Click Thumbnails to Enlarge
Le Mans 24-hour race 2010: the CAR Live Blog
16 June 2010 19:12
CAR is at Le Mans 2010 – and here's the CAR Live Blog from the world's most famous 24-hour endurance race. Associate editor Tim Pollard has exclusive access inside the Aston Martin Racing team at La Sarthe and you can follow his Le Mans blog and Twitter feeds on this page. NB The newest posts will be added at the top, so start from the bottom and work your way up for our full Le Mans 24-hour race coverage!
SUNDAY 13 JUNE 2010
5.15pm: The grand prix and beyond
I can barely keep my eyes open, but the guys want to watch the grand prix. A nice cool beer will go down a treat, too. My hands won't come clean for weeks, I reckon... Afterwards, we hold a BBQ and invite our neighbours, former TV presenter and raconteur Gareth Jones and Zog from the On Speed podcast round. An entertaining evening is had by all, but I'm not sure my body appreciates being awake for 42 hours... Time to crash out and get some zzz's before driving the DB9 back home tomorrow. We'll have a drive of that up on Wednesday, once the embargo lifts. And on that bombshell, it's time to sign out. It's been an astonishing weekend – right up there with the best things I've ever done in my career. Think I might have caught the motorsport bug. A big thank you to the Aston team. We hope you've enjoyed the ride.
4.31pm: Time to pick up the Aston and back for the grand prix
Best if I don't drive the Aston wearing my grubby overalls. Ben P collects the new, facelifted 2011-model year DB9 and drives it to our campsite. The rest of us pile back in the A5 Sportback. The roads here are crazy, but I've finally worked out the layout and son we're back at our Travel Destinations campsite, run by En-Tente-Cordiale. Thank goodness for hot showers on site!
4.03pm: Meet Team CAR and an exuberant Audi driver
Trying to hook up with Ben Pulman and our design team. Thronging crowds and an antiquated layout make it difficult to get anywhere in a hurry. I eventually find them and they crack up at my grubby state. My pristine white Gulf top is in tatters, smeared with rubber, brake dust and grease from the wheels I've cleaned. We spot Audi's Allan McNish nearby and grab a quick snap of him with us, as he shows us his third place trophy.
3.13pm: To the press room
Dash up to the press room to file some last updates. The Aston PR duo are scratching their heads about the best line to take. They're no longer the fastest petrol car, and they're brainstorming the best angle. In the end they plump for sixth overall, and highlight the podium finish in the GT1 class with Young Driver AMR's 22nd place, or third in class.
3.10pm: Sam Hancock on his car's demise
'Obviously it’s gutting to come so close to the best result of my Le Mans career and have it snatched away at the death. The car had been fantastic up to that point and we were able to lap very consistently throughout the race. But I’m not going to dwell on it too much. Although we never had a realistic chance of beating the diesels in a straight fight, just like last season our reliability initially allowed us to profit from their demise. We were on target to equal Aston Martin Racing’s result from 2009 and winning the petrol class again would have been a great achievement. But it wasn’t to be this time round.'
3.03pm: On the pitwall
Everyone crosses the pitlane and leaps onto the pitwall to wave the cars through. It's mayhem out there, and drama and passion overflow for many. The Audi staff are understandably ecstatic – they've swung a dramatic 1-2-3, after each of the Peugeots steadily crumbled. Here at Aston we're still deflated after the retirement of 009 in its 368th lap.
3.00pm: Aston finishes sixth
After last year's fourth place, sixth may sound disappointing, especially as they were beaten by a petrol LMP2 car. But after everything we've been through in the past 24 hours, it just feels good to finish. I've been awake for 32 hours straight and can barely type. But I do know that there are some pretty special guys in that Aston Martin Racing team. Certainly too many to name in this blog. They've let me into their world for a day I'll never forget.
2.51pm: The dying seconds
It's a long, painful wait until the end. Aston was so close to finishing with both factory LMP1s. Surely there won't be another last-minute shock to stop the deserved finish? Control instructs Stefan Mücke to do four-minute laps to conserve fuel. There's no threat in either direction. The truth of this race was that the diesels were always firm favourites to win. Most say the rules skew the odds. And of course Aston would say that. But you know what, this Le Mans – my first has taught me plenty about endurance racing and plenty about the spirit of sport. Word is Aston's budget is roughly a tenth of Audi's. And that makes this a classic underdog tale.
2.40pm: DR explains what went wrong
'We know what caused it. We had a spin earlier and there was contact. These things are so often at the 11th hour. It's a real shame.' And the look on his face makes me realise he means it. This blog might have become long and sprawling, but we'll serve up some more edited highlights in the next 48 hours as we return to the land of the living.
2.10pm: An explosion of a different kind
I'm up at the Michelin rubber citadel when the radio crackles into life. 009 is on fire. The radio voices are terse, stressed, short. 'Aim for a marshall, aim for a fire marshall,' we hear. We can't see a screen and can only imagine what's happening. Little do we realise that it's the end of the road for 009. After 23 hours and 10 minutes, it's a wickedly cruel end. The long silence on the radio belies the heartache back at base. When we arrive back, emotions run high, despair everywhere. It's so anticlimactic after the successful gearbox repair earlier. At least 007 is in sixth.
