24 Hours at Le Mans

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July 11, 2004

Article and photos by: John Stahmann

Audi did it again! 1-2-3! This year the overall winning entry was the Audi Sport Japan Team Goh car #5 piloted by Tom Kristensen, Seiji Ara, and Rinaldo `Dindo’ Capello. This ties Tom Kristensen with Jacky Ickx who held the record for most victories by a single driver – each has 6. Second place by Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx #88, and third place overall was taken by the Champion Audi #69.

Le Mans: one of the most famous of all races, in no small part due to the legendary movie starring Steve McQueen. In the movie, McQueen plays a driver who returns to Le Mans to race after being injured in a crash the previous year. He drives one of the most notorious cars ever to race at Le Mans, the Porsche 917 which was developed in 1968 under the direction of Ferdinand Piech. His goal, of course, was to win Le Mans, giving Porsche its first outright win in the process.

Porsche succeeded in winning Le Mans in both 1970 and 1971, and the 1971 Porsche 917 was so fast that in the same 24 hour period the winning car covered over 700 km more than the 1970 winning 917. For 1972 the rules at Le Mans were changed substantially, making it impossible to continue running the 917. To this day there are still several records held by the 917, including the fastest lap (3:18:04 set in 1971) and the most distance driven in a 24 hour period at Le Mans (5,335.313 km in 1971).

Jumping ahead nearly 30 years and with an amazingly similar turn of events, Audi began racing the R8 in 1999. Ferdinand Piech once again headed up the project. His goal, just like many years before, was to win Le Mans, giving Audi its first outright win. Audi has now won at Le Mans in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2004, with multiple 1-2-3 victories. The Audi R8 is so technically advanced that changes within the gearbox and rear axles can be performed in less than 4 minutes. Whisperings around Le Mans this year are that the R8 will be ineligible to race next year due to new regulations that aim to re-level the playing field just like they did to the Porsche 917!

Le Mans is actually a week long festival of motorsport. During the days leading up to the 24 hour race, there are many different activities including qualifying laps, practice sessions, Motor Racing Legends races, and even a drivers parade through the Le Mans city center.

I arrived in Paris on Saturday morning. It was easy to get to the circuit using public transportation – there are high speed trains running to Le Mans regularly and when I stepped off the train there were busses there waiting to shuttle fans to the circuit. A 20 minute bus ride later and I had arrived in race mecca – the entrance to the `Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans’.

All attendees require a General Admission ticket, this year costing 58€. In addition to the GA ticket you can purchase a seat in one of the several grandstands down the front straight, the Dunlop curves, and elsewhere. These tickets sell out pretty quickly, but if you’re not camping, it’s nice to have a seat in the shade where you can go and hang out if you need to. Also, the grandstands give the best view of the track.

The Le Mans circuit is huge – 8.5 miles. There is so much to see and so much track in fact that it’s pretty much impossible to see it all in one weekend. There’s a Fair, endless camps, food stands, booth after booth of merchandise to buy, vendor displays to visit… oh, and there’s also a race going on as well. It makes a nice excuse to go back to the race in multiple years.

A great number of the attendees at Le Mans camp out during the race, meaning that everywhere you go there are cities of tents. Many of these groups of campers caravan together to the race and have been doing so for years. Some simply pitch their tent and others go all out with barbeques, swimming pools, fountains, etc. Remember – this is Le Mans!!

Walking around the camps I couldn’t help but notice the cars. I’m not talking about the race cars, but the cars the fans drive to the race. Everywhere I turned it was one amazing car after another, pretty much running the gambit of must see vehicles. Within the first hour alone I saw an Audi RS 2, RS 4, Ferrari Enzo, Ferrari 360, Bentley Contintental GT, Porsche GT2, Porsche GT3, various TVRs, and various Lotuses. Some owners were part of a group, such as the Porsche Club of Great Britain, but most were just attendees who had made the trek to the race in style.

Getting around the track was relatively simple. Since I was willing to walk a fair bit I covered a lot of ground. There were shuttle busses running from the front gate to the two most extreme areas of the track – the Arnage Curve and Mulsanne Curve.

Some of my highlights at Le Mans were:

  • The #10 Taurus Racing Lola/Caterpillar entry. This race LMP1 race car ran a VW V10 TDI engine found in a VW Touareg. This car did really well until transmission problems forced its early retirement. It was almost completely silent as it went by – some even thought it was electric.

  • Waffles with Nutella. The Circuit had all kinds of food to offer, but the vendors selling crepes and waffles with Nutella Chocolate spread seemed packed with people no matter what the hour.

  • Models. Those of you (like me) that collect car models would be in heaven. All conceivable kinds of car models were being sold; it was all I could do to not bring home another suitcase filled just with 1/43 scale model cars.

  • Gran Turismo 4. Sony had a huge PlayStation 2 display where fans could go and play the new Gran Turismo 4 coming out later this year. One word – Awesome!

  • TVR. Two TVR Tuscans were entered in the race and were great to watch. TVR enthusiasts were all over the place, wearing their purple shirts and waving TVR flags. The TVRs that were parked all around were really cool as well. TVR has only raced at Le Mans 3 times (1962, 2003, 2004) but with the large following it seemed they’d been there for years.

  • Morgan. The Morgan Aero 8 entered the race not because they thought they would win, but because they just wanted to finish – and they did. Thumbs up to Morgan for their design which combines tradition and modernism.

  • Porsche. Just like every year, there were quite a few Porsche 911s running under privateer colors – 10 this year. The teams came from all over the world and even though they all look similar, there were tremendous differences between the cars – some were 2002 GTs, 2003 GTs, and 2003 RSRs. Just watching the race between the Porsches can be entertaining.

  • American spirit. For the first time ever in the history of Le Mans, American entries took first place in all individual classes.

  • The new Audi A6. Audi provided many of the official vehicles for the race including the Audi Hospitality Cars, Medical Cars, Fire Safety Cars, and Pace or Safety Cars. The Pace cars were slightly modified new A6 4.2s that had been fitted with sport suspensions, RS6 brakes, 19 inch RS6 wheels, Recaro racing seats with 6-point harnesses and an Alcantara steering wheel on the interior for better grip. I love the look of the new A6.

  • Radio Le Mans. If you go to Le Mans, take a small FM radio with earbuds. Radio Le Mans broadcasts the entire race in French on one station and English on another – basically the same sound feed as is being broadcast on the Speed channel in the USA. This is the only way to know who is where and what is happening, since you can only see a small section of the track at once.

  • The finish. As the cars come in for the checkered flag, they are waved into the pit area and then the fans start streaming out onto the track for the Trophy Presentation, which is done on a platform right over the entrance to the pits.

    In all, Le Mans 2004 is an event that lived up to everything I ever dreamed it would be. I’d love to go back again next year as I’m told that each year brings a whole new experience. This was the year of the Privateer teams, and it was a race I’ll never forget.

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