Le Mans 2015 – A view from the inside track with Team Pistonheads

Posted: June 16, 2015 by The Car Spy in Alpine Renault, Aston Martin, Bentley, Classic Racing, General, Land Rover, LeMans, Lotus, McLaren, Motor Shows, New Models, pistonheads, Porsche, Race Events, Renault Alpine, Shows

You know those ’scam’ emails you get, the ones where a man from (insert dodgy unspecified country) offers you either a large amount of money from a recently deceased, previously unknown family member, or they offer you a LaFerrari for 50 grand? Well of course they are always too good to be true. This was almost one of those situations. The email had come via Dawn at Rain PR, it came through to Richard and he forwarded to me along with the words ‘Wow…that is some invite!’

It was a private invitation to Le Mans for one of us, plus 39 other guests. Aston Martin pit access, your own private Le Mans ‘Fixer’ private ‘glamping-style facilities’ on site, there would also be booze and food also offered as part of the hospitality…

After speaking to the lady in question on the phone and confirming that everything was kosher, the short straws were drawn and fortunately I (Mark) drew the longest one, so would be the representative for TheCarSpy.Net over the duration of the weekend.

Dawn at Rain PR (Pistonheads PR partner) e-mailed me to say everything was confirmed and I would be receiving a special package via UPS the day before I would be due to leave (Friday the 12th). Katie Blake from Rain called me to check that I had received my parcel and that I had everything I needed for the trip, she would be our guide and personal assistant with us for the duration of our stay. It contained tickets, instructions and a PHLMS 2015 T-Shirt and Hoodie.

Thanks Pistonheads! #PHLM2015

Thanks Pistonheads! #PHLM2015

Friday 12th – Le Mans arrival day

It was confirmed that I would be travelling to Le Mans by train, there was an option to travel by Bentley – (more on that to follow) but I decided that with the likely high intake of alcohol about to be consumed the train would be the better option for me. My Rain PR Le Mans prep pack informed me that I would be travelling with Stuart Masson from The Car Expert, I hadn’t met Stuart before but had heard about and read his blog. We exchanged a few messages before leaving and agreed it was easier to meet at the Eurostar Terminal at St Pancras.

After doing some last minute emails I left our offices just after 9 am and headed up to St Pancras to meet Stuart, he had told me to keep an eye out for his ‘Olympic Sized’ Australian flag (I thought he was joking!) that he had bought with him in support of fellow Aussie and Porsche LMP1 driver – Mark Webber…so as you can imagine it wasn’t particularly hard to spot Stuart when I did arrive at the terminal!

Meet and greet, Euros withdrawn and check-in sorted, we grabbed a quick snack and boarded the Eurostar to head to Paris.

We decided not to drink until we arrived at LeMans, the journey was spent mainly discussing current cars, general car chat and just about anything car-related. One thing that became obvious to me pretty quickly was the fact Stuart is hugely into motorsport – with a particular passion for the 24 hour race. I’d like to think I know quite a substantial amount about cars but to be fair, other than F1 I really don’t know a great deal about motorsport. The Car Expert then set about educating me on the different classes within Le Mans, what they meant, the drivers, which manufacturer was likely to win etc, etc.

The journey passed relatively quickly, we were booked on a train from Paris Montparnasse to Le Mans so would have to use our limited knowledge of GCSE French to navigate the Metro system (which is massive, slow and very hot) but we survived and resurfaced from the catacombs of Paris to board our train to LeMans. I must admit I was impressed with the TGV, its arguably quicker, cleaner and more efficient than the Eurostar. 

We were receiving constant updates on WhatsApp from the PH crew travelling by Bentley convoy of their arrival times and status. Bentley Cambridge had kindly provided Pistonheads with four brand-new Bentleys – a Continental Flying Spur (CFS – as it’s known in the trade), GT Continental (GTC), GT Speed and a stunning flagship Mulsanne.

CFS, GTC and Mulliner

CFS, GTC and Mulliner

GT Speed W12

GT Speed W12

@Bentley_Cambs ...you know you want to...

@Bentley_Cambs …you know you want to…

Upon our arrival, Catherine had texted us to say that Katie’s phone had died so we had some time to kill. Stuart suggested we head to the town square to watch the drivers parade. It was absolutely jam-packed so we headed to a bar with some outdoor seating to take in the sights, sounds and have our first pint (or two) together. If we could see the actual parade then apparently it looked something like this: (WOW. – thanks McLaren!)

CHUsmE_WEAATSLn.jpg-large

The text from Katie came, so we headed to the tram stop that would take us all the way to LeMans. It was a short and relatively easy journey and the stop was a 5 minute walk from our private PH camp. After some faffing around and general confusion about which direction we were supposed to be heading, we managed to find Katie and she led us to the camp.

