Were we really there? Did all of that happen? I have to keep asking myself if we actually went to France on a whirlwind 24 Hours of Le Mans weekend, because it all just feels so surreal. It feels like it could have been one really long summer dream, it was all a blur. It was a lovely blur, and certainly ticked the box from our bucket list, but it was a blur nonetheless. The non-stop action of a four day visit to France is indescribable in itself, but add in the madness that is the Le Mans 24, and you’ll practically be in a coma by the time you get back home. As grueling and exhausting as the trip was, it stands as a highlight of my year, if not my entire life. My hat must be doffed in the direction of our gracious invitees, those of Michelin Tires. In deference to honesty in journalism, we were flown in, wined, dined, and experienced sensory overload at Michelin’s behest, and we could not be more gracious for the opportunity.
My fiancé and I have wanted to get to see the 24 Hour for a number of years, and we’d even planned our wedding for an early June date in order to plan a honeymoon to the famed race. When we were given an invitation to go to the Circuit de la Sarthe a year earlier than we’d planned, we had to take that offer without question. I’ve been a follower of international GT and sports racing prototypes for a number of years, and Le Mans is the catalyst that helped me personally evolve from an American Muscle fanatic to a lover of all things Porsche [It’s a logical progression if you follow it through: Ford’s Mustang – Carroll Shelby – Ford’s GT40 – Le Mans – Ford Vs. Ferrari – Ferrari Vs. Porsche – Porsche’s 16 overall victories]. The track holds a certain level of personal sentiment for me, and being there was something entirely special.
We started our trip with a short jaunt over to the most westerly of Delta’s major hubs in the US, Salt Lake City. From there, it was 12 hours of sitting in coach until we’d landed at Charles De Gaul in Paris. On the flight, I had plenty of time to marinate in the fact that we’d soon be seeing the world’s best prototype racers from some of the world’s most advanced manufacturers. The buzz surrounding the race was hard to ignore, as the new LMP1 cars were fantastic, as in straight out of fantasy. The internal-combustion/electric hybrid cars now capable of producing in excess of 1000 horsepower, their swoopy bodywork capable of speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, and a new set of rules all conspired to bring the Toyota vs. Audi vs. Porsche battle for the overall honors into sharp focus in the international motoring media. The growing hype for the race fed my insomnia on the trans-Atlantic flight, but gave me plenty of time to catch up on some movies I’d missed in theaters [Lego Movie was pretty good, Need For Speed was downright awful, but did briefly feature a bright yellow 944].
Arriving In Paris
We landed in Paris at about 10AM on Thursday morning, and had a few hours worth of time to kill in the French metropolis before meeting with the rest of our group for dinner. Our fantastic hotel was situated almost centrally among the biggest tourist attractions. We ambled down to the Jardin Des Tuileries, taking in the bright sunlight of the beautiful June afternoon. Through the park, we walked up to the entrance of the Musée Louvre, avoiding the trinket toting street salesmen as much as possible on the way, and we decided not to go in, as we wouldn’t have the time to truly appreciate the art within, let alone see all 35,000 pieces housed in 652,300 square feet within.
A leisurely walk along the Seine river took us toward the piece everyone wants to see when they are in Paris, the Torre Eiffel. When I first laid eyes on the Eiffel Tower I was in awe at its size. I knew that it would be big, and I was prepared for that. Somehow, even knowing that it would be big couldn’t prepare me for quite how big it was. There was an essence of history and eternal admiration for Gustave Eiffel’s work that was almost a tangible, palpable entity. The place just had a presence you could feel. If you’ve been there, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, go.
Unlike the Eiffel Tower, which I knew for a fact would be quite large, the Arc de Triomphe was at least twice the size that I was expecting it to be. Walking North-ish from the Seine and the tower, we came to what has to be the most complicated roundabout in the entire world. A total of 11 major Parisian arteries join at this junction, and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to how things are organized entering and exiting the circle. It was truly a feat of engineering to see, and the people of Paris must operate on some strange hive-mind in order to traverse this section of roadway.
