The pros and cons of going to Le Mans

They won it.
Aston Martin Racing won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in their class. And I was there when it happened.

It goes without saying that I am very happy about that. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a very hard race to complete, let alone win. She has been referred to as a cruel mistress and not a year goes by without motorsport fans experiencing at least some sympathy for competitors who see their race ended due to misfortune. It’s a roller coaster of emotions. But…is it worth going? I thought about that before I booked, but even more so when I was there. I found out that every reason I could think of to go was also a reason not to. Let me explain.


The GTE Pro class winner: Aston Martin Racing’s #97.
© All Rights Reserved

The Race of all Races

Or, as I like to call her, the Mother of all Races. The 24 Hours of Le Mans started way back in 1923. This year was the 85th time the race was held. It’s a 24 hour endurance race with 60 cars on the grid. In short: it’s a big race.
There are some races that belong on the motorsport fan’s bucket list and this is definitely one of them. You probably should go at least once in your life.

So what are the pros of going? Well, there is obviously nothing that can replace the atmosphere at a race track. When you’re at home watching a race or perhaps with a group of friends, it’s still nothing like the real deal. The track is iconic, which in itself can be another reason to go. And it has a museum which is filled with race cars and other special cars (like a Citroën 2CV which went around the world in the 1950s!). If you’re there you also get a chance to attend the drivers’ parade on Friday evening. If you go early enough, you can also go to the signing session on the Tuesday before the race.

Makes you wonder if there is a con to this? Yes, there is. Strangely enough, if you go to the trace track you see less of the race than you would at home. At home you have television coverage (in most countries, at least) and so many different camera angles. At the track you see the action where you are and nowhere else. Considering Circuit de la Sarthe is almost 8.5 miles (just over 13.5 km) long, there is an awful lot you won’t see, even if you have a massive screen nearby.


A very recent addition to the museum is the race car driven by (among others) Frédéric Sausset – a quadruple amputee – last year. Inspiring to say the least…
© All Rights Reserved

Weather

It’s June and it’s in France. Quite a lot of people think that is the perfect combination, but if, like me, you struggle with temperatures over 20 degrees you may want to have a think.
This past weekend I experienced temperatures between 26 and 32 degrees. Thankfully there was a breeze, but when that wind drops at a time it’s over 30 I find it hard to breathe. At the same time I saw a large group of people happily sitting outside without any shade chatting and laughing. It really is a personal preference.

Another thing to take into consideration is the food in France. In my experience they are not very keen on vegetarian food. Being a vegetarian myself I can tell you I did struggle finding appropriate warm food. On the other hand I had expected that. So we ended up shopping on Friday morning as supermarkets can provide pretty much anything you want.

If you suffer from asthma or hay fever have a very good think about this. I found the whole experience to be very dusty. The car was unrecognisable after a few hours. I was wearing shoes, socks and full length jeans the entire time and had dust up to my knees on my legs. It goes everywhere. On the Sunday there was a lot of dried grass flying around as well. Probably not the friendliest of places if you have any respiratory condition.

People who have been before have told me they have been to Le Mans during horrible weather. And, again, with the track being so big, you can easily have warm weather on one side and rain on the other. Basically it’s best to be prepared for anything.


Labre Competition’s Corvette was this year’s art car.
© All Rights Reserved

Travel

Depending on where you live you’d have to consider how you want to get to Le Mans. I opted for driving from South Yorkshire, taking the ferry from Dover to Calais and drive on to Le Mans. My friend and I did travel down in two days. We had accommodation for the Wednesday night near Dover so we wouldn’t have to rush on Thursday morning to get the ferry. The drive from Calais was about 4.5 hours over toll roads (another consideration!). However, we did do the entire trip back in one day.

Of course you can also fly in, fly-drive, take a bus, go by train or a combination of any of these. I spoke to a lady who had come from Dallas. She obviously had to fly in, but I’m not sure how she got to Paris airport. The option you pick will also be influenced by your budget. Driving in your own car, like I did, is not the cheapest option (from the UK at least), but I really enjoy driving so will gladly spend the time and the money for that experience alone.