LM17

LM16

Upon arrival at the camp, we were shown the facilities and our tents for the trips, and introduced to the rest of the guests. The PH team made themselves known to us and the rest of the guests and within 20 minutes we were sat having a drink and a superbly cooked meal with Lee Williams (Executive Director of Pistonheads). After talking about cars, business and general PH-type chat for a long time, we decided it would be best to head to the ‘Pie and Piston’ – a Pistonheads-themed English Pub to mix it with other PH’ers and members. It was a quaint little set up that enough space for a beer garden and general pub-rowdiness. We met some interesting people including a great chap called Mike that had just taken delivery of his brand new Bentley GT3 R. He had been invited down by Bentley Cambridge to drive the car on the Mulsanne circuit as part of the celebrations. After chatting and drinking for quite some time (I even bumped into some old school friends – Si, Sean, Rob etc!) we decided it was probably best to head back (at 3am!) to be fresh for the big day.

Mike's GT3 R - Supplied by Bentley Cambridge

Mike’s GT3 R – Supplied by Bentley Cambridge

Does exactly what it says on the tin...

Does exactly what it says on the tin…

Saturday 13th – Le Mans Race Day 

The day I lost my Le Mans virginity.

Full-English was the best start to the day in such circumstances. Waking up at Le Mans is a bit like waking up in some kind of war zone, all you can hear is helicopters, screaming tyres and people shouting. Feeling slightly groggy, and the temperature at 26 degrees C (at 9am) some of us decided it may be an idea to go for a wander and see what we could find.

Stuart and I walked down to the car park not far from our camp site to be greeted by the PH VIP cars and also the McLaren VIP’s next door. It was a compound full of P1’s, F1’s, 575’s and just about every McLaren imaginable…BUT it was cordoned off and I couldn’t see anybody from McLaren that I recognised. We really wanted to get in so we started to charm the lady at the gate in our best/worst English ‘with a French sounding accent’ whist pulling sad faces and somehow it worked…we were in! We managed to have a quick chat with a few people that we knew (between the photos) one being Tim Burton, AKA Shmee150 who’s fresh back from his Gumball 3000 trip across Northern Europe and the USA.

Can you guess what it is yet?

Can you guess what it is yet?

McLaren were making quite a large song and dance about their involvement over the weekend – This was because it was the 20th anniversary of the F1 GTR winning the Le Mans 24 Hour. As you can see from the photos below, they really wheeled out the big guns….

LM25

LM27

LM21

We decided it best to walk up the race village, this is a purpose-built area full of bars, display cars, show cars, sponsor items, and interesting things (there was a 911 GT3 RS Cup built from LEGO!)…It was also a good time to catch up with some more of the VIP crew and chat about cars and life in general. Katie introduced me to Nihal, a lovely Land Rover enthusiast from op’ north who’s big into cars and shooting (that’s clay/game shooting not drive-by shooting). After grabbing some supplies (and a lot of water) we decided to find a good vantage point to see the start of the race. Sadly there was no way of getting near the start finish line so we found a space on a banked corner instead….by this time it was absolutely boiling! Anticipation was rapidly building amongst the crowd with the clock ticking closer to 3PM. Fortunately a bunch of really, REALLY shouty French guys positioned themselves right next to us to keep us entertained (We had no idea what they were shouting). Anyway, with ‘La Marsellaise’ blasting out of the PA system and the huge partisan crowd belting out ‘Marchons..Marchons…Qu’un sang impur…’ etc, it was LIGHTS OUT and the race was on!

Wouldn't fancy your chances in a crash...

Wouldn’t fancy your chances in a crash…

Decent vantage point for the first few laps

Decent vantage point for the first few laps

Katie had kindly arranged with David Adams at Aston Martin Racing for us to go backstage during the race, we weren’t quite sure what to expect, or what we were going to see even, but all I can say is that it was far beyond expectation. David led us through security, reminded us to be super careful – this was very much a live area and literally anything could happen at any given point. On a couple of occasions we had to watch our backs as mechanics raced past us with tyres etc for the pit stop teams at the side of the track. David showed us various parts and tyre sets for the cars, he explained that one of the Astons (#97) was an ‘Art car’ designed by German Abstract artist Tobias Rehberger. As we navigated through to the front of the garage we were placed in a pen of sorts and told to wait there as two cars would be coming in for pit stops, it was fascinating to experience this just a few feet from the drivers and mechanics, you gain incredible awareness of the gravity of the situation, almost like you can feel the tension in the air, but the most awe-inspiring part was the noise! THAT NOISE! It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard…like a really angry loud dog mixed with thunder? Fortunately I grabbed a recording of car #99 pitting to show you all.

Yes...that's how close we were!

Yes…that’s how close we were!

