing to order bière, frites and more bière, although most haven’t twigged the translation for horsemeat yet. A PR friend once told me that in any language you only need know the equivalent of three words: beer, receipt and sister. A good man. Assume the position: elbow crooked, grasp tinny/bottle/glass at navel level, slightly ahead of paunch, join aimlessly wandering crowd. If in large group, dress as late-period tubby Elvises; if female, as green witches; if German, sport mullets. At The Smoking Dog (caterers of distinction to otherwise fine teams who don’t have their own paddock gin-palaces) it’s proprietor Carlo’s birthday, and as I couldn’t find a birthday card without a fluffy kitten, I’ve left a ‘Sincere Condolences’ one.

Tonight in Le Mans town (as distinct from circuit Village) it’s the Drivers’ Parade, a traditional bunfight where the great and good are ferried in open cars while jolly crowds take the Mickey. It is not a Temperance event. It is, however, a very sociable evening, and many people get as sociable as newts. I might even risk a small sherry myself.

Friday 11.40
Well what do you know! McNish versus Sarrazin, as advertised, going like gangbusters deep into the night, for a pole that only those who don’t know Le Mans dismiss as fluff. And both laying down those edgy statements. Doing it in style, too, with last-gasp Roy of the Rovers flourishes. Nishy got his in first, right at the end of the daylight-into-twilight session, where provisional pole see-sawed between Peugeot and Audi, with an underlying feel that the French would prevail. The marker was an early 3m25.608s by Montagny’s 8 Peugeot - four seconds quicker than the first Audi to show real pace, with Lucas Luhr. But with Peugeots on top within a gnat’s of two hours, McNish crossed the line with seconds to spare, on a mission.

The whole press room is watching the green and red timing screen spots showing personal best and outright fastest sector times. The 1 Audi has neither over the first two of three, even though traffic is minimal. Then, in the third sector, Nishy pulls the pin, massive attack through all the most daunting bits, from Arnage, through the Porsche Curves and Ford Chicanes to the line. On screen he’s flying, and there’s a spontaneous air-punching whoop for his 3m23.650 – 1.202 seconds clear of the enemy. In the second two hours, running into full darkness, the time looks safe, and Audi rubs it in by sending McNish on a full-fuel 13 lap run, before Kristensen jumps in to double stint the same tyres. But a few minutes from close of play, Sarrazin sneaks one under the radar while we’re all watching Minassian. 3m22.888 – pole by 0.762, and a moral victory.

Fastest petrol car is the 007 Lola-Aston - and ignoring the two showboat laps, just 2.8 seconds adrift of the next fastest diesel. Game on.

Thursday 18.20
By the time you read this, we’ll be into the crunch, four hours of qualifying in two two-hour sessions. No more handbags at dawn over eligibility, no more talking a good game from the back of the garage, nowhere else to hide. And for the moment at least, no more rain, so this time, unlike last night, we’ll know the score.

All that’s left now is the cars, the drivers, eight and a half miles of the Le Mans circuit, and the stopwatch. But if you think that going for pole in a 24-hour race might sound a bit obsessive, forget it – Le Mans is a mind game, and the degree of psychological gain you can make (or lose) before the race starts is beyond price. The first victory of the weekend, in fact. In reality of course, all it proves is that you can be faster over a single lap, not the three hundred-odd that you’d need to be on the podium on Sunday night - but don’t tell somebody like Allan McNish or Stephane Sarrazin that; they go to the edge because that’s the mind-set. So I’m hitting the send button just as the lights it the pitlane go green – twenty minutes late because someone’s been through the Armco in the Formula Le Mans qualifying that just finished.

Watching the League Two cars yesterday in the rain you’d hardly have thought they were going quick enough to get through the barrier if they’d tried. Tonight, to be on pole, the real thing will need to lap comfortably over 150mph. That’s what makes all that waiting through the rain worth every minute.

Thursday 11.04
When I suggested early in last night’s free practice that we might finally learn something about potential pace, I may have been a bit optimistic. Without wishing to go on about it, you can probably guess why. By the second hour it was bucketing again, and it didn’t stop. As the deluge set in properly, the top ten said numbers 1 and 2 Audi, 9 Peugeot, 17 Pescarolo Peugeot (or Poo-zho if you’re American), 8 Peugeot, 3 Audi, 16 real Pescarolo, 008 and 007 Lola-Astons and 7 Peugeot. At midnight it was same order, same times - but you couldn’t fault them for sticking it out. The three Audis did 66, 66 and 68 laps; the 7 Peugeot did more than anybody, on 79 – or rather more than three Grand Prix distances. And while the Astons ‘only’ did 46, 31 and 43, that was more wet running than they’ve ever had, so they probably learned more than most – and it has to be said, they look and sound fantastic. They’re also at the sharp end in the Vmax stakes, an impressive third equal on 292kph, shaded only by the 301kph 8 Peugeot and 295kph 1 Audi, while matching the 2 Audi. Next fastest petrol car is the 16 Pescarolo, 13kph adrift.

As for what it all means, wait until tonight, when qualifying promises, finally, to be dry. Which is more than can be said for the campsites, although you have to admire the British ingenuity that saw enough kitty litter liberated from the kart circuit overnight to form at least one really nice gravel drive over the Somme-like mud. Apparently the builders will be around later to work on the conservatory...

