The 71st Le Mans 24 Hours
- Mark Cole's Le Mans
Under An English Heaven

Eurosport's Mark Cole looks back over a busy week on air.

For a British television broadcaster, nothing can beat a British victory in a global sporting event. And none of them come much better than winning the Le Mans 24 Hours, even to those with little interest in motor sport.

For Bentley - the very epitome of Englishness - to score again in front of 60,000 British fans and millions more watching our coverage at home is as good as it gets.

Eurosport had not even been thought of in 1988 when Jaguar took its first win for 31 years, although we were on air by the time McLaren won a hard, wet, 1995 race against six other F1 GTRs, Courage and Ferrari F40s.

Since then, every winner has had the D-plate shown against its name - Joest, Porsche AG, BMW and Audi. Until this year.

Bentley had not been back to La Sarthe for 71 years when it announced its three-year plan in 2001 - to win the race outright for a sixth time. Following the Tom Walkinshaw school of logic, it knew it could take three years to claim the top prize.

It surprised itself the first year by finishing third overall and winning GTP, and won GTP again in 2002, although this time behind the three factory Audis. With only customer Audis at Le Mans this year, the way was clear for Bentley.

So too for us - the British Eurosport commentary team of Martin Haven, David Leslie and myself - with a scheduled 14 hours live on-air ahead of us, from our Friday night qualifying highlights show, through the Saturday warm-up and the wonderful Legends sprint, to the great race itself.

We had plenty to talk about even before the start: the 80th anniversary of the first Le Mans, at which Bentley was the only non-French contestant; the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Corvette, which was chasing a hat-trick of GTS wins; the 100th anniversary of past winner Ford (although
we counted only two Ford engines on the grid, and no official recognition of the centenary); the 24th start for Japanese samurai Yojiro Terada; and the possibility for either Tom Kristensen, Frank Biela or Emanuele Pirro, their dream team now broken up, to become the first four-in-a-row winner.

Less affected than the rest by this year's 10% power cut (across all the classes) after Ingolstadt engine work, Bentley had no problem claiming the front row.

Qualifying had offered little in the way of surprises, other than a mighty effort by Jan Lammers' underfunded Racing for Holland team. Jaguar's 1988 winner put the Dome-Judd on the second row after shaming the three 'customer' Audis.

The word 'customer' was bandied about a lot last week. Audi's three-times winning Joest Racing operation was officially unemployed for 2003, but its engineers were spread up and down the pitlane - among all three Audi privateer teams (Champion, Audi UK and Audi Japan) - and at Bentley. The #7
Bentley was almost entirely German crewed.

"Why reinvent the wheel?" asked Bentley advisor Derek Bell, when we put it to him on air. "These are brilliant people, so why waste their talent?" Reinhold Joest himself maintained a low profile, present but virtually invisible. Paddock talk suggested that he and Audi will be back with the R9 - or whatever it is to be called - in 2004.

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The only black cloud in otherwise clear midsummer skies over the two evenings of qualifying came when Jamie Campbell-Walter crashed the Lister prototype heavily at the new Esses. The pitlane collectively held its breath as rescue crews worked to free him, but happily the Englishman was released with nothing worse than severe bruising to his ankles. Lister's return Le Mans, however, was over.

The American Corvette squad knew after the test day that it was going to have to fight for GTS victory, now that the Prodrive Ferrari 550s had benefited from a further year's development.

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Tomas Enge and Darren Turner dominated qualifying in the scarlet Veloqx Prodrive cars, while the 'Vettes - a patriotic red-white-and-blue after the canary yellow of past years - could only follow, down on speed on the straights, but with reliability perhaps on their side.

A good luck message from President Bush was read out to the team before the start - but after recent events in the Middle East, GM stopped short of reading it out to the French. We certainly didn't...

It was down in the GT category where the closest action was seen - just 0.044s separated Porsche factory drivers Lucas Luhr and Timo Bernhard over the 8.5-mile circuit. Both their respective Alex Job-Petersen and Racers Group GT3-RSs, this year's Sebring and Daytona winners, had heavy factory
support.

If anything, qualifying was as exciting as the race this year, although Le Mans is essentially an occasion. The city fills up from Monday morning as cars are scrutineered in the Place des Jacobins, and by the end of the week you cannot move.

Many felt, however, that Wednesday night was quieter than in years past. The atmosphere wasn't quite the same, perhaps because there had been a public holiday on the Monday followed by a national strike on the Tuesday. Maybe the locals were just shell-shocked.

Whatever, the local press got involved in a spat with the circuit over official 2003 crowd figures - while the ACO claimed the audience was the same as last year (220,000) "plus or minus 2%", "Le Maine Libre" suggested that hotels, grandstands and traffic queues were notably less full than 2002.

"The race marketing suffered because of the economic downturn combined with a drop in the number of factory teams this year," it wrote, claiming a 10% downturn.

None of that mattered to the British hordes, packing the groaning RN138 from Rouen with TVRs, Elises, Porsches, Caterhams, Cobras and Jaguars. There were also, notably, convoys of Bentleys of all shapes, sizes and vintages. This was going to be THEIR year.

