How could I have turned down several opportunities to attend the world's most prestigious sportscar endurance race? I did just that time and again, this year I did not.
To be able to step to the surface where motor sports history has been made since 1923 was a dream. A major plus was that six-time 24 Heures du Mans winner, the incomparable Jacky Ickx would be present. And factor in that Tom Kristensen, who already broke one of Ickx's records would have the opportunity to tie Ickx for the most wins.
I could not refuse this opportunity, and my French-Canadian friend and business partner convinced me to arrive in Paris early and leave a few days after the race. He knew Paris and we stayed in local hotels on the Left Bank in the artist community.
Our first day was spent with a tour of the city, including the locales where French history had been made, seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.
Our first night spent in typical French fashion at an outdoor caf watching the tourists and locals go about their business, and seeing geraniums hanging from balcony rails was a perfect touch. Paris is crowded with narrow "can we actually get the Peugeot down this street?" roads. No one is in a hurry, life is relaxed as families, couples and singles just enjoy long sunlit evenings.
Then on to Le Mans. We would be staying just 5kms from the Arnage Corner. As we approached the exit, I could not wait to see the famed Circuit des "24 Heures". We came to the Mulsanne Straight, a true country road. To place a wheel on the track where great drivers like Derek Bell, Hans Stuck, Woolf Barnato, Henri Pescarolo, Phil Hill and Pedro Rodriguez raced on was awesome.
We pass the two chicanes, always closed to the public, arriving at Indianapolis Curve and Esses and it's easy to see why the name as the Indy curve is a banked left turn. Then on to Arnage Corner, Eric decided to continue instead of turning left. He was enjoying my "wows" and "cools"; we headed to Porsche Curves. Truly, I could not describe my feelings of being where Jaguar, Bentley, Alfa-Romeo, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche teams have traveled at speeds up to 310 km/h.
The Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) owns only a portion of the land the track is laid out on. They have the short track - Circuit du Mans - where the Moto GP series and national races are held. It is very strange to drive on the country roads used as a portion of the current 13.650km circuit.
The circuit for the famous and historical Le Mans 24-hour race has changed 12 times since 1923. In early years, the course was 17.262km and ran toward the town of Le Mans. Many of the changes in the circuit were due to changes in the country roads, safety reasons (chicanes on Mulsanne Straight) and changes in the land ownership surrounding the track.
One thing remains constant: This is the site of the world's most classic endurance race. It is home to the 24 Heures du Mans.
Monday and Tuesday were the two scrutineering days. Teams are assigned which day and what time to present their car and drivers. It is a formal event, yet a day to enjoy and relax for many participants. The setting is in downtown Le Mans, paradoxically near a modern "mall" building and a very medieval-style church, the latter an awesome building towering over the nearby homes and local shops. A park where over 40,000 spectators per day came to view the event surrounds the parking lot for scrutineering. When the drivers arrived, they were swarmed by the fans as this is the day they, the fans, can take photos, see the cars up close and get autographs. "This is important to the spectators," said Audi driver Marco Werner. "A day to relax and talk to people."
American Gunnar Jeanette remarked about the crowds and the amount of cars on the small city streets, "Took me 20 minutes to locate a place to park, there are lots of people. This is very special; it is Le Mans!"
This is truly a Pomp and Circumstance event; no other endurance race has scrutineering days like these. The drivers enter and go through driver verification; then sit around in their driver's suits, talk to the media and wait for team photos when the car has completed the technical inspection which is in three stages: Weight, measurements/engine, lift to view underbody and more measurements.
"This is a great event with a carnival atmosphere," commented American Chris Dyson, competing in the Racing for Holland LMP1 Dome Judd. "It is a great tradition that helps to build up interest in the race. The French fans are very passionate and ACO makes this a special time. For an American, it is similar to how we interact with fans in the ALMS (American Le Mans Series); I can see where the concept of sharing with the fans came from."
It was easy to note when the French Pescarolo team arrived on Tuesday. One only had to see a mound of spectators around the team transporter. Always respectful, fans gave team members space to unload the car and move it into line. The French racers were barely out of their personal cars before autographs were requested and cameras were clicking away.
One driver on Henri Pescarolo's team was born in Le Mans and his family still resides in the local area. With little time to catch up on sleep after jetting across the pond to race in the same event in which his father is competing, there was Champ Car driver Sebastien Bourdais.
Bourdais, winner of the 2004 Monterrey race left Milwaukee after the CCWS' only oval race this season to catch a flight to Paris. "It feels good to be here," commented Bourdais. "However, I have little time to sleep so I am a little tired. This is the first time that Dad (Patrick) and I will race at the same event, so this is nice. I wish I could do it with him in the same car, perhaps one day in the future."
Wednesday and Thursday were two-part, two-hour practice/qualifying sessions. The hour break allowed teams to make car adjustments and for drivers and team managers to discuss what changes might be needed. The track was also cleaned during break time.
On Wednesday, Allan McNish set the fast lap. His major challenge was the sister car belonging to the Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx stable. Not a surprise as many here know of the Audi domination in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Team Bentley won 2003 and retired from endurance racing after their sixth Le Mans victory, 73 years after their fifth.
