It’s 0:41 am on Sunday morning and I’m wrapped up warm sitting in my tent. It’s been a long, but incredible day. I was planning on staying awake for the duration of the 2011 Le Mans 24-hour but after the first hour of the second safety car at this year’s race my colleague, Sudhir Matai, and I took the decision to call it a day and try to get some rest while the 50-odd cars remaining in the race are forced to follow in a 60 km/h convoy. It’s been a bad race weekend for the Audi team so far as once the RS5 safety car finally pulls into the pits the number 2 racecar will be the only remaining Audi on the track. Two of the most spectacular crashes that I have ever seen have ensured that plenty pieces of Audi remain scattered around the track but, if there’s upside to these cars landing upside, it’s that, in each incident, the driver has walked away from the wreckage. What an advertisement for safety development.
Significantly, the one remaining Audi happens to be leading the race at the moment and you can just imagine the movie scriptwriters sharpening their pencils should this, the most inexperienced of the three Stuttgart entries, go on to take the chequered flag ahead of the three chasing Peugeots.
I was always looking forward to this trip but, in truth, I was also slightly concerned about the prospect of accepting such an assignment. Unlike a manufacturer launch trip there would be no one to meet us at the airport, no one to ensure that we made it out of the arrivals hall to an awaiting shuttle bus, no hotel room booked under my name, and no neatly printed out agenda or itinerary. Added to this was the fact that our task was to experience Le Mans just as 90 per cent of the some 250 000 annual spectators do – on a budget. This meant arranging our own flights, transport, meals and accommodation. A lot to potentially go wrong…
To my pleasant surprise, the only hiccup we’ve experienced to date was the (not uncommon) sight of bumper-to-bumper Parisian traffic. What should have been a two and a half hour drive from Paris to Le Mans ended up taking us exactly six! Fortunately the sun sets late in France at this time of year, so once we finally arrived and found a spot in our pre-booked Beausejour campsite there was still enough daylight for us to accurately pitch our tents in.
Even before we pasted our South African flag to the windscreen of our hired car we were greeted by warm smiles and waves from our fellow campers and within no time we had been handed cold beers and welcomed to our first Le Mans. At this point I should mention that possible 60 per cent of those quarter of a million fanatical annual spectators are in fact British so, while in the confines of the campsite at least, English is the unofficial official language.
The first of many useful tips from these seasoned campaigners (that being to shower in the evening) proved invaluable on emerging from my tent the next morning to be greeted by a grumpy-looking queue of shower seekers. Because we booked our trip fairly late I had been a bit concerned about the location of the only remaining available campsite in relation to the track and spectator points for the race but, in truth, and maybe this is just a South African thing, the “long walk” proved to be a rather pleasant 25 minute stroll. From our (free) shuttle service pickup point we were taken to the race village and from here it was another short walk to our reserved seats in the Le Sarthe grandstand. With no previous experience of this race weekend it seemed an obvious decision, during the planning stages, to book these relatively expensive (around R900 each for the weekend) grandstand seats but, even though they were great seats, I’m not sure I would go to the trouble next time around. It turns out there are plenty of free spectator points dotted around this curcuit, and most are remarkably close to the track and the action. My one reservation about this option though, and speaking from a photographer’s perspective, is that nearly all of these standing and seating areas are behind a thick, tall safety fence (ask the people sitting next to the first Audi crash whether they work), which makes it difficult to get clear shots of the cars as they fly by.
Ok, the race has started again. This time I didn’t need the incredibly entertaining and informative Radio Le Mans (a cordless earpiece with 24-hour English commentary) because I can hear, among others, the hugely intimidating growl of the GT-class Corvettes. The one thing that I will miss about those two stricken Audi’s is there stealth-like hum, even while at full tilt.
Let’s see what the morning brings…