TopGear.com live from the Le Mans 24hrs

RIP Allan Simonsen, the Danish Aston Martin driver who has tragically died after injuries sustained in an accident just ten minutes into this year’s race. 

To his wife, young daughter and family and friends, we extend all our sympathy.

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UPDATE

Read what the winning Audi triumvirate of Kristensen, McNish and Duval had to say after the race:

Tom Kristensen: “For me, Le Mans was filled with very personal emotions this time. Unfortunately, we lost someone yesterday (with Allan Simonsen) who had the same dream. He was a very modest and nice person. That’s why I’m experiencing highs and lows this time. With respect to my ninth victory: I’m driving with determination and the ambition my father inspired in me. He died in March. Before his death, he told me that I’d win Le Mans this year with my team-mates. I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to celebrate another victory with Loïc and Allan that I can dedicate to my father. Because this Le Mans success I’m dedicating to Allan Simonsen.”

Allan McNish: “Our pace was right this year. The 2013-specification Audi R18 e-tron quattro is simply very, very good. The engineers did a perfect job in the winter. Except for a puncture on Tom’s stint our run was perfect for 24 hours straight. There aren’t too many races like that at Le Mans. And we had strong competition in the form of our ‘sister car’ and by Toyota.”

Loïc Duval: “Le Mans is a great race that evokes so many emotions and is so tiring. Now I’ve really got to restrain myself to keep from shedding tears. It was a difficult race in which we unfortunately lost someone (Allan Simonsen). Since last year, the whole team has been giving everything and prepared an outstanding car for us. This is my first Le Mans victory – together with Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish. A really great moment in my career!”

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Sunday 23 June, 2pm, Le Mans

VP: TOM KRISTENSEN AND AUDI WIN THE 2013 LE MANS 24HRS!

The affable Dane puts his hand to his eyes to wipe the emotion away, this is a big deal – he’s now a NINE-TIME winner at La Sarthe, while our very own Allan McNish chalks up his third win here in France. Dr Ulrich, McNish and Duval both hop onto Kristensen’s ride, waving the Audi flag for the fans. Lots of hugs and emotion from Toyota too, and Davidson respects that. he’s on the radio bidding them on a good victory. Good stuff, and lots of respect between these two.

Kristensen and his team mates embrace, and there are lots of tears and smiles at the moment – this really is a podium of gentlemen. Well done Audi, and Toyota too.

Davidson and Kristensen embrace, but Buemi looks devastated. No need to though, he can hold his head up high. Elsewhere, Baguette, Pla and Martin made up the podium for the LMP2 class, denying Mardenborough a maiden Le Mans victory (which is a shame), while Porsche locked out the two top spots in the GTE Pro class, pushing Aston Martin down to third. But, as the Voice of Le Mans John Hindaugh correctly said, today, we are all Aston Martin, and we are all Danish (RIP Allan).

It’s been a fascinating, strange, arduous and, ultimately, tragic Le Mans race. Heads are hung low on the podium out of respect for a fallen comrade.

But at the end, it’s Audi standing tall, again. Looking forward to 2014, when Porsche makes a prodigal return, and Toyota is fully up to speed? You betcha. It’s been emotional, TopGear.commers. And with that, we bid you, adieu.

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Sunday 23 June, 1.57pm, Le Mans

VP: Kristensen starts his last lap, with the number 2 car having practically led LMP1 since last night. Davidson looks crushed, but overall a good show from Toyota, who kept Audi honest throughout. LMP2 has been a fascinating match-up too.

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Sunday 23 June, 1.55pm, Le Mans

VP: Kristensen swoops back past Buemi, and it now seems Toyota has given up on chasing the lead. Assuming nothing huge happens in the last five or so minutes, Audi has wrapped this up. AGAIN. And who is it behind the wheel? Mr Kristensen, soon-to-be NINE time winner at Le Mans. It’s raining more heavily now too…

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Sunday 23 June, 1.45pm, Le Mans

VP: Mardenborough is charging through and closing in on Martin for a third-placed podium position. He can’t mess this up if he wants to get on the steps… Fantastic effort from the LMP2 leaders Baguette and Pla, though. Buemi currently the fastest man on track at the moment.

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Sunday 23 June, 1.35pm, Le Mans

VP: We’ve got a race on our hands again! Buemi unlaps himself by taking over Kristensen, and footage pans to the Toyota garage showing Anthony Davidson and co clapping (with relief). Also, McNish has just popped up on the screen too, looking tentatively at his watch and milling around the pits…

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Sunday 23 June, 1pm, Le Mans

VP: The safety car’s back out again, so we thought it perfect time to catch up with Peter Dumbreck, Aston Martin driver.