With three Audi teams present, the big question was which Audi team will take home the win? After Thursday qualifying, it appeared that it would be one of the Team Veloqx cars.
Many of the Le Mans P1, P2, GTS and GT teams opted to do run more race setup laps than actual qualifying laps. "For qualifying, we will use just one set of tires and a one-lap qualifier," explained Bourdais. " We will be pacing ourselves and doing race setup. The race is what counts."
Jan Magnussen competes in several racing series this year. For Le Mans he will pilot one of the Corvette Racing machines. The Dane ran with the team at the ALMS Sebring 12-hours and will return for the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in the fall. "We felt that the time Oliver Gavin had set was unbeatable," reflected Magnussen after Thursday's qualifying. "So we only did race runs in the final two-hour session."
Prodrive Ferrari's Tomas Enge did a final fast lap that jumped onto our monitors and surprised everyone in the media center. Thus, he knocked Gavin off the GTS pole position.
For overall pole, Johnny Herbert, was in the media center watching the monitor to see if his own team car would steal away his first pole at Le Mans. McNish gave it a good run but could not touch Herbert's time. Watching Herbert pace and stare at the monitor allowed an inside peek at the world-renown racer. Here was a man who simply was nervous - the way a soon-to-be father would be waiting for his child's birth - to Herbert pole was that important.
The look on his face when he knew he had it reflected in his words, "I am very happy!"
I was lucky enough to get private quotes from Herbert prior to the press conference. During that time, he must have remarked at least ten times on how happy he was even at times asking rhetorically, "Can you tell I am happy?" It was a great feeling to witness the joy of Herbert, a memory I will retain for years to come.
Another surprise in qualifying came in the second two-hour session on Thursday. David Brabham proved how fast the Zytek Engineering car was - he laid down a fast lap surprising Team Veloqx who felt after the earlier session that the pole was secured. Brabham's time stood until the Audi teams decided it was time to take it back.
Friday was Parade day - a time to chill, take in the ambience and just enjoy. Then we went shopping for needed groceries; once we arrived at the track on Saturday, we would not leave until 8:00 p.m. Sunday night - four hours after the race ended.
Saturday came and the feeling that hit me was, "Wow, I really am here." I was excited beyond words. The first event of the day was the Group C - GTP cars of days gone by. For me this was a very emotional moment as I was a former team scorer for several IMSA teams.
The pre-race activity never slowed down including the "ear of corn" which is the traditional Le Mans start. The ear of corn was the signal for one to run to the car and jump in and go racing. When seatbelts came along and the rule was that they had to wear them, many drivers began racing without the seatbelt.
Finally in the early 70s, polesitter Ickx did not run to his car; he walked. Ickx wanted to make the point about safety and he did. The following year, the drivers had to already be strapped into their cars before the ear of corn signaled the start. Of course, that has since changed and there is one pace lap before the French flag is waved to signal the start of racing. Now the ear symbolizes memory of the past.
After hours of pre-race activities, the race finally began.
Main memories of the 24-hour race?
The big crash due to oil on the track surface near the two-hour mark causing heavy damage to the Champion Racing Audi and the No. 8 Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx. It was not just a case of who was involved for me, a course observer, but noticing that oil was on the track and no oil flag shown prior to the racers entering the impacted area. Other cars also spun.
McNish was knocked unconscious and even though he did wake up and extract himself from the Audi R8, he was indeed groggy. He drove the car to the garage (!) and after being monitored by two Audi doctors, he was sent to the local medical center for observation.
Allan McNish was not allowed to continue driving. This turn of events left veteran and three-time Le Mans winner Frank Biela and rookie Le Mans driver Pierre Kaffer to drive the Audi for the next 22 hours. Theirs was a remarkable accomplishment, racing their hearts out to climb into the top 20, then to the top ten and finally finishing fifth overall and fifth in class.
Champion Racing ended on the podium in what was another major accomplishment after the heavy damage to their Audi. JJ Lehto, Marco Werner and Emmanuelle Pirro were very happy with their third place in this year's Le Mans.
Fast does not equal endurance. A 24-hour race is "endurance" and as fast as Zytek was, they did not have the stamina and the engine gave way 167 laps into the race.
Ferrari versus Corvette. Over the past years, the two marques have challenged one another and at times, one or the other or both had problems. This race marked the first time that both cars from Prodrive Ferrari and Corvette Racing had lots of problems twice around the clock.
First Corvette's No. 63, then Ferrari's No. 65, then the No. 64 Corvette and finally toward the closing hours, the leader, the No. 66 Ferrari stopped off-track. That allowed the trio of Gavin, Magnussen and Olivier Beretta to pass them by and bring the No. 64 Corvette home to GTS victory.
My final memory would be of watching Kristensen as Seiji Ara brought the Audi Sport Japan Team Goh first across the finish line as checkered flags waved. Kristensen finally showed emotions. He had broken the record of consecutive wins that he set last year. More importantly he had just won his sixth of seven [entered] Le Mans 24-hours, tying the Dane for the most wins with Belgian Ickx.
History was made and I was lucky enough to be there. I truly understand Kristensen's comment from the podium: "Thank you very much Jacky, you were right. I am a lucky bastard. I really am." Kristensen said with a huge grin. (c) 2004 Nancy Schilke