TopGear.com: live from Le Mans 2014

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opener

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Sunday 15 June, 18:41

RH: After an exhausting 24 hours of racing, it’s time to check in with our columnist, No.97 Aston Martin Vantage driver Darren Turner.

The AM GTE crossed the line at Le Mans in sixth place in the GTE Pro Class.  Despite leading a large part of the race, luck wasn’t on the side of Stefan Mucke, Bruno Senna and Darren Turner this year. We’ll let him explain more.

“Finding the sweet spot”

“So far in the World Endurance Championship this year we have struggled for pace in dry conditions so we were expecting a tough time at Le Mans.  A little bit of magic happened during the race though. Once the track rubbered up the car really came alive and we could race hard without fear of the car biting back.  It’s so important to have a well-balanced car at Le Mans so it was a good feeling to feel the car responding just how I want it to and allow us to take the fight to Ferrari, Porsche and Corvette.

“Winning for Allan”

“This year’s Le Mans was a big deal for everyone at Aston Martin Racing as it was the first one since we lost Allan (Simonsen) last year.  I was so happy to see the #95 car win the GTE Am class; that’s the Danish car, the one that Allan drove. So many people would have walked away after last year but those guys came back even stronger and won the race for Allan.  It was clearly the most popular win in the pit lane and definitely the highlight of the 2014 Le Mans 24 Hours for me.

“Another epic Le Mans, with the occasional curveball”

“Le Mans 2014 will go down as that race that could have been. It was another epic Le Mans; this is never a straightforward event so you always have to look out for curveballs. They came in the shape of some terrible weather in the opening hours and then in the form of technical gremlins getting into our power steering system.  You might think power steering is a luxury item but believe me, you need it in a modern GTE car.

“All this does is make you realise how hard it is to win at Le Mans and makes you want to come again next year to try all over again.”

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Sunday 15 June, 15:06

VP: I suppose it was always on the cards, right? For a minute we thought – just thought – that maybe Toyota could do it. Then it was Porsche’s turn to give Audi a restless afternoon and threatened an upset. But Audi just knows how to win here at Le Mans. And credit where credit is due: a completely rebuilt car, a team of drivers who have gelled impeccably together, a great race engineer in Leena Gade, superlative engineering knowhow and one of the finest Le Mans racecars of our times. Well done Audi, it’s been an epic race, and one that will go down in history.

Toyota got its divine intervention in the end in a way, Anthony Davidson coming in third position after a heart-in-the-mouth 24hrs for the Japanese team. Full marks. Maybe next year lady luck will shine.

And…Aston Martin. A round of applause please. Though Turner and Senna’s #97 couldn’t make it on the GTE Pro podium, the GTE Am #95 car wins the class. Why is this so important? It’s the car Allan Simonsen was driving last year. What an absolutely fitting way to honour last year’s fallen Le Mans hero. Superb effort chaps, you’ve done your fallen comrade proud. A lump in the throat moment. Good night all, it’s been epic.

ON: The challenges came and then they faded. Audi victorious again. Not the most popular result maybe, but not surprising and by some way their most impressive win in recent years. The future is looking very efficient. Thanks for following all, it’s been a pleasure. Over and out.

SB: So, another Audi win perhaps isn’t surprising, but it certainly wasn’t a walkover, and this year’s race won’t be one that’s forgotten in a hurry. There was heaps of drama as even the strongest runners succumbed to the pressure and unpredictability of this punishing 24-hour race. Some people say there’s no such thing as luck – but try telling that to some of the guys here. God speed.

RH: See! I told you Audi would win. Completely negating the need to read the 15,000+ words that we’ve spouted on this page in the last two days. But what an action-packed race. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit gutted for Porsche, but there’s always next year.

Thanks all for following, and see you next year…

Photos: fiawec.com/adrenalmedia

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Sunday 15 June, 15:00

Audi-winVP: AUDI WINS THE 2014 LE MANS 24HRS!

Benoit Treluyer, Marcel Fassler and Andre Lotterer take it home once again!

Harry Tincknell, Simon Dolan and Ollie Turvey (a late stand-in for Marc Gene, drafted into the #1 Audi) win LMP2 in the Jota Sport Zytek. Gianmaria Bruni, Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander win GTE Pro in the AF Corse Ferrari, which didn’t miss a beat and held off the rapid Corvettes in its class all race. And Kristian Poulsen, David Heinemeier Hansson and Nicki Thiim in the #95 Aston win GTE Am, almost three laps clear.

Photos: fiawec.com/adrenalmedia

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Sunday 15 June, 14.45

TG: Just 15 minutes to go, and with the #2 and #1 Audis cruising home at the head of the field, after all the drama, it looks like another familiar end to Le Mans. The #2 is three laps ahead. Porsche are still desperately trying to repair their last remaining car, and Anthony Davidson is bringing home the #8 Toyota in third, the same car which crashed so spectacularly in the rain just 22 hours ago…

Ollie Turvey is now leading LMP2 in the #38 Zytek after the massively impressive leading Ligier had to retire, and Gianmaria Bruni is looking nailed on for the GTE win in the AF Corse Ferrari, which has been dominating since the sun went down.

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Sunday 15 June, 14.11

JB: Webber’s retired. The issue seems to have been with the engine, possibly something as minor as a spark plug. Whatever it is, the V4 packed up, and wouldn’t restart. It’s possibly a little ironic in this brave new hybrid era.

Porsche, which was managing expectations in the build-up to this year’s WEC and Le Mans very adroitly, always said it would be happy if both cars finished. Right now, with 70 minutes left, car no.20 is out, and car no.14 is in the garage with a suspected gearbox problem. Marc Lieb is out of the car, and his body language isn’t promising. It’s not the dream return in LMP1 for Le Mans’ most historically successful racing squad.

They got close, though, especially for an all-new, clean sheet design and what is effectively a new team. The pace was there, if not the reliability. It also underlines just what a ball-breaker this race, a race in which the unexpected is the only thing you can expect.

Discounting another Audi win, that is.

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Sunday 15 June, 13.25

camping

As promised, we began our cultural voyage at Tertre Rouge – home to the endurance racing hardcore. Unlike most of the sites, there’s no major attempt at festivity here – no string of fairy lights nor elaborate meat-cooking devices. Just straight-up, paid-in-full petrosexuality.

You can ask anyone around here for a play-by-play of the last 15 minutes racing, and they’ll merrily furnish you with all the details (thanks Chris, Justin, and Theo). Facts and numbers are passed around like state secrets, and they’re what gives this place a proper buzz. No stag-do gimmicks, just a bunch of men geeking out in public.

But right now, I don’t need stats. I need beer. Time to head east to Houx and Houx Annex. It’s about twenty minutes walk away (a short schlep for Le Mans) and deeply pleasant. Ostensibly, it’s a gentrified party site, and while the punters have the same mild strobing behind the eyes, they’re a bit older, a bit wiser, and a bit more likely to own some really tasty cars.

It’s not unusual to see cool stuff here, but Houx is insane. I walk down past a converted Routemaster bus (driven from Blighty), chuck a right, and there’s a Ferrari Testarossa, F-Type Coupe, Triumph Herald, Aston V8 Vantage, and Rover P6 under the trees. And they’re all within about 15 metres of each other. The Vantage owner, Mike, says “this is one of the best spots for cars. It puts a lot of shows to shame, and you get a free 24-hour race behind you.”

A kindly RV owner called Dave lets me use his roof terrace to get a shot. “One of the best spots, this. Some amazing cars. I used to stay here when it was proper mad – Dutch lads with their techno, burnouts at 4:00am, tents on fire. There’s still a bit of that knocking around, but it’s grown up a bit”. A bit further up, I find a bloke with a full PA system spinning the most rhythmically annoying house music I’ve ever heard. He’s set up some tables and chairs – presumably to entice passers by – but everyone’s shuffle past awkwardly. It’s a bit depressing, so I head to the village.

The main drag of the circuit’s grafted itself above the paddock, and it’s the same seam of expensive merch stalls and overpriced grilled meat as you’ll find at any big stadium. A little further down, towards Maison Blanche and the Ford Chicane, I walk past the iconic ferris wheel (less rubbish than I was anticipating, but go at night) and on to Beau Sejour – the famed party site.

Though, sadly, I seem to have missed the, er, party… OK, so there’s a man only wearing a thong and his mates dressed as Nemo, but they’re not even in my Top Three Weirdest Le Mans Men (2014 ranking: wedding dress booze man, naked top hat man, half-naked pantomime horse men). I ask Nemo – in textbook GCSE French – what’s been happening. He’s English, and tells me that Rob Austin (yep, the BTCC guy) assembled a paddling pool full of JD and Coke, but that was last night and everyone’s a bit hung over today.

Nemo’s a useful jungle guide. Swaying slightly, and occasionally doing burps he has to swallow, he says “these days, people can only handle one night of parties, so they have a heavy one on Friday, then keep the race night low key. Even here. The only people going on the trot are the [private] posh tent lads, and you can’t get into their compounds without a special pass.” We slope off to buy kebabs avec frites (yep, there are kebab houses here) and walk further east for some spiritual enlightenment.

I’m heading to Arnage, which isn’t served by quite so many campsites, and it’s the stretch of the circuit that’s properly in the woods. The roadway to get there starts getting narrower, veering in and out of the trees, then you head up a little embankment and find yourself trackside. It’s late, but this is a place for the hardcore. Folding chairs, coolers and Radio Le Mans earpieces. The campsite’s deserted, so I take the long, long road to Mulsanne in the north eastern corner.

The smaller paths approaching it lend the enterprise of getting here a sense of luck discovery, like you just stumbled across it when you were walking the dog. And it’s one of the most intimate experiences you can have at Le Mans. Yes, there’s fencing and hi-vis, but it’s a healthy dose of what this place used to be – or at least how I imagine it. You’re in the woods, a few feet from glowing disc brakes and the bright, piercing noise of racing exhausts.

Again, not many campsites serve the area, and a straw poll tells me most people have come here by foot or media shuttle. You have to be dedicated to make the walk, but it’s worth it. There isn’t any beer can engineering or silliness, , just car after car, streaming through the woods. Everyone’s staring at the track with collective zen. It’s only here that you really get sense that people have been waiting a full year for this. Probably because a man called Alan, sat on a chair on his own, told me just “this is what I wait a year for. My wife’s in the tent – she’s always in bed by 10:00 – but I have to come here to see it. It’s what this place is all about.”