He looks at me with tired eyes too, like Bruno. But there’s a nervous tension in the air with just an hour to go. “Just before Fred’s crash,” he tells me, “I was asked if I wanted to pit for tyres, and I said no, then Fred crashed straight away, so it was a lot of pressure because if I binned it that’s all the Astons out. And between me and the Porsche in front it was real ebb and flow, so that safety car took some of the pressure off. At the end of my four hours, I handed it over to Darren – you know, he’s a true professional driver.”

It’s been that kind of a race, really. Peter agrees. “There’s been quite a few safety cars, a lot of crashes, so when that happens you’ve gotta be able to turn it on and off, and it’s difficult to wind it back up again. Quite often the safety car will come in, but there’ll be another one straight afterwards. I was being really careful with it, but still you have to be quick, you know? There’s a time to go 100 per cent, and there’s a time to go 95 per cent. We’re still in the race, so that’s positive.”

Yep, still in the race, and the battle for the top spot is taking on titanic proportions, but of course, for Aston this weekend has been marred by utter tragedy. “When it became apparent [Allan’s crash], it sunk in, and we all shed a tear.” He pauses for a moment. “But, we’re all the same; the same minded, and if it had happened to me, I would have wanted them to continue racing too. I know Allan would have felt exactly the same. So, the race goes on, we’ll see if we can win it for Allan.”

It’s this mindset that Peter reckons is hardwired into every driver’s psyche. “I’ve done a few Le Mans races now, and at the end of the day I believe success is all in the mind. Obviously I keep fit, I train, but it still hurts after four hours in the car. Nobody sits in the car for four hours without aching a little bit. But, if you’ve got a strong will, a strong mind, you can make it through. In fact, you have to make it through – it’s just black and white. You can’t make mistakes.”

Speaking of which, his favourite bit is actually a spot where he has made mistakes. “The coolest bit of Le Mans for me is when you go through Indianapolis, you bump it down two gears, go ‘bang bang’, blat the throttle, all the lights come up, it’s almost on the limiter. Then it’s the banked left-hander, and it can really bite you there. I’ve gone off there in the past. But it’s so satisfying when you get it right.”

He yawns, and again, I sense my time is up. “It gets to this stage on a Sunday, and you feel like you’ve been here for a month! But it’s so well supported by the fans, and there are so many Brits over here, so that’s amazing, really amazing.”

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Sunday 23 June, 12.45pm, Le Mans

ON: So, I managed to drag my camera and my leg through the forest down to Indianapolis and Arnage, because you forget how much greenery there is around here. Indy’s also my favourite corner, because you get to see them at the fastest point in the circuit; the prototypes take different lines, coming in a bit wider and using their downforce, as opposed to the GT cars, so seeing that difference is astonishing. That’s Le Mans for me: cars echoing and rampaging through the forest, it’s enough to send shivers down your spine. Have a click through the gallery below – there was a little shower while I was down there, but, my goodness, it’s properly coming down now.

And, the last few laps have been absolute madness. The battle between the Porsche and Aston for top spot on the GTE Pro class has been like Ali and Frazier, the Aston all over the Porsche’s chuff. Lapierre’s fourth-placed LMP1 Toyota lost it and went off at the entry to the Porsche Curves: somehow he’s managed to limp it back to the pits with the entire front end MISSING.

Elsewhere, a couple of LMP2 cars have had offs too, because of the standing water, and right now, everyone’s hearts are in their mouths. It’s breakneck stuff. Mr Le Mans himself, Tom Kristensen, still occupies the top spot in the number 2 Audi, and you’d be hard pushed to bet against this affable, charming Dane for the win. But, there’s still an hour left to go, and the safety car is back out…

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Sunday 23 June, 11.30am, Aston Martin Paddock, Le Mans

VP: With that tragic, tragic fatality very early on in the race yesterday afternoon, it was never going to be an easy weekend for Aston Martin. “Racing this weekend has been very difficult indeed, I’ve never been through anything like this before,” Bruno Senna tells me, in quiet, sombre tones as we sit in the Aston Martin paddock. The atmosphere here is muted, as you would expect.

“But you know, at the end of the day, it was Allan’s family’s wish for us to continue racing, so we continued, and we were – we are – trying to get a nice win for him. We are doing the best we can.”