Getting there is one thing. How about the daily commute? Where is your accommodation and how will you get from there to the track? You could spend a long time every day getting from your hotel to the track.
This year I opted for glamping. A tent was already set up for us when we arrived, including air beds, bed linen, a small table and two chairs. Ideal, but obviously a little bit more expensive than a camping plot for you and your tent/camper. Another bonus to this is that our camp was near the Porsche curves. We had access to one viewing area which was only available to whoever booked with this particular company. On the other side of the track there was another viewing area, but this was less restricted. I went to both and enjoyed the views from each.


The Porsche Curves are very well known and make for great viewing.
© All Rights Reserved

A new level of cool

Above I mentioned a lot of factors to take into consideration when deciding to go to the 24 Hours of Le Mans or not. There is one more.
Even people who don’t care about motorsport are in awe when you tell them about this. In the eyes of pretty much everyone else out there you are cool. The very fact that you are willing to travel a long distance and brave the elements just to see a race baffles them, but they also admire you for it. If that matters to you, you now have another reason to go.

For me it was quite simple: wherever Aston Martins race I will try to go. I love WEC most of all, so Le Mans was a must for me. Despite the fact I didn’t see that overtake on the Corvette, I was there when my team won the Mother of all Races. And that is an unforgettable experience.

Advertisements

British GT, Silverstone, 10 and 11 June 2017

British GT at Silverstone is something a little bit special, because it is known as ‘Silverstone 500’. It’s a three hour race.
I think British GT is a great series anyway, but having a race this long on the agenda is a bonus. In addition the support races are quite good too!
The only thing you can never be sure of is the weather. And this year Silverstone decided on sunny with clouds and a lot of wind. So much wind that the commentators mentioned it as it affected the cars out on track.


The Aston Martin of the defending champions was having issues, which was reflected in their result.
© All Rights Reserved

As usual I attended the whole weekend which allowed me to enjoy as much of the supporting races as possible. I had never witnessed a Caterham race before. It was a lot more exciting than I expected. To be honest, I’m not sure what I was expecting. However, seeing 4 cars fighting for the first spot at the very end of the race is more than you would expect from anything other than Blancpain. It was great to see and I ensured I caught another Caterham race the next day.

My favourite cars with faces – the Ginettas – were also having the time of their lives. The Ginettas did not only have their own series and races, they are also part of British GT itself.
Ginetta race cars are available for various classes, so in some cases they race with what one would consider the ‘big boys’ and definitely hold their own!
They may look cute…these are serious race cars and the races are quite something to watch!


Cars with faces…you can’t go wrong.
© All Rights Reserved

For some reason they (whoever ‘they’ are) decided to do something weird this weekend. The result? A 1965 Routemaster (yes, that’s a double-decker bus) joined the British GT cars on track. Judging by the video from on board the bus it really was going about as fast as it could. Compared to the race cars it was seemingly standing still.
Regardless of reason, it was quite the sight and I do like the Routemasters. There’s always time for a laugh…

British GT itself had five Aston Martins on the grid. What a treat! Next to that there’s of course the Bentley Continentals and I never say no to a few McLarens or Lamborghinis out there.
The Aston Martin of Jonny Adam and Derek Johnston had power steering issues (as in: they lost it) and this was clearly reflected in the result. Derek Johnston started the race and spun on the first lap due to this issue. Defending the championship is not as easy as some people may think, especially with bad luck like this.


The 1965 Routemaster out on track.
© All Rights Reserved

The race was exciting from start to finish, which did not come as a surprise to me. British GT is quite unpredictable. Especially in a longer race like this one anything can and will happen.
The Team Parker Racing Bentley took the first spot after a stellar drive, but it would be unfair to say that even the last car to cross the finish line didn’t try as hard as they could. This is hard racing, just three hours long.