Difficult to argue with that. Now get your 2015 tickets…

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Sunday 15 June, 13.07

JB: Oh balls. Webber’s just made it back from the Mulsanne straight on electric power only. His lap times had been six seconds down on the sister Porsche. Back in the garage car no.20 is being interrogated from either end, with a possible driveshaft problem the cause. A new nosecone has just been fitted.

That podium finish is slipping away…

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Sunday 15 June, 13.06

nismocam

RH: As Mark’s car is stripped down in the pit garage, I just want to go off-piste for a minute to issue an award to my most valuable driver (MVD).

There are a few contenders. Mark Webber opening his return to Le Mans with a quadruple stint was pretty epic. Jann Mardenborough’s pace in his LMP2 Ligier – and humility out of it – has blown my mind. But one driver has done the most epic stint of all, and for the full 24 hours.

It’s the unknown rookie driver/gerbil that’s piloting the 1/24th scale Nismo GT-R up and down the pitlane for Nismo cam. Their dutiful driving and consistent pace has produced epic shots up and down the pitlane all race.

Whatever the tiny person/thing is that’s squeezed itself behind the wheel, it hasn’t be phased by the witching hour or weather conditions, and hasn’t complained once about their brake balance. All while constantly hauling a heavy HD camera under its belly. Whoever you are, we salute you.

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Sunday 15 June, 13.01

RH: Ah! Mark Webber and his #20 Porsche has just slowed down on the Mulsanne straight. His parents must be pulling their hair out.

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Sunday 15 June, 12.35

webber

JB: Even more tense times.

Bernhard has just picked up a puncture. Fixing that, and it’s Mark Webber out for the final stint. Battle stations. Mark’s mum and dad (above) are settling in for the finish.

Oh, and Audi number 2 has just taken the lead…

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Sunday 15 June, 12.28

JB: Tense times in the Porsche camp.

Hearing the Radio Le Mans guys say ‘Porsche leads the 2014 Le Mans 24 hours’ prompted a huge cheer, before everyone went a bit quiet again. Porsche boss Matthias Muller has been wandering about wearing a facial expression that manages to fuse elation and high anxiety perfectly. And the rest of the guys are taking their cues from the guv’nor.

Is Mark Webber going to do the final stint? I asked his old man, who reckoned the decision hadn’t been made yet. But surely Aussie grit and experience, not to mention his F1 star status, is exactly what’s needed to cap this one. Mark was struggling with brake balance issues on his previous stint, which hampered his pace, but it’s all under control again.

Timo Bernhard is currently out in the lead Porsche 919, doing a 3.31.33 lap time. Lotterer in the lead Audi has just done a 3.32.5, Di Grassi in the other Audi a 3.32.1, Anthony Davidson in the remaining Toyota a 3.28.1, and Jani in the other Porsche 919 a 3.28.7.

We’re set for a truly classic finish. Will Porsche do it?

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Sunday 15 June, 12.15

VP: News from Toyota about that desperately unfortunate retirement of Nakajima’s pace-setting #7 car. Our Toyota man tells us that going into the 14th hour of the race, that car’s pace was exceptional, when out of the blue it developed an electrical problem on the wiring loom.

The car, you will probably have seen if you were watching, stopped on Arnage corner, but Nakajima of course couldn’t radio in the problem because the electrics had gone. Each car apparently comes with its own toolkit and each driver given a mobile phone, but Nakajima couldn’t do anything to get it started – he tried everything – so phoned it in that he’d parked it. For an additional kick in the nuts, Nakajima’s lead was around 90 seconds.

“It wasn’t a problem we were familiar with,” our man tells us, “nor one we could ever had imagined would happen. It just came as a shock to the entire team.” Understatement of the year there, we think.

Now it’s just about nursing Davidson’s car home to get some much needed points. But Toyota remains optimistic. After all, this is Le Mans and anything can happen. “The only way we can make up the time lost in repairs (to #8 car) is through problems or retirements.”

I casually mention that Toyota perhaps needed an Act of God; some divine intervention. Literally moments later, Kristensen’s #1 Audi developed a problem and stopped on track. It later pitted and allowed the Porsche to take the lead. Stranger things have happened folks. Stay glued to your screens…

And in another episode demonstrating the fickle nature of motorsport, our columnist Darren Turner’s pace-setting and supremely quick Aston Vantage had to be pulled into the pits and repaired a couple of hours back. The problem? A loose power steering pipe. Which is, to make another understatement of the year, hugely unfortunate, considering he was running in the lead in the GTE Pro class and was bang on the pace to bag a podium. Thankfully the pit crew weaved some quick witchcraft on the little Aston and got it back out, and Turner’s currently running in fourth. Some luck is needed on this side of the garage.

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Sunday 15 June, 11:21

RH: It’s all change. Porsche now leads Le Mans! Tom Kristensen heads back to the pits to get a new turbocharger fitted. The #2 Audi had to have the same surgery earlier this morning and it took 23 minutes…

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Sunday 15 June, 11:06

RH: Mr Le Mans – Tom Kristensen – who’s currently in the leading #1 Audi and hoping for a 10th Le Mans victory – has just pulled over on the side of the track at the Mulsanne chicane. The team grabbed a new turbocharger from the back of the pits but TK got the car running again. At the time, the lead Audi was ahead a lap and a bit over the #20 Porsche. Maybe Tom wanted to spice things up and let the competition catch up as everything seems to be back to normal.

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Sunday 15 June, 10.53

RH: Endurance racing is a monstrous test of mechanical and physical longevity. With parts and drivers being tested to the very limit, sometimes they pass that limit and break.

This year is no different. So it’s time to fire up the bugle because here are the current crop of cars that won’t be making it to the chequered flag at the 82nd running of Le Mans.

#0 Nissan ZEOD RC (Garage 56)
#3 Audi R18 e-tron quattro (LMP1)
#7 Toyota TS040 HYBRID
#13 Rebellion-Toyota R-One (LMP1)
#26 G-Drive (OAK) Morgan LMP2 (LMP2)
#37 ORECA 03R (LMP2)
#41 Zytek-Nissan Z11SN (LMP2)
#47 KCMG ORECA 03R (LMP2)
#48 Murphy Prototypes ORECA O3R (LMP2)
#52 Ram Racing Ferrari (GTE Pro)
#60 AF Corse Ferrari 458 Italia (GTE AM)
#71 Ferrari 458 Italia (GTE Pro)
#72 SMP Racing Ferrari 458 Italia (GTE Am)
#75 ProSpeed Porsche 911 GT3-RSR (GTE Am)
#91 Ferrari 458 Italia (GTE Am)

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Sunday 15 June, 10.23

VP: A quick update on the state of play on the circuit. Out in LMP1 it’s Mr Le Mans himself, Tom Kristensen, in his pace-setting Audi, followed by Bernhard’s Porsche and Lotterer’s #2 Audi. The LMP2 battle reads Ligier, Ligier, Zytek, while the Aston has sadly dropped out of the top spot in GTE Pro, that class headed up by Bruni’s Ferrari. The AMR Vantage is still on top in the GTE Am category, though…

We’ll have more from Toyota shortly, so stay tuned.

Photos: fiawec.com/adrenalmedia/Owen Norris

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Sunday 15 June, 09:17

ON: “At first you have to finish before you finish first” Never a more apt quote this morning.

Audi took the race lead in the early hours after the leading Toyota had electrical issues overnight and was forced to retire.

It’s not all been plain sailing, though. The leading #2 Audi of Lotterer had turbo charger issues, meaning a pretty serious stint sat stationary in the pit box. The first fix failed to resolve the ‘charger troubles so it was taken back into the garage. A new turbo was fitted which took over 20 mins, dropping the car behind the #20 Porsche of Mark Webber and its sister car.

But a safety car finally worked in Audi’s favour after a Ferrari pinballed between the barriers at Porsche Curves. Gene was stuck behind a different safety car train than the Porsche, enabling it to extent its lead.

So it’s the disintegrated car that was rebuilt after the massive catch-fencing crash on Thursday, with the reserve driver Gene and Mr Le Mans Tom Kristensen on board in the lead. Now that would be a popular win.

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Sunday 15 June, 07:19

Aston

RH: Aston racer and 24-hour veteran Darren Turner has been keeping us updated throughout his race weekend. Since the early stages of the race Darren, along with his team-mates, has been giving the British fans a lot to cheer about, battling hard with Giancarlo Fisichella’s Ferrari 458 and the new Corvettes. The Aston has just slipped out of the lead but don’t count Turner out for a Le Mans hat trick just yet. Here are Darren’s thoughts on the race so far.

“Let’s hope their brakes are wearing thin too”

“I’ve just finished the dawn shift, which is a special time to be on track at Le Mans.  We’re running second at the moment but we’ve done our brake change pit stop, which is the longest one.

“The first three or four hours of the race were very up and down with showers, safety cars and accidents so it put everyone’s old and new tyre strategies out of sync. We lost out a fair bit in the opening hours but then we got bunched up in the same safety car group and that gave us our opportunity to pounce.

“It was us vs Corvette vs Ferrari for a long time but the ‘Vettes have had problems so its just us and the Bruni/Fisichella Ferrari now. We’re two minutes down but we’ve done our brake change.  Now we just need to hope that their brakes are wearing thin too!”

“The dash lights up like a Christmas tree”

“I know I keep banging on about lights but have you ever tried seeing where you’re going at night when your passenger has just flicked on the interior light in your car?

“We have warning lights inside the car that flash, blue, red or yellow, depending on the flag the marshals are waving at you.  It helps us see the warnings but, when you add it into all the stuff we have going on in the car anyway, it stops us from seeing the race track properly when the dash lights up like a Christmas tree.

“I’m still getting flashed at a lot too. I don’t think those P1 drivers are reading my Top Gear column! I nearly had an off in the night when I got flashed as I braked to go into Mulsanne – I couldn’t see a thing!  When you then get flashing blue lights inside the cockpit at the same time it’s a huge distraction but also I don’t want to be reminded that I am being overtaken.

“It feels good to have made it through the night here at Le Mans. It has been a slog but we’re well settled in and focused on keeping out of trouble and being there for the fight at the end.”