Car-spotting In Paris
Perhaps my favorite part of walking around Paris was the car-spotting. There are a number of cars that exist en masse in Europe, that the vast majority of American citizens have never heard of, let alone seen. I was probably the only person in France that day taking elaborately posed pictures of Renault Laguna Estates and Citroen’s C4 Cactus, and that’s just the scad of French cars, to say nothing of the gorgeous Germans in the city. I spotted a beautiful 997 Carrera 2 Cabriolet in brown with a brown top. Then there was a 993 Carrera that looked particularly good set against the cityscape. I did even manage to spot one of Porsche’s 250 be-ducktailed 2010 Sport Classic models, but was unfortunately in a cab at the time, and my camera was in the back, well out of reach.
Later that evening, we all met back at the hotel, where our group of seven Americans gathered to shuttle off for a fantastic dinner. Michelin, in an effort to get consumers to drive more, have been publishing the “Michelin Guide” for over a century, colloquially known as “the red guide”, this book offers the most well known and trusted restaurant and hotel reviews in the world. A restaurant’s receiving a ‘Michelin Star’ rating is quite important, and can have a major affect on the prosperity of the business. A one star restaurant is listed as “A very good restaurant in its category”. A two star restaurant is given the laudatory “Excellent cooking, worth a detour”. A three star restaurant, the highest ranking available, “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”. The restaurant we partook on that Thursday evening, Le Taillevent, was opened in 1946, and awarded its first star in 1948. The second star was given in 1954. Its third star was presented in 1973. We all enjoyed the fantastic tasting menu, and every one of the numerous courses was more fantastic than the last. The French wine and conversation seemed to flow in equal measure.
After catching up on some rest that we didn’t get on the plane ride over, we all left for the racetrack on Friday morning. My excitement was growing as our ‘Train a Grand Vitesse’ (TGV) car grew nearer to the Le Mans station. Sitting a few seats in front of me was a familiar face in the form of Mr. Hurley Haywood, who was there as a guest of Porsche. I exchanged a few pleasantries, and let him go about his day, as I knew that he would have a VERY busy weekend ahead of him, nearly as busy as that of the active drivers themselves. Later, I would learn that this was Hurley’s first trip back to Le Mans since 1998. The train ride went quickly, and not long after, we were standing on the pit lane at Le Mans, walking up and down in front of the garages, seeing the very pit stalls that the teams would be using in 24 hours time during the race. It was the first time I’d laid eyes directly on the gloriously protuberant fenders of the 919 Hybrid. We also got a glimpse of the variety of 997 and 991 RSR racers, both factory supported, and the privateers.
Oh, The Perks!
One of the many extraordinary perks of hanging out with the Michelin Tires crew was our excellent access. One of my longtime driving heroes, Mr. Allan McNish was on hand for a short interview session with us, as well as a few handshakes and photographs. Of course, there were the inevitable questions about his recent retirement, what he’s been doing since, and whether or not he wouldn’t rather be driving the car this year than sitting sidelines? When it came my turn to ask a question, I grasped the microphone with the nervousness of a schoolchild confronted by the principal. Even though he won his first Le Mans under the Porsche banner, the majority of his career, and indeed his success, has been under the flag of the Audi 4-rings. Confronted with my black and white Porsche ballcap, he said “Oh, I don’t know if I can answer questions from you, son.”, to which everyone laughed. Given the opportunity, I had to ask whether or not his nostalgia for that first win in the GT1-98 might just hold enough of a place in his heart that he’d be secretly rooting for the 919 Hybrid to pull off the unthinkable victory. Being ever the gentleman, he did respond that he would, in point of fact, be the first person to show up in the Porsche garage after the race to congratulate the team were they to win the 24 hour race. Though he did mention that this was mostly because the winning team is usually expected to foot the bill for the bar tab that night. This brought out another collective chortle from those collected.