Of course I should also mention that it was Supercar Sunday. I have to say that the organisers and I do not agree on the definition of supercar, but there were definitely some mighty fine cars on display. Lamborghinis and McLarens were rubbing proverbial shoulders with Maseratis, Aston Martins and Audis (of the R8 variety). Quite a few of these took to the track during the lunch break, providing some very nice sights for the public. Supercars or not…I was not complaining.

Track day #4 – three cars, triple the fun?

For my fourth track experience I decided to treat myself to three cars rather than just the one. It wasn’t easy deciding what to drive after the Aston Martin DB9 and Audi R8. I ended up booking the Bentley Continental, BMW i8 and Nissan GT-R.

Bentley Continental

Ever since I saw a Bentley Continental race in Blancpain I was a little bit in love with it. It’s a massive car and it’s almost inconceivable that it can be fast. But it is!
I went on a factory tour at Bentley in Crewe to see where this beast was born. And then I decided I wanted to drive one.


Bentley Continental
© All Rights Reserved

The Continental available for a driving experience is of course nothing like the race car. A bonus however is the fact that this particular car is a convertible. My friend drove it first and since the rain had just stopped she opted for the top down. I couldn’t fault that, so the top stayed down for my two laps.

The Bentley is an extremely smooth drive. Like most cars at this venue it has shift paddles, so you keep your foot on the accelerator while gearing up. It’s quite snappy for a big car. At no point did it feel sluggish. It’s not extremely fast, but that was not the reason I wanted to drive it. I simply wanted to find out how it handles. And it handles really well. It’s fun to drive and doesn’t feel as big as it actually is. At the end of the drive you have to park the car (forward, nice and easy) and that’s when I found out how extremely small the Continental’s turning circle is.

Overall I really enjoyed driving this car. The one comment I have is that under braking the car noticeably dives down. It’s not a bad thing, but I would expect a less aggressive move from a car in this price range.

BMW i8

Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact I am not a fan of BMW. Their look simply doesn’t appeal to me.
This is different for the i8. The lines of that car made me look twice the first time I saw one.
Now liking a car is usually not just about looks, and I’m no different. The fact this is a hybrid car made me curious. So I decided to drive one.


BMW i8
© All Rights Reserved

The i8 is a big and low car. Emphasis on ‘low’, because it’s best to sit on the ledge of the door, slide your bum into the seat and then pull your legs in. Imagine getting out again…

The engine is a modest 1.6, but the electric motor provides boost…quite a lot. Even though this is also not the fastest car available at this venue, it is not slow by any means. It speeds up rapidly, but is as quiet as you would expect from a hybrid. There is some engine sound, but not that much. The drive is smooth. In short, it’s a fun drive.

The car seems to move effortlessly and responds really well to whatever I ask of it.
Of all the cars I’ve driven so far (including on public roads: rented or borrowed) this one is fun, but not much more. I’m happy I’ve driven it, yet it is unlikely I’ll ever drive it again. But that is ok with me, because I really wanted to drive it for the experience. After this I’ll stick to enjoying watching it; it’s still a good looking car.

Nissan GT-R

To complete my set of three cars I had hoped the Aston Martin DB11 was available, but it wasn’t on this day. McLaren 570 s? No, not available.
Had I ever considered the GT-R? Well, not really. I mean, I like the look of it and I had seen it go around the track in quite an impressive way. But driving it hadn’t occurred to me.

My doubts continued almost until the moment I got in the car. You can upgrade and swap on the day and I almost did. I am very happy I didn’t!


Nissan GT-R
© All Rights Reserved

The instructor for the Bentley already commented I would probably enjoy the Nissan. He was right. What a beast!

When I was about to drive off I was told the car would respond choppy in first gear, but would be better in second. I hope that’s not normal for every GT-R, because it does make you feel as if you’re in a car for the very first time without any notion on how cars actually work. It’s almost embarrassing.
But the instructor was right; as soon as I geared up to 2nd (shift paddles again) the car started behaving. And when I took it out onto the track it ran off with me. The cars I have driven so far are not slow, but nothing compared to this!