Darren is racing the No.97 Aston Martin Vantage at Le Mans. Follow him on Twitter at @darrenturner007. Read Darren’s first column here, and his thoughts on qualifying here.

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Sunday 15 June, 06:03

ferrari

RH: No matter how fast Autoglass, Kwik Fit or your local banger garage claim they are at fixing your car – they’ve got nothing on the pit crews that are currently working their arses off here at Le Mans.

Earlier the #61 AF Corse Ferrari – which was second in GTE Am at the time – had a shunt and suffered some pretty hefty body damage. I was in the garage at the time photographing some of the team’s sleeping beauties. But within seconds the mechanics were woken from their stupor and involuntarily relieved wheel guns from their holsters and were ready for action.

Once in the pit box, the car was jacked up, put on skates and wheeled into the garage. The next two and a half minutes was pure carnage. In the next 150 seconds, six men managed to frantically change the rear clamshell, front left door, a driver, headlight and bonnet, four wheels and tyres and rip off worn 1000 degree C brake discs with their hands and replace them with a fresh set.

After a bit of shouting and arm waving, it was then pushed out the garage, pirouetted round on its casters and set free back on track. Check it out below.

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Sunday 15 June, 04:44

RH: As the sun starts to pop its head up and wear the Dunlop Bridge as a halo, there’s been a shock.

The lead #7 Toyota has retired with Nakajima-san behind the wheel. We don’t know what the cause was but we’ve just airdropped our crack team  (no, not that kind) into the Toyota garage to get a full report. This means that Audi are currently winning.

Screen-Shot-2014-06-15-at-05.27.58—-

Sunday 15 June, 04:26

VP: Soooo, you lot tired yet? This is the moment when Le Mans really comes alive. A quick race update for you hardened types still awake: Toyota’s car #7 remains up front, with Sarrazin now behind the wheel. One lap down behind him is Treluyer’s Audi, posting a time six tenths quicker, no less, with Hartley’s Porsche 919 in third.

In LMP2, we have our good friend Jann Mardenborough doing storming business out there at the top of the class (see? Told you he was good), while in the GT classes it’s TopGear.com’s columnist Darren Turner on top of GTE Pro in his Aston, and Thiim on top of GTE Am in his Aston.

Stay tuned, because there’s still quite a lot of RACE left in this one.

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Sunday 15 June, 02:00

VP: Some of the Top Gear team are turning in for a much-needed few hours’ sleep. But no such luxury for Toyota, currently setting the pace at Le Mans with that TS040. It’s been leading for quite some time, and so we caught up with a Toyota Motorsport spokesperson to shed a little insight into the team’s race.

First things first, Alex Wurz in the #7 car has had a pretty smooth race thus far – earlier today you might remember there was a bit of a downpour. Then some crashing happened. That #7 (the non-crashy one) car pitted just after the rain started to fall and changed to the intermediate tyres earlier than the #8 car (the really crashy one). Even with the inters it was struggling on the straights with severe aquaplaning. “It was hard work for that car to stay in a straight line,” our man told us. Then of course, that accident with car #8 happened – they’re still not sure whether it was tagged from behind or if it just lost the rear end under braking. But it basically wiped out the bodywork and the entire front left suspension. Ouchy.

It was ‘touch and go’ to see if the car could limp back to the pits and carry on, but luckily they managed to get it back and fix the car in just 50 minutes (round of applause, please), and send it back out. There was more damage that they discovered later on (aero problems) which affected the balance, but at that point it was just about keeping it on the road and nursing it to the end of the race. Remember, there are vital points to be had. Right now, #8 is running in 6th place.

Car #7 though, is storming through. The different tyre strategies between Toyota and the second and third placed Audis are different so the gaps keep varying, and Toyota are indeed keeping a keen eye on the Four Rings; these guys know how to win at Le Mans, and their pace and consistency is keeping Toyota honest.

So, as it stands, it’s Toyota, Audi, Audi in LMP1, Ligier, Alpine and Oreca in LMP2, Aston, Corvette and Ferrari in GTE Pro, and Aston and Ferrari up top in GTE Am.

And we’ve still got a lot of racing left to go. This race is special, innit?

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Sunday 15 June 01:00

RH: There’s weird, and then there’s 1am at Le Mans weird.

I’ve just witnessed a man, in a wedding dress, dragging a mannequin by its head through the paddock while clutching a bottle of cheap plonk.

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Sunday 15 June 00:26

porsche1

JB: Got your head round the new rules yet? There are so many reasons to love Le Mans – the track, the gruelling reality of the racing, the beery midnight rampaging – but it’s all gone seriously sci-fi for 2014. We’ll try to explain.

Like Formula One, the emphasis is on efficiency, primarily on reducing fuel consumption – 30 per cent less than last year. But when the two bodies in charge, the FIA and the ACO, decided not to insist on a uniform hybrid system for the top LMP1-H category, it gave the green-light to one of the coolest motorsport engineering experiments of all time. No limit on engine size or cylinder number, no diktats on petrol or diesel, the number of energy recuperation systems, or on the use of lithium ion batteries, ultracapacitors or flywheel storage. (There is a minimum weight requirement: 870kg.) Brilliantly, Audi, Porsche and Toyota went off, scratched their heads for a bit, before arriving at a completely different answer to the same question.

See if you can memorise this bit. The Porsche is arguably the most intriguing. It uses a 2.0-litre single turbo direct injection V4, it’s a petrol unit, and has a front-axle braking recuperation system (like KERS), plus a thermodynamic one that uses the exhaust gas flow to drive the turbo but also a dynamo, and uses lithium ion batteries. The Toyota is powered by a 3.7-litre petrol V8, recovers energy on the front and rear axles, and uses a super capacitor. The Audi, of course, is a direct injection V6 single turbo diesel, has front axle kinetic energy recuperation, and uses a flywheel storage system.

How do they deploy the stored energy? A maximum ‘boost’ of eight megajoules is allowed per lap (that’s 13.6km or 8.4 miles at Le Mans), then 6MJ, four and two. Porsche and Toyota are in the 6MJ class, Audi 2MJ. The Audi’s diesel is obviously heavier, hence the lower recuperation amount, which puts it at a ‘boost’ disadvantage. But it’s also more fuel efficient, so a different upper limit for energy and fuel amounts has been determined for the petrol and diesel cars, not to mention tank sizes. Basically, the bigger and more powerful the hybrid set-up, the less fuel that can be used. Fuel and energy flow is also strictly monitored in real time, and anyone who uses more than they should will get a time penalty, based on a three-lap average taken by the ACO.

Yes, it’s complicated. But it’s still a motor race, the toughest in the world. And this year, the teams and drivers have got more to wrap their heads around than ever before. Le Mans, never short of crazy variables, has wheeled out a whole load more.

But here’s a good one. If this year’s Porsche 919 completes the same 348 lap race distance as last year’s winning Audi, it will have generated enough electricity to power an all-electric e-Golf on a drive from New York to Los Angeles.

Right now, the two Porsches are running fourth and fifth, behind the no.7 Toyota, the number no.2 Audi, and the number no.1 Audi. Yes, despite reporting the demise of car no.14 earlier on, the team managed to sort the problem out, and Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb have done a frankly stunning job carving through from the back of the field up to fifth. Given the enormous complexity of the LMP1 cars, the failure of a tiny component on the fuel system is a reminder of how fickle this business can be.

‘That was a real shame,’ Jani observed with some understatement. ‘But the guys were able to fix it quite quickly.’

Earlier today, smart pit stop strategies and a strong effort from the drivers in seriously difficult conditons vaulted the Porsches to the top of the time sheets. At the restart after the first safety car, both cars stayed out on rain tyres on a fast drying track, until the heavens opened unexpectedly again. The stellar young Kiwi Brendon Hartley was looking very good until he picked up a slow puncture, which dropped him to third.

‘In the opening phase the car felt quite tricky to drive, but that improved after a few laps,’ Timo Bernhard said. ‘We were really fast in the rain and employed the right strategy. We had all kinds of conditions that you could imagine out there, from zero vision to a completely dry track, and everything in between, all withing a single lap. To put a Porsche in front of this race for the first time after the company’s comeback was definitely a great moment.’

Car no.14 is currently running six laps behind Alex Wurz’s leading Toyota, with the other Porsche 919 two laps behind. Mark Webber’s just done a quadruple stint and a podium is still within reach. It’s just gone midnight, so we’re not even at the halfway point. You’ve got to love this race…

porsche2

—-

Sunday 15 June 00:00

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—-

Saturday 14 June 23:59

audi

ON: Night has now fallen at the circuit, a magical time, and it’s clear Audi are playing the long game in this race. Concentrating on their own strategy and bemoaning their luck with safety cars and slow zones.

The first hour was an epic battle between the Audis, Porsches and Toyotas. It was breathless stuff. Mr Le Mans, nine-time winner Tom Kristensen, swapped places several times with the #20 Porsche of Timo Bernhard. The Porsche, with a higher top speed, would power past on the straight only for the Audi to reel it back in through the curves, the overexcited French commentator at the circuit emitting a massive “WOAAAAHHH!” every time they swapped. Proper racing.

Then, as we know, the front-running Audi and Toyota managed to get themselves up in front of the Porsches when the expected showers hit. Marco Bonanomi in the #3 Audi was taken out by Sam Bird’s Ferrari at the first chicane on the Mulsanne straight, and Audi were down to two cars.

Still, after what seemed like endless safety car periods the LMP1 race has settled down now. As dusk falls, the remaining Audis are lying in wait for a slip up by the leading Toyota, which is now 1m38s ahead. I’ve just taken a trip out to the forest to watch them, and the speed that R18 can take into Indianapolis corner is incredible. Mind-bending stuff. It pitches into the lightly-banked apex and then with the whispery whoosh of parted air it’s gone off down to Arnage, the slowest corner on the track.

And don’t write that R18 off yet. Crucially, the Audis are proving capable of quadruple stinting their tyres. Driver fatigue is the only reason to hang about in the pits. And we all know whoever spends the least amount of time in the pits will be on the top step of the podium come Sunday afternoon…

—-

Saturday 14 June, 23:34

astonman

VP: So, Rowan and I have just spent an enlightening hour chatting with Aston Martin Racing’s race engineer Nick Clipson. He was in charge of car #99, but of course, that Vantage unfortunately never made it to the race. So he had a bit of free time to talk to TG about how you run a 24hr race in what has to be one of the prettiest GT cars on planet earth.