Indeed. Unfortunately for Bruno, his car had an off, so that’s his race finished. “Before Fred retired,” Bruno says, with tired eyes, “the car for me was feeling really good. Myself, Fred and Rob were doing a good job, making very few mistakes, pushing hard, dealing with the traffic, and the car was behaving so well, so it was a pleasure to drive. Of course, Le Mans is full of twists and turns, and here you have to be on the careful side in order to finish the race – always – but you know, it’s only a race, and the most important thing is that Fred is fine.”

Of course, Bruno’s got a bit of a taste of this place – this is only his second time at La Sarthe, the first coming a few years back. The thought makes him smile. “Let me tell you,” he says, “it feels much better this time around than in 2009. That year we were not competitive, it was very difficult to keep the motivation, to keep going, whereas this year we were leading the race, competing for the win, and we were competitive.”

He yawns, and I daren’t keep him any longer, especially after this weekend. So the talk naturally falls onto Formula One. “I think you need to have a different approach to a race like this compared to F1. You come here, do your first stint and spend three hours in the car, and you’ve still got many more hours in the car, so it’s quite a tough one to then understand how the race is developing and what’s going on.

“I sleep between the stints for a couple of hours, and it’s important to be able to forget about the race, so when I woke back up I didn’t even know what was happening.”

But, does he know what’s happening about a return to Formula One? He smiles again. Lovely bloke, is Bruno. “Only god knows, to be honest,” he sighs. “Right now I’m really enjoying the GTs, I feel very relaxed, I’m in a great environment, and I’m having a lot of fun, so who knows. But, if a great opportunity comes, we’ll see, but I’m not looking for it myself.”

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Sunday 23 June, 11am, Le Mans

VP: Oooh, it’s all getting a bit real now, isn’t it? Far away from the early euphoria of starting a 24hr race, through the nighttime pandemonium, the surreal dawn and now, into the last three hours where everything begins to fall into a discernable shape.

You’ve got the top spot taken by Loic Duval in the number 2 Audi, with Davidson’s Toyota snapping at his heels. Then it’s another Audi in the shape of Oliver Jarvis, followed by Lapierre’s Toyota, and finally Lotterer’s number 1 Audi R18. Basically, a giant Audi BigMac filled with Toyota. Tasty? We’ll find out in three hours.

The Nissan GT Academy boys’s third driver – Krumm – is currently 4th in the LMP2 class, but Mardenborough especially has done a sterling, sterling job thus far. Like we mentioned elsewhere on this page, watch this young man’s progress, so we can all say a big fat ‘I told you so’. A few spots down, Karun Chandhok is racing in 8th place in the LMP2 class, while the toe-to-toe battle between the Porsche and Aston Martin in the GTE Pro class continues, with Porsche 1st, Turner’s Aston second.

And speaking of Aston, we’ve managed to grab a quick few words with drivers Bruno Senna and Peter Dumbreck, so check back very shortly for their insights from the weekend.

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Sunday 23 June, 9.30am, Le Mans

VP: Owen ‘Sir-limps-a-lot’ Norris has been roaming around again – check out some more pics from the paddock. Everyone seems to be waking up a little bit now, and you can sense that they’re all gearing up for the home stretch.

Quick update from the top spot – McNish has finished his stint, and Loic Duval has taken his place, with a lap in hand over the second-placed Toyota of Sarrazin.

SPIN! Nakajima skids right over the chicane, narrowly misses a Porsche and comes to halt on the gravel. He’s back up and running but, sheesh, that was way too close for comfort. Di Grassi dutifully takes third place from the stricken Toyota.

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Sunday 23 June, 9am, Le Mans

VP: As promised, my colleague Owen has been limping around the Porsche Curves, camera gear in tow, to provide an insight into a party weekend at Le Mans. As the safety car is keeping the prototypes and GTs in check, have a gander at the gallery below. Also, here’s a nice little stat: we’ve got the equivalent of three Formula One GPs worth of racing left to go today…

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Sunday 23 June, 9am, Le Mans

VP: The number 99 Aston Vantage spins and slams into the barriers. Car looks totalled, but, thankfully, Makowiecki jumped straight out of the cockpit and to safety. Safety car is back on track.

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Sunday 23 June, 6am, Porsche Curves

ON: After a swift power nap my mind snapped awake to the sound of free revving V8s. Sunday morning. The witching hour, or happy hour, depending on which side of the pit straight you’re on. Time to get into the thick of it at the Porsche curves.

Apologies for the late update. My knee gave way at 3am and I’ve been making slow progress down the circuit.

