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Postcard from Le Mans – the Pistonheads experience

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Yet again, the 24 Heures du Mans has been run and won, and as always it was a fabulous motorsport occasion that every racing fan should experience at least once.  The only problem being that once you’ve been once, you’ll want to keep going back

This year’s Le Mans 24 Hour race was an epic struggle between two titans of sports car racing – the established Le Mans star (Audi) versus the all-time champ (Porsche) on a comeback. Their six-car battle at the front made last year’s world champions (Toyota) look ordinary and the newcomers (Nissan) look amateurish.

In addition to the big guns up battling up front, the GT racing between Aston Martin, Ferrari and Corvette was fierce all day, night and day again. There was action and drama from start to finish and the weather even played its part, with the forecast rain helpfully staying away so the huge crowd (about 270,000 people, with up to 60,000 over from the UK) could enjoy the sunshine.

For the first time this year, I wasn’t driving down and camping in one of the huge public campsites, but was a guest of the fantastic folk at Pistonheads. It was also the first time I had caught the train to Le Mans rather than taking an 800-mile road trip.  And as much as I love a road trip, the train option is great. Eurostar to Paris, TGV down to Le Mans and tram right to the circuit gates – it’s dead simple, especially when your tent and camping gear is already prepared for your arrival. And the return trip, after a busy weekend with very little sleep, is MUCH more relaxing.

Joining 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 Pistonheads’ own pub, the Pie and Piston.

Saturday brought sunshine and high expectations for a cracking race – Porsche had been fastest in qualifying as expected, but Audi had won Le Mans for 13 of the last 15 years (plus the Bentley win in 2003 was basically another Audi victory), and their car was better at looking after its tyres. In the GT ranks, it was also tough to pick a winner. Aston Martin and Porsche had full-blown factory squads to take on semi-works efforts from Chevrolet and defending champions Ferrari.

Start of the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hour race
Start of the 2015 24 Hueres du Mans (c) Red Bull

Just before 3pm on Saturday, the French version of the Red Arrows arrived, passing low over the circuit in a trail of red/white/blue smoke, and at long last the race was on. Immediately a six-car scrap broke out between the three Porsches and three Audis. After about four hours, it was still very close until one of the Audis had a large accident. In most races, the car would have been out on the spot, but the Audi mechanics took just over four minutes to throw several new body panels at the car and get it back in the race.

Le Mans is a real team game

In such a long and gruelling event, it’s not just the drivers who have to stay sharp. The mechanics back in the garage are expected to refuel the car, change tyres, clean the windscreen and headlights, make adjustments and repairs with perfect precision – every 45 minutes for for 24 hours straight.

Porsche #17 in for a pitstop at Le Mans 2015
Porsche #17 in for a pitstop. Image (c) Porsche AG

We had the rare privilege of being invited into the Aston Martin garage to see how a crack factory outfit operates. As we watched on, two of the five Astons made scheduled pitstops – one for a driver change, fuel and tyres, and another just for fuel. During the stop, the crew is a perfect unit of synchronisation. There is a lot of action but no drama; as the car slides into its box, the fuel hoses are instantly connected and a crew member launches himself onto the bonnet to clean the windscreen. As soon as the fuel hoses are off, other crew members rush out to change the tyres and the drivers swap over. In a matter of seconds, the #98 Aston Martin fires back into life and noisily charges back into the race. Sadly, its race would come to a violent end just 45 minutes before the end of the race, when one of the three drivers lost control of the car into a chicane and put it hard into the wall.

Aston Martin working hard in the pits at Le Mans 2015
Aston Martin working hard in the pits. Image (c) Michelin

It’s a very long race

Our posse had quite a few first-timers in our ranks, and several had grand ideas about staying up all race; our own 24-hour endurance event. Some gave it a good go, but eventually everyone capitulated to at least a few hours of sleep. And the reality of just how long the race is became apparent over breakfast on Sunday, as it dawned on people that there were still seven hours to go until the 3pm finish.

Dawn under the Dunlop Bridge at Le Man 2015
Dawn light under the Dunlop Bridge (c) Irish Mirror

For the Porsche team, the tension over the last few hours was enormous as they held the top two spots but with Audi refusing to lie down. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the cars started their last laps and the teams waited in their garages with baited breath and fingers crossed, praying that their cars would make it home safely. Finally, it was all over and the king had returned. Porsche had won their first Le Mans in seventeen years, and the dominant Audi team had been toppled. Toyota were miles off the pace, and Nissan were probably relieved that a terrible weekend had finally ended.

Porsche finish 1-2 at Le Mans 2015
Porsche finish 1-2 at Le Mans 2015 (c) Eurosport

What else was new for 2015?

Le Mans may be in France, but it’s coming close to being annexed by the Germans (again). In addition to filling nearly every podium place on track for the last fifteen years, Audi helped to fund the Le Mans village development a few years ago (which features a giant Audi art installation) and seems to sponsor nearly every billboard around the circuit. Not to be outdone, this year Porsche has gone and built a giant ‘Experience Centre‘ at the final chicane. It’s a bit like the one at Silverstone, but about 100 times bigger (dimensions may not be exact). This means that the fairground, including the iconic ferris wheel, has had to move a few hundred metres further south opposite the karting complex.

Stuart travelled to Le Mans 2015 as a guest of Pistonheads. Organisation by the amazing Katie at Rain PR, transportation (for those more important than Mark and me ;) ) provided by Bentley Cambridge. Thank you to Aston Martin Racing for inviting us into their garage to watch their cars make their pitstops on Saturday night.

For more pics from the weekend, check out The Car Expert’s Instagram account.

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Stuart Masson
Stuart Massonhttps://www.thecarexpert.co.uk/
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Car Expert, The Van Expert and The Truck Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.