1. You need an Aston Martin Vantage, duh

“It all started way, way back at Prodrive. The amount of data and preparation you have to do is unbelievable, just everything: you record the serial number of every part, kilometres used on every part in every test (for example, driveshafts will last 780km and then they start to give you trouble), things like that. If you don’t get that bit right, you’re just wasting your time.“

2. You need a big crew of very talented people with Enormous Brains

“Each car has it’s own dedicated ‘race station’ at the back of the garage, and each station will have three engineers: the race engineer, who co-ordinates all the input from the data engineer on the right hand side of him, and the engine engineer on his left. I’m the only one who communicates with the driver. You can’t have everyone shouting at the driver telling him different things.

“We’ve also got 12 mechanics, including a guy who just manages the tyres, and the pit stop crew.”

3. You need to make sure your driver is happy

“The engine engineer is concerned only about his engine and nothing else, while the data engineer is looking over all the numbers. But it’s my job to look after the driver’s mentality. You have to keep feeding them information and put a positive spin on things. The drivers like to be kept informed, and I need to tell them not to take unnecessary risks when for example, they could be two seconds a lap up.”

4. You need to know how to do a proper pit stop

“The driver comes in, and you first have to fuel the car on the ground. While you’re refuelling, you can’t do any other work on the car bar cleaning the windscreen. Then you’ll see the pit stop guys jump onto the air jack, lift up the car and then the tyre change commences. At the same time the driver changes too, if it’s time. You have a guy called the ‘driver assist’ who helps the driver with his belts, data cards, and the identification system on the car which rings up on the timing screens.

“Sometimes it’s easier – if it’s anything other than a bit of tape or cleaning – to just wheel it into the garage because then you can have as many people as you want work on the car. Outside the white line you’re only allowed a set number of mechanics working on it.

5. You need really big, meaty gloves and quite a lot of skill to do a Manly Brake Change

“In the middle of the night we normally do a complete brake change, and we do that in the garage in about a minute and a half and send him back out. There’s a window between 10pm and 2am in the morning to do a brake change.

“It’s also all about designing special tools that immediately force the pistons out, which allows you to put the brand new, thick brake pads in, it’s all about getting proper tools to do the job. The guys wear turbo gloves to take them off because of the heat, but they’re really thick so it makes it difficult to wield spanners, so most mechanics have one turbo glove and one normal thin glove. But we’ve also got plastic flooring, so we drop the discs onto metal trays otherwise you get disc-shaped holes in the floor.”

6. Obvious one, but you need to really not bend the Aston’s chassis. Because it’s bonded aluminium

“You have to be very careful because of course our car is based on the road car and therefore you have to be wary of the bonded aluminium chassis. It’s great for the road car, but not so for us. It’s clamped together in jigs, goes in ovens, gets baked etc – we obviously haven’t got those facilities here!

“That limits our ability to get a car back on the track if you get chassis damage.”

7. You need even Bigger Brains to understand the ACO’s balance of performance regs

“The car rides higher than last year, because of the ACO’s balance of performance regs – you’ve got cars like the Corvette, the mid-engined Ferrari, the rear-engined Porsche – so the ACO balances performance by imposing restrictions, so the aim is to get everyone to do the same amount of laps. There’s ride height, limitations on aero, and because we were fast last year, they imposed a ride height restriction. Which caused us a balance issue. They wanted to slow us down and it worked.”

8. You need a big budget for rubber

“We go through around 12 sets of tyres in a race.”

9. You need drivers like Bruno Senna and Darren Turner in your team

Senna did an absolutely monumental stint earlier on. He started fifth and finished second, handing over the car to Darren who at the time of writing is running in first place in the GTE Pro class. Bruno told TG.com: “I’m happy – I handed it over to Darren Turner in second place. My water bottle failed right at the start so I had no water for my stint, so I probably lost a bit of weight!

“But the car was behaving well, the braking was very stable. It feels good, but there’s still work to be done on the setup, but at the moment if you push too hard you can get bitten by it.”

Right now, Turner is number one in GTE Pro, and Lamy is number one in GTE Am. Aston is on the charge…

—-

Saturday 14 June, 21:13

camp

MJ: The cultural lap of Le Mans has officially begun – the route decided on, and the first leg completed.

But my circuit’s been curtailed a bit. Ruthlessly, the roads around the top end of the track have been temporarily deleted so I’ve been forced to halve my stroll from eight miles to two. But I can travel from one end to the other – starting at Tertre Rouge, then winding through Esses, Dunlop Curve, Ford Chicane, Porsche Curves, Arnage, Indianapolis, and ending up at Mulsanne.

Though, for the most part, I won’t – and indeed haven’t – seen much racing. The Top Gear Le Mans WhatsApp group keeps me informed of a few bits (sad news about the ZEOD), but largely it’s just Owen Norris describing his bowel movements.

What I’m here for is you. If you’re here, I’m finding out how you live Le Mans. If you’re not, it’s my job to show you.

First, a bit of admin.

A huge, HUGE part of the Le Mans experience is camping. For most punters, it’s 80 per cent campsite lulz, 20 per cent racing, and each spot has its own cultural connotations. It sounds stupid, but it’s properly tribal out there, so I’ll give you a bit of a guide.

 Tertre Rouge

This one’s for the race heads. It’s close enough to the circuit for campers to get a proper view of the track. Lots of rickety, DIY viewing platforms.

Most likely to see

Radio Le Mans earpieces, Gulf liveried Porsche 911s, sensible shoes

Houx and Houx Annex

This used to be a big party site, but the beer bongs and stag dos have moved further East. Still some rowdy hanger-ons, but mostly gentrified.  A bit like Shoreditch.

Most likely to see

Vast motorhomes, fast cars, impressive structures made of beer bottles, dads dancing to David Guetta

 Porsche Curves

Nearly entirely taken over by glamping companies, this is strictly guestlist, with infuriatingly good track access.

Most likely to see

Me at the gates, begging for some two-ply bog roll and use of the lovely, unsullied showers.

 Beau Sejour

It’s the Stoke Newington of Le Mans – north of the Porsche Curves, it’s an international stew of techno, burnouts, kebab joints, and lunacy. The Prometheus gene of Le Mans.

Most likely to see

An inflatable dinghy full of JD and Coke, people letting the smoke out of tyres, vast, rampant consumption.

 Arnage

Extremely civilized, this is where power hook-ups and genteel exchanges abound.

Most likely to see

People drinking out of actual glasses, classic cars you thought were myths, men calling each other ‘chaps’ with neither shame nor irony, and organized ridiculousness.

 Mulsanne Corner

As close as you can get to old school Le Mans. Woods, racecars, sunsets. It’s borderline spiritual.

Most likely to see

What this place used to be like. You can wonder into the forests and everything.

—-

Saturday 14 June, 19:15

VP: So, we’re just over four hours into the race (only four hours!) and the cars are lined up like so: in LMP1 Stephane Sarrazin’s Toyota had been trading first place with Brendon Hartley’s Porsche, but the Toyota is now starting to open up a lead. Treluyer’s Audi is third, so the big three are still all in the running… And remarkably, Toyota #8 is back out there and in 20th.

Frey in the Oreca leads the LMP2 chaps, followed by Alex Brundle in his Ligier (taking over from Jann Mardenborough, the man featured below) and Chatin in the Alpine. GTE Pro is headed up by Tommy Milner’s Corvette, followed by Villander’s Ferrari and the Porsche 911 of Holzer.

And GTE Am reads 458 Italia, 458 Italia and Porsche 911: sadly, Britain’s big hope Sam Bird’s chances have gone after he was the third car in the Audi/Toyota crash, having started on pole.

Photos: fiawec.com/adrenalmedia

—-

Saturday 14 June, 17:48

jb

JB: More rain. In the time it took to walk out of the media centre, into the paddock, and over to see the guys at Aston Martin, it threw it down again. Annoying if you’re actually racing, an incredible livener if you’re soaking it all up. In more ways than one.

Darren Turner, racing an Aston Vantage with Stefan Mucke and Bruno Senna, had just finished a mega first stint. He looked very happy, as you would be.

Also happy was Dario Franchitti, make that Dario Franchitti MBE as of yesterday. ‘It’s lovely,’ he told TG.com. ‘An amazing surprise to be recognised. I’ll tell you what though, it’s in conditions like this when I’m glad I’m not racing…’ His brother Marino, a Le Mans veteran, agreed. ‘Honestly, you have no idea what a nightmare it is when it’s like this.’

These are brave boys, with a lot of tough wins under their belts, so we can only imagine. With the remaining Porsche 919 Hybrid now leading – the first time a Porsche has lead Le Mans since 1998 – you’ve got to hand it to the giant sprinkler in the sky. It might be a pain, but it sure mixes things up.

—-

Saturday 14 June, 17:43

RH: Want to hear Nicolas Lapierre’s version of events on that rather senior tangle that he had earlier with Marco Bonanomi in the #3 Audi and Sam Bird in his GTE Am Ferrari? Well click play and he’ll whisper them into your ear via the medium of an MP3. Clever, that.

—-

Saturday 14 June, 17:03

garage

RH: The feeling in the ZEOD garage is currently deflated at best. Even though they’d set themselves up for a massive challenge, going out of a 24-hour endurance race in less time than it takes to cook a frozen pizza is horrendously gutting.

Even so, I did manage to have a quick chat with ZEOD’s driver Lucas Ordonez, who was set to do his first stint in the unique race car at 7pm.

“I feel so sad for all the team,“ the Spaniard told me. “The mechanics, the engineers, everyone has been working so hard for the last twelve months and it hurts when the car stops this early in the race.

We knew the race wasn’t going to be easy with such innovative technology and this kind of car. And it may be painful now, but we have to keep positive, keep going and not give up.

But we have proved that you can do a full electric lap and we made history with the first 300km/h electric run – so we have to be proud of that.

I just want to say thank you to all of the team as they’ve been working so, so hard. It’s my job now to keep their spirits up, as they deserved a better result than this.

Every driver wants to drive and everyone wants to finish the Le Mans 24 hours, so I’m disappointed in that respect. It’s my fourth time here and the first time I haven’t finished, but we will have better times and the future looks good.”

