Cup of skill, pound of determination, a pinch of luck and sprinkle of miracle

Hattrick

This really has happened, hasn’t it? It wasn’t all a dream, was it? Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber won the 24h of Le Mans. They won this crazy ruthless race. If it were fiction, one would say the scriptwriter overdid it. The reality of it will take a while to set in.

Apparently there is nothing that tastes better than Veltins Pils. Maybe the cold water offered by the Porsche staff to the fans gathered around their garages after the podium ceremony. Singing along to “We are the champions” and “Auf uns”, getting to actually touch the constructor’s trophy – it’s surreal.

It was such a privilege to see the team celebrate, to celebrate with them. It was an absolute honour to congratulate Timo in person – all soaked in champagne and wrapped in the wreath, exhausted but so incredibly happy. He is the hero. Knowing it was him in the car for that crucial last stint, was somehow calming. You can rely on Timo to do things like that, to keep cool in the boiling cockpit at 330 kmh, fighting for the win, that seemed impossible after every other LMP1 car has broken down. Timo is the hero – not the least because when he heard that, first thing he said was “Brendon and Earl are.”

Every victory in Le Mans is history books stuff. But somehow some more than others and I am sure this year’s Porsche Victory will take a very special place. With Toyota’s pace, Porsche needed luck and a bit of magic in addition to skill and hard work they brought to the table themselves.

This is an inspiring victory: four hours into the race and it looked like there was no point. A car that spends an hour in the garages is out of contention. The crucial decisions seem less crucial – and at that point 5 more minutes in the garage wouldn’t seem so critical. I thought of the last year – problems at night, 40th place… and incredible lap times. I knew Porsche wouldn’t give up -they never do, but the possibility of getting anything but some peace of mind out of it seemed quite remote.

 

These victories that seem impossible at times – taste the best, feel the best. The hard fought ones, the “never give up” ones. It is another “to finish first, first you have to finish” one. But isn’t every Le Mans like this?

To end the day the way it ended, to end this week like that, was beyond anything I ever dared to hope for. It was once in a lifetime experience, such an honour. It leaves you feeling a little bit like a part of the family, and this is something very special, so I am infinitely grateful for that.

But wind back a week. Place de la République, scrutineering, Porsche drivers on stage. Neel and André chatting away in French, Nick joking that Hulkenberg was a terrible person and Earl laughing a lot. Earl generally laughed a lot, just as did Brendon and Timo – to see these incredible people happy, relaxed, laughing is amazing. Just watch them for an extended period of time is amazing.

Monday with all of the other drivers was just as awesome. I love how the whole town lives the race, how the race is weaved into the streets. It is a hard work for the teams and for the drivers, but this access is what makes a part of the myth. There are things you notice, that you didn’t notice before, like the fact that Kamui Kobayashi films everyone who asks him for an autograph or a selfie, or Pierre Thiriet sitting on the floor, his back against the barriers, waiting for the photoshoot.

Fast forward to winners’ handprints. To see Marc, Neel and Romain together was incredible, and to witness this moment was an honour. Their handprints now are in the heart of the town. And next year Timo’s, Brendon’s and Earl’s will join them. It is incredible to be at these places, to live through these things, every time not quite believing it’s all for real.

Autograph session in Le Mans is quite an awesome thing – for the fans. Not so much for the drivers. Because 1.5 hours in the gruelling sun, signing stuff doesn’t sound like loads of fun. The incredible part for me is just to stay and watch them. At some point André got bored and started folding paper planes throwing them in the direction of the no. 2 car and Lucas Di Grassi, who was just as keen on participating in the game, but didn’t bother to fold planes, he just threw Ferrari cards in the general direction of Porsche. One of the cards got stuck over the garage, and stayed there till the end of the week.

It was lovely to chat to Rich, too, who had the awesome job of telling people that the queue was on the other side. These are all those special moments – the eclectic music selection, Timo and Earl nodding their heads to the stupid “Nein Mann” song – these are all those moments you keep in your memory, safely stored away in the warm corners, these are the moments you get to keep, only if you have been there.

Fast forward to Wednesday. The actual Le Mans soundtrack is on. Le Mans is incredible, Le Mans is special, and a major part of the magic is the night. Last year seeing cars on track at night for the first time was when I actually started to realise it wasn’t just a race, it was the big one. It is like you are in a wonderland with the lights, the pit lane and the Ferris Wheel, the cars going through the Ford chicane towards the Dunlop bridge. It is incredible. Thursday more of the same – watching the sunset over Le Mans is something incredible.

