24h.

LeMans.jpg

Le Mans 24 Hours. I doubt there is anything in this world that comes close to it. It’s mythic, it’s unique, it’s a whirlwind of emotions, it’s on the limit and beyond. It’s on every racing fan’s bucket list, and having crossed it off the list once, I have instantly put it back on it, because there is not much that comes close to the atmosphere of this magnificent event. The racing melts into the town, floods into the narrow streets, with the prototypes rolling down the Avenue Général de Gaulle into the Place de la République on Sunday afternoon for the scrutineering, plaques with the handprints of the drivers who have written their names into the history books set between the cobbled stones at the Place Saint-Nicolas.

The rain is a stop and go when we make it into the Place de la République. It is definitely full wet tyre weather, when the Porsche drivers make it on stage. The crowd around is a sea of umbrellas, and it’s so bloody wet. And instead of hiding under another umbrella we just run up the stairs to wave the flags. Putting that smile on Timo’s face is worth every single drop of rain. Timo’s smile and a lovely wave from Brendon and Mark sending us an air-kiss. Making them smile is the least we can do for people who are such a great inspiration. And let’s be honest it must have been quite hilarious: the sea of umbrellas and absolutely drenched girls attempting to wave slightly oversized flags. So basically the No 1 Porsche drivers knew straight away they had some crazy fans around.

Watching them do the interviews was pretty amazing. I think they stayed for at least twenty minutes, and watching the drivers in real life for quite a long period of time makes you notice small things. Mark has that habit of straightening his hair with his left hand: first brushing it behind the right ear, and then making sure it stays in place on the left. Timo is all chats and smiles and he has that wonderful cheerful positive energy around him, it’s like he’s radiating happiness, it’s the same with Romain, really. It was so kind of Mark to mention us idiots in his interview, too.

The official drivers’ handprints ceremony took place on Monday, and somehow it was a feeling of having bumped into a family affair. When we came Earl Bamber was standing around with a couple of officials, a lady from Porsche and his mother. Tandy arrived a bit later, melting into the tiny crowd. It was weird to stand at the side and watch the small ceremony, overhear Bamber making sure his mother can squeeze past the photographers. It’s over after a couple of official congratulations and photos. And then you just stand at the side, chat to a guy from Utah called Brad about the last year’s race and accents in English, and then he catches a part of a phrase of Mrs. Bamber, and guesses she’s from Australia, and she corrects him, casually mentioning, that the guy over there, is her son. The guy who has written his name into the history books is her son.

The autograph session on Tuesday was such a positive surprise (after the mess WEC makes of it): a perfect respectful queue, the drivers in an awesome mood. We got a lovely picture with Timo, Mark and Brendon, and I had to make a promise to Neel and Romain that next time it will be their names on the flag. The funny bit was, how much attention we attracted, when we were standing around afterwards: it’s so weird when people want pictures with you, and you are doing nothing, just sitting around with a flag. At some point we went back to stand in front of the garages, occasionally meeting the drivers’ eyes. Timo kept smiling at us, Mark grotesquely puffed out a long breath after over an hour of the signing session. I have an impression, he likes the fan attention, but for very limited period of time. The drivers were very punctual, both at arrival and when it was time to leave.

Apart from being drenched in motor racing history, Le Mans is a beautiful town on its own. The Cathedral is breath-taking, you see the medieval history the romanesque nave flowing into the gothic choir. The old town is really old, you feel as if you are in the middle of a film set, with the crooked half-timber houses and narrow cobbled streets, Le Mans is worth a visit just because of this. The Le Mans Légend’Café is worth a visit, too – good food and pretty awesome atmosphere.

It’s not until Wednesday when the cars hit the track for the first time, and the beautiful Circuit de la Sarthe is filled with the exquisite symphony of the V8s, turbos, and hybrids. Watching the cars run up the Dunlop curves, brake for the Tertre Rouge, before slotting into the endlessly long Mulsanne straight, which just a couple of days before was occupied by Ranaults Clios and Fiat Puntos. The realisation that it’s a race week comes with the first car passing by, but it’s only after the sunset when the penny drops: it’s not just a race, it’s Le Mans. This realisation leaves you a bit overwhelmed, and your eyes a bit on the wet side.

The weather in the first qualifying practice was dry, and Porsche No 2 managed to get the quicker lap. You can really trust Jani to be quick around Le Mans. Timo made it into 2nd position, getting the -then – provisional front row lockout for Porsche. It was a good result for the day, and I guess one of the best evenings, because there was a positive result and plenty more action yet to come.