Darren Cox, Global Head of Brand, Marketing and Sales and one of the masterminds behind the ZEOD project also had a few things to say about this tragic retirement.

“We came here with two objectives. 1. To do an electric lap of Le Mans – we’ve done that. 2. Was to do 300 km/h – we’ve done that. So, we’ve achieved our objectives but it doesn’t feel like that at the moment. But that will go. It’s been an amazing journey but I don’t think it’s over.

I just think we’ve been a bit unlucky with this fault to be honest. The fact that it’s probably a component that’s not anything to do with electric is a strange one.

But if you’d plot a graph of the happiness in this garage over the last week there’d be quite a few peaks and troughs. If we hadn’t have done the electric lap this morning it would’ve been a disaster. But we’d love to have a go at a faster lap on electric during the race. Hopefully we’ll get to run the car again in the near future.”

Saturday 14 June, 16:40

VP: Lapierre’s Toyota has miraculously found drive and is nursing its way back towards the pits. Minus a significant amount of its bodywork, mind.

Bonanomi’s head is in his hands in the Audi though, signalling that his race could very well be over.

Bird’s Ferrari is a wreck.

Untitled-2

—- 

Saturday 14 June, 16:33

RH: The Audi of Marco Bonanomi and Toyota of Nicolas Lapierre have both been involved in a heavy, heavy shunt. Sam Bird in the GTE Am Ferrari was also involved.

Safety car currently keeping the pack, erm, safe.

More when we get it…

—-

Saturday 14 June, 16:29

VP: RAIN! We have rain at Le Mans! I’m not talking about a shower, I’m talking Old Testament rain. It is absolutely chucking it down.

And Audi number #3 and Toyota #8 have both crashed out!

—-

Saturday 14 June, 16:00

JB: A senior Porsche man told me two hours ago he’d be happy if they got both cars to the end of the race. Turns out they couldn’t get both cars to the end of the first hour.

Neel Jani in Porsche 919 no. 14 lost his gearbox on lap nine, and after 15 minutes in the pits, that was that. Reliability was always going to be an issue for these guys, but that still hurts. We’ll find out more in a bit from Porsche motorsport boss, Wolfgang Hatz.

TG.com reckoned that Porsche and Toyota would set the pace, pay the price for pushing too hard, and let Audi soldier on stoically to win. But it’s not panning out quite like that. Alex Wurz in the lead Toyota TS 040 is setting a stonking pace, with a fastest lap of 3.23.1 (on lap four), but two Audis are currently splitting the two Toyotas, while the sole remaining Porsche  – the Bernhard/Webber/Hartley car – is lapping between three and seven seconds a lap slower in sixth place. With 20 laps gone, Wurz has build up a 37 second lead on his first stint, but the battle for second, third and fourth is currently looking very tasty indeed.

Saturday 14 June, 15:40

RH: After just five laps and 23 minutes it’s game over for the ZEOD. Retiring due to a gearbox failure. It’s thought to be the same issue that put them out on Wednesday.

Chin up, chaps.

—-

Saturday 14 June, 15.30

RH: News from Garage 56. The ZEOD has stopped past the Porsche Curves with suspected drivetrain problems. Wolfie is currently phoning home for help. Or updating his Facebook page. We’re not entirely sure.

 

—-

Saturday 14 June, 15.00

start

ON: Aaaaaand we’re off! The 2014 Le Mans 24 hour race is officially underway!

—-

Saturday 14 June, 14.53

VP: The cars have gone out on their formation lap and Things Just Got Real. Why? Because they’re playing the music from Rocky 4.

—-

Saturday 14 June, 14.14

VP: HUGGING NEWS FLASH! Overlooking the start/finish straight, Owen and I couldn’t help but notice that once all the formalities had been concluded, there was a spontaneous outbreak of dignified MAN HUGGING. We may have got caught up in the moment and engaged in a bout of manly hugging in the media centre too, though it didn’t go down entirely as planned. Le Mans does that to you.

On a separate note, Aston Martin Racing tweeted about the potential for it to chuck it down later on – there’s a 40 per cent chance it will rain between 4pm and 6pm. I mean, when have the weather men ever been wrong? WHEN?

Also interesting to note how the teams were bringing out a variety of tyres – slicks, intermediates etc – meaning nobody really knows what’s going on. And the clouds have darkened considerably…


—-

Saturday 14 June, 13:07

RH: I’ve just squeezed myself onto the grid walk. Holy moly it’s busy. Unfortunately I can’t give you a specific number as I forgot to bring one of those clicky thing bouncers at nightclubs have, but attendance at the race seems massive this year.

Two things have also struck me. 1. The proportions of the Porsche 919 are properly diddy 2. I hope the grid girls have plenty of sun cream on. It’s absolutely boiling down here.

—-

Saturday 14 June, 13:00

jann2

VP: It wouldn’t be a Le Mans weekend without a chat with TG.com’s very good friend and impossibly fast, impossibly (and irritatingly) young and talented Nissan racer Jann Mardenborough. Jann, don’t forget, is the child prodigy who morphed from Gran Turismo thumbsmith into a proper, record-setting actual racing driver. And he’s bloody good too.

“This is the third time we’re meeting like this at Le Mans, it’s becoming a tradition,” he tells me. So how’s he shaping up for today’s race? “I got third on the grid, and I’m starting the race again for my second time here’s at Le Mans which is just incredible. Practice this morning was great too (Jann set the fastest lap, no less), even more so because we only had two laps in the car, both with varying fuel loads and tyres.”

What about rain? There are some hushed whisperings about the potential for everything to become a bit moist. Squeaky-cheeked moist. Jann just shrugs and laughs it off. “I don’t really mind… I actually like racing in the rain.”

Good lad. “We’ve got no concerns about the pace in our car, but the whole team is concerned about reliability. It’s a brand new car. We’ve been told to stay off certain kerbs, like Tertre Rouge and the exit of Corvette Corner. At the start of the race I’ll just go flat out, but after that we’ll settle down and think about conserving the car.”

Conserving… hmmm, something tells us it’s not something he really wants to do. “The balance feels good, but we could make it a bit edgier, a bit more extreme…” So he wants it to be harder? “Personally I wanted it turned up to 11, but you have to come to a certain compromise. All three of us drivers need to feel comfortable in it.”

We’ve been saying this for years, but this chap is destined for greatness. And you heard it here first.

—-

Saturday 14 June, 12.45

Zeod

RH: After this morning’s warm up, mood in the ZEOD garage is high. Just before the end of the session, Wolfgang ‘Wolfie’ Reip decided to go for the world’s first all-electric lap of the legendary Le Mans circuit.

Although the ZEOD can simultaneously switch from a tiny three-cylinder engine to an electric powertrain, going for the lap wasn’t a case of just flicking a switch. The conditions and time had to be right. And in a weird turn of events, just before 10am this morning was that time.

Why? Because late last night the ZEOD team realised that the all important lithium-ion battery would fit in its catering departments freezer. Being able to keep it in the chiller overnight meant that all the fluids that help make the battery run most effectively could be kept cool. So all the fish fingers and Maxibons were thrown out and the lithium-ion batteries were chucked in.

First thing this morning the team calculated that an electric lap was possible during the warm up. So set Wolfie out for an installation lap, gave him a fresh set of hot, sticky tyres and let him go for it.

The tension, anxiety and excitement in Garage 56 was so palpable the place fell silent. Late in the lap Wolfie was caught in traffic by an Aston Martin GT car, something that could scupper their plans. But, after an exercise in supreme patience, the GT Academy graduate silently overtook the brutish V8 on nothing but the same juice that powers your kettle.

Crossing the line the pit box erupted with high fives, hugs and I’m sure I saw a tear. The team has been working absolutely flat-out for the last week to try and get this car in a state to complete a lap and today they were rewarded for their efforts.

It’s the team’s third ‘first’ of the week. They’re the first team to be running without wing mirrors which massively improves aerodynamics and efficiency, on Thursday night Satoshi Motoyama reaching 300km/h on the Mulsanne Straight in qualifying.

So what can they do in the race? When the project kicked off 12 months ago, the plan was to run the fuel-efficient petrol engine – with no electric power – for a normal stint of 11 laps. During those laps, every time the car slows down, the recovered brake energy will charge the big, posh battery onboard. So when the combustion engine does run out of fuel, at the turn of a knob, the rear wheels will be driven by the electric motors, sending it on a bonus lap while everyone else pits.

But, in the current set up, that doesn’t seem feasible. Instead, Darren Cox, Nismo’s Global Head of Brand, Marketing & Sales told me they’re just going for a finish. But he’s not hopeful. .

“If we finish the race, it’ll be a miracle” he confessed. It’s a prototype. We’ve done less than 2000km in testing and the race is 4500km, so we’ve got to do over double what we’ve done already in one hit.”

Are you crossing your fingers for them? Because I sure am.

—-

Saturday 14 June, 12.30

MJ:Last night was Mad Friday, which at Le Mans imposes certain behavioural impositions. Mainly the burnout and drinking kind. Not at the same time, of course, but to be honest what does happen can be just as stupid.

Allow me to paint you a picture. Imagine a small two-lane service road lined with people with names like ‘Big Chris’ and ‘Danger’. You know that because it’s printed on their T-shirts.

There are a couple of leaders here. Nominated, generally, by how drunk they are. When a car approaches, Leader 1 stands in front of it, and Leader 2 urges them to do a burnout. This is communicated via the internationally recognised motion of furious circular arm movements while biting your bottom lip.

Most people don’t do burnouts on public roads because a drunk man’s asked them to. This angers the leaders, so they do things like open passenger doors or slap windscreens or shout things. Eventually, the leaders get bored or distracted – another beer, their smartphone, something shiny – then the red-faced driver’s permitted to crawl through the fray, which is booing and throwing beer onto their car.

Occasionally though, someone will oblige. Their car will have a large sticker on it that says something like “Wrecking Crew Le Mans 2014”. Engines will rev, tyres will smoke, and the crowd will film it on their phone, creating a sort of budget arena screen. The leaders will be rewarded with applause and everyone will scream.