At first light the banking is a mess of strewn bodies and empty bottles. The hardcore are at the front in their chairs just starting to wake. Soon the hangovers will bang into effect but for some the party is still clinging onto life as you’ll see in the gallery coming up very shortly…

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Sunday 23 June, 3.10am, Le Mans

VP: It’s raining quite heavily now but the safety car’s gone back in and we’re racing again…

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Sunday 23 June, 2.30am, Le Mans

VP: Lots of pit crews falling asleep and catching whatever snooze they can, lots of weary revellers slowly trudging around the circuit, and, erm, still quite a lot of noise. As I type, Audi’s affable, iron-fisted driver Allan McNish (and he really does have an iron grip) is leading the pack through a safety car period, ahead of the two Toyotas driven by Davidson and Lapierre. Oliver Jarvis tucks in behind, while the third Audi (with Lotterer behind the wheel) is currently languishing in 8th.

Perfect time then, to take a stroll through one of the campsites dotted around Le Mans, because of course, using philosophy analogous to what Dr Bez alluded to earlier, it’s all about the people. And outside of the McNishs and the Davidsons and the Audis and the Toyotas, its the fans who stream around the circuit, waving their Porsche flags and drooling over prototype Le Mans racers who make it what it is. Take this as an example: a young gentlemen, on his own, asked us if we knew where along the Mulsanne straight he could sneak over to catch a sight of these rare machines doing what they do best. Not to be a rebel, but because he wanted to claim a bit of La Sarthe for himself and himself alone. We shrugged our shoulders and he went smiling into the night.

Have a click below from the campsite – seems everyone’s either at the race or, erm, asleep.

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Sunday 23 June, 12am, Le Mans

ON: This is where the magic of Le Mans begins to bewitch. Also, it’s where your senses get a battering – all the focus tunes in on the cars, and the speed becomes impossible to keep up with. It’s loud, fast and downright terrifying. More than enough to waken sleepy synapses and scare you into a wide-eyed awe. There’s like, fire coming out of exhausts, and the brake discs are glowing red. We like.

As of this moment, Kristensen leads in the number 2 Audi, followed by the Toyotas of Sarrazin and Nakajima, with Di Grassi’s Audi making up the fourth spot in LMP1. The number 1 Audi driven by Fassler is fighting its way back up from 15th.

GT Academy graduate Lucas Ordonez is sitting fourth in the LMP2 class at the moment, while Rob Bell in the Aston Martin Vantage leads the GTE Pro group. It’s getting tight in the top tier over here.   Patrick Dempsey – yes, him from Grey’s Anatomy (steady at the back there) – has just dropped down to third in the GTE Am class. Oh, and somehow, Krohn Racing’s battle-hardened 458 is still racing in the GTE Am class, despite another off.

You want to see what it looks like in the dark? You got it. Click through the gallery below. There’s also a pic of Nissan’s 2014 Le Mans hero, and a man in a gold lycra outfit. Just because.

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Saturday 22 June, 9.30pm, Le Mans 

MH: Le Mans. How can you not love this race? Seven hours in and with Audi running perfectly one-two-three (actually cars number one, two and three in that order), suddenly there is car number three driven by Oliver Jarvis in a lurid spin and shedding a rear tyre carcass just before the Dunlop Bridge. Yes, 12km from the pits… And then, here’s car number one being pushed back into the garage and the rear bodywork coming off. And it’s still there, with either an alternator change being required (source: Eurosport) or a crankshaft sensor (@Audi_Sport on twitter). Ooh-er, game on?

As the sun set the Audis were just going faster and faster, setting quicker race times than the Toyotas were able to in qualifying, but they had also started to settle in to a ten-lap refuelling schedule, two laps shorter than the Toyotas. Were they scared of the pace the Toyota’s showed in the opening laps, before the pace car that followed the terrible accident that took the life of Aston Martin GTE driver Allan Simonsen?

The Toyotas are running second and third behind the only unscathed Audi, but have not been without problems themselves, Alexander Wurz having to reboot the Number Seven car out on the circuit. We pointed out yesterday that having the fastest car and dominating the race does by no means guarantee a victory come Three O’Clock on Sunday. That is Le Mans for you…

The rain is keeping away. For now. A clever – or lucky — tyre choice could still swing this Toyota’s way and let’s be honest, the R18 e-tron quattro might be the best looking racing car ever, but it would be good to see it work for win number 12 for Audi.

Aston Martin has made it clear that it will not withdraw its cars at the express wishes of Allan Simonsen’s family who are at the circuit today. We don’t want to be partisan here, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Vantages could wrap up GTE Pro and GTE Am? Bruno Senna in the leading Pro car seems pretty determined to do that, but Porsche (GTE Pro) and Ferrari (GTE Am) are not going to make it easy.