The next day the rain left no chance for the time improvements, the cars were spinning on track here and there, and the safety car drifting was a bit of a highlight. The changeable conditions have created one of the most surreal views, with a double rainbow over the Dunlop bridge, the circuit highlighted by the last rays of sun and dark clouds hanging over the grandstands.

I have researched the bands that played live beforehand, and enjoyed the concerts as well: Shake Shake Go were awesome, as was Julian Perretta. The songs will remain a part of the memories, and will make me smile every time I hear them in a shuffled playlist or on the radio.

On Friday there is no running, and the pit lane is open for everyone, so we came to take a look at the cars, when there were no distracting drivers. We still managed to bump into Neel Jani, who pointed out that next time if we were making flags, we should get two different ones, Timo leaned out of the car to say “hi”, we got a glimpse of Mark and Brendon, and made our way back to the town to have lunch and to make a plan for the Drivers´ Parade.

The Parade was quite surreal, we unpacked our flags, and just went along with the No 1 Porsche drivers, watching them throw rubber bracelets and sweets. They all seemed to be in a very good mood, making a challenge of throwing the stuff to people who were watching from their windows. At some point, Mark said that he should get the flag into the car, and well, you don’t say no to Mark Webber, so I passed it to him. It was quite surreal, to be honest. We went along watching the six Porsche drivers, noticing how they became increasingly tired, and what looked like lots of fun at the beginning wasn’t that much fun anymore. At the end Mark just stormed past the crowd. We went to the lawn overseeing the car park, somehow even got the flag back from the Porsche PR people, and got to get a hug from the infamous Michelin man.

It was really incredible how generous the drivers were with their time, and their energy during such a demanding week, the scrutineering, the signing session, the parade. I really appreciate every smile and every small wave in our direction. I know it’s their job, but with Timo, Neel, Romain and surprisingly Mark it didn’t feel like it. I am infinitely grateful for it. I guess now I have to keep my sort-of promise and get another flag.

The race day came with heavy clouds, and for the first time in its history the 24 hours of Le Mans started under the safety car. It should have felt anti-climatic, but with the way it was raining, I can’t really bring myself to feel disappointed, you just want the drivers to be safe, and with the Porsches starting in front, it wasn’t too bad either.

The rain stopped, the race went on. We were really happy that we managed to get grandstand tickets (T4 just before the Dunlop bridge offers a great view, but not so much of protection of the rain). Some time in the afternoon, we went for a walk to Tertre Rouge, then got back to Dunlop, checked out the Village, walked to the Ferris Wheel, to the main straight to watch the garages a bit. The camping Le Mans style is quite impressive, too: it’s not often you see so many Lamborghinis, Aston Martins and McLarens in one place surrounded by the tents.

I think the night is my favourite part, with people starting to leave, and at some point there is just the race, the cars going on track, lap after lap after lap after lap. And then everything goes wrong. The No 1 is being pushed into the garage. It is heart breaking to see it happen, it is heart breaking, when it’s not even midnight and you know that your team is out of contention. It hurts a lot, because those people gifted you so many positive emotions, and for them there isn’t much of that left. It was a familiar feeling after Spa really, and that made it even worse.

We went to the main straight to watch the team work on the car. The thing with your favourite team is… it’s a bit of a marriage, in joy and sorrow kind of thing. And also it’s Le Mans, no one just gives up, they keep going, they keep fighting. Finishing the race is a huge achievement on its own, and when Brendon finally made it back on track in 50th having lost over 30 laps, even when it wasn’t the competition against the others for the race win, it was the competition against the mighty Le Mans itself. And I am incredibly proud of the amazing job the No 1 crew did: the mechanics, who put the car back on track, and the drivers, who kept pushing all the way till the end with some spectacular lap times. Among the three of them Timo, Mark and Brendon gained back over 35 positions. They have finished. And in Le Mans this is a great achievement in itself.

We spent another couple of hours in our grandstand, happy that we thought of taking some gloves and space blankets with us. Then we decided to take another walk to keep awake and to get warm. Made our way to the Ferris wheel. The view of the track in the first rays of light was a bit otherworldly, as if it was a painting coming alive right in front of your eyes. When we were walking back to our grandstand I stopped to watch the cars going through the second corner, just to turn my head to the left and see Alan Webber. I needed a second to actually realise I wasn’t going crazy. I just took a step aside and kept watching him watching Mark on track. He was taking pictures every time Mark passed by, then looked at his watch and then took another picture after three minutes twenty seconds. Mark’s sister was there too, watching the car on track, and shouting a quiet “c’mon Mark” every time he passed by. Mark was somewhere around 40th place back then. All of the Webber gang were wearing the Porsche caps with Mark’s name on it, and those radio things you got on track for 10 euros.