Eventually, when the sun goes down and the lager’s been spent, the boys return to their tents, which makes you wonder how much racing these guys will actually see. Hopefully our lap of Le Mans will unearth some brighter sides of Le Mans culture…

—-

Saturday 14 June, 12pm

RH: Like every good festival, the headline act needs a good warm up band to get the crowd going. It’s no different at Le Mans. Well… it’s a bit different. Because instead of a four-piece indie band, the warm up act at Le Mans this year was a race between legendary Group C endurance cars.

I managed to catch the 30 boosty beasts as they chuntered their way to parc ferme after racing round their spiritual home once again.

Unfortunately some of the pack – which included Sauber-Mercedes-Benzs, Porsche 962s, Jaguar XJR9s, Spices, March-Chevrolet 84Gs, Ford C100s – went straight back to the pits for a post-race Panda Pop and packet of crisps. But I did manage to photograph a few as they ticked and whistled themselves cool.

So check out the gallery below and let us know if you think that Group C was the Golden Era of Le Mans.

—-

Saturday 14 June, 09.47am

3

RH: Morning all from Team ZEOD. BREAKING NEWS! At 09:46am local time the ZEOD RC completed the first all-electric lap of Le Mans. Wolfgang Reip piloted the car in a time of 04:22 but was held up by an Aston GT car, which he later overtook on nothing but electric power.

We’ll bring you a full update, reaction from the team and pictures shortly.

 

—-

Friday 13 June, 10.45pm 

Charlie Turner: Predicting the outcome of the 24 Hours is never easy, and this year it’s harder to call than ever.

Porsche have returned and clearly mean business, Toyota need to win to make hybrids attractive to a global audience and Audi, well, who in their right mind would bet against Audi? Add to this titanic battle the fact that the forecasters are predicting rain tomorrow afternoon and the outcome really is anyone’s guess. But here’s my conspiracy theorist prediction.

Porsche finally revealed their pace during qualifying on Thursday night and I have a theory that the brief is to take the race to the Toyotas. To push them as hard as they can and ultimately to see if they can break them. For a Porsche to be leading at any time on its return to Le Mans is a headline in itself. It’s the only one of the frontline teams for whom coming second would be a result.

So, I very much see this race as Audi and Porsche versus Toyota. Porsche will push the Toyotas as hard as possible, but I predict it’ll be Audi who take the victory as the sprint at the sharp end takes its toll, and the metronomic reliability of the Audis comes to the fore…

So as the chequered flag drops on Sunday my conspiracy theory ends like this: a victory for Audi, leaving the stage set for Porsche (its VW group cousin) to take up the mantle in 2015 as Audi move into a more supporting role.

—–

Friday 13 June, 10.30pm

VP: Race prediction? Hmmm, tricky one. Toyota are the favourites, Audi has the bullet-proof Le Mans experience and Porsche are the La Sarthe legends. Who to pick? Judging by Toyota drivers Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima’s comments after I spoke to them earlier today, I reckon it might be Porsche who pull one out of the bag. Sure, it’d be nice to see Toyota take the crown; as Owen mentioned, they’ve been quietly going about their business. But something in the way Porsche pulled out that qualifying lap – and the way they’ve slowly been building up a head of steam before this race – gets my Spidey senses tingling. Not in that way, you understand.

Nakajima was concerned about Porsche’s pace too. And this is the man who’s sitting on pole position. I think we’re in for a big shock come 3pm Sunday.

—-

Friday 13 June, 10.30pm

ON: My prediction for the race? It’s going to have to be Toyota. It’s a bit obvious I know, but I did call it way back in March, and I’ve seen nothing that makes me want to change that prediction. Sorry Audi. Toyota are going about their business with a quiet calm and confidence it seems. While Porsche are hashtagging like crazy that they’re back and Audi are responding with #WelcomeChallenges, the Japanese boys are just getting on with it. That pole lap was no fluke. Porsche will run them close though as their Mulsanne pace looks formidable. Audi will be there too, as I reckon they’ll be doing less stops than everyone else but my money is still on Toyota and I’ll go for the Davidson car. Because he’s a top bloke.

—-

Friday 13 June, 10.30pm

RH: So chaps, race predictions?

I’m going to go put my money on Audi. Even though they’ve had a rough couple of days, they managed to scramble a spare tub and rebuild a R-18 e-tron quattro car overnight.

That’s all you have to know about the dogged determination of this team. Plus, mood in Camp Audi doesn’t seem too sour considering they’re not bulldozing the competition as per normal. So, I reckon they’re confident that they have good race pace. But, anything can happen in 24 hours…

—-

Friday 13 June, 10pm

VP:The driver’s parade on Le Mans weekend takes place on the Friday evening. It is a chance for the baying audience to descend onto the centre and get up close and very personal with their endurance racing heroes. It is a chance for the drivers to throw signed autographs and take pictures with the crowd. It is also a chance for the crowd to go absolutely bananas. Some of it hilarious. Some of it is terrifying. All of it is excellent.

The premise is simple: all the big players from across the grid – LMP1 to GTE Am – ride through the town in open-topped cars and meet their adoring public. Behind them runs a horde of lovely machinery to complement the open-topped classic motors up front.

I was fortunate enough to be sat in a Ginetta G40 Racing Driver’s Club car to tag onto the tail end of the parade. Remember the GRDC? It’s Ginetta’s scheme of turning budding helmsmiths into actual helmsmiths. The premise is simple – you pay £30k, get a G40, your race licence, some seat time and four races. Plus, Ginetta chairman Lawrence Tomlinson throws in a trip to Le Mans as part of the package. The guys who bought into the GRDC put their names into a hat, from which two lucky owners were picked to ride in the parade. It’s definitely something to tell the kids about.

So, strapped into the low slung G40 – on a sizzling evening in Le Mans – we joined a cacophonous parade. They’re the blue cars in the gallery below. Horns blared. Kids screamed. Sure, it was late – this is race weekend after all – but the atmosphere was, as mentioned, simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. The streets were lined with thousands of enthusiastic motorsport enthusiasts all in the party spirit. Or maybe thousands of enthusiastic motorsport enthusiasts who have perhaps consumed too much party spirit.

Whatever, the British-built Ginetta got a rapturous applause from the British contingent – all fake wigs and comedy vests on display – everyone egging on the drivers to perform burnouts or just rev the engine and sate their thirst for poweeerrr.

It’s a crazy evening, but one that perfectly encapsulates just what Le Mans is all about. Put it one way: we were in the G40 when an elderly French lady on the side of the road gave us the signal to gun the engine. Put it another way: another participant in the parade had travelled down in his modified, 700bhp Corvette Z06 (the C6 gen). Suffice to say, when he gunned the engine, all hell broke loose.

Have a gander at the pictures below. We’ve got plenty more in store for you too, so stay tuned…

—-

Friday 13 June, 8.30pm

RH: It’s the night before the race. The drivers have thrown sweets at children from the back of old cars (more on that in a bit), carb-loaded beyond belief and are about to ask their race managers to tuck them into bed to catch some much needed sleep.

And while they slumber, dreaming of entry and exit points, it’s a good opportunity for you to learn your lines around La Sarthe.

A couple of weeks ago we headed to Strakka Racing to have a go on their very cool simulator. An ever-crucial piece of ammo for teams as the 24-hour race takes place partially on public roads – so it’s not like teams can hire out the circuit and go testing.

So if you want an insight into what makes a good lap at Le Mans, click play below to let ten-time Le Mans veteran and LMP2 victor Jonny Kane give you a guided tour around a digital lap.

Unfortunately Jonny and the Strakka team won’t be racing this weekend following a crash at the final test at Spa. Even so, if they are still keen, at least they can mimic it in the sim.


—-
Friday 13 June, 7.00pm

Jason Barlow: Your Porsche correspondent reporting in from Le Fawlty Towers. Actually, I’m staying in a lovely hotel in Le Mans centre ville. It can’t be that bad, because the Audi drivers are all staying here, too.

I know Tom Kristensen a bit, and Loic Duval’s replacement Marc Gene really quite well. Forgive me for not grabbing them as I parked up 15 minutes ago, after six hours on the road, because they looked… focused. I was also reparking the hotel receptionist, Marie’s, ancient Peugeot 206 diesel at the precise moment they were all arriving, and couldn’t face explaining it. It had all the makings of a French motorsport themed farce…

Marie graciously made room for my car, a Porsche Panamera S e-hybrid. And what a truly brilliant thing it is, too. Not least because it actually ADDS miles to your range rather than subtracting them. It’s a plug-in hybrid, with lithium ion batteries, and the ‘e’ part of the drivetrain adds 94bhp to give a hearty 410bhp overall.

On the many long downhill sweeps of motorway from Calais to Le Mans, the 3.0-litre petrol V6 drops out completely, for as long as you feather it. Or you can go into full electric mode for up to 22 miles.

Anyway, it was damn near perfect for the journey down. And why is this relevant? Because Porsche says one of the reasons it’s back in to the WEC and Le Mans is because the new regs are clearly relevant to road car application. The 918 is proof, but so too is this Panamera…

But that’s parked (thanks Marie). I’m all about the 919 from here on. Stay tuned.

—-

Friday 13 June, 5.00pm

SB: It’s driver’s parade time in Le Mans town – a chance for the public to get close to some famous faces and perhaps engage in full fisticuffs for the chance to blag a free cap. Our man on the ground Vijay’s taking part (in the parade, not the melee) so stand by for more…

Unknown-1 Unknown

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Friday 13 June, 4.00pm

MJ: We’re currently in the LAV (Le Mans Assault Vehicle, remember?) outside the Great British Welcome. This is a your quintessential classic show, with about 1000 cars packed into a dusty showground surrounded by the breathless mutterings of men wearing terrible hats and too much sun cream.

It’s held every year on the Friday before the 24-hour race just north of Le Mans in a little town called Saint-Satumin. There’s a theme every year, and for 2014 the show doffs its sportsdrink cap to Porsche. Which attracted lots of, er, Porsches.

As well as the usual fare (Mustangs, British classics and endless Morgans) some rarities made it to the event, including an arresting Matra 530 (mid-engined, don’t y’know), DeLorean, convincing D-type replica, and a curious little blue thing that we BET you can’t name…

Any guesses anyone? It’s the one with the reg ending in 72 in the gallery below…

—-

Friday 13 June, 1.50pm, Le Mans

VP: Just had a quick debrief with Toyota drivers Anthony Davidson and pole sitter Kazuki Nakajima – the first Japanese driver to have scored pole position at Le Mans, no less. And both were wary of the almighty scrum that will ensue come 3pm tomorrow afternoon.