12.40pm: Audi and Peugeot start scrapping
'Let them through, let them through,' comes the order. The diesels are faster and there's every risk they'll take each other off. In fact, the Aston boys have some grudging respect for Peugeot, whose 908s are going like the clappers. 'It's win or nothing, and you don't often see that these days,' says one. At 1.47pm, the last Peugeot blows up. 'Where?' asks the Aston driver. 'Everywhere,' replies Aston control.
11.07am: Tyres, tyres and more tyres
An endless stream of wheels and tyres to scrub and remove rubber from. Goodness knows how many I've done now. I've been scraping too – getting barely used slicks back to pristine condition by shaving off the marbles and stones. It's hot work and I feel rather guilty again about all the guests who wonder who this clumsy chap with the hairdryer is!
10.30am: It's Marek Reichmann!
There's Aston's convivial design director. I pop over for a chat and he's clearly enjoying his Le Mans experience. He's soaking up the vibe.
09.56am: It's all kicking off now
Juan in 009 spins. The drivers are getting tired and the track appears to be slippery in places, as detritus litters certain corners. Race control urges the Astons to be careful. 'We've got to finish,' they chide.
09.10am: DR on the gearbox fiasco
'That's the highs and lows of motorsport,' he tells me ruefully. 'It's so disappointing. But to take out the gearbox, fix it and put it back in again in one hour and a quarter is very impressive. And let's face it, 009 is doing well and so is 008.' And with that the broken Aston is back out. Turns out it was probably a fault in the Xtrac gearbox. Last year Aston brought two gearboxes along, but on this year's tighter budget they only had one. This car has done nine hours of qualifying before this 24-hour race – on the same 'box, reports Woody, the car's chief engineer.
08.35am: 009 pits too
It's chaos as both cars are in, but thankfully only one has a major problem. Soon the engineers have stripped 007 down to its tub, by removing the rear sub frame. There's no panic, but the length of the delay means this car's race is effectively over.
07.50am: 007 arrives
The car pulls in to the pits, the guests are evacuated as we need the full garage space for this one. The temperature is way too high and they're worried about the transmission. It'll normally run at below 100C. They start to investigate the fault and drain the oil. 'There's nothing in the oil – we've fished around in it with a magnet,' reports team boss George. The back of the car is off now and the car's mechanics are festooned around, under and on top of the car. They suspect it's a double bearing in the gearbox. 'We have to take the gearbox off,' cackles the radio. 'If we want to finish the race – and we do.'
07.45am: A problem looms
'The gearbox on 007 is running at 114 degrees. Box, box, box.' It's a call that's going to spell heartache for the lead Aston.
05.40am: Nearly sunrise
'It's likely to be sunrise on this outing,' say Aston race control, as Adrian is about to take over car 007. That means they must clean the windscreen extra carefully to avoid fly-smeared glare with a fledgling sun. Each car is allowed three rip-off layers, so they may unpeel the window a tad. 'Like clingfilm?' I ask an engineer. He looks so disappointed...
05.20am: The phone's dead
Battery on the Blackberry died hours ago, by the way. No Tweets until I rejuice. Thank goodness. I can't imagine a better method of getting RSI.
05.02am: Groundhog Day, anyone?
It really is like a dream. We're in a rhythm, they're still three-stinting – so the cars come in for their fuel and on every third stop, they change tyres. I'm becoming quite fast at rolling the wheels out, cleaning them up and preparing them to meet their maker at Michelin. When they arrive there, they get squashed to half their size and slung in one of six artic lorries. Don't tell Greenpeace that.
04.44am: And still they come
I'm amazed that corporate guests still rock up in the middle of the night. Shouldn't they have drunk the French champagne lake by now and be snuggled up in their hotels? Clearly Le Mans attracts a different type of guest.
04.24am: Whither the rest of the CAR team?
Senior designer Alex Tapley pops up. The guys borrowed the A5 Sportback and have been blatting around to far-flung corners of the circuit. They report that Arnage and Tetre Rouge were fabulous locations – and relatively empty too. Sounds like they've had a marvellous evening. They're now trooping home to camp for a few zzzz's. Am I jealous? Am I heck...
04.11am: A wave of fatigue
Funny what sleep deprivation does to you. If I'm feeling it, imagine what the drivers must be feeling now. Aston's head of motorsport David King pointed out to me that the drivers have a 300kW heater inches behind their shoulders; petrol engines are only roughly 40% efficient (I think he said – my brain's scrambled). That's scary. I recently bought a 32kW wood-burner at home – and that's baking hot in winter. No wonder they made air-con mandatory a few years ago, after drivers used to climb out of prototype-style racers and collapse.
03.59am: A wave of fatigue
I'm feeling ok, but noticing that lifting the wheels feels harder. They're big rims, but lightweight considering their expanse. The tyres straight off the cars are too hot to handle, and there's a Michelin engineer embedded to assist Aston's inhouse tyre gurus. They spend ages probing each tyre, prodding with fingers, measuring with instruments. To me, a ring of black rubber. To them, a lifetime's expertise.
03.40am: Forty winks
I sit down and my head starts to nod. I wouldn't exactly call it sleep, but I must grab 20 minutes' doze. Until my headphone crackle with the next pit call. The crew all jump to attention.