Signing off for now. The number one Audi has just rejoined. In 24th place.

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Saturday 22 June, 9pm, in the air

VP: As my colleague Owen Norris has quite rightly pointed out, you can’t quite picture the full scale of the Le Mans circuit on the ground. No. We needed to get airborne.

Yep, to properly appreciate just how vast, epic and foresty this place is, TG took to the skies to give you, loyal TopGear.commentariat, a chance to see just how magnificent the French skyline can get when quite a lot of horsepower and noise and motoring enthusiasts gather on a patch of tarmac. Check out the pics below to see what we’re saying, and see if you can’t help but sing the theme from Airwolf in your head. Oh, and there’s a special treat for Nintendo fans buried in the pics too…

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Saturday 22 June, 8pm, Nissan pits

VP: A familiar name popped up on the timing screens, and then it clicked. I recognise this young chap. Because I spoke to him at this very circuit a couple of years ago…

“I remember speaking to you at the Signatech-Nissan camp two years back, before I won GT Academy, and now I’m speaking to you as a racing driver at Le Mans. It’s weird.”

Yes, that smiling face belongs to Jann Mardenborough, who regular TopGear.commers will recognise as the young wunderkind who won the gamer-to-racer competition launched by Sony and Nissan. Boy done good, because he’s racing in the LMP2 category at the most famous endurance race…in the world.

“Le Mans came around very late last year, around November time. I didn’t even know what team or anything like that, only that I would be racing. It’s a great opportunity.”

Here’s an interesting point. LMP2 rules state the fastest driver of the three has to drive the first stint, so that honour fell on Jann’s shoulders (besting his Nissan GT Academy compatriot – and former Le Mans driver – Lucas Ordonez). Why is that interesting? Because of course, Jann has never driven here before. A rookie, driving with the pros.

“Prior to today, I did testing which was two weeks ago, and I think I must have done [he thinks hard for a moment here] around eleven or twelve laps. Most of which were in the wet. In a car I’d never driven in the wet. It was, erm, an interesting experience.”

Jann just laughs it off though, because he’s clearly already in love with the place. “Indianapolis is easily my favourite bit of Le Mans, it’s just a mega corner. The Porsche Curves are a bit terrifying, mind.”

He’s a humble lad, though, and – as we’ve said before – watch this space, because he’s going further. “Racing here at Le Mans is fantastic, but let’s see how today goes.” And then, a cheeky little grin. “Obviously, Formula One would be a dream…”

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Saturday 22 June,  5.10pm

MH: Awful, tragic news from Le Mans: driver Allan Simonsen has died as a result of injuries sustained in the earlier crash.

The Twitter biography of the Danish Aston Martin driver simply reads: “professional racing driver, living the dream”. Allan, who died following a shocking accident on the third lap of the Le Mans 24 Hours, will at least have been relishing the very last moments of his 35 years.

This was not his first race at Le Mans — that was 2007 — but it was set to be his most successful as part of a much fancied and extremely fast all-Danish team racing an Aston Martin Vantage in the GTE-Am class.

Le Mans is spooky when it’s wet. A pall hangs over the circuit as it disappears out in to the French countryside and darkness. You can’t help but recognise the driver’s courage when it’s like this. Allan Simonsen’s accident is a reminder of why we should admire and never become blasé about that courage too. To his wife, young daughter and family and friends, we extend all our sympathy.

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Saturday 22 June, Le Mans, Media Centre, 3.30pm

VP: So, the race is underway again, and look who popped into the media centre to check the timing screens? Only Miss Le Mans, 2013.

DSC_6044

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Saturday 22 June, Le Mans, 3pm

VP: True, it’s rather easy to be swept up in the magic of Le Mans; the history, the nostalgia, the legends, the technology, the…OK, we’re rambling somewhat, because as of 4pm, the safety car – a bright red Audi RS4 Avant – is shepherding around the grid because of a nasty-looking crash involving the number 95 Aston Martin, driven in the GTE Am class. More news on that as we get it.

And it started off with a whirlwind, with two of the Toyotas making audacious moves on the Audis, to make it Audi-Toyota-Toyota-Audi-Audi up front. The crowd clearly sense a possible upset, because the rapturous applause for the overtakes nearly caused an earthquake. The LMP2 field was similarly vacuum packed, so keep your eyes peeled for a close race. Hopefully.