Anthony at least, has recovered from a rather debilitating case of man flu. “I had a chest infection,” he laughs, “many a man would call that pneumonia, but I’ve soldiered on!”

Good. What’s the car feel like? “It been a dream to drive, but we were a little off the pace yesterday (compared to Nakajima’s car) because we focused more on the race balance. We didn’t get a clear lap either.”

The start will be interesting, he notes, with both Toyotas jostling with the scarily quick Porsches. “It’s important to stay out of as much trouble at the start as we can, because it’s going to be a pretty epic fight.

“The really interesting thing is that Porsche have been consistently fast in the second sector – that’s the two straights on the Mulsanne – so if they’re anywhere close to us on the exit of Tetre Rouge there’s every chance they’ll just sail past in a straight line going down towards the chicanes.”

Yikes. “And then there’s Audi. They didn’t have a clear lap in qualifying, and they still set the fastest first sector. They know how to win this race, and we’re aware of that.”

There’s certainly no shortage of pace in that Toyota – two wins from two in the WEC say so – but Ant’s pretty Zen towards the car’s reliability. “Even if you’ve got a bulletproof car you can break down. I had a puncture two weeks ago on the test day and to this day I still don’t know how it happened. I drove no differently, didn’t go off line or see anything on track. Then boom, puncture.”

Not that he’s afraid, mind. “You need a certain amount of danger to get the juices flowing as a driver, and for me, it’s the Porsche Curves that’s my favourite part. It feels as though that’s what this track is all about.”

For Nakajima, it’s all about luck. “The car is ready, we have the speed, but for the race we basically have to be lucky enough and we cannot make any mistakes. It’s still a huge challenge and you cannot predict anything.

“It’s tough because Porsche and Audi push us very close. I was also a bit surprised with Porsche’s qualifying pace – surprised they were so fast compared to free practice. I only had three tenths of a second gap, so if I had traffic it would have been too close. That’s why I can’t relax for the race.

“I hope they’re not keeping any performance in hand – I hope they gave everything in qualifying.”

Stay tuned…

Friday 13 June, 12.05pm, Le Mans

ON: I’ve just managed to grab a quick word with Audi about the no.1 car, which was completely wrecked in Loic Duval’s crash in practice. Incredibly, they have built a totally new car overnight. Nothing was salvageable from the wreck, so a spare tub was out and now yet another has been flown out in case of any other incidents. A simply amazing job but you’d expect nothing else. These guys are so well-drilled, but considering its an all-new car and more importantly more complicated than last year’s, it’s even more impressive it it could take part in last nights quali at all.

Marc Gene had to be brought back in from his loan to Jota Sport to cover for the injured Duval and he has been spending a lot of time with the engineers trying to get to know a car he hasn’t spent that much time in at all. Audi’s chances are looking slimmer, but you can never count them out…

—-

Friday 13 June, 11.00am, Le Mans

VP: NEWS FLASH! Aston Martin will soon be powered BY THE SUN. A major announcement in the Aston paddock just now, as Aston Racing boss David Richards announced a new partnership with the Hanergy Holding Group in Beijing to build bespoke solar panels for use on their GT racers.

That’s right, Aston Martin GT cars being powered by light.

Boss Richards told TG.com that endurance racing “is about eking out as much energy you can from the car. Any savings we can make, any ways we can make the car more efficient, any new technologies we can break ground with, are always exciting.

“And here’s the thing, it can be very easily transferred to the road cars too. It’s up to us now to consider the various applications, and Marek (Reichman, Aston design chief) is doing that.”

How exactly does it work? Jason Chow, VP at Hanergy, told TG.com that it’s basically a thin solar film, thin enough to be layered across the car and flexible enough to be moulded into any shape.

“Per square metre it will be lighter than three kilos, and should generate between 280 to 300 watts,” Chow told us.

Marek explained how the power could be harnessed, too. “You can either direct straight to battery or have a storage unit as well,” he said. “This is the reason why we’re developing it through racing, to discover how it reacts in the dirt and heat conditions, for instance. One of the great things about the technology is it doesn’t just need sunlight to charge either, any lighting system is fine. If you’re in a lit garage then it’ll still be trickle charging.”

We’ll see it on the racer later on this year, for the Shanghai race, but it’s still a year or two off road car production.

“One of the reasons we want to investigate the technology is because it’s mouldable, so you can form it to exactly the shape you need,” Marek said. “Designers aren’t constrained by a technology; when technology supports design, that’s something we’re interested in.” Anyone familiar with Marek’s design – One-77, Vanquish, Vantage etc – will be pleased to hear this.

It won’t be constrained to a particular model either, because Aston sees it as applicable to all their cars.  “We see it as a performance aid,” Marek said, “so it doesn’t matter whether we put it on a Rapide or a Vantage.”

(Here’s Jason Chow with Aston racer Darren Turner holding an example of the solar film)

Aston pic

—–

Friday 13 June, 9.30am, the back of a van, somewhere in Le Mans


cali1MJ:
These words come to you from the back of a van. Which, so far, has combined the virtues of minibus, hotel, café, and now office. I’ll get to how I came to stay here shortly  – which was dictated more by the abrupt firing of synapses than anything approximating a plan – but I need to tell you five reasons why the VW California is, unquestionably, the world’s finest Le Mans Assault Vehicle. LAV, if you will (ironically, the one thing it lacks).

1. The bed(s)

You can get four actual people, lying down, in here (though they’d have to be on first-name terms). See, the roof pops up (automatically) converting something that shares the dimensions of a van to something as tall as one of those mortician-grey South London low-rises. And you know what? They’re pretty bloody comfortable. And as a 6ft 3er, I could unfurl myself on both decks without colliding with a bit of Volkswagen. Also, providing you’re on the bottom, metal deck, the sound insulation’s pretty bloody good. A colleague slept in the canvas top deck and informed me that there’d been a generator running all night, something loud had been doing laps in the morning, and that I snore quite loudly.

2. The wifi

Yep, it has wifi. And it works. Well, it worked well in England. Which isn’t much use (unless you’re 02, who’s share price I’m single-handedly increasing with my roaming data bill). But the point is that you read about tech like this all of the time, but when you finally get your hands in it, the promise tends to evaporate. In the UK, three phones had a fast connection and could furiously WhatsApp our significant others without getting booted offline or losing signal. As it is, you’ll at least be the first to upload your Le Mans 2014 Facebook album as soon as you hit Dover.

3. The details

This thing is absolutely packed with them. A fridge with front and top access (so you can still get a bottle of cold OJ while you’re in bed), a pair of seats that zip into the boot door, a safe-like lockable cubby, climate controls for people in bed, a raisable top-deck floor so you can actually stand up… They’re literally everywhere. And if ever there was something to reconcile Biere d’Or indulgence, it’s discovering a cool little thingumy that makes you say ‘that’s clever’ out loud.

4. The sociableness

Le Mans isn’t just about cars. As you’ll discover shortly, it’s about the people. Last year, more than 250,000 of you turned up, and most of you were wired the same way. Which means you’ll get along. Beers will be swapped, barbeques will grow. And yes, the bloke eating his half-cooked burger folded into a 956 will look the coolest, but the Cali means you can have seven house guests (two on the swivelling captains chairs in the front, three on the bench, and two on the zip-out chairs). You can also listen to some tunes (or drown out other people’s), and even turn the heating on if it gets cold without worrying about the battery going flat (there’s an auxiliary unit stowed underneath).

5. The awning

Yes! It’s an extender. Rain’s coming tomorrow, and while we really don’t want to have to use it, a side-mounted awning means we can double our dry footprint. Or find some shade. And there’s not a lot of that at La Sarthe.

OK, so there are a few minor problems (chiefly the pricetag), but as an eight-time Le Mans veteran, this is the best LAV I’ve ever sat on.

cali2

—-

Friday 13 June, 9.00am, Le Mans

VP: Bumped into Allan McNish on his way to an Important Meeting at Audi – but ever the gent, he spared TG.com a few moments of his time. And before you ask, no, despite being a Le Mans veteran (the man’s won here three times) – he’s not really missing not being a part of this year’s team. “Absolutely not at all. I drove the pace car for a couple of laps yesterday which was quite fun, It was an R8, so I was able to blast it around. That was probably the only point of missing it, in so far as it was a completely clear circuit, and I could just enjoy the circuit and everything else. I don’t miss the race at all though.”

As for the race, he conceded it’ll be a tough one. “Usually we’re a bit stronger in race than qualy, especially here at Le Mans. The Toyota is just good everywhere, the Porsche is fast too and I think they’re disappointed they missed pole. Nakajima incidentally, is the first Japanese driver to be on pole here at Le Mans. Obviously that was a big coup for Toyota. Ultimately the big points come at the end of the race though. We were put behind a little bit with a couple of incidents – Loic’s perfectly OK, though – and that was tough for the guys. But we’ll pull through. We have done before.”

—-

Friday 13 June, 8.00am, Le Manstoyota

VP: A quick update from last night’s qualifying. And the headline news is that Kazuki Nakajima and his Toyota managed to find the fastest time of the night. Meaning that – yes – a Toyota is on pole for the 2014 Le Mans 24 hours.

Porsche made it a fine return to the race however, and keeping the Toyota honest up front was Romain Dumas who put his LMP on the front row. Next up came Sebastien Buemi’s Toyota in third, while the #20 Porsche of Bernhard, Hartley and some bloke named Mark Webber came in fourth.

At this point, you’re thinking, ‘where on earth are the Audis’? Well, they qualified 5th, 6th and 7th. Don’t forget, Audi somehow channelled some witchcraft and managed to completely rebuild its #1 car after Loic Duval had a horrendous smash during qualifying earlier this week.

“The accident looked terrible,” head of LMP at Audi Sport Chris Reinke said, and it was nothing short of a miracle that Duval was only taken to hospital as a precaution. On the eve of his 32nd birthday. Chin up, champ.

Elsewhere down the grid, Ligier took pole for the LMP2 class with a time of 3m 37.609s, while Gianmaria Bruni took GTE Pro pole in his AF Corse Ferrari.

And, surprise surprise, there’s another Ferrari on pole for the GTE Am class too, Sam Bird putting his car ahead of the next placed GTE Am Aston Martin.