By Thursday night, the campsites and stands were pretty full, and the Le Mans ambience I have revelled in for the past 22 years was the same as ever. Even by 11pm Thursday night as darkness finally came, you could cut the heat with a knife. This was going to be a hot one.

Little had changed since our sauna of 2002, except we had bought a $10 electric fan to try to cool our non air-conditioned, glass-walled commentary cabin high-in-the-sky opposite the pits.

All the fan did was to move the hot air around, but it prevented us suffering total meltdown in the 40C heat we experienced on Saturday afternoon. The ACO thoughtfully provided a water dispenser, but saline drips would have been more use.

With the morning warm-up safely over, we revelled in Duncan Wiltshire's Le Mans Legends race, providing what must have been one of the most spectacular grids ever seen at La Sarthe.

It ranged from Porsche 917, Ford GT40 and Ferrari 512P, through Cobras, Healeys, Tigers, Chevrons, E-Types, Lola T70s, Ferrari 250LMs, MGs and Maseratis, to the winning 1959 Aston Martin DBR1 driven by current AMG chairman Ulrich Bez.

David Leslie, still smarting from his Proton being taken out of the previous weekend's Silverstones BTCC counter in a pitlane incident, had recently tested the ACO museum's Ford GT40, and had hoped to race it. But the ACO decided it was perhaps just too valuable.

It was the right call. The guys out there were really racing - there were dozens of gravel-bed incidents as narrow tyres ran out of grip or they fell off on each others' oil. It culminated in a hefty shunt for the 1964
Willment Cobra, which left its owner wishing he too had left it in a museum...

As in years past, we sprinkled our commentary with an eclectic mix of guests, the aforementioned Derek Bell our principal VIP this year, but we were also graced with the presence of Porsche's Norbert Singer.

The architect of 16 Weissach victories since 1970, he was the engineer behind the winning 917, 935, 936, 956, 962 and 911 GT1 models, and is still heavily involved in the GT3-RS programme. The Moby Dick and 959 are also on his CV.

Singer retires next year when he reaches 65, and regaled us with stories from the Group C days and beyond, paying particular tribute to one of his greatest drivers never to win Le Mans, the late Bob Wollek.

Norbert had been one of three to receive the Spirit of Le Mans award prior to the race; the others were three-times winner and world F1 champion Phil Hill; and GM's Herb Fischel, who retires in September after 40 years in the Chevrolet NASCAR, IRL and GT programmes.

The first two received their awards with a minimum of words; Fischel turned his into an OSCAR acceptance speech, thanking his fianceé, his fianceé's parents, his parents, his .... No way was he going to forgo his moment of glory!

In the pitlane, our indefatigable Diana Binks caught drivers and team bosses in Le Mans moments of crisis or elation, notable among them the Audi UK spokesman who put his hand up and told her on air, yes the team had made a mistake when Frank Biela ran out of fuel at the end of the first hour.

An hour later, the official version was changed to put the blame on Biela's shoulders - it claimed he had missed the pitlane because he was trying to pass a Panoz. And that from a three-times Le Mans winner…..bizarre.

As Bentley and Ferrari inexorably headed for 16.00h Sunday afternoon, neither had been denied their flag-to-flag leads, except during the early pit-stop periods.

Bentley had a faultless run for the #7 car - the number with which Joest won four times in the 1980s and 1990s - to set a new outright distance of 5143.94km for the track since chicanes were installed in 1990. Even three safety car periods totalling 46 minutes failed to slow the overall pace of Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello and Englishman (there I go again) Guy Smith.

The sister car of Johnny Herbert, Mark Blundell - taking time off from ITV's coverage of the Canadian GP - and David Brabham was the one which hit the back luck: a loose doorframe, then two battery changes delayed it enough to drop it two never-to-be recovered laps back. "If it wasn't for bad luck, they'd have no luck at all," parried Mr Haven. Brabs is now the only Bentley driver yet to win Le Mans.

The two remaining Audis were still impressive, although both had damaging offs and punctures, and finished Champion thirrd from Goh Audi Japan fourth.

Behind, all hell had been let loose in the final hour, and we suddenly had a sprint race on our hands as Jean-Marc Gounon decided he wanted fifth from Gunnar Jeannette's Panoz. The place had long belonged to Lammers, but a battery failure had cost him a lap, and he was now trailing them in seventh.

Gounon literally drove the Courage-Peugeot into the ground, his tyres and clutch finished, but could not pass the 21-year old American, who gave Panoz another best-ever fifth-place finish at Le Mans, in this the roadster's final appearance. Lammers passed the Courage in the final 500 metres to snatch sixth. Wow!

The Corvettes, so reliable the past two years, were being hit by all sorts of gremlins - throttle linkage on the #53 car, a gearbox change on the #50. "But I still love this place," Johnny O'Connell told us. "We'll be back for more next year."

Ferrari fans were already calculating the last scarlet GT win at Le Mans - it was in 1981 when Andruet / Ballot-Lena took their Pozzi 512BB to the IMSA GTX category victory and fifth overall - but