We're back at Le Mans, after a year away. Again we were given the opportunity to attend the world's greatest racing event, some might argue the world's greatest sporting event, thanks to the generosity and hospitality of Michelin Tires. Michelin was really ramping up their presence at this event, as they were all but guaranteed to take their 25th overall Le Mans victory this year. We were more than ecstatic to oblige their invitation. As you'll recall, we were in France to cover Porsche's return to Le Mans back in 2014, also as part of the Michelin troop. They were excellent hosts, and the event isn't one we'll forget any time soon. That was a life changing race, and we couldn't be happier to have experienced it first hand.
After losing all of Wednesday to air travel, we spent Thursday as a group in Paris. The day went mostly how you would expect, with the traditional touristy stuff. We took a tourist bus around the city, visiting all the traditional spots. We saw la Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame, the Champs Elysees, l'Arc de Triomphe, the Musee Dorsee, Jardin Du Luxembourg, place de concorde, etc. etc. etc. We had a lovely time touring the city, but you don't want to hear about Paris, you want to hear about a little place in the Loire valley. A place where the cars are fast and the time moves slow. We arrived on Friday morning via Tres Grande Vitesse, and went on expedition to attend the parade of drivers. This is where our story begins in earnest.
The parade began like they normally do, with a lot of pomp and circumstance. Interviews were conducted and the rain began to sprinkle down. The announcer spoke in jumbled English to Jackie Chan (who had a hand in an LMP2 team), and Porsche legends Jurgen Barth and Willi Kauhsen (pictured below). Kauhsen spoke in broken English of his time in the 917/20 Pink Pig at Le Mans. It was an honor just to be in their presence. Chan shouted an emphatic "Vive le France" on his way back to his seat.
It didn't take long for the rain to clear out, and everyone started to have brighter spirits. The bands tromped through and gave everyone an additional pick-me-up. It was shaping up to be a lovely afternoon.
Ford was given the place of honor this year and allowed through first. From there, the drivers came through in a jumbled and reasonably disorganized manner. Each car full of drivers stopped at the top of the dais and briefly discussed their thoughts on the race, en Francais if possible. A few of the drivers were forced to speak in English. Mark Webber, for example.
The Porsche LMP1 drivers were among the first through the lineup, and pictured here is the #2 Porsche lineup of Romain Dumas, Marc Lieb, and Neel Jani.
They were followed shortly by the #1 LMP1 team of Brendon Hartley, Mark Webber, and Timo Bernhard. The LMP1 team guys were throwing little rubber wristbands out to the gathered crowd. The route through the city took about 2 hours to complete, so they were loaded down with giveaways. In the above photo, Timo is waving at someone in the crowd who was waving a large home-made flag tribute to the #1 team and their 2015 WEC championship.
Next up in the parade was a brand new 718 Boxster. This was the first such car I'd ever seen in person, so it was certainly noteworthy. Additionally, Porsche was heavily marketing their Porsche Experience Center (PEC LM) based at the Bugatti circuit practically right on the apex of the first Ford Chicane.
After a few car clubs moved through, and a handful of dancers, and some other teams had their time to shine, it was the Porsche GTE squads who were on the parade. Here is the Patrick Pilet, Kevin Estre, and Nick Tandy trio in the #91 911 RSR. The 2016 spec car sure looks the business, and these guys sure know how to wheel.
Sticking up above the crowd is the #92 911 RSR teaming of Jorg Bergmeister, Fred Makowiecki, and Earl Bamber. The Porsche GT folks were all tossing little bags of 911-shaped gummi bears into the crowd. Sadly none of them made it my way.
The first non-factory Porsche grouping to run past is the Dempsey-Proton GTE Pro car #77 with Richard Lietz, Philipp Eng, and Michael Christensen aboard.
Wolf Henzler looks as happy as he has ever been, his traditional smile adorning his face. Wolfy was joined, for this race, by Christian Reid and Joel Camathias. We barely had time to see the KCMG Porsche folks scoot past before we had to vacate the premises to get on our way to dinner. Sadly we were forced to leave before we could see the Abu-Dhabi Proton drivers, the Gulf Racing drivers, or the Weathertech-Proton drivers.
