24 Hours at Le Mans

24 Hours at Le Mans

It’s the greatest race in the world – and there’s much, much more to do than watch cars race
 Words: Sirish Chandran

Arrive at Le Mans after an eventful journey that sees Lufthansa lose my suitcase and compensate me with a XXXL t-shirt and toiletries. Fortunately we are guests of Audi and I find a warm jacket (and slippers!) on my bed at the Arnage Racing Hotel. This is a make-shift structure at the Le Mans expo centre where even one person snoring can ruin everybody’s night; with common loos and showers used by even Audi board members, with rooms that are as long as the bed and half as wide. Sounds like torture but it’s absolute luxury – while race fans and even guys in Ferrari’s, camp out in tents on muddy rain-soaked grounds, we have proper beds and hot showers that are just three minutes away from the track. Colleagues of ours who’ve come with another manufacturer are put up at a hotel 100km away and have a three-hour commute, in traffic!
17:00 Take a shuttle – an A8 no less – to Le Mans city centre for the ceremonial driver’s parade. It’s the first time we are in the stands and it’s a great place to soak in the atmosphere of the race, though the commentary is all in French which isn’t helpful. We also notice that apart from one editor, the entire contingent that has come with Audi India is made up of current and former editors of Overdrive magazine. cueselfies and twitter posts.
20:00 A shuttle back to the track – a VW van with cloth seats this time – and straight to the Audi Arena. This is the main Audi hospitality arena that is located before the Ford curves that lead on to the main start-finish straight. We sip champagne and watch the sun go down on the track. And then head downstairs to get our feet cleaned by little fish at the spa. I kid you not. Also at the Audi hospitality is one of Munich’s best barbers – I kid you not! – and I book myself for a shave the next day.

Saturday, June 13, 08:00
Breakfast at the Racing Arena as cars circulate the track for final practice. It’s followed by the classic race with some absolutely stunning cars – GT40s, Jag XK, C- and D-Types, Merc 300SLs, Aston Martin Lagondas, AC cobras, MGs, corvettes and more – all sounding wonderfully unique and all sliding around on their period- perfect spindly tyres.
11:00 Wander over to the pit lane to meet Karun Chandhok who will be starting his second Le Mans 24 hours race. A shunt by their third driver robbed them of time in qualifying and they will be starting eighth on the grid in the LMP2 category. But Karun is in good cheer, even taking us to show his home for the week – a single-bed camper van that cost him 3000 euro!
12:00 Sneak on to the pitlane through Karun’s pits and check out the racecars up close. The Audi looks insane – like an insect with it’s doors open; the Porsches look ugly, made no better by all three cars in different colours; the Toyotas looks cool in blue and white and have the coolest name – Gazoo Racing; and the Nissan is just nuts. Its V6 engine is in the nose and that nose goes on forever. With the bodywork off it’s crazy to see just how packed that front end is with the engine and all its ancillaries and the suspension. not only that, the car is also front-wheel-drive, the rear gearbox kept blowing which means there’s no energy recovery powering the rear wheel. You wonder how it is all going to work and then you see the qualifying times and realise it isn’t working. Rumour has it that a blind eye was turned to the per-lap fuel restriction otherwise the Nissan LMP1 cars would have qualified behind their lower-spec LMP2 cars. Up until now it has been a disastrous debut.
13:00 Walk to the Audi Racing Lounge situated above the grand stands; reserve our seats on the theatre-style seating that overlooks the start-finish straight and then queue up for a helicopter ride over the Le Mans circuit. Tickets secured we head upstairs for a beer and lunch where we bump into John Chacko who was formerly president of Volkswagen Group India and now heads the pre-production division of Audi. All new Audi’s have to be signed off by his team – the most recent was the Q7 – and his department also makes the engines for the racecars.
14:00 The cars are lined up on the grid and its Porsche 1-2-3, 2014 Le Mans champion Audi 4-5-6 and 2014 World Endurance champions Toyota 7-8. Nissan is so off the pace that they will start at the back of the grid after failing to meet the 110 per cent cut qualifying minimum. All four manufacturers have entered hybrid prototypes; the Porsche’s are running V4 petrols, Audi’s are V6 diesels while Toyota and Nissan have V6 petrols.
15:00 The 83rd edition of the 24 hour race is go! The first eight cars hold position but the Audi’s of Duval and Lotterer are giving the Porsche driven by NicoHulkenberg (who flew in straight from the Canadian F1 Grand Prix) a hard time. Soon a cheer breaks out in the Audi lounge as the F1 driver gives up a place to Audi. Have Audi been stone walling? Have they hid their true race pace? Are their engines more efficient and can run one lap longer?
it’s approximately 45 minutes per stint before cars have to come in for fuel (tyres are changed every third stint; same with drivers) and it soon emerges that Porsche’s qualifying pace was no flash in the pan. Audi is having a tough time matching the Porsche’s pace and cannot run one lap longer either. With Toyota showing no signs of the pace it had in the past years, Le Mans is set to be a battle within the VW Group.
Duval has a big shunt while overtaking a bunch of GT cars. it smashes off the nose and a lot of other bodywork, even mangles the barriers at Indianapolis (that will take an hour to repair!) but amazingly Duval gets going and needs only four minutes in the pits for a nose change and repairs before heading back on track – these Le Mans racers are built like tanks!