The night was over a bit too quickly, and we decided to make another attempt to get to the Porsche curves, which required quite a long detour through the camping. It was worth it though, seeing the cars go through there is quite impressive. The No 2 was fighting, even though Toyota seemed to have quite an advantage. I cried when with something like 4 hours to go Toyota passed the sister car on track, it was just all coming crashing down: the fact that No 1 was out of contention, the fact that Toyota were quicker, the fact that there wasn’t much time left in the race and that it was almost over.

Towards the end my friend insisted we took a strategic position close to the gate that was supposed to be opened to get on track once the race ended. To be honest, I still regret it, because we ended up following the race on the radio, while the drama was happening on track. But you are always smarter in hindsight. I couldn’t quite believe what happened. No one could I think. If it were a movie everyone would say it was too Hollywood. I couldn’t quite believe that Porsche have won the race.

You can’t win Le Mans. Le Mans lets you win. It didn’t let Toyota take the victory they deserved. It is 24 Hours of Le Mans, not 23 hours 57 minutes. You can’t help but feel for Toyota, you don’t wish something like that on anyone. And I guess no matter which team you support, you can’t help but be heartbroken for Toyota.

It was such an honour to see the sister car drivers on the top step of the podium, to see them lift the trophies and spray the champagne. They have deserved their win, they have kept pushing, when it seemed there was no chances left. They brought the car over the line. They have done their job brilliantly. The win is a result of incredibly hard work, months of preparation, incredible driving by Romain, Marc and Neel. They didn’t steal the win from Toyota, they fought hard to be in a position to receive the gift from the mighty Le Mans.

Having the chance to walk a bit on the track itself is amazing, I have always loved it at the Formula 1 races. What was even more incredible was that the pit lane was open, and you could watch Porsche take their celebratory picture. Timo stuck around and seemed genuinely happy for the sister car. Mark and Brendon left pretty quickly.

The best thing about this race, which started under the safety car, and finished the way it finished, is that there were no serious accidents, and no one got hurt. When it all goes smoothly we often forget how dangerous racing can be, and how insignificant the wins and losses can become. We are incredibly lucky that the biggest drama this year was the lost race.

Crossing things off the bucket list is actually quite sad, you immediately ask yourself what happens after. There is probably Nürburgring, and I am sure I will come back to Le Mans to watch Neel, Romain and Marc open the plaque with their handprints at the Place Saint-Nicolas, and watch Mark, Timo and Brendon have another go at persuading Le Mans to let them win.

P.S.:

For me one of the most important aspects of traveling and of traveling to the events are people I get to meet, people I get to go share the experiences with. It was nice to go with Liza, to some extent she was the one who introduced me to WEC, and she was the one I shared Spa in 2014 with. It was lovely making those lovely breakfasts for the two of us, while she was doing her hair, it was lovely drenching in the rain with her, and waving the flags, that have a bit of a backstage story to them. It was amazing to laugh with her.

It was lovely to meet Mary and Dina again, I am happy they have made it to Le Mans, and I am really looking forward to seeing them again at the Nürburgring.

We got incredibly lucky with the accommodation, our lovely hosts from Airbnb turned out to be incredible characters, welcoming and creative. When we arrived, we were straight away introduced to the family of tin watering cans, the studio apartment we stayed in was tiny but furnished with incredible attention to detail. It is a shame we didn’t manage to find time to have a coffee with Marie and Richard.

At the pit lane after the autograph session, when we ended up being surrounded by the photographers we met Florant, who was very kind to send us our pictures, and with whom I hope to keep in touch, it is rare to meet someone so nice, really. Huge thanks to Eric Gilbert from Motorsport.com, who was also very kind to send us his pictures.

There were all those people in the queues and crowds: Michael from California, the lady from New Zeeland with a kiwi bird on her head, supporting Brandon, the guy with a Toyota flag with whom we exchanged an odd thumbs up over the week, the engineer from the UK, who told us that lovely poem inspired by his grand daughter, Hideaki, who came all the way from Japan to watch the race, Romeo and his girlfriend, who we met at night in the old town, and later several times on track.

It is amazing how respectful, open and friendly the motorsport family is. And with the news feeds filled with the reports of football fans beating each other up here and there, you can’t help but feel a bit proud, that you are a part of this family.

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