We’ll have more from Aston later today, so stay tuned. It’s shaping up to be an absolute corker of a race. Will this be the year that Toyota finally breaks the strangehold Audi has clasped over the 24 hours of Le Mans? Do you want to see Porsche add one more to its tally of outright wins here? Or do you want to see the Four Rings come through again?

Unknown-1 Unknown-2

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Friday 13 June, 7.00am, Le Mans

RH: For many, the journey down is as big a part of Le Mans as the race itself. But it doesn’t matter how many months of planning you put into your Le Mans trip, there’s always one thing that can instantly put a Miley Cyrus-sized wrecking ball through your plans: the M25.

All looked well as we left TG Towers in glittering West London. The sun was shining, everyone had been to the toilet, and I was riding up front in the Nismo 370Z. Glancing in my rear view mirror our convoy glistened in the sun: Aston V12 Vantage S, GT86 and the Swiss-Army-knife-on-wheels VW Cali. They all looked great. Then we hit the M25. And the 117 miles of solid traffic that orbits it.

But once we were over the other side, it was plain sailing down to La Sarthe. The Nismo is a better GT car than I thought. Even though it’s got a chunky 3.7-litre V6 with 340bhp and 274lb ft torque, it’s required the least fuel stops than any other car. And while the shocks are 23 per cent stiffer at the front and 41 per cent at the back compared to a normal Zed, it rides well too. However its party trick was only really noticed when we hit the crowds filtering into the circuit.

In a weird kind of way, Le Mans is a bit like Monaco in the fact that when it comes to rides, exclusivity wins. You see lots of Ferraris, Astons and Bentleys down here but if you roll up to Maison Blanche in something a bit rarer, you get the looks. And the 370Z got plenty of them.

The massive wing, front splitter and dual exhausts turn heads like you wouldn’t believe. And I’m pretty sure I’m the only one here with one. So, if you see someone looking considerably lost in a bug-splattered be-winged 370, it’s probably me.

And it got us thinking. What would the ultimate head-turning, yet practical, Le Mans road trip car? Have a think while you look pics from our trip, and let us know in the handy space below.

VP: If you want to increase the morale of the British public, or indeed, the entire planet, the recipe is simple. Take one Aston Martin V12 Vantage S. Turn it on. Drive it slowly up and down the nation’s highways and byways. Sit back, enjoy.

As you know, I managed to bag the Aston for the drive down from London to Le Mans, and I have never seen such a universal display of good will to the little Aston with the big heart in my life. It only needs a Union Jack flying atop its roof to cement its position representing UK PLC. It’s incredible.The car itself is also something special. That V12… wow. It’s the fastest Aston (outside the One-77) ever built, and feels it. Though of course, you have to be cooking to appreciate it. At low speeds the gearchanges are too slurry to be comforting, and it’s still a porker. The one-piece seats aren’t exactly the most accommodating for a long journey either.

But stick everything in Stig mode and the Aston just wants to run. And shout. It’s a glorious V12. And – aside from the ‘box – a glorious thing.

ON: What to say about the Cali? Well it’s like driving a heavily laden van. You have to plan your braking as it’s nothing remotely car-like, but it’s happy sitting on the motorway and has a massive tank so it’s only used half a tank.

Get stuck in traffic for any period of time however and it’ll give you foot aches. Or maybe that’s down to my size 12s. It does however have a creamily smooth DSG box which made me feel good when I listened to the woes of my fellow convoy members.

In the tunnel it came into its own. Swivel the front seats around and get the chairs out of their clever boot lining stowage and you have your very own Chunnel picnic (pics below).

Thursday, 12 June. 1.00pm, Top Gear HQ

Rowan Horncastle: So it’s finally here, the 82nd running of the Le Mans 24 Hours. And this year you’ll be able to join TopGear.com as we follow it every step of the way.

I’m one of the six TG staffers that’ll be bringing you all the action from the Circuit de La Sarthe this weekend.

With all the rule changes, the return of Porsche and a buzz around endurance racing, this year we’ve recruited more TG troops than ever to invade the Pays de la Loire region.

Our editorial team will be shuffling around Le Mans this weekend, bringing you updates on the racing, the atmosphere and the things that happen when race fans get a free pass from their loved ones and access to too much beer.

And we’ve each adopted a race team. From the car’s progress to the engineers’ Haribo consumption, we’ll be plonked in rival pit-boxes to keep you updated throughout the race. I’ve been initiated into the Nissan ZEOD RC team, and will be in the garage as the experimental ‘Garage 56’ racecar attempts to complete the circuit’s first-ever all-electric lap.

Right now, the ZEOD engineers are currently fighting a battle against technology and time, attempting to overcome mechanical and electrical issues in time for Saturday’s kick-off. But Le Mans is famed as a test bed for new car technologies: windscreen wipers, disc brakes and turbocharging are all graduates from the world’s toughest endurance race.

And if the ZEOD does manage to do a ‘leccy lap, its technology may soon find its way onto your next GT-R. If it fails, I’ll be right there to tell you about it.

Oh, I forgot to say, we’re all currently convoying down to the track in road cars linked to the race teams we’re covering. I’m in a NISMO-tweaked version of Nissan’s big-hearted, lovable ol’ lug of a sports coupe, the 370Z. If you see me, give me a wave.

Over to you, Owen.

 

Owen Norris: I have to confess to being a bit of a sportscar geek. I genuinely follow the WEC all year round, for the simple reason it’s more relevant and interesting than F1.

My first Le Mans was in 1998, when Porsche last won with Allan McNish. That was the last time a GT car won, a victory considered to be one of the best of recent years. Since then, the pull of La Sarthe has seen me attend the last 10 years straight. This place does that to you. It is THE race of all races.

My job? I’ll be following the Audi team. They’ve had things easy for too long, but it’ll be interesting to see how their new, more complicated car does, particularly as the number one car looks touch and go to compete after a big crash in practice yesterday. Our thoughts are with Loic Duval, who has had to pull out of the race and is recovering. They’ve not had a good WEC season so far, but they still start as favourites.

At the start of the year, though, I did tip Toyota for victory at Le Mans. And nothing so far this season has given me reason to change that. The Japanese outfit has been quick and reliable… but only over a quarter of the distance of the 24, so they’ll have their work cut out. I’ve a feeling this is going to be one to remember.

I’ll also be trekking down to some of the more remote bits of the circuit with my photographer’s bib, getting close to the action. Fingers crossed this will translate into some 2am shots of the cars braking into Indianapolis at 200mph. If I don’t get lost.

Our magazine’s long-term VW California is getting me there. This big bus will act as the TopGear.com hub for the weekend, so it’ll be clinking all the way down there with the sound of energy drinks and cheap French lager. Joy.

See you at quali!

 

Vijay Pattni: A confession. I absolutely adore this race. It’s a Hollywood action film played out, beat for beat, with a roll-call of stunning prototype racers. You’ve got the journey’s intro, the step into the unknown, the rising tension, the disaster, the resilience, the comeback, the last gasp for the line and the final moment when the guy gets the girl. That girl being the top step of the podium. I think.

I’ll be analysing this year’s race through a few different lenses: that of a Ginetta Racing Driver’s Club member, and the Aston Martin and Toyota teams. As Owen has mentioned, it’s Toyota who are tipped to take the top spot this year, and for good reason: they’ve won the opening two rounds of the WEC, and that hybrid V8 is looking like an absolute monster of a car. Audi – and indeed Porsche – have a fight on their hands.

Aston are facing up to a tough 24 hours, too. The team admitted that the new V8 Vantage GTE’s balance under braking still needs work, but is nevertheless confident of putting up a good fight. They’re fielding four cars in the GT ranks this year: two in the GTE Pro and two for GTE Am. Double Le Mans winner Darren Turner and Ayrton Senna’s nephew Bruno are in the squad, so there’s no shortage of talent. Wouldn’t it be a great sight to see Aston Martin on the podium?

I’m bumbling down in a V12 Vantage, which is very much not the worst way to travel. If you spot a gorgeous Aston stopped for fuel, that’ll probably be us…

 

Matt Jones: Go to most high-profile motorsport events and you’ll find faux-glam hospitality Portakabins crowding around the best spots. Perilous corners, longest straights – they’re all wreathed by air-conditioned rectangles full of decomposing canapés and competitive lying.

But at Le Mans, the cheapest tickets give you access to all of the circuit’s legendary kinks. Arnage, Mulsanne, Porsche Curves – you don’t need to apply for a bank loan to get up close. It’s spectatorial democracy.

That means that everyone – from blue collar to steamed collar – parks up and pitches a tent to watch the greatest race on earth. Then beer is added to the socialist casserole, and things start getting weird.

Which is where I come in. I’ll be attempting my own lap of La Sarthe (all 8.469 miles of it), and I’ll be showing you the quintessential weirdness that make this event so bloody brilliant. Expect odd cars, odder Germans, and what happens when you inhale too much spent fuel and Biere d’Or.

Wish me (and my liver) luck.

 

Simon Bond: It’s Le Mans trip number five for me, and like everybody else involved in the mid-June exodus, it won’t be my last. Unlike our self-professed nerd Owen, I can’t name every prototype chassis number from 1992 onwards. But I love the drama and unyielding tension that only a 24-hour race can bring.

From the moment you hop on the Eurotunnel it’s a visual and aural assault, and that’s before you’ve even got to the track.

That’s not to say I don’t like to geek out on the tech – and this is certainly the year to do that. Audi’s Leena Gade does a much better job than me at explaining what the changes mean to the teams, but what it means for you and me is unpredictability – and a dead-cert winner does not a good race make.

Toyota hold the points from the six–hour races so far, but the La Sarthe round throws plenty of curveballs as time starts creeping towards the witching hour. Still, Toyota’s where my money’s going to be. Let’s hope their infamous reliability can overshadow the might of Audi.

As TG’s resident social media boffin, I’ll be keeping you across all interweb happenings from the race: the 3am Tweets, the behind-the-scenes YouTube videos and a little bit of video-insight into Team Top Gear’s trip to northern France.

Keep your eye across our TwitterInstagram and Facebook accounts throughout and drop any suggestions of what you want to see to @BBC_TopGear. I’ll be in a Toyota GT86 TRD, following Agent Vijay and his revolving number plates.

 

 

 

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