I must have cleaned up and prepared upwards of 40 wheels already. Now for a new job. Scraping. Those tyres we changed for the vibration are barely worn and we need to clean off some debris from them. Dave the chief trucky produces a hairdryer, with a heated blade to scrape the top level of rubber off. It's like doing a lino cut and strangely enjoyable. Maybe it appeals to my blokey sense of order. Alluringly weird smell, too. Like cutting the lawn, I strim away until the tyre looks like new. I could do this at home and sell 'em as remoulds...
02.18am: Text update from Ben Pulman
Found ourselves a great spot on the inside of Mulsanne Corner. You can hear the cars approaching at full chat down the Mulsanne, then there are a few blipped downchanges and glowing brake discs, before the cars charge down to Arnage. Watching them accelerate gives you a real sense of how fast they are. The 911s look like Beetles compared with the prototypes.
01.45am: Text update from Ben Pulman
Somehow made our way to the edge of the Mulsanne straight and got up close with no barriers or fences in the way. And we weren't even trying to sneak in. Utterly bonkers, adrenaline hit.
The staff start the sleepy banter. One soul who's slumbering gets poked by a long wire; he jerks awake wondering who on earth tickled him. Ah, the japes. 007 is in seventh, 009 in eighth place.
01.13am: The Beaufort scale
Post pit stop, team boss George asks the driver about the vibration. 'If the vibration was 10 on a scale of one to 10, what is it now?' He asks. 'Three,' comes the answer. A neat device to gauge the seriousness of the problem.
01.08am: DR swings by
I've met Dave Richards a few times this weekend and he comes over to check how I'm getting on. He's all smiles and clearly enjoying the ride. There's some worry about vibrations on 007 and they reckon a weight may have dropped off a tyre. 'There's still a long way to go,' he cautions when I say that things seem to be going smoothly.
01.03am: Michelin tyre HQ
Back to Michelin's tyre drop-off point. As we fly along in the buggy, I realise it's a perfect night. You can see the stars and it's getting chilly. Le Mans must be terrible for your teeth. I'm on a constant diet of sweets and lollipops.
12.00am: A new day dawns
Nine hours in. It's getting slightly surreal: the strip lighting in the pit garage and my headphones means it's dark yet light, noisy yet hushed. 007's enjoyed stints in fifth place as other teams suffer some ups and downs. While we've seen Audis and Peugeots come acropper, both factory Aston LMP1s have had a remarkably smooth run so far. That said, there's been some possible contact with an Audi; the screens show Audi preparing a new front end, so we prepare a new rear clamshell. Justin Case. This spurs some banter over the relative size of people's Gurney flaps.
SATURDAY 12 JUNE 2010
11.30pm: Text update from Ben Pulman
Watching the Audi pitstops and amazed at the speed of their change-overs. Watched the fourth-placed no.9 car nail its driver change as it sticks to the tail of its sister car. The pair are waiting for the Peugeots to falter.
11.09pm: The energy crisis
Guess what? I'm feeling fine. Not at all tired yet, but I do wonder if I'll flag around 3ish. The constant supply of food, soups and drinks are a godsend. Keeping those energy levels flying – the pies have arrived.
11.03pm: And still they come
The VIP guests, sponsors and general Aston aficionados are still trickling through the pits. They get a pretty good show and the ones that get a pitstop really luck out. Seeing their faces light up makes me realise how lucky I am. Still can't believe this is my first Le Mans. I mean, what a way to experience it!
10.57pm: A potential clash with Young Driver
The independent Aston team next door are coming in at the same time as one of the Astons. The radios are a-flutter to make sure the drivers don't obstruct each other for the impending pit stop.
10.40pm: Text update from Ben Pulman
The sun has set and now we're racing at night. I'm knackered and I'm only watching – goodness knows what the teams and drivers feel like. The cars are suffering too, with Peugeot's no.1 car the latest to suffer a fault and promote the no.8 Audi to a podium place. Lower down the order, BMW's Art Car looks to be out of it. And there's still more than 16 hours left.
10.33pm: The tyre scrubber
Have done a dirty dozen already. Wonder if I'll hit treble figures by tomorrow afternoon? My hands are grimy, but it feels good to be doing something to help. The rims are cooking hot when they come off the car; the Michelins are beginning to look a bit ragged round the edges too. You can feel how sticky the tyres are simply by touching them. No wonder they sucker the LMP1s to the ground.
10.29pm: General discontent about the football
English drew 1-1. A typically flat performance to kick off our World Cup?
10.22pm: A slow puncture
009 has a slow puncture at the rear and needs fuel. It's coming in. The radio cackles to tell the driver and they've got 12 minutes to get some heat into the Michelin. I'm really enjoying the burble of the Spyker as it cruises down the pitlane. It's v charismatic. While we wait for the car to come in, I chat to the fuel guy. He shows me how they measure the volume and mass of the fuel going in – plus temperatures. It's been typically running at around 20C, but the colder the better. In days of yore, there were rumours of teams using fridges to super-cool their fuel. It gets hot at Le Mans and they've seen temperatures of 30C. Not so good for combustion. They load around 60kg of fuel on most stops, depending on strategy.
08.55pm: The safety car is out again
Not sure what happened here. Typically half the field at Le Mans could drop off. Wonder how many runners will be left tomorrow morning. Aston brains are pondering whether to stay out or zip in. Strategy is king at La Sarthe.