Wednesday 18.10
So now we’re about to see how ready they really are...  It was an afternoon of pitlane fiddling, job-sheets on windscreens, endless pit-stop rehearsal, and a lot of sky-watching, with the occasional engine run mercifully drowning out the French rap music on the PA. Around ten seconds before the precise tick of six o’clock, the 84 Modena Ferrari F430 was the first car to turn a wheel in anger before the 77th 24 Hours of Le Mans, with Pescarolo’s Peugeot not far behind it, and most of the 55 entries running within the first fifteen minutes of free practice. Anger, of course, being a relative concept when the circuit is patchily damp everywhere, track temperature is only 22 degrees and the last thing anyone needs is to throw it at the wall. Especially the 38 ‘rookie’ drivers who have to complete ten laps each before they can progress to qualifying tomorrow; and certainly not the five cars with rookie-only driving squads. Rookies, in Le Mans-speak, being another relative concept, in effect meaning probably quite a decent pedaller, but wet behind the ears at this place. A list, incidentally, which includes a Mansell (Leo) and a Senna (Bruno), but not young Prost (Nicolas), who is a comparative veteran, having raced in 2007 in Oreca’s GT1 Saleen.

For what it’s worth, approaching the first hour, with the track fairly dry but the thin sun turning fuzzy behind the next lot of rain, the Pecarolo Peugeot is topping the time sheets, ahead of three Audis, three more Peugeots, a ‘real’ Pescarolo and two Astons. Five hours to go, and guess what the sky looks like...

Wednesday 10.49
Le Mans, Wednesday am: zero minus three, and gathering pace fast. The first morning of queuing at the main gates, the first of scanning passes, first of searching for a space in the media carpark. The campsites are filling up, with campers and mud, but that’s another occasional Le Mans tradition. The favourites have been booked solid since the day booking opened, last September, so our colleague Mr Cotton has pitched his tent in a cowshed on a farm right alongside the circuit. The farmer knows, and the tariff for the week is about the same as a decent meal in town. A clever move, but you do have to endure your friends singing ‘Away in a Manger’ over beer and a bite in the Le Mans Legends bar in the evening.

Media centre desks that have been empty so far are filling, and there’s growing background chatter. It’s raining again but there are far more people around, and today they have real action to look forward to, as free practice starts this evening, from six to midnight. The teams expect mixed weather, but most don’t have a problem with that as it allows them to work on dry and wet set-ups in case the rain lasts into the weekend – although the forecast is again saying it won’t.

Big news of the morning is that Peugeot, not unexpectedly, have protested elements of Audi’s aerodynamics (categorically declared legal by scrutineering), so whatever the result turns out to be may be strictly provisional. The consensus in the press room is that winning Le Mans in court is not the way to win Le Mans. Even if you’re French.

Tuesday 16.29
Le Mans, Tuesday pm: when Le Mans comes to life it does it quickly, like rain hitting the desert. Scrutineering negotiated, the routine starts. There are more civilians in the pitlane now, even a few braving the rain in the stands; and music over the PA - The Smiths almost as bleak as the weather. Mid afternoon, booted and suited, nine Peugeot drivers are shepherded to the Ford Chicane for the obligatory team pic, past the ranks of Audi official cars – S6s for the Doctors, TTs for Race Control and one Safety Car, Q7s for Track and Fire Safety, and ‘Extraction’. And Renault Koleoses for the travelling marshals.

Peugeot supplies the Media Shuttles, hidden away in the car parks, but in pitlane they occupy the first four garages, including the ‘private’ 908 entrusted to Pescarolo. The works Audi R15s are way down the other end, in the last three ‘real’ garages before the smaller tacked-on ones built when more cars were allowed onto the grid. Others are still turning their concrete boxes into home-base for the weekend, building fuel rigs, laying flooring, setting up tool cabinets. The TV and radio guys are running cables, and you wouldn’t want to be the ones up on the ACO building roof, pointing aerials at the sky while the towering thunderhead clouds roll in again. The RV lot on the Bugatti circuit is filling with homes from home, and cases of fizz are being stashed in the corporate hostility boxes over the pits. Le Mans 2009 is starting to come together.

Tuesday 10.30
Le Mans, Tuesday am - zero minus four days. Rewind slightly, to zero minus five, Newhaven-Dieppe morning ferry (because it’s closer to home than Dover or tunnel). You can normally spot the Le Mans-bound crowd fairly easily – in Elises, old MGs, TVRs, or Transit vans on the bump stops with beer and tents. They’re thin on the ground today. The only obvious Le Mans goer, seen on disembarkation, is a conspicuously new, ice-white Scirocco, neatly logoed-up - and driven, apparently, by an all-English team, Biggles and Doug Bader.

Last night confirmed they were the phoney war, the real invasion hasn’t started yet – even most of the regulars who do it ‘properly’ are still en route. But they haven’t missed much so far. It rained torrentially most of yesterday, pushing the end of day-one scrutineering into soggy, dull mid evening, and in town the nightlife was slow, and almost entirely indoors.

So not a typical Le Mans Monday, and this morning, for second scrutineering, the rain’s back and the black weather fronts are sweeping across the flat landscape over the circuit. But there are sunny gaps, and depending on who you speak to it will get better. The optimists say fine and sunny by Thursday, the pessimists say rain on and off all week.

Either way, it’s Le Mans, and it’s started. Free practice kicks off tomorrow evening at six (until midnight); qualifying is on Thursday night; the drivers’ parade is in town Friday. And you can bet Biggles and Bader will be there even if it’s a thunderstorm.

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