DSC_6032

Oh, and that little green Ferrari in the pic belongs to the Krohn Racing team. They had a massive off in qualifying, totalled the car, and managed to rebuild it from scratch practically overnight and make it onto the start line. And now they’re racing at Le Mans. We’ll keep you posted…

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Saturday 22 June, Le Mans pit lane, 2.00pm

We’re off!

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Saturday 22 June, Le Mans pit lane, 1.30pm

ON: Chaos. Carnage. Elbows. I’ve just done the grid walk, and, well, the pictures below go some way to explaining the madness of a Le Mans race weekend. Tension is reaching fever pitch, but the clouds are quite high and flat which looks good for the teams. I may have been manhandled in the scrum. Some personal integrity may have been breached.

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Saturday 22 June, Le Mans pit lane, 11.30am 

Simon Bond: We’ve been on a walk. A rather brief walk, admittedly, before some blokes with impressive looking lanyards and moustaches ushered us quickly out of the pit lane prior to the start of the Ferrari Challenge Trofeo Pirelli. Here’s what we managed to pap…

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Saturday 22 June, Le Mans, 11am

VP: So, you want to see some more Aston Martins doing a parade lap around Le Mans, don’t you? We know this. We have sensed it by using the force. Actually, that’s a lie. We saw someone dressed up as Yoda and asked him what The Internet wanted. So, Internet, here you go…

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Saturday 22 June, Le Mans, 11am

VP: What beats driving an Aston Martin around the Le Mans circuit on race weekend? Well, driving in a parade of 100 Aston Martins around the Le Mans circuit on race weekend. As you saw from the last post, TG.com had stationed itself inside a DB9, in a convoy stretching from old V8 Vantages and DB5s, through to the new Vanquish, the brand brand new V12 Vantage S unveiled only last month (we were told to keep our grubby hands to ourselves), the One-77, and of course, the rather glorious CC100.

Speaking of which, it was Dr Bez himself who was charged with driving the DBR1 throwback around Le Mans. And before the parade kicked off – while the historic Le Mans race was in full swing – we caught up with the Aston chief.

bez

“I must tell you, if it’s raining, driving the CC100 won’t be the greatest lap in Le Mans history,” he tells us, smiling. He’s an affable chap, this Dr. He shrugs his shoulders: “It’s fine, I don’t mind.”

What he does mind, though, is the rain. The Astons have qualified in the top slots for the GTE Pro, and the good Dr has his eye on the skies. “I hope the race isn’t decided by weather because right now it’s changing continuously. I just want to race because our class is really, really tight. I mean, I’d like it be flat out if possible!”

Sadly, the rain – and rarity – has meant he won’t be going flat out in the CC100, but just driving the thing is good enough for him. “At the Nurburgring, when we paraded with the CC100 and the DBR1, it was a very emotional moment for me,” he tells me. “I went outside of the karussell in the CC100, and Sir Stirling Moss came inside the karussell in the DBR1, and we were parallel for a moment. This, for me, was absolutely amazing. I had to take a deep breath and take it all in.”

He actually raced with Sir Stirling in a DBR1 too, at Le Mans three years back. “I had to pray to bring the car back in one piece so Stirling could have a go. It was a relief when I got out of the car.” But the point about the reference is Aston is as much the people as it is the cars. “Having given a future to the company with all these new models, it’s a great thing with the CC100 to show we have a great past as well, in doing successful and beautiful automotive engineering. And it’s all about the people, not just the cars.

“You can copy our design elements and features, but you cannot copy our history.”

The race is drawing nearer, and the clouds are threatening to make the race very exciting indeed. Let’s hope Dr Bez’s parade lap in the CC100 isn’t an omen of things to come – it broke down along the Mulsanne straight. Fingers crossed, chaps…

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Saturday 22 June, Le Mans campsite, 10am 

ON: Before the racing starts, I’ve been exploring the campsite, the second most important bit of the Le Mans weekend…

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Saturday 22 June, Le Mans, 9am 

VP: This is where we are right now: waiting to go out on the Aston centenary parade lap. No15 in the queue in a red DB9. It’s a bit wet…

photo

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Friday 21 June, Le Mans, 10pm 

VP: After a nightmare journey through France, I’ve finally landed in AudiLand, sorry, I meant Le Mans. Though the number of times these chaps have won here recently, it’ll probably be an Ingolstadt theme park soon, unless Toyota can throw a spanner in the works. With cars like these it’s not going to be easy. And up close, it looks pretty cool…

Audi-1

And just to confirm, Audi has built a wall of WIN. Let’s see how the race pans out tomorrow… See you then

Audi-2

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Friday 21 June, Le Mans, 7pm

ON: As the rest of the TG crew are podding their way down the French Autoroutes and staying legal to evade the clutches of the hoardes of gendarmes, I am getting out and about.