08.50pm: Text update from Ben Pulman
The ACO is clearly on our wavelength. The England has kicked off so they're brought out the safety cars and we can turn our attention to the Beautiful Game.
08.21pm: It's getting dusky
It's a lovely evening at Le Mans. It's showing signs of duskfall. So far, so good chez Aston. No real problems so far. They rose to sixth after an Audi span trying to overtake a BMW. Steady as she goes, now...
07.54pm: Race HQ
There's a small office behind the pit where team principal George and his cohorts direct proceedings. I count 39 monitors in there, and not a single one is playing Tetris. Wonder if one will show the footy later?
07.01pm: Lasagne and chips
If an army marches on its stomach, then Aston should win the Napoleonic wars. The food is brilliant and all the team stock up on lasagne and chips, with a cheeky apple pie and custard for pud. Yumalicious.
06.56pm: Text update from Ben Pulman
Back above the pits, just in time to see one Audi hit a cameraman as it came into its pit box, then another Audi nearly take someone else out as it left. It's fraught and fast stuff in the pits – and Tim's in the thick of it.
06.22pm: Text update from Ben Pulman
Just swung by the Aston pit to make sure they're working Tim hard, when FIA chief Jean Todt wanders past. Tim arrives five minutes later. So he won't win his FIA tyre washing stars quite yet.
06.05pm: Time to earn my supper
At last! It's my turn to learn the ropes. I'm to be a wheel washer. It goes like this. Post pitstop, the four tyres are wheeled out of the pits and back to a washing bay. We haul the hot sticky tyres into a giant sink with rollers built in so we can rotate the wheels. Then we scrub the rims and use plastic wafers to detach the marbles. I'm amazed how much crap gets stuck in there. They're baking hot (it's a sunny and warm evening) and after a quick rinse down, they're ready to go to the tyre shop. We load them onto a trailer and zoom them around to Michelin HQ. It's like a Carlsberg version of Kwik Fit. A giant tent where Audi, Aston, Peugeot and everyone else comes to get new rubber. They do it while you wait and soon we're loading up new sets and rushing back to the pits. A seemingly small job, but a crucial one. They balance each rim, so you don't want rubber pellets messing up the settings.
05.22pm: Text update from Ben Pulman
Two hours and 22 minutes in, and Scot Allan McNish pits, and just as he's buckling in his teammate Tom Kristensen, the number 3 Peugeot 908 starts smoking and heads into the pits. And within minutes it's dropped behind the Audis and into the clutches of the petrol-powered Astons.
05.05pm: You are what you eat
Quick catch up with team smilester, Pete Webster – Prodrive's driver performance manager. He's responsible for feeding and watering the team and talks me through the different fluids on board. One driver here loses 1kg of sweat in a session. It's pretty hot in an LMP1 car, and they're pumping the drivers full of salts and fluids. They had heavy carbs yesterday morning and then light pasta last night to prepare their bodies.
04.15pm: Lambo heaven
By god, that JLOC Lambo Murcielago sounds good. It's spitting flames out the back down the pit straight.
03.55pm: Forty winks, anyone?
Being a newcomer to this motor racing lark, I'm surprised that a battery of deckchairs is produced almost as soon as the cars are running properly. The mechanics are putting their feet up and I count five asleep already. It's gonna be a long night ahead.
03.45pm: Text update from Ben Pulman
Three quarters of an hour in and the Peugeots already have a three minute lead. Le Mans safety regs mean there are two safety cars out while Mansell's crash is cleared, but it's split the field. Funnily enough, the safety car ahead of the Audis appears to be going slower than the one ahead of the Pugs. French race, French rules and one biased outcome?
03.17pm: Mansell's off
Well, that comeback didn't last very long. Poor Nige is off and it looks like it could be quite nasty. The Audi R8 safety car is out for 31 minutes and they take their time to remove him. This reconfigures the whole start of the race and our pit radio is busy talking strategy. Although Mansell's not mentioned, I hope he's ok (we later discover he's fine: just a bump to the head). As soon as the delay becomes apparent, the radio screams: 'Box, box, box.' It's the code to pit. They're coming in for fuel.
03.03pm: They're tussling already!
A smooth start for most teams and already Peugeot and Audi diesels get in a tussle. The diesels sound really strange; I've never heard these cars race before and the Audi sounds like a low bassy rumble, a nest of giant killer bees stabbed viciously with a honey stick. The Peugeots sound remarkably different, a higher pitched scream. Still nothing quite like the Aston – I know I would say that, but the sound is pretty glorious and most people here agree.
02.43pm: The start
Time for me to head back to the pits. We're not online down there, so immediate updates through Twitter (see feed at foot of page), with occasional text, photo and video updates when I run upstairs. Now where's my Pro Plus?
02.21pm: Strolling down the pits
Feel slightly surreal, wandering around the pits with tens of thousands of baying fans cheering the teams on. DR's here with his wife, the tension is palpable. There's an issue with the Aston's tyres and they need to get them on the car by 2.47pm. The crew are hard at it. Half an hour to go...
01.50pm: The driver parade
Ok, the excitement is really ratcheting up now. The cars and drivers are out on the start straight with swarms of VIPs and crews huddling around. The crowd are being whipped up into a babbling frenzy by some very skilled French commentators. And here's Nigel Mansell, crossing the pitlane to get to his car. Word is he's lost his pace, and he's certainly starting way back. But good to see him here.