18:00 Time for our chopper ride of the circuit, shame it is under the safety car. From the air you really get the impact of the 13.6km track, especially the frighteningly long straight. Years ago Le Mans cars used to clock in excess of 400kmph down the 6km long Mulsanne Straight but safety concerns have shortened it via two equally spaced chicanes. Yet, such is the pace of progress, that cars still clock over 330kmph and the lap times have tumbled. 19:00 Stroll through the fan village to soak in the crazy atmosphere that involves a lot of drunken shouting (mostly by the Brit contingent) and long lines outside the loos. As we stroll through, we discover another Audi lounge with a non-stop barbeque. Grab a steak and beer and watch Filipe Albuquerque in the #9 Audi set a 3:17.647 lap time, to break the lap record that has stood for 44 years.
21:00 Time for a shave. Oh my, being lathered by a badger hair shaving brush and then shaved by an expert with a sharp knife is ridiculously indulgent. Wisely avoid getting a hipster haircut, instead get my hair washed and gelled. Feel like a star.
23:00 Porsche still leads but the gap to the Audi is under twenty seconds. Think about that – after eight hours of racing there’s less than twenty seconds between the top two!
 Night is now falling and we switch to some weirdly wonderful cocktails as we take in cars racing in the fading light, LED headlamps slicing the darkness, lead cars flashing the slower ones out of the way (like we do on the highway – how cool is that!), brake discs glowing red hot in the braking zone just in front of our viewing terrace, each car leaving behind a unique aural signature. It’s mesmerising. Hypnotic. It is why Le Mans is the greatest race in the world. Or maybe it’s the cocktails.
Sunday, June 14, 00:00
Discover the Sky Lounge, another Audi hospitality arena over the main straight. It’s got a nightclub ambience, a DJ churning out some dope tracks and killer caipirinhas. Bob head in approval.
01:00 Back on the Le Mans runway – to experience the new R8. The international press has yet to drive the R8 and that makes us amongst the very first journalists to experience one in anger. Except we’re not the one’s making the R8 angry – there’s far too much spirit in our system for that.
First impressions: the new R8 looks like an R8 but an R8 that has been brought bang up to date. Fantastic really. The interiors are gorgeous with the virtual cockpit and a huge red starter button on the steering wheel (like a Ferrari!).
And it goes like stink. The violence with which it spears off the line leaves me slack jawed and I’ve got a driver who thinks he’s on a rally stage. Oh, and this is on a runway that is pitch black. First corner and he throws the R8 sideways. Second corner, more sideways. It’s dark and I can’t see where the track is going, which makes it all mildly terrifying. I try to analyse the car and immediately sense the drivetrain is more refined and there is a more rear-biased attitude. And from the grin on my driver’s face i can see the R8 is a load more fun to drive. Can’t wait to drive it myself!
02:30 Back at the Arena I discover a sommelier pairing single malts and cigars. I go for the mild pairing. Soon the brake discs glow redder; the cars become more mesmerising. Karun Chandhok is driving the Murphy Prototype and they’re in a strong third place in LMP2. Every time he crosses us a loud cheer goes up in anticipation of the first Indian to step on the Le Mans podium. All that electric car racing doesn’t seem to suit him – here he is in his element and even other journos, not clouded by national sentiment have good things to say about him.

Up front Audi can’t seem to match the pace of the leading Porsche and the gap is up to 55 seconds. Unless it rains or there’s some mechanical issue the Le Mans trophy will move from Ingolstadt to Zuffenhausen. Not to Japan, that’s for sure.
04:00 Give up. Jump into an A8 and head back to the hotel. Luckily I’ve picked up some race- spec earplugs; it’s needed to drown out the snores reverberating in the hotel.
08:30 The night hasn’t been kind to Audi. The third-placed #7 Audi lost a heap of time when a chunk of its bodywork flew off, ripping out some oil lines that required further unscheduled stops. And then the #9 spent nearly 20 minutes in the garage having the front driveshaft changed. Porsche is now 1-2 with Audi 3-4, after years of diesel dominance petrol looks set to grab the headlines.
10:30 Patterson spins the Murphy Prototype at the exit of Mulsanne and the car is in the pits with what looks like terminal damage. And then the team tweets that Team Oreca have loaned them a new rear end and the car will be back on track. in sixth place, Karun’s podium dreams are over though. Murphy has struck. But at least he will finish Le Mans.
11:00 Time for us to suit up and hit the track. Not in the LMP1’s, but in go-karts. Aditya Patel, obviously, qualifies on pole and wins the race by a country mile. The surprising bit is that Audi India boss Joe King roundly whups all us journos.
We stay back for the grand finals where Aditya is locked in a fabulous duel with five-time Le Mans winner EmanuelePirro, the latter winning by a whisker. After the race Pirro says he had to use all his years of experience, and some tricks, to keep Aditya at bay – which proves the boy has talent. More awe-inspiring is seeing 53 year oldPirro keeping a bunch of 20-somethings at bay.
14:00 Back at the arena and the mood is subdued. 45 minutes before the chequered flag Paul Dalla Lana crashes heavily right in front of us while in the lead of the GTE-Am class. Just imagine the heartbreak in the Aston Martin pits, to crash out after 23 hours and 15 minutes of racing, while in the lead!

At 15:00 Hulkenberg, on loan from Force India, takes Porsche’s 17th Le Mans victory, 17 years after the last and becomes the first rookie to win since 1998. 263,500 spectators witness the #17 Porsche coming in second with the #7 Audi taking the final podium position. A week later at the Austrian F1 Grand Prix Jenson Button was given a 25 place grid penalty in a grid of 20 cars, NicoRosberg won from Lewis Hamilton in a largely processional race and the only highlight was Raikkonen going into a tank slapper and collecting Alonso, and I nodded off in front of the TV. Little wonder that Le Mans is, by far and away, the greatest race in the world.

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