Aston Martin Art Car detail, pic courtesy of Aston Martin Racing

Aston Martin Art Car detail – ©Aston Martin Racing

After our Aston visit, we headed back to the camp for our evening meal, most of the talk was about our experience so far, particularly the noise and tension in the pits! As soon as the sun had set we decided to head back out and do pretty much the same as the night before. This time we had the fascinating prospect of seeing the cars race at night, somehow it all looks much faster and seems more visually dramatic. With the clock heading into the early hours of the morning we were starting to feel really drained, I ended up rambling to Luke from PH about our skiing experiences and favourite jaunts in Austria (mainly about how rubbish I am) the Pro Plus tablets just weren’t working and there definitely wasn’t a can of Red Bull in sight…I had boldly predicted that I would ‘easily’ stay up the whole night, I was in bed by 3.30.

Sunday 14th – Le Mans Final Day

Awoken at 8.30 by some serious noise! It’s at that point you actually realise the race genuinely lasts 24 hours. We were positioned probably less than 100 meters from the race track so you really could hear every gear change and every dab of the throttle. Its strange because you almost ’tune out’ the noise during the day and night, it becomes normal – like a constant. (It also definitely proves that I have selective hearing!)

Whilst filling up on breakfast, Stuart was informing me about latest state of play, Porsche had a 1-2 in the LMP1 Class and in the GT Class Aston Martin were winning, he was happy with Webber’s performance and so was happy with Aston’s, but he did advise me that anything could happen. The drivers become extremely tired and the focus drops off allowing for elementary mistakes that would usually never happen in other disciplines of motorsport. Later that day at 2.15 pm, almost twenty-three and a half hours into the race, the leader of the GT class in Aston Martin number 98 momentarily lost his concentration and wrecked his car, sadly his and his teams race over with nothing to show for it but it proved exactly what Stuart had told me earlier.

Le Mans fact: Did you know that each team is supposed to have at least three drivers to share the endurance? Years ago however some drivers would actually do the whole event solo – can you imagine 24 hours behind the wheel without sleep while racing a 1000hp behemoth?

I had decided my personal itinerary for the day was: firstly, visit and scale the ferris wheel, the view from up there is incredible. My only regret is that I didn’t go up at night – I highly recommend you to do this if you have the chance!

Dove from above!

The dove from above!

Secondly to check out the new Aston Martin GT12 and Corvette C7 ‘R Edition’ for a customer – Objective achieved. (I’ve even managed to place an order for one)

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Then to check out the new Renault Alpine concept, a sub £50k lightweight affordable sports car for 2016 – Sadly I only managed to get a shot of the rear…

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To visit the Ford v Ferrari showcase. Some seriously valuable cars here…a few that you may even have diffic!ultly placing a value on. For example – the first car we stumbled across was a 250 GTO!

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To witness the winner of Le Mans and the end of the 24 hours. This time it was Ex F1 star – Nico Hulkenberg’s turn in Porsche (LMP 919) number 19 completing a massive 395 laps in total with his team.

Porsche #19 Hulkenburg and Co...Winners 2015!

Porsche #19 Hulkenburg and Co…Winners 2015! ©Autocar

Finally, it was time to say our goodbyes to the rest of the camp and dash back to Paris in time to catch our Eurostar home…it was almost emotional! Stuart and I had Ben Travis from the Evening Standard and his long serving friend Jack in tow to keep us company, a really top couple of guys.

That’s all from me…I must say it was fantastic meeting everybody and I would love to head back next year.

I had a couple of Le Mans ‘Car Spy’ T-shirts printed for the weekend but I guess they aren’t of any use now other than to wear whilst I’m running or gym-ing…still, no publicity is bad publicity they say, right?

M (The Car Spy)

Thanks to:

Pistonheads (and the PH crew) http://www.Pistonheads.com

Rain PR – http://www.RainCommunications.co.uk

Bentley Cambridge – http://www.vindis.bentleymotors.com

Aston Martin RacingIn particular David Adams – http://www.astonmartin.com/racing

Haymarket Media Group – http://www.haymarket.com

All of the welcoming accommodating people I had the pleasure of meeting.

Special thanks to:

Lee Williams and Ruben Burton (Pistonheads) – Fantastic pair of guys – the future of Pistonheads is in safe hands.

Stuart Masson (The Car Expert) – Race informant/Le Mans Knowledge Specialist – 5 times Le Mans Veteran.

Katie Blake (Rain PR) – Thanks for organising everything – and looking after me – the Queen of PR!

Full Album here (Photos taken on iPhone 6)

Comments
  1. […] me on the trip was Mark Sekula from The Car Spy, who was enjoying his first (and quite probably not last) trip to Le Mans.  Down at the track, we met with the rest of the crew to enjoy a few pints at […]

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