The power you control is almost overwhelming. The GT-R speeds up like nothing I’ve driven before, brakes incredibly hard and is loud. I absolutely loved it.
Whereas the previous cars were smooth and behaved perfectly well, the Nissan had more of a ‘you want a piece of this?!’ attitude. I had a grin on my face for quite a while after my drive.

The car handles great, but very direct. For example: I commented on the handling under braking of the Bentley. In comparison the DB9 brakes more evenly; you can’t really feel the nose going down at all. The Nissan just gives it to you straight. You tell it what to do, it does it. No questions asked.
Incredible handling, great sounds, considerable speed (despite the short track and my lack of experience) – I would jump into a GT-R again in a heartbeat.

I do believe I should go for ‘double the distance’ next time, because two laps per car is not really enough. Other than that I had a great time, as before.
Next on the list: DB11. And maybe another trip in that crazy Nissan.

If you want to see the videos of the drives, have a look at my YouTube channel.

Old and new at Morgan

Visiting car manufacturers is rapidly becoming a new hobby.
Initially I expected to see the same thing over and over, but nothing is further from the truth. At Audi I saw a lot of robots and automated systems at a vast location with thousands of people. In contrast, Lotus, Bentley and Aston Martin prefer the human approach; a lot is done by hand. Their factories are also quite small in comparison.
At Morgan it’s like going back in time. And it’s great.


A Morgan three wheeler at the museum
© All Rights Reserved

Either before or after the factory tour you can visit the museum. As I was early I went there first to see the vast amount of information on display. There are a number of cars, all either significant or just plain gorgeous, and a lot of smaller items. It’s not a very big museum, but it’s filled to the brim with Morgan related stuff.

The factory tour takes you through the entire company minus the paint shop. A very nice difference is that at Morgan they encourage you to take photos throughout. This allowed me to update the social media channels that go with this blog while the tour was ongoing. A very rare treat indeed.

Martin Webb, Morgan’s archivist, was our tour guide. Considering his role I expected him to have a lot of knowledge of the company and I was not disappointed.
For example: he told the group that the company was founded in 1909 by Henry Morgan and it has been in its current location for 103 years.


The creation of the wooden frames.
© All Rights Reserved

Currently Morgan has four models and each is built differently. The tour took us through each area so we could see the chassis being built up to a complete car. The aluminium panels are laser cut by another company, but other than that everything is done by hand. You will not find an assembly line or a robot in this place!

And while I’m at it, let me set the record straight. Apparently a lot of people think the chassis is made of wood. This is incorrect. The frame is made of wood – ash, to be exact.

Despite the fact building a Morgan is a very manual thing, modern techniques are used. For example: there are old fashioned methods being used to change several layers of quite flexible ash to one very sturdy part of the frame. However, they also use a modern method of putting wood panels which need to be moulded and/or glued together in a big bag and then sucking the air out (see below).


A modern method in old fashioned surroundings.
© All Rights Reserved

Needless to say the roof and interior of the cars is also made by hand. While walking through the trim shop you get to see the various materials and their colours. Martin enlightened us with a story of a customer who wanted a pink car with a pink roof. Unsurprisingly it’s not most people’s first choice, but it does illustrate you can choose things which are normally not on offer.

After the trim shop the last work is done on the cars before they go to the inspection area.
After that we got treated to a quick look in the workshop of the three wheelers. Obviously Morgans stand out between other modern/new cars, but the three wheelers are a world onto their own. A car with three wheels and a motor engine on the outside (up front) – so confusing you can choose to use it as a car (wear your seatbelt!) or a trike of sorts (wear a helmet, but not your seatbelt).
I’m not quite sure what I would do, but I have to admit that they look like a lot of fun. I certainly wouldn’t mind driving one just to see what it is like.


The bays in the inspection area.
© All Rights Reserved

Morgan is one of the companies where you can easily get a factory tour. They are very proud to show around 30,000 per year – they do several tours per day.
Considering its lengthy history and the fascinating manufacturing method I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in cars. This tour was great fun and very insightful. I’d do this again in a heartbeat.