The Driver’s Parade
After the pit lane tour, the bit with Allan, and a little bit of bumbling around the garage areas, we all packed it in and went downtown for the Driver’s Parade through the town center. The parade route was absolutely packed all the way around, with pubs serving copious street brews, restaurants dealing ham and cheese baguette sandwiches, and some of the worlds best drivers being chauffeured around the route in the back of vintage cars. The parade was also an exhibition of grandiosity with dancers, performers, and musicians from a number of the countries represented. A selection of the worlds premier supercars were also in attendance, including Porsche’s 918 Spyder (as well as competition from Ferrari’s LaFerrari, and McLaren’s P1).
Our seats for the driver’s parade were situated in the VIP section grandstands, and aside from being right in the path of the blistering sun’s rays, were the exact right place for optimal viewing. We had a great view of the stage, the cars, the drivers, and the interviews. Unfortunately for us, most of the interviews were conducted in French, but we were able to make out a bit of what they were getting at. Obviously I don’t expect the French to conform their largest motorsport event of the year to fit the English speaking visitors, so no complaints from me, it was an all around interesting experience.
Pictures From The Driver’s Parade
Allan McNish showed up again at the driver’s parade, as he was the co-Grand Marshall of the event (alongside Fernando Alonso), and reunited with his 1998 winning co-driver, Laurent Aiello. Laurent was at Le Mans to participate in the Porsche Carrera Cup race, which he went on to place 4th overall out of dozens of cars.
Another legend of the Porsche world, and the Le Mans world, Mr. Derek Bell, was also in attendance in the driver’s parade. I wasn’t expecting to see him, but honestly wasn’t surprised. Bell is almost synonymous with Le Mans.
Patrick Dempsey was in a dead heat for fan-favorite driver with Mr. Mark Webber. Patrick was happy to pose for a selfie with a fan here, but his security detail wasn’t too pleased with the interaction. He was looking awfully dapper in that race suit, though. In deference to another actor-racer, Dempsey appears to be wearing a blue-faced Heuer Monaco with a black leather strap.
Webber, Bernhard, and Hartley were all smiles going into the race. They knew, it seems, that they would have a troubled run, but that it would still be fruitful.
Leib, Dumas, and Jani all greeted fans with the best of attitudes, looking forward to a dogfight of a race.
Holzer, Makowiecki, and Lietz looked good for the 24 hour race, and Porsche was looking to capitalize on some early-season momentum in the GTE-Pro category. These guys were preparing themselves to give it their all. Apparently, whipping some hero cards into the crowd was a big part of that preparation ritual.
Patrick Pilet, Nick Tandy, and Joerg Bergmeister were very fan oriented, passing out plenty of signed hero cards, posing for pictures, and lots of vigorous waving and smiles.
To say that I was even remotely prepared for race day would be a bold faced lie. Physically, I was still jet-lagged, and my internal clock couldn’t get modulated correctly. Mentally, I was buzzing like a bee, thinking about the prospect of the coming day, the possibility of the potential outcome, and the fact that I was seeing with my own two eyes, a Porsche factory-run top-tier prototype team participating in the Le Mans 24 hours for the first time since 1998 (Oh, LMP 2000, what could have been…).
The day started similar to Friday, with a quick tour of the garages. I was really hoping to get a hike out on the track in the early morning to get a photo of myself at the Porsche curves, but some of the manufacturers were giving VIP laps in street cars, so that idea was kiboshed. Instead, we decided to go investigate where we’d be spending our next day and a half at the track. The Michelin suite on the start-finish straight gave a nice elevated view of the pit-lane and a pretty good view of about half of the pit-straight. The other half of our time would be spent in the temporary construction building Michelin had put up, which included a restaurant downstairs, a nice enclosed area upstairs with lots of comfortable seating, and a deck for viewing the track right on the Ford Chicane directly opposite the giant Ferris wheel. It was here that we found the artist known as PopBangColour, doing his thing. That thing, namely, is painting portraits of racing cars and other motor vehicles with electric RC cars, various scale models, and even an odd tire or two. His work was truly fascinating, and the end result, a paint covered canvas maybe 6 feet by 4 feet was a real sight to behold. Over the course of the race, he probably produced a good 5 full-sized paintings.
