Le Mans is not just a race; it's an event, a huge party, a world gathering, a life-and-death struggle, an experience like no other. The track's 14 kilometers and 28 turns have long been the proving ground for every automaker serious about its presence in the motorsports world. Le Mans is also the ultimate opportunity for many a "pilote" to showcase his talent, test his determination, and, occasionally, demonstrate his heroics.
Indy may stake a claim of historical parity, and Sebring may be acomparable test of endurance, but the annual Le Mans extravaganza tops them all for longevity, speed, manufacturer participation, public attendance (a record 235,000 spectators turned out this year), party atmosphere, and overall influence on the evolution of motorsports.
In truth, the race is more like a three-week experience than a 24-hour event. The teams arrive early for prequalifying, the starting field having been announced by the ACO (Automobile Club de'Ouest) a few months earlier. If your team is lucky enough to be selected, or if your previous year's racing record warrants an automatic invitation, you are still required to show up for qualifying. During "Pre-Qual," each of the three drivers designated for the entry must complete a few laps in thecar at a speed sufficient to confirm its suitability for competition. If you are as well prepared as the Pratt & Miller/Corvette Racing Team effort, Pre-Qual is a mere formality. Other teams will spend the next week trying to finish their cars or tweaking them to a competitive level.
Corvette Racing arrived in France better prepared than ever before. The C6.Rs were a new commodity last year, and the learning curve on setup and preparation was steep. This time Pratt & Miller's engineers had a full year of testing and tuning under their belt. Satisfied with their performance at Pre-Qual, team members tucked away their finely honed race machines and set off for a few days of relaxation in Spain or the French countryside.
When race day arrived, both the cars and their minders were well prepared to take on the largest GT1 field--12 cars--in recent Le Mans history. This year the Corvettes faced challenges from two Prodrive and two privateer Aston Martins, a Lamborghini, a few Ferraris, a Saleen, and even an old Pratt & Miller C5-R, regularly campaigned by its French owners in the European Le Mans series. All in all, it was an extremely challenging field, one that promised to provide the best competition among the four classes (LMP1, LMP2, GT1, GT2) at this year's event.
In fairness, the Lamborghini, Saleen, and the Ferraris were playing catch-up, running architecture that was already a couple of seasons old. The Astons posed the biggest threat to a Corvette three-peat, and they were loaded for bear after disappointing finishes in both Sebring and last year's Le Mans contest. Still, in a 24-hour race, any team capable of surviving the entire grueling spectacle stands a chance of winning.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans really begins on Monday and Tuesday, when scrutineering is held in the park across the street from the city's magnificent old cathedral. In a longstanding Le Mans tradition, the teams are paraded out, one at a time, in the sweltering summer heat to be certified to run according to the ACO's regulations. The inspection process ends in a posed photo session for the entire team, followed by interviews with the drivers.
The real action gets underway Wednesday and Thursday. These days are designated as "official qualifying" and run from 7 p.m. to midnight. The qualifying schedule for both days starts with a session that runs from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and is followed by a one-hour break for tweaking the cars. A second session runs from 10 p.m. to 12 p.m. The Frenchsummertime provides daylight to well after 10 p.m., so the first session is run in daylight. The second session takes place in twilight and darkness.
This year, the Corvettes and Astons waited each other out throughout the first day's qualifying. The second day's qualifying finally got spirited when Ron Fellows, driving the No. 63 C6.R, threw down an impressive qualifying time just before the end of the first session. Everyone waited to see how the Astons would respond. Were they holding back?
The answer came that evening in the final session, as the Astons secured the first, second, and fourth qualifying positions on the starting grid. The C6.Rs ended up third (No. 64) and sixth (No. 63). In truth, the Astons were probably capable of hitting the fast numbers anytime theywished, as the DBR9 has always shown great speed at Le Mans. The Brits were just waiting to see what time they had to beat to top the Corvettes. Smashing the GT1 field with a devastating number would only have served to put the ACO on notice that the Astons may require a performance penalty (extra weight or air restriction) next time around.
Also significant to the equation was that the Corvettes were running with full fuel loads throughout the second day's qualifying. The Corvette team had found that the off-season work by Katech (their engine builder) and Bosch (electronics) had produced a package that was capable of going 14 laps on a full tank, whereas last year's cars were managing only 13. This is a big deal when you're refueling every hour for 24 hours. The longer stretches between pit stops add up to a significant performance edge.
With the cars assigned their qualifying positions, the teams spent Friday preparing the cars for race day on Saturday. For the Corvette team, this means a complete teardown and rebuild of both cars, including transmission and engine changes. The Pratt & Miller team members buildtheir own cars, so for them this is just another day at the office. It can be a long, busy day, however, as the GM engineers always seem to come up with a last-minute tweak they want to employ. Nevertheless, both cars were ready to go by Saturday morning.
Le Mans on Friday also means the Parade of the Pilotes. It's held in the town city center and is quite a spectacle, as all of the drivers are out in force to rub elbows with the public. The event is well attended by the racing fans and is a great excuse to ring the party bell.
With Saturday's race finally upon them, the team began a waiting game until the 5 p.m. start (one hour later than usual, as dictated by World Cup Soccer play in Germany). There are elaborate festivities ahead of the race, and this year's were especially intense, as the ACO was celebrating its 100th anniversary. For the drivers, the wait must feellike holding back a fidgeting thoroughbred at the starting gate. With the red mist glowing, the only thing he can think is, just drop the starting flag and get on with it.