Today I dropped in on Aston Martin’s 100th anniversary celebrations in the pretty town of La Chartre. The link with this town goes all the way back to the 1950s when the Aston Works team used the Hotel de France as their base. The entire team used to take over the little hotel and keep their gorgeous DBR1s out in the courtyard. The reception in the hotel today had mechanics from back in the day telling stories of the local police turning a blind eye to them taking the cars out for ‘fast’ testing on the local roads. As most roads in this region resemble the Mulanne straight they would get up to speeds of 185mph for most of the race week in testing.In those days the cars would be driven down from Newport Pagnell to Le Mans and driven back to the hotel everyday.

Cut to today where the teams don’t even leave the paddock for most of race week. It’s a world away. In the very same courtyard this afternoon is Aston’s homage to the DBR1, the CC100 concept car, which you can see below. A sign that this 100 year old company is still going strong. They’ve got nearly a tenth of the grid with five cars this year. Not that pole position means much at Le Mans, but they’ve got it in both GTE categories. Aston Martin Racing are looking confident….

Outside the hotel the Aston Martin owners club have brought the tiny square in La Chartre to a standstill with a display of just about every Aston ever made. Browse the gallery to see what that looked like.

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Friday 21 June, La Chartre, 5pm 

ON: Thankfully the weather’s cleared up, so we’ve been roaming around Aston Martin’s centenary meeting in La Chartre ahead of Mad Friday. Here’s some more pictures – much more to come when we overcome a couple of technical issues…

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Friday 21 June, Top Gear HQ, midday

Michael Harvey: So. Three of Audis other-worldly R18 e-tron quattro spaceships will line up at the head of the grid for the start of the 90th anniversary Le Mans tomorrow afternoon.

Last night’s final two qualifying sessions were as messy as the first on Wednesday with rain and local showers and bent Armco all stopping anyone beating Loic Duval’s best time from Wednesday in the number two e-tron. He’ll be partnered by Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen in the race and will take some beating. The number one car (André Lotterer/Marcel Fässler/Benoit Treluyer) starts second and the number three car (Lucas di Grassi/Marc Gene/Oliver Jarvis) in third place.

The two Toyotas are next. First it’s the number eight car: Anthony Davidson is back at Le Mans after last year’s horrible back-breaking accident, and sharing with fellow F1 refugee Sebastien Buemi, plus Stephane Sarrazin. Then it’s car number seven (Alexander Wurz, Nicholas Lapierre, Kazuki Nakajima). Worryingly, neither could get within four seconds of the fastest Audi.

Is it all over in LMP1 then? Well, Toyota’s TS030s were given a small break last month with the nod to allow them to carry an additional three-litres of fuel, which might notionally allow the petrol-engined TS030 to make fewer stops than the diesel Audis. The diesel cars are obliged to run with a smaller air intake this year, with the idea of limiting their power. In the two World Endurance Championship races so far this year however it hasn’t slowed them. Toyota will be hoping that’s because Audi has responded by turning up the mixture. If that is the case, the TS030s might go another two laps between each stop, which just might give us a grandstand finish come Sunday, but nobody in the Japanese camp is talking up their chances…

Still, this is Le Mans and the weather forecast is anything but clement. And then there are those backmarkers; between them Toyota and Audi have lost three cars in almighty accidents with GT cars over the last three years.

And Le Mans, remember, has proven more than once to be the Coliseum of Hubris. Audi is looking to make it a round dozen wins from 14 starts since 2000. And with all due respect to Peugeot and Toyota, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Audi is a little more concerned about the re-entry of Porsche next year, mindful no doubt of the need to protect its own standard setting record of 16 wins from its VW Group stablemate. Audi would really like to win this year, and that’s never good at Le Mans.

Last year’s TS030 pressed Audi hard until their retirements (Davidson’s scary roll included) at Le Mans and went on to show a clear advantage in the remaining races in the World Endurance Championship. This year’s car, however, didn’t finish in the last WEC race at Spa and the other entry — an 2012-spec 030 — was lap behind the winning Audi which now features the double diffuser technology banned in F1. Then again, don’t forget Toyota had a torrid time before last year’s race too. So you never know.

With only three more non-works cars in LMP1, the prototype action will come from the 22 LMP2 cars and behind them — but only just — from the GTP (pro’ drivers) and GTA (amateurs) cars.