The fan Village is worth mentioning – especially the Toyota Fan Zone. They have brought simulators and mock cars and you could give it a go with a wheel change. But more importantly you could get into the cockpit. I have to admit, it was a bit of a life changing experience. Yes, you hear the drivers say in the interviews that the visibility is limited, and that it’s physically demanding to push the throttle. It’s one thing to hear it, the other is to be able to touch. The flaps on the steering wheel are easy, you have to barely touch the brake pedal, but the throttle is actually hard – doing this for up to three and a half hours is something – and this is not taking the g-forces into account. This was the experience that makes you appreciate what these men do on a completely different level.

Fast forward to the driver’s parade. Walking along behind the rows of people is the way to go for me, the atmosphere is just incredible, you soak it all in – this carnival feeling, with the drivers in the middle. Toyota no. 8 had an issue with the car at the parade, and somehow it left a bit of a heavy aftertaste. Who knew what was to come.

This week is incredibly long, but the time flies and very soon it was 7 a.m. on Saturday and I was up saving us a space on the grandstand. About 32 sleepless hours later we were sitting on the Porsche pit wall celebrating the win of our beloved no. 2 with Viltins.

I don’t think there is a recipe to a win in Le Mans, but there are some ingredients that belong in the mix, at least this year: skill, determination, hard work, luck and a bit of a miracle.

The Porsche win had all this and so much more. It was one of the most heart breaking races I have ever seen. Four hours into the race and no. 2 is in the garage, and you can’t help but think of that conversation with Timo “it has always been our car with the issues,” and you just think not again. An hour in the pits wouldn’t exactly sound like a suitable ingredient to a Le Mans victory. Five hours into the 24h race and no. 2 was 54th – but the most important thing was, they were on track, they were running and you knew that Timo, Brendon and Earl would never give up, they would claw back every place Le Mans stole from them.

But apparently Le Mans had just started to reap its LMP1 victims. You can’t help but feel for Toyota – they have put everything on the line to win this year – they had the quickest car, three of them. And the night claimed all of them: front axle issues for no. 8, crash for no. 9 and a clutch problem for no. 7. This track seems to have some sort of a personal vendetta against Toyota. And as much as I want Porsche to win, I am heartbroken for Toyota, for the team, their drivers and their fans. Toyota had huge fan support at Le Mans this year, and you can’t help but feel for them.

No. 1 was left in the lead with a giant gap behind. What the last year taught all of us – it’s not over until it’s over, and even watching no. 1 lead for so long, you don’t really dare to think of celebrating. Le Mans still wasn’t satisfied, it wanted more, and it took more. It was heart breaking to watch André try and reanimate the car, it was heart breaking to see Neel’s face in the garage. It’s like Le Mans was collecting the debt from the last year.

When the no. 2 Porsche fought through the LMP2 field, first you thought maybe points, then you dared to think podium, but with the retirement of the no. 1, this has suddenly become a fight for the win. How much time do they need if they are 10 seconds per lap quicker? Will it be enough? What Timo did in this race is incredible. Over the course of the race he did 50 laps more than Earl or Brendon, he was in the car for the last, crucial stint. Somehow this fact was calming – if there is someone who has this inner peace to keep cool in such a situation it’s Timo. The laps were ticking down, the nerve cells dying. Timo overtook the Oreca, and then the only thing to do was praying for the car to hold together.

She did.

It’s disbelief at first, it always is, but I guess after the last year’s Le Mans no one allows themselves to start getting accustomed with the result before the chequered flag. Hugs, congratulations, tears – not just in the car, but at the grandstands, too – as if a proof that it is real, that it has really happened. The craziest win ever. From 54th to first. They have made it. First one for Brendon, a Porsche one for Timo, second for Earl. Hattrick for Porsche.

Magic, luck, skill, determination – that was the recipe for this year’s race. The only thing I wanted, was for these amazing men to leave Le Mans with the smiles on their faces. And I am incredibly grateful to Le Mans for almost fulfilling my wish.

With the rumours about the Porsche exit from the WEC at the end of the year – which I have heard of on Wednesday, every moment after had a strange taste to it. Suddenly, you start to think, what if it’s the last time. Sometimes I think ignorance is bliss. It’s not like it’s something I can influence, and the rational part of my brain understands that it would make a lot of sense. But I am not rational about it, I am too emotionally invested. I guess this is what happens if you put too much of your heart into things out of your control. But hey, Porsche LMP1 Team have been making me a happier person since 2014, and even if they leave, the only thing I can say is DANKE!

It was a beautiful week, and I am infinitely grateful to people who were around, Ramona, Deborah, Tanguy, Betty, Becca, Desiree… Thanks to Liza, who was our Radio Le Mans, keeping us updated during the race. See you at the Nürburgring, where Porsche even might have a suitable aero for the track, and challenge Toyota on pace.

I’m looking forward to it.

 

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