01.50pm: The driver parade
Ok, the excitement is really ratcheting up now. The cars and drivers are out on the start straight with swarms of VIPs and crews huddling around. The crowd are being whipped up into a babbling frenzy by some very skilled French commentators. And here's Nigel Mansell, crossing the pitlane to get to his car. Word is he's lost his pace, and he's certainly starting way back. But good to see him here.
12.03pm: French loos
What is it with our continental neighbours and a total lack of bog seats?
11.21am: Time to meet the CAR crew
Off to meet the rest of the CAR team for some anorakiness. I may be some time. We wander past Le Mans Vers Le Futur exhibition – with a weird mix of 'eco' cars: an RCZ HYbrid4, Audi's e-tron, a Tesla, 911 GT3 R Hybrid and... an X6 Hybrid. These cars will take to the track after the '80s Group C cars that are currently screaming around the track. They're suckered low to the tarmac – they look enormous, like squashed pancakes with the occasional bubble for a driver, say.
10.51am: The Porsche Carrera Cup
At any other event, we'd be dead excited by a Porsche 911 race. But somehow at Le Mans, they sound buzzily quiet and seem to be dragging anchors behind them, so slow are they after the prototypes we've seen for the past few days. The racing is close, mind you and there's quite a bit of old-school 911 slip-slidery to entertain us. Looking forward to the Group C race starting in the next half hour though. Silk Cut Jaguars? Yes please.
10.32am: The night strategy
The big question: will you stay up all night? I think it would be rude not to. Although I wouldn't rule out a brief 40 winks here or there; I have got to drive back to the UK in a mystery Aston, after all. Aston works driver Darren Turner has a simple formula for how to cope: 'Every driver is different but from getting up on Saturday morning to going to bed on Sunday night you only get two hours sleep although the adrenalin keeps you going. It’s hard to switch off because when you’re not in the car your teammates are – and you’re anxious to know how they’re doing because they have a massive effect on your race. I’m fairly low maintenance – as long as I get some cereal and a cup of tea, plus all the energy drink supplements we take, I’m fine.' There you go. The good, old English cuppa will save the day.
10.16am: The L-plates
Did you know that 46 of the drivers here this weekend have never driven Le Mans before? That's quite a lot of learning going on.
10.01am: Stefan Mücke's Q&A session
German driver Stefan, who's setting the pace at Aston, reckons Audi and Peugeot's rivalry could spill into argey-bargey. 'I think it’s possible that some of the diesel drivers will make mistakes that have a big impact on the race. We’ve seen this already at Le Mans in the past and at other places like Spa. It’s going to be an even bigger fight between Peugeot and Audi this year, so my hope is that they will pressure each other into mistakes that we can profit from!'
09.51am: Now where's my CV?
Dave, the chief trucky, assures me I'll be set to work later in the race shifting tyres around. I'm keen to get involved and he gives me a wink that says he fully intends to use some free slave labour. Considering there are 80 tyres and rims stuffed out the back of the pit, that should make me earn my supper.
09.39am: Update from Darren Turner
Darren's set the Aston Martin Racing team's fastest time in today's wet warm-up: 4min 3.631sec. 'It's really greasy,' he says. 'Mulsanne and Arnage, round there – it's very slippy. I think we're where we should be for pace, considering the weather. We don't run the same downforce as Audi and Peugeot, so our times this morning look fair.'
09.10am: A puff of smoke
009 comes in with a lot of steam wafting from the rear. A splurge of activity around the car, but no sense of crisis. To these motorsport-learning eyes, I don't quite know how to judge the seriousness of signs like this. So I rely on the Swearometer™. The more agitated the technicians, the more serious the problem. Should be foolproof, don't you think? Watch a live driver change practice from Saturday morning at Le Mans in our short video clip below (apologies if you can't hear me talk; it's quite noisy here).
08.45am: Official warm-up
007 and 009 are primed and ready to go. I'll try and shoot more video of their V12 banshee. It truly beggars belief. The pit crew have been here since 7.00am. It looks really greasy out there.
08.13am: Breakfast with Aston
The rain has just about abated, but it's been pouring for a good seven hours overnight. The ground is soaking and it's surely going to make the morning warm-up interesting. Time for a full fry-up before heading to the pits. I nearly propel a sausage onto the lap of one of my Aston hosts during a particular tricky bout of cutlery abuse.
07.30am: It's race day!
Wake up, amazed we haven't been washed away overnight. Localised weather forecast in my tent: a damp outlook with wet patches near the flysheet.
FRIDAY 11 JUNE 2010
11.57pm: The Thunderstorm
Well, we are camping. It had to rain again, didn't it? This one's biblical and we narrowly avert a 30-minute walk back to the campsite in a lightning-shot downpour by blagging a lift back from the VW Group. I knew A-level French would come in handy one day.
09.02pm: Team CAR arrive
Pulman, Tapley, Franklin arrive in an A8 and report some marvellous massage functions in the front seats. Then another race to erect the proposterous-looking tent brought along by the design desk. I mean, it's got a reindeer on it and everything. Honestly. These arty types.
