A postcard from Petit Le Mans 2017

Published: 09 October 2017

 20th running of a modern classic
We were in the pits and paddock
A few pics from CAR’s phone

Petit Le Mans is pretty much as described; a kind of scaled down replica of the classic endurance race, 10 hours long instead of 24, and held at America’s rollercoaster Road Atlanta circuit in Georgia.

The weekend just passed marked the race’s 20th anniversary, and while I was at Road Atlanta to write a separate article I was able to watch the race unfold on the Saturday. I’m glad I did – it was a bit of a classic.

Petit Le Mans 2017

Unlike many international racing events, ticket-holders can get right up close to the cars and the drivers. Before the race starts, the grid is opened up to the public, and the teams are admirably relaxed about letting fans get as close to the cars as possible. The Acura NSX teams in the GT Daytona class took the concept to the next level by handing out marker pens for fans to sign the cars’ carbon bodywork minutes before the start.

The drivers seem equally relaxed; Le Mans winner Nick Tandy discusses tyre choice with his Porsche team-mates while fans mill around them, and former F1 star Bruno Senna leans casually over the pitwall to answer interview questions from a microphone-toting TV crew.

Petit Le Mans 2017

There are four classes at Petit Le Mans, from LMP2-level prototypes that look like ground-level fighter jets through to the more familiar shapes of GT cars. The slowest class are equivalent to GT3 cars in terms of performance – which makes them very quick indeed – while the top GT class features the same factory Porsche, Corvette and Ford teams that battled it out at Le Mans earlier in the year. The driver list reads like a who’s-who of international motorsport, with plenty of ex-F1 stars in the mix, including a certain Juan Pablo Montoya, racing for the Penske team in the fastest prototype class.

As the fans are politely asked to clear the grid (everyone is intensely polite here), rain begins to fall – it’ll be a wet start to the race – but so warm is the Georgia air that nobody seems to mind getting wet. The French national anthem rings out first, in deference to the race’s Le Mans link, before The Star Spangled Banner. Everybody stops and stands stoically in the rain, branded team caps clutched across their chest as the anthem reverberates around the woodland circuit, before event founder Don Panoz announces, ‘drivers, start your engines.’ It’s quite atmospheric.

Petit Le Mans 2017

When the race does blast off, on a drying but slippery track, the racing is intense and close, cars swapping positions and racing side by side as if it’s a sprint race – and that continues for the whole 10 hours. Hiking around the hilly circuit, you get a great view of the cars skittering through its rollercoaster-like big dipper undulations, suspension and tyres working at the limit.

Porsche’s mid-engined 911 RSR GT LM cars are the loudest cars on the circuit – they really shriek, like a banshee plugged into an overdrive pedal. Their Corvette rivals are the opposite, rumbling like Thor in a bad mood. Between them they drown out all the prototypes put together.

Petit Le Mans 2017

Some of the camping pitches around the circuit feature some impressive catering setups. ‘Medium rare, please,’ quips a passer-by as one camper fries up a giant steak. ‘Only rare here,’ the guy fires back, ‘We like ’em mooing.’

Back in the pits, Audi Sport customer team Land-Motorsport kindly allow me to watch a driver change from their pit. The mechanics wait like frozen statues on the concrete wall, primed to jump down the moment the vivid green R8’s wheels stop. Its V10 is cut silent, the gravity-fed fuel rig goes in, and one driver is swapped for another while the spent steaming-hot tyres are wheeled into the pit, ready for a post-mortem analysis from a Continental technician. Further down the pitlane there’s drama, as a fire breaks out in the factory Porsche squad’s pit; one mechanic’s suit is ablaze, and his crewmate dives on top of him to quell the flames – thankfully without injury.

Petit Le Mans 2017

As night falls, colour-coded lights help the fans pick out which class is which, and illuminated numbers let them know who’s in which position. Anyone with a ticket can walk through the paddock, see the wounded cars being worked on in the garages and get right up close to the team pitboxes to see the engineers poring over banks of data screens. I’m walking past a Lexus GT team as they shout and whirl around to see their RCF GT3 car in the wall in flames, the driver staggering out, winded but thankfully okay.

Petit Le Mans 2017

It’s been an incident-packed race, and with minutes to go mere seconds cover the leading cars. It’s anyone’s race but in the end it belongs to Le Mans winner Brendan Hartley, winning at his first time at Road Atlanta, partnered by Ryan Dalziel and Scott Sharp. British driver Alex Sims’ BMW M6 takes the GT LM win and the Land Audi team’s R8 takes the GT Daytona spoils.

Atlanta is a long way from La Sarthe but the Petit Le Mans race has some of the same special character. If you’re a sportscar racing fan, it’s worth the trip.

By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, occasional racer