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.