05.11pm: The Night Before
Ok, not much else to blog on here today. I'm off to meet the rest of the CAR team and attend a barbie this evening. Which is good, because the sun has come out for the first time this week. Time to swing by the workshops and see how derobed 007 and 009 are. It's brilliant to see them up close in all their pared-back, strokeable composite techiness. [Oh dear. Time to go and lie down, Tim - Ed]
03.20pm: The Rubber Session
Just been given a layman's guide to tyres by Dave Cox, one of the tyre technicians at Aston Martin Racing. He used to be in F1 and worked at Ferrari during the Schumacher years. They've got 40 rims per car and he talks me through the four tyre choices: slicks (in soft and medium compounds), intermediates, 'drying wets' and full wet tyres. The wets use really soft rubber that warms up fast to grip the track and expel the water – you can feel the rubber is squidgy to the touch. But they'll quickly go off once it dries out, and blister and generally disintegrate. Anorak facts: they run at around 2 bar. The tyre size? 33/68-18 (the same format as road tyre codes, but done in centimetres, not millimetres). Yep, they're 68-profile tyres and the wheels' 18in diameter puts paid to the modern obsession with big rims on many fast road cars. If it's dry, Aston will be three-stinting – probably going through 10 to 14 sets of tyres per car. Wow. I suddenly feel intrigued by all these black rubber rings...
03.11pm: The Official Secrets Act
Remember that braking problem I'd mentioned? The Astons have been locking up at the rear, with a big hulking V12 pendulum effect. One of the engineers has shown me the solution under the nosecone. This being a competitive world, he asks me not to spell out its full workings ahead of the race. Which is now less than 24 hours away. There's a warm-up session tomorrow morning; the race starts at 3pm.
The rest of the CAR contingent – Ben Pulman, Andy Franklin, Alex Tapley – are held up at Eurotunnel. Three hour delay, apparently.
02.11pm: The Friday rebuild
007 and 009 are stripped to their carbon tubs, as the engineers fettle every last nut and bolt before tomorrow's race. Fascinating to see them laid bare.
11.33am: @Batty's question
Asked Aston racer Sam Hancock to answer Batty's question about set-up. Is the car more relaxed to cope with a long, draining 24-hour race? Yes, in a nutshell. They set it up for mild understeer, for better longevity and less chance of crashing. Yet temperature and humidity changes – even within a single lap – can significantly change the set-up. The Astons are running minimal downforce for speed on the long straights here. 'It makes it fun in the corners,' says Hancock. He's on Twitter, follow him @hancock_sam
11.33am: What's what with the Aston's brakes
Just caught up with Sam Hancock, Brit driver of 009. What's been up with the brakes on the Aston LMP1s? He says it's to do with brake balance; with a big V12 petrol engine slung out the back, the car was proving unstable under heavy braking, as the engine inertia forced the car to jerk into oversteer. They've been busy fettling the balance and now have a more progressive application on the rear carbon discs. 'It has been quite lively,' he smiles, 'but we now have more progressive action. It should be well set up for the race.' See some of our Hancock interview in the video below.
10.30am: Aston briefing
Prodrive boss and Aston chairman Dave Richards introduces the drivers and teams to the world's media (see camera picture). I grab a few words afterwards. How hopeful is he of closing the gap with the diesel cars? 'We have to be realistic. Our goal is to be the top petrol car here, which we currently are.' But are the rules unfair? 'The rules favour the diesels at the moment. But we knew that before we came and we have to do what we can, although we would advocate further change.' Is Aston committed to racing long term? 'Racing is in our long-term strategy. What form, we don't yet know – whether it's with prototypes or GT cars, we'll have to see.' Perhaps Aston will stick with race versions of its road cars, to better promote its showroom range. I later overhear DR warning someone else that Aston could well not return in 2011 unless the rules change. More Brits will come to watch if they thought Aston could triumph overall; they're not so interested in off-podium finishes. Sounds like the political jockeying starts now...
10.26am: The Audi perspective
Bump into an Audi official I know. He lives and breathes motorsport and has worked at Le Mans as a refuelling bod. 'Because I was tall,' he jokes. He says Audi are philosophical about being behind the Peugeots. They are fast, he concedes, but he argues Audi hasn't risked a crash in slippery qualifying conditions. It's a tortoise and hare approach chez Audi, it seems.
10.11am: The road cars vs the LMP1s
Just caught up with some Porsche bods. They've got four drivers in the top 10 in the GT2 category. These are the horned-up road cars and it's quite something to see the 911s being hauled in by the faster machinery. Let's put this in perspective. The fastest 911 musters 450bhp and Marc Lieb is lapping the 8.48-mile circuit in 4min 1.64sec. Good enough for fifth on the grid in the GT2 class – but the fastest Peugeot diesel LMP1 is on 3min 19.71sec, don't forget. It's one of the big draws of Le Mans: the sheer range, variety and spectacle of all these wildly different cars jostling for position. There's a wide range of metal on this 55-strong grid.
08.30am: Over to Aston Martin HQ
It's a little slice of England, the Aston base. Fish and chips last night; this morning a full fry-up. Genius. Fully stoked and time to plan the day. It's going to be quieter today. The team is rebuilding the car for the race – there's no running on Friday and the emphasis is more on preparation for tomorrow's race. I will be helping out in the pits today, learning my role and exploring Le Mans. This is my first 24-hour race, remember, and I still wear my rookie wings. Need to get my bearings a bit and explore some of Le Mans' famous sights. Expect fewer updates today, then, but I'm noting your questions below. Batty – I'll ask the team bosses about the car set-up. Feel free to ask more questions!