In the meantime, I got word that the classic Group C race was about to get under way, so I exited onto the deck to catch some of the best racing cars to ever grace this track.
Though a Porsche didn’t end up winning the Group C race, it was still plenty entertaining to witness. The sights and sounds of 30-odd years ago graced the track once again, and I got the experience of seeing 956s and 962s raging with turbo boost and futuristic-for-their-time aero back where they belonged. The race was short but exciting, and there was lots of opportunity to see some of my favorite cars and liveries running again.
After the Group C race, Porsche had a scad of vintage cars go out screaming around the track. Like the Group C cars, it was a chance for a lot of fans to see some of the most significant racing cars of all time out on track running at speed. It’s truly like art in motion.
Has Porsche made a better looking car than the 550A? It’s a debate that will rage on forever, but I’d be inclined to side with the 550A on that argument. It looked utterly fantastic bombing around La Sarthe, and I can just imagine how it must have felt to race one back in its heyday.
This 904 appears to be chassis number 055, the ex Pon’s Racing car, which finished 8th overall at Le Mans in 1964. All 904s should be relegated specifically to racetracks the world over. Collectors that have them sitting in humidity regulated garages are doing them a disservice. Like a caged animal, the 904 just wants to be free.
Porsche’s RSR was their first real foray into turbocharging the 911, and what a foray it was. This monster was a winner on the track, and goodness if that back end doesn’t just look the business. There is no mistaking that gaping engine compartment and massive rear wing for anything else.
This Martini 917 Langheck was just fantastic. I’ve seen a few 917s in my life now, but I’ve never actually seen one moving under its own power. It was an almost religious experience, to say the least.
Michelin’s Tire Tent And More
Following Porsche’s classic car exhibition, we were treated to a tour of the Michelin tire tent. The operation was in full swing, getting teams set up with a number of sets of tires in preparation for the start in just a few hours. Teams were returning tires that were used in the morning’s quick warm up session, and were getting their pressures dialed in for the early afternoon start to the race. In preparation for the race, Michelin toted in more than 7000 tires, all housed here in the makeshift warehouse. There were sets of tires for every class in here, including a handful of special sets crafted for Nissan’s ZEOD “garage 56” concept racer.
Michelin’s greatness, in part, comes from the extensive tire testing that they do, meticulously marking, cataloging, and analyzing each used tire that comes off of the course, logging temperatures, pressures, laps run, and returned condition. I heard the words “God help any team who doesn’t return their used tires” used at one point, just setting the point that Michelin takes their tire data seriously.
Following our tour of the Michelin tire-fitters garage, we took a step out into the vendor row section of the track. Spark Models had their own dedicated booth, and their 1:18th scale model selection of modern 991 and 997 RSRs was certainly enticing. If I’d had perhaps a bit more room in my luggage for the return trip, I might have picked up a model or four. Even though Flying Lizard left the Porsche fold this year, I still contend that their 2011 Le Mans livery was the best there ever was, and I might still like to have that gracing my office model shelf.
The Start Of The Race
Making our way back to the pit straight for the start of the race, we were just in time, getting a spot in plain view of the track. Of course, it was often difficult to find a vantage point for my camera, as many spectators were photographing and taking video of the start with their iPads of all things. I could go on a rant about how handheld technology has only caused to remove us from the actual experience of any major event by feeling a need to photograph it rather than be in the moment, but I’m the same guy that has a DSLR glued to my face for most races, and have taken tens of thousands of photos just this year alone.
After the start, we walked down to the outside of the Ford Chicane, walking among the masses of folks in the fan zones with shops, bouncy houses, and sausage stands galore. Walking past the Ferris wheel, I made a mental note to experience that at some point during the race, though never actually made it back there. Then the skies started to look like they might open up and bring the rain. We started walking back toward the Dunlop bridge to take shelter from the weather in the Le Mans Museum. Boy am I ever glad we did.