Saturday morning I woke up at a normal hour of 6:30AM, and after a short breakfast gathered my things and left for the race track. Traffic was a nightmare getting into the circuit, but it was worth the slow slog to get there. We had the option to leave the track at midnight and get a couple of hours of sleep back at the Novotel, but this year I had conviction, I knew that I'd stay awake for the entire race, and then some. Le Mans is an endurance race, and I was prepared to endure.
During the pre-race festivities, there was plenty of time to catch the Ferrari Challenge race, as well as the "Road To Le Mans" race with LMP3 and GT3 cars participating. We also took some time to walk the vendor village and scout some cool swag. I ended up buying a 1:43rd scale 959, a little Salzburg 917 livery Porsche rubber duck, and a new Porsche key fob for Project Boxster Clubsport. Among the displays was the Motul fluids booth that housed the 1995 Le Mans runner Kremer K8 Spyder that was run with Porsche factory blessing and Christophe Bouchut, Thierry Boutsen, and Hans Stuck on board. The car didn't win that year, but it was still very cool to see. Across the way, Michelin Tires had a display featuring a 919 Hybrid show car and a brand new GT4 Clubsport.
Immediately prior to the race, we were given the ability to walk the pit lane. Unfortunately all of the Porsche cars had already been rolled out to the grid, but it was still interesting to see the insides of each of the garages, and talk with some of the folks involved with the factory efforts. From there, we retreated to Michelin's hospitality suite above the pit garages to catch the start of the race.
After everyone was gridded up, and national anthems were played, and the tricolore was delivered by a French paratrooper team, the teams lined up by their respective cars. I was particularly fond of this photo of Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas sharing a pre-race hug. The pair won the 24 hour together as part of the Audi squad back in 2010 running an R15 TDI Plus. They've been paired in a number of races over the years, and have been friends for quite a while.
As the field moved away from pre-grid to get settled into their grid locations, the rain started to come down. There were many last-minute tire changes, including the #7 Audi that swapped Michelins a total of 5 times before the flag dropped. It was decided that the field would move away from grid behind the safety car, which led the proceedings for nearly an hour from 3PM to just before 4.
The WeatherTech team, pictured above, had a tough go at Le mans this year. First it was driver Cooper MacNeil who suffered from a stomach bug that kept him out of the car. When the team lobbied to the FIA/ACO to allow their reserve driver Gunnar Jeanette (who has competed at Le Mans 8 times in his career) to take his place. The lobby was denied, and the car was forced to start the race with just Leh Keen and Marc Miller aboard. Leh put in a stellar stint to start the race, but unfortunately Miller hit some fluid dropped by another car and crashed the car, and they were forced to retire after just 50 laps. I feel bad for the team, as they had a great car, and both Leh and Marc are excellent talents behind the wheel.
The rain ended pretty much as soon as the race started, but the safety car would stay out for quite a while afterward to allow the track to dry out a bit. I'm not sure exactly why they chose to keep the full course caution out for so long, as I've definitely seen these cars run in more rain than this before.
The course went green near the end of the first hour, and Porsche finally had the ability to open up the taps. Neel Jani had the gap on the field before he even reached the green flag, and then just stretched that advantage.
While it was amazing to see Porsche return to the top-flight class in 2014, it was even more amazing to see them consistently fighting for the overall lead in 2016. The 919 Hybrid is an amazing machine, and they've simply continued to make this thing even more awesome. The drivers are the best, the car is the best, the crew is the best, and Porsche set out to prove their superiority this year. They had a rough fight of it, going toe-to-toe with the Toyota competition, and it was such an honor to be able to see the whole thing from start to finish.
As soon as the race started, we were ushered off to the fields of the airport just outside the track. There was a fleet of helicopters giving rides around the track all day, and we were lucky enough to have a reserved seat among them. I am really not a person who likes heights, but this is an opportunity that you don't let just go by. The track looks amazing from above, and I didn't get a picture of it, but there is someone nearby the track that has a pool shaped like the Silverstone track layout. What a cool experience, even though I was frightened out of my mind the whole time.