Aston Martins works V8 Vantages filled the the top GT slots, ahead of the new works Porsche 911 the ‘not-works-no-really-it’s-not’ Ferrari 458 of Gianni Fisichella and others. And behind them two Vipers the other, older 911s and the old-shape Corvettes will be doing their best to keep out of the way of e-trons and the TS030s.

Stay tuned as our travelling reporters arrive at the circuit. It’s looking wet…

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Thursday 20 June, 5pm, Le Mans

 ON: It’s all getting busier in the sunshine…

Le-Mans-opener

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Thursday 20 June, 4pm, Le Mans

Owen Norris:  Afternoon from La Sarthe. I’m Owen, Art Director on TG magazine. I’m already at the famous track getting the lowdown on what’s happening in the lead up to the 81st running – and 90th anniversary – of the most famous endurance race… in the world.

There are some angry looking clouds knocking about, and it looks like the practice and qualifying sessions tonight might well be hit with rain at some stage. Some teams are already having to rebuild their cars after some big crashes in yesterday’s sessions, notably the Krohn Ferrari that catapulted in the air after hitting the tyres in a big way after the Dunlop bridge.

Things at Audi however, are calm. They know that if Toyota’s pace is real (they were four seconds off the pace) their only competition is luck. Or the weather. To quote the film about the race, ‘it always rains at Le Mans’. This year will probably be no different, but should make the action all the more exciting.

The fans are arriving in their tens of thousands from the UK as the campsites fill up, too. Lets hope they’ve all remembered their wet weather gear.

When the rest of the team arrive we will be reporting on the action, the quality of the beer and all the weird stuff we come across. Stay tuned for a very Top Gear Le Mans experience…

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Thursday 20 June, 3pm, London

Vijay Pattni: This weekend, spare a thought for Henri Toutée, René Léonard and André Lagache; three Frenchmen who between them designed and drove the Chenard Walcker Sport 3.0-litre to overall victory at the very first Le Mans endurance race in 1923. That’s an Actual Fact.

So this year – for those amongst you able to list ‘addition’ as a life skill – marks the 90th anniversary of the most famous endurance race on Planet Earth. Welcome, TopGear.commers, to the 81st running of the Le Mans 24-hour race.

Wait, what? 81st? Well, here’s another Fact: although the race was inaugurated 90 years ago, it was actually cancelled in 1936 because of the Great Depression, and from 1940 through to 1948 because of World War II.

Obviously, Léonard and Lagache’s victory was in a different era; an era when ‘safety’ meant wearing a hat constructed of cardboard and carrying a set of prayer beads, and an era when ‘speed’ meant cresting the heady heights of double-digit numbers. Consider this, as an illustrative example. In 1923, the Frenchmen completed 128 laps, whereas last year’s Le Mans-winning Audi completed a whopping 378.

Ah yes, Audi. Stop yawning at the back, and quit your groaning, because we’ve heard plenty about the steamrollering of the LMP1 category (that’s the top tier, ahead of LMP2, GTE Pro and GTE Am) from the ladies and gentlemen over at Ingolstadt. You have to hand it to them, they do make ruddy fast cars, and this year’s doesn’t seem to be the exception. During the early practice and qualifying sessions, the R18 driven by Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Loic Duval was setting the pace. And probably setting the place on fire.

‘But wait’, you’re thinking, ‘isn’t Toyota racing again in LMP1?’ Yes. And despite sounding like Darth Vader’s company car, the quickest Toyota TS030 Hybrid was still over four seconds behind the slowest Audi. Talk about an uphill struggle come Saturday.

Of course, LMP2 is where the party really kicks off. Because of the 22 cars entered, at least half have a solid chance of winning the class. There should be some real fireworks amongst these runners, so keep your eyes peeled. Aston Martin has proven itself in practice in the GTE Pro class too, while the gentlemen drivers of the GTE Am should also have a lot of fun.

Naturally, we’ll bring you some of the racing, as well as loads of the ‘other’ stuff that happens at Le Mans. Because for all the talk of a 12th Audi victory and a good show from Toyota and a good scrap in the LMP2 ranks, there’s another Le Mans happening. Stay tuned to TopGear.com to see what we’re talking about…

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We’ll be keeping you in the loop with regular updates on the liveblog and via our social media channels (that’s facebook.com/topgear  and @bbc_topgear on Twitter, plus the hashtag #TGLM24 if you’re a Twitterer).  If you’re really keen on this Le Mans thing, or you’re a Twitter guru, you can follow the latest updates from the drivers, teams and other key people direct from the race on a handy Twitter list we’ve made – just head here and hit subscribe

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