The Le Mans Museum
I think I got about four drops of rain on the top of my head before I walked in the door of the museum. Staying dry was truly important, as I knew the rain would dissipate shortly, but it was all secondary to what was witnessed within the walls of the museum. The history of the circuit is something you can really feel when you walk into the place, and even though things are thoroughly more modern than they were in the 60s and 70s, the place still has an old-world nostalgic feel to it, and the museum, doubly so. If I recall correctly, the museum entry was 9 euros per person, and it was well worth the fee.
Two 904s in the same day? Unbelievable. But wait, this car (Chassis #34) is something even more special than just your ‘standard’ 904. This one is one of the original factory-fitted flat-8 powered cars. The car was fitted with Porsche’s flat-8 for some additional torque, and used in a few European Hillclimb races. The car was later purchased by Michelin for use as a tire-testing implement. It was retrofitted with the hydraulically actuated suspension from a Citroen DS, and used for a number of years. In 2002, apparently still owned by Michelin at the time, the car was donated to the museum.
You really cannot argue that the 935, whatever iteration, was the ultimate execution of the 911 chassis. This car was a monster in its own time, and continues to look the business even today.
The 956 was the beginning of a new era of Porsche victories in motorsport, and between the 956 and the later 962 took a total of 7 Le Mans victories. The Rothmans cars took a team 1-2-3 in 1982, and this car very much deserves a position in the museum.
A sister car to the winning 1998 Porsche 911 GT1, this car was by far my favorite of those in the museum. That Mobil/IBM livery is so late 90s that it hurts, but in a good way.
Time For The Helicopter Tour
From the museum, we got the call that our chopper was ready. Our friends at Michelin had again hooked us up with a trip around the track a few hundred feet off the ground. I’m normally not a very height-friendly person, and as I age I’ve become more sensitive to my lack of heartiness in the face of being somewhere higher than a few feet off of the ground. That said, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to view the track I have grown to love from a viewpoint that not many others get. I was a bit freaked out between takeoff and landing, but it was certainly well worth the freak-out to enjoy the scenic vistas of the track.
As the day wore on into night, a bunch of us loaded into a shuttle service to take a trip out to a number of the corners that would take forever to reach by walking. We were given an opportunity to see some vistas that often go unseen.
Our first station stop was a great location on the right side of the first Mulsanne chicane. Outside of the helicopter, this was my favorite location for viewing the cars. As the sun started to come down, the glow of the brake rotors coming into the chicane is pretty obvious, and the glow of the exhausts and turbochargers on the way out of the chicane are something I hadn’t noticed before.
In this photo of the #14 LMP1, I’ve removed all color except for red. Here, you can clearly see the glow of the exhaust pipe exits. The 919 Hybrid has been theorized to be a little more susceptible to heat-sink than its competitors. Some of the 919’s in-race issues can be attributed to heat retention. This photo clearly shows the massive amounts of heat generated by the small flat-four’s turbo.
From that chicane, we then went to Indianapolis corner, and then further on down to the Porsche Curves. By that point it was starting to get a lot darker, and it was much harder to take a well lit photo without long exposures, which leads to blurring, or very high ISO, leading to excessive photo noise. I decided that rather than fret about it, I’d retire my camera for the rest of the night, and let the real pros get the good stuff.
Most of the people in our group retired to the hotel for a good night’s sleep, but I was determined not to miss that much of the race, knowing that it would mean at least 8 hours away from the track to join them. I stuck around, grabbed a couple of catnaps in chairs at the Michelin building. Using Coca Colas, granola bars, and the odd cappuccino to keep myself awake, I was able to keep apprised of the events of the race, both through audio provided by Radio Le Mans, and through the TV pictures.
Sunday, the race was still raging, and the morning was quite a bit colder than the previous evening. Sundown in Northern France brought frigid temperatures, and sunup didn’t get much better. Everyone else from our group rejoined me around 9AM, and we all went for a delicious breakfast of Grand Marnier infused salted caramel crepes. By this point, three nights of almost no sleep, and facing a long flight home, I wasn’t feeling 100%, but after a couple of weeks time to look back on the trip, it was certainly a lot of fun, and I look forward to eventually making my way back to Le Mans in the coming years. If you have the opportunity to go see the 24 hours of Le Mans, don’t hesitate.
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