After the helicopter tour, I wasn't sure anything else could stand up to the awesome of that. Luckily, that was just the beginning. Shortly after we got back, we were given the option to go tour an LMP1 team garage. We weren't told which it would be, but I jumped at the opportunity. I was blown away when we were told it would be the Porsche garages. Walking over to their hospitality complex in the paddock, we were met by Neel Jani fresh off a triple stint to start the race.
Sadly we were told to put away our cameras for the tour of the Porsche garages. Obviously there are some sensitive technology secrets held within, and it wouldn't be kosher if Audi or Toyota were to see those leaked photos. It was amazing to see the behind-the-scenes of Porsche's LMP1 effort. We were given a tour by a member of the Porsche team, and it was really a blast from start to finish.
A few minutes after we arrived the official race starter, Brad Pitt, was given a similar tour of the same garage. The photographer was standing about 2 feet to my right when this photo was taken. For those interested in Mr. Pitt, I couldn't really tell you what he was wearing, or where Angelina was at the time. Sorry.
After touring the garages, we were taken on a trip down to the first chicane. Michelin rents out a house right at the entry apex of the chicane, and hosts a champagne social with a viewing porch for guests to stand around and watch the cars speed down into the chicane. It's amazing to note the differences between the GT cars entry speed and the LMP cars. For the most part, the two categories move through at about the same mid-corner speed, but the entry and exit speeds of the LMP cars are otherworldly. The LMP1 cars have all that electric torque available immediately as soon as they punch the accelerator. It's amazing to see in person.
Here are a couple of my favorite photos from this vantage point. The sun was just starting to come down, and it made for some excellent lighting.
I thought this was particularly interesting as the GTE Pro car took a little bit too much of the curb, and could potentially have damaged the rear diffuser with this move. I don't believe this was entirely intentional, as all other laps saw the same car sitting about 3 feet further out from this point. Whoops.
Moving back to the pit complex for the entry into the overnight section of the day, I managed to snap a few pictures that I was really happy with. I had been working on my night-time photography, and this is the result.
I definitely appreciate this photo of the Gulf Racing car. The team was racing in the GTE Am category, and at one point was running toward the front of that pack. This photo was taken near midnight on Saturday, and I really like the motion blur and action captured in this shot. I'll be printing this one out and framing it, for sure.
The 91, like the 92, suffered from terminal cooling issues and both were knocked out of the race within five laps of each other over night. At the time I took this photo, the #1 LMP1 car had already been in the garage for an hour working on a water pump replacement. Of the four factory-entered Porsches, only one finished the race without extensive repairs.
The pit complex Michelin hospitality center closed for the night at half-past midnight, which sent us on an excursion around the area to see what could be seen. During the night, we walked over to Michelin's tire mounting facility to see how things looked. As expected, it was a flurry of activity. The guys were busy mounting and balancing slicks for the dry overnight that were expected to travel at over 210 miles per hour for four complete 50-ish minute stints. These guys don't get enough credit. If one of their wheels was even a little bit out of balance, it could mean the difference between win and lose.
Michelin says they brought as many as 6000 tires for the race, and over the course of two weeks would use at least 2500 of them. The logistics alone are completely mind-boggling.
Our next sojourn saw our group boarding the Ferris Wheel on the track's midway. Needless to say, I got a little nervous about the prospect. Two years ago, I flew all the way to France and went home without riding the wheel. This time I wasn't going to make that mistake. You only get so many chances in life to do something like this, you have to take them.
A few Michelin representatives, myself, and FLATSIXES contributor Mike Juergens pictured here at the top of the wheel. This particular photo was taken by Jason Kazian's GoPro. I was entirely too petrified to take a photo, and would not let go of the center post. It was awesome to see the cars racing by at this height, however. While we were at the top, the course returned to green from a short full course yellow period, and hearing those cars light it up at about 4AM heading back to the green flag was pretty awesome.
I'm not sure how I survived the night, but I recall copious Red Bulls being imbibed. By about 6AM, I was starting to get delirious, but the sunrise helped a lot. I buried my eye into the viewfinder of my Canon, and tried not to fall asleep standing up. There was about an hour in the morning where I would get a case of 'the nods' when I sat down anywhere, so I tried to stay on my feet. I ate far too many dried apricots in an effort to have something to do with my hands. Combined with the Red Bull, I got a little sick. Don't combine Red Bull and dried fruits, I guess.