My alarm goes off and I'm astonished I've not woken earlier under summer canvas. A good night's sleep, though some TVR-toting party animals had a good crack at preventing that at around 1.30am with some Euro-gibbon techno.
THURSDAY 10 JUNE 2010
11.31pm: The last half hour
Time to vacate the press room and get down for the last half hour. Will there be any place changes? Surely not. The track remains slippy and the British crew are using this more as practice, I sense. We've had a few drops of rain since I returned from tent duties, so I doubt they'll be going fast. Looks like eighth and ninth it is then. We'll know for sure tomorrow. I'll be signing out tonight and back in the morning for more updates throughout the day. Friday is a relaxed affair with car rebuilds and preparation – no formal timed practice. We've also got more of Team CAR coming out: staff writer Ben Pulman and our design gods, Andy Franklin and Alex Tapley. We'll be sure to keep you up to date over the weekend. And if you have any questions you want to ask us, just post them below. Click 'Add your comment' and we'll do our best to answer your questions and do our bit to report Le Mans 2010.
11.21pm: The Aston Martin pit
A great people-watching place, the Aston pit. There's a semi-constant stream of VIPs/corporate guests/sponsors/others passing through, along a specially roped-off section. I later learn they will bring three groups of 10 guests in each hour. That's why I saw an engineer using a tape measure to apply the sponsors' logos by transfer earlier. You can't have an Orange™ logo all skew-wiff now, can we?
11.07pm: The 'Vettes, the 'Vettes!
Strewth. You can't half tell when a Corvette goes past. It's a primeval, rumbling yelp that sounds like what would happen if you threw eight shotguns into a barrel of fireworks. They somehow drowns out the shriller blare of the LMP1s and 2s. The earth moves, believe me. We'll get some video of the sights and sounds in the next days.
10.55pm: 'Car number 009 is coming in'
Ten Aston crew are waiting. 'Practise the driver change,' chirps the radio. This might be qualifying, but it's as much about practising their routines for the big race on Saturday. The car comes in fast (is that lollipop guy safe?) and then abruptly stops on a sixpence. The drivers haul themselves out, lean back in and yank their own moulded seat with them. The next pilot squeezes in in a jiffy. It's pretty cool to watch. Drivers are athletes, you know.
10.22pm: The final qualifying session
Back to Aston HQ and, donning the headphones, I hear how they're getting on. Drivers are still adapting to the night driving and they're constantly talking of the brakes. They're having a few problems and I'm trying to assess if it's just brake feel or if the performance is fading too. It sounds like one of the big headaches of the weekend and they need to solve it before the race. Driver Stefan Mücke says they top 330-340kph on the Mulsanne straight, so they'll be needing decent anchors.
09.33pm: The campsite
Remarkably I get to the campsite unscathed. Le Mans is like a rock festival, easily the size of Glastonbury, say. And it's madly busy all night long by the looks of it. After a brief panic that the campsite have no record of my booking, I talk my way in and set to the tent. I've only put it up once before (five years ago!) and nearly come acropper. Thankfully, helpful neighbours (turns out to be Gareth and Zog of On Speed podcast fame, top guys!) assist and I soon have a home for the night. Which is a relief as it's damn nearly pitch black (see photo). Now back for the final stint of qualifying that goes from 10pm to midnight.
09.10pm: Time to pitch the tent before it gets dark...
It is getting dark. And my tent remains snuck away in the boot of the Sportback. Time to cadge a lift to the car park – in one of Aston's highly amusing 'Gulf Buggies'. Yep, you guessed it. A golf buggy in the fabled colour palette. Very nifty they are too. Kim, the PR, leans on the horn like a native Frenchman and clears the crowds of punters from our path. I find the car, but can I find the campsite in the dusk? Time to find out....
08.51pm: The track's drying
My headphones cackle. 'The track's showing some grip. Let's go for a timed lap.' Niftily just at the end of qualifying – always good to have a crack at a hot lap near the end of the session, just to put the willies up the oppo. Although Aston are comfortably the fastest of the petrol cars already. However, another message then reports there's not enough fuel for a flier.
08.41pm: This one's for The Wife
Nope, afraid the tent still isn't up yet. Hoping for a dry window between tonight's qualifying sessions – gonna make camp at 9pm. Don't much fancy pitching the tent in the dark!
08.11pm: Darren Turner gives us the inside line
Friend of CAR (he helped at PCoTY last year) Darren Turner is the fastest driver in car 009. He's due to be the first driver in the race, if all goes to plan. This evening's session is largely academic, he reckons. The track is dry in places, but then horrifically slippery in others. Does he sleep on the Big Night? 'For sure, we have to. Around 3am, 4am, it gets hard to stay awake. I'd expect I'll probably get around two to three hours sleep. I'm just too addicted to the racing not to watch it. It's a real buzz!'
07.41pm: Walkman, anyone?