Blancpain GT Series Endurance, Silverstone, 13/14 May 2017

The Blancpain Endurance race at Silverstone is one of the hightlighs of the year. The grid is massive and the cars diverse. The racing is unpredictable (as is the weather), so excitement is as good as guaranteed.
This time around we decided to also get grid walk tickets.


© All Rights Reserved

Support races

Blancpain always has a number of support races which are highly enjoyable. My favourite however is still Lamborghini Super Trofeo. Almost any type of race is great to watch, but there is something special about a large number of Huracans on a track.
I can only assume the cars’ specs will be fairly similar, but even if that’s not the case, racing is always quite close, causing some very exciting moments. There’s a lot of good action to watch. And of course the cars look amazing on track…as if they were built for it.

Pit walks

There were two pit walks during the weekend.
On Saturday there was no autograph session. It was therefore rather quiet, but it did give better access to the cars.


The #8 Bentley – VERY up close and personal – during the Saturday pit walk.
© All Rights Reserved

The second pit walk was on the Sunday which included the autograph session.
I always enjoy the pit walks, with or without autograph session. It’s a good time to get a bit closer to the cars and, if there is an autograph session, have a chat with the drivers. Most really seem to enjoy the interaction (read: banter). I always make a point of seeing my favourite team/driver(s) to wish them well for the race.

Grid walk

This was the first time we got grid walk tickets, just to see what that is like.
As expected it is nothing like the pit walks. During a pit walk the garages are open, sometimes the drivers will be there and it’s quite relaxed overall.
A grid walk means you are walking among the cars ready to start a race. There’s team members working on the cars, drivers are preparing to get into the cars and it is very busy!


The one and only Aston Martin on the grid during the grid walk.
© All Rights Reserved

Of course you can get really close to the cars on the grid walk, but at the same time it feels a bit rushed. You have to wait at the side of the track for all the cars to arrive and only have a few minutes to walk the actual grid.
It understandable the public have to be out of the way when the cars drive up and you also don’t want to be in the way of the people working on the cars or preparing to drive. But simply due to the number of people I didn’t find it as amazing as I was told it would be.

I would say it’s an interesting experience and I wouldn’t advise against it, but it’s not really for me.

The main race

Blancpain never disappoints.
I think the races are unpredictable due to the large grid and the variety of cars. In the races I have seen so far you usually cannot predict who will win. Silverstone was no different.
It seems inevitable the safety car will come out, but usually not so often it impacts the viewers’ enjoyment.


© All Rights Reserved

I cannot put into words how exciting it is to see that enormous grid come around the corner, preparing for the rolling start. When those lights turn green all hell breaks loose (including the thunderous noise that goes with it!).
For three hours I find myself at the edge of my seat, trying to keep up with the changes in position.

I’ve seen a few Blancpain races now, both at the track and on television, and I am certain I will be seeing quite a few more.

British GT, Oulton Park, 17 April 2017

After three days at Silverstone I decided another day trackside wouldn’t hurt and I travelled to Oulton Park for British GT’s race day.
British GT has some very nice supporting races, my favourite being the Ginettas. Call it luck if you will, it was raining. Somehow these cars just seem to enjoy a wet track. The action doesn’t stop at all. They’re all racing as if their lives depend on it (the drivers, of course, not the cars).


The Ginetta G40 of Jose Antonio Ledesma during the Ginetta GT5 Challenge
© All Rights Reserved

Another support race is BRDC British F3 Championship which is also always good to see. With fewer cars on the track it seems a bit less tight, but the racing is equally passionate.

I always enjoy seeing the Volkswagens race. This year they were joined by two Audi TTs which makes a nice change too.
Quite frankly, there is so much going on on track it would take too long to write about every race in the action filled day. So let’s move on to British GT. After all, that was the reason I went.


There is some incredibly close racing in British GT.
© All Rights Reserved

Last year Jonny Adam became the first driver to win back-to-back championships in British GT. At the start of the 2017 season he had WEC duties for Aston Martin Racing at Silverstone, which meant he missed the qualifying session for British GT. As a result of that TF Sport had to start from the back of the grid in their class – the 11th position overall. Sounds like the ingredients of something very exciting to me…
Together with teammate Derek Johnston Jonny managed to grab a podium spot in both races on Monday. Some start of the season!

This year will very much be about Jonny. As said, he’s racing in WEC and British GT, but he is also joining Oman Racing again in Blancpain GT Endurance Cup. I follow all three series, so I will be seeing quite a lot of Mr Adam, I reckon.


The Academy Motorsport Aston Martin lost its bonnet very early on in the race, but they – seemingly quite happily – carried on without it.
© All Rights Reserved

To be honest, there are other Aston Martins in British GT, so I have more than just one reason to go. One of the main attractions I find the sheer variety of cars. The Bentleys are always a joy to watch and even more so to hear. I might not be a fan of Mercedes, but on track they look pretty awesome. The McLarens always look good and you can’t go wrong with Lamborghinis in race attire.
Oh, let’s not forget that British GT also has its fair share of Ginettas.

All these different cars with their different specifications in two different classes make for a spectacular and unpredictable race. Even without the Aston Martins I would probably follow this series anyway. Additional incentive not required…

6 Hours of Silverstone 2017

You’d think that after last year’s snow I’d be able to prepare for pretty much anything Silverstone can throw at me. You’d be wrong.
It is surprising how cold it gets when it’s grey and windy for three days in a row. But of course that doesn’t stop a motorsport fan from being trackside most of the day every day of that three day weekend.


The #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing Porsche.
© All Rights Reserved

With it being Easter weekend I expected a busier weekend than before. As it turned out there were 2,000 people less over the weekend, which could be due to Audi not being there this season.
It also felt less busy, probably because more grandstands had been opened. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to see the action on track from various locations. I believe I went to almost every stand that was open throughout the weekend.

As always it’s a joy to be able to access both the WEC and the ELMS paddock whenever you want. The teams are approachable, so you can have a chat with your favourite drivers if you want. That’s an opportunity I never miss.

The Sunday pit walk was planned very early this time and the autograph session was moved to a later time and to the paddock. As a result the pit walk was extremely quiet. Not necessarily a bad thing, as it gives you the time and space to check out the cars in the garages. The autograph session was a bit messy, depending on which team you visited, but not as busy as I expected. There was still plenty of time to have a quick chat with the drivers and wish them luck for the upcoming race.

I also did the ELMS pit walk on Saturday. This also doesn’t attract that many people. So again, plenty of time and space to check out the cars and talk to some of the drivers.


Vaillante Rebellion’s #31 car which would end up in second position in class.
© All Rights Reserved

Throughout the weekend the position lights on the LMP2 cars did not work, which meant we couldn’t really keep up with who was in what position in that class. That didn’t take away from the enjoyment of seeing them go. Apparently the new chassis in the LMP2 class meant that the cars were 6 seconds faster on average than last year. That’s a big difference!
As in LMP1 there has been some movement with teams leaving and, thankfully, LMP2 also sees some new teams this season.

Even though GTE Pro and Am are my favourite classes, I do enjoy the LMP classes as well. There’s always plenty to watch during a 6 hour race and this time was no difference.
It was interesting to see it took quite some time before the safety car was needed. Usually there seems to be more drama earlier on. But no safety car means more racing, so no complaints from me.


WEC provides some very close racing indeed!
© All Rights Reserved

Unfortunately this was not a good race for Aston Martin Racing. The #95 had taken pole during qualifying, but both GTE Pro Astons ended up outside the podium positions. It seems they simply lacked the overall pace, even though it was never explained why this was the case. There have been speculations that the lower number of tyres allowed have an impact, but this has not been confirmed or denied.
This year sees the introduction of ‘automatic BoP’ (Balance of Performance). It will be very interesting to see what the consequences of that are for following races.