In the early morning hours of the race, I was given further opportunities to tour more team garages. This time we visited the Audi and Toyota garages. The tours were great, and seeing the inner workings of the three biggest efforts of the event was something that I'll never forget. The Audi team looked similarly prepared to the sanctum that was Porsche, and they even allowed us to fiddle with a spare steering wheel and a handful of carbon fiber bodywork bits. The Toyota team, however, was slightly less organized and slightly less nicely equipped. This, it would seem, is indicative of Toyota's significantly shorter budget.
About an hour and a half before the end of the race, we were given a proper guided tour of the Michelin pavillion. We were given a chance to chat with one of their engineers that had been coming to Le Mans for decades, and it was both enlightening and informative.
The inside of their pavilion is meticulously organized, and features barcoded tires to keep track of each skin. The wets were only needed for a little while at the very beginning of the race, but they brought enough to ensure that even if the race were wet for all 24 hours that the teams would not run out. A couple of years ago, Michelin introduced a new intermediate tire that doesn't have any grooves. It has been lovingly dubbed the "slicktermediate", and it is a complete mystery as to how it works. This tire is only suitable for LMP1 classed cars, though similar GT class tires are being tested for viability.
No exact inferences can be made about the Slicktermediate, but we were told that as a general rule, if you want to increase dry grip you add more 'carbon black' to the mixture, and if you want to increase wet weather grip, you add more 'silica' to the compound.
The Finish -
I'm not sure if you're aware, but it is quite difficult to follow the race from the race track. When I watch at home, I have two full screens available to watch the race on one screen, scroll through onboard shots on another screen, and bounce back and forth between the class timing and scoring screens, not to mention the race call on RadioLeMans.com. When I watch from home, it is easy to follow along with pit stop strategy and the like. From the track, a lot of the nuance gets lost in the wash, and you're stuck trying to figure it out with limited access to the internet. For most of the race, I knew that it was a Porsche vs. Toyota battle, but I wasn't sure exactly which had the upper hand. When Porsche pitted for tires at the last minute, we were all sure that Toyota would win their first. I wrote this earlier last week, but I can't come up with a better way to describe the feeling of being there as Toyota lost the game.
A hush had befallen the entire eight-and-a-half mile track. Everyone was tired from enduring the long French race, everyone was a little warm sitting out in the summer sun and everyone was resigned to a Toyota victory, the squad's first ever. Through some amazing pit strategy and fuel economy, they'd worked out just over a minute and a half lead over the #2 Porsche. There were only 10 minutes left in the 24 hour race, and yet there remained a pair of cars fighting tooth-and-nail for the overall victory. Were it not for a late race spin, the second Toyota would have been on the lead lap as well. I was standing at the Dunlop curves waiting to sprint to the exit after the flags fell. A few folks had already left the track to catch their TGV back to Paris, knowing that Toyota had it stitched up.
The buzzy megaphones mounted on posts at the track were spitting the call of the race out in French, and while I sometimes understand a bit, I'd mostly filtered it out and wasn't paying attention. At around 3 minutes remaining, it happened. The megaphones lit up with the excitable voice of a tired race reporter shouting 'C'est Impossible' and a gibberish fragment beloved by the french that goes something like 'A la la la la' screamed above the din over and over. From my vantage point, I couldn't see the stopped #5 Toyota on the pit straight. Though I could just barely make out the black and red and white car on a Jumbotron across the track, and my hands migrated to cover my gaping maw. Incredulous and Ecstatic at the same time. The whole crowd went silent for what seemed an eternity. Porsche had won their 18th overall Le Mans victory.
This is why they run the race, as the old adage goes. You can't win Le Mans, it's Le Mans that allows you to win.
Thank you Michelin, congratulations Porsche, and condolences Toyota. This was an amazing experience, and was worth every minute of the 29 hours of travel time, and the 42 hours of walking dead that I endured to stay up for the whole race. From 6:30 AM Saturday until 12:30 AM Monday, I was awake, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.