I'm properly embedded now. I've met no-nonsense team principal George Howard-Chappell and promised not to get in the way. No jobs for me this evening; tomorrow I will learn my roles with some bit-part chores. I may even get to scrub the tyres, hold out the timing boards and use the pitlane radar gun. I mean, how hard can it be to cock that up?
07.23pm: DR arrives
Dave Richards has a double interest in the Aston Martin team effort this year: he's effectively boss of Aston and Prodrive, who runs the AMR team. He's the only one here in a suit and splendidly buffed brogues. I'll be sure to grab a word or two with DR over the weekend.
07.12pm: Aston's mood
We're feeling the aftermath of the torrential rain earlier. This session is going to be next to useless as far as I can make out; the track is mega slippery, but drying in places. Most of the drivers I speak to reckon this session will be a write-off. All three Peugeots are still in the lead, posting 3mini 19sec laps; then three Audis, lapping from 3min 23sec. Spotted the link yet? The diesels are walking away with it. Their extra speed – and efficiency – is going to skew this race, it seems. Aston are doing well, however; they're the fastest petrol cars here thanks to last night's dry qualifying session between 10pm and midnight. Most of the team feel the rules are against them. Still, the AM LMP1 007 is in eighth overall, posting a 3min 26sec lap, fractions quicker than 009. The indepedent Signature Aston LMP1 (effectively last year's factory car) isn't far behind at 3min 29sec in tenth spot. I only know this because some of the kindly pit crew explain to me how to read the leaderboard!
07.03pm: First evening qualifying
Now then, about the clothes. Aston has kindly provided a full set of team gear for me to wear. So I'm fully Hacketed up and look every inch the proper pro rather than some bumbling, freeloading clueless journo. I'm about to meet the team. Got to sound like I know what the hell is going on!
06.44pm: Fish and chips? In France?
We might be in the heart of France, but I'm noshing a quick round of poissons et frites in the Aston hospitality suite. Gonna be a late night, so best have a pudding too.
06.21pm: What an LMP1 exhaust feels like
Just walked past Aston Martin 009 as it starts up. The V12 punches me in the ribs from 8ft away – stabbing jets of air spewing from the twin central exhausts. The crew at the Lola Aston Martin team are getting ready now. Out on track we've seen a stream of 911s – must be a Porsche race category on practice. And where are these Group C racers? Can't wait to see the 80s monsters.
06.02pm: In the Aston Martin pit
I've been dolled up in Aston garb (pics to follow) and am in the pits with car 007 and 009 as they prepare for qualifying at 7pm and 10pm tonight. The drivers are timing driver changes – they're averaging around 21sec. The mood in the Aston camp is mixed. They're the fastest petrol LMP1 cars in the sessions so far – but some way behind the diesels. Despite the weight penalties, the derv racers are both quicker and more efficient. It's a mixed outlook here.
04.42pm: The Plan
I'm about to meet the team and find out my responsibilities for the weekend. Surely something menial. Do those drivers like milk in their tea? I should point out I'm a rare thing at CAR – someone with precious little motorsport knowledge. This report will be an outsider's perspective on Le Mans: warts and all. Should be a baptism of fire.
03.50pm: Le Mans!
Finally here. Big, black clouds loomed large over Le Mans as I neared and – true to form – the mother of all thunderstorms dumped on the town as I arrived. Accreditation formalities very quick and easy, but a LOT of traffic means it takes an hour to creep around to Aston Martin's base for the weekend. My trainers are soggy already. Good job I've packed my wellies!
12.20pm: Nous sommes en France
Updates are few and far between while I'm driving solo. Have had a chance to send a few Tweets (see below), but the main impression is of a mass exodus to Le Mans. Please persuade me otherwise, but surely every TVR owner in Britain is currently driving to La Sarthe? I particularly enjoy the fans' cars with improvised Duck tape Le Mans logos. Plenty of 911s, BMs and Trevors – virtually all driving remarkably slowly. And yet we haven't spotted a single flic on our whole journey.
09.45am: Eurotunnel ahoy
Quite a flood of enthusiasts piling down to Folkestone to catch the Channel tunnel. After a crash delay on the M25, I'm making up time and have passed an original Ford GT40, a trio of 911s in convoy and a bright yellow Corvette. Make no mistake, plenty of Brits will at this year's race - despite our World Cup footy match clash. I'm in CAR's long-term Audi A5 Sportback - Ben Oliver's 2.0 TDI fwd. An honest, lowly car and better than I remember the A5. Perhaps more modest is better than piling on the pounds (weight and price) with quattro this and S tronic that. I'll know for sure when we arrive in Le Mans this afternoon.
06.30am: From the Midlands, UK, to Le Mans, France
Due for an early start for my first-ever Le Mans trip. Somehow in a dozen years writing about cars, a trip to La Sarthe has always eluded me. But 2010 is to be that year. And how. Having planned the trip under my own steam with a few other CAR staffers, I've subsequently been offered a once-in-a-lifetime experience: a chance to be embedded in the Aston Martin race team. So I've packed up for what looks like being a wet Le Mans with a flutter of excitement. My role with Aston will be minor, I assume. They surely won't let me loose on pitstops or anything too crucial, will they? All will be revealed later today when I arrive in Le Mans. For now we're heading for Eurotunnel in CAR's long-term Audi A5 Sportback. Occasional updates throughout the day – in the blog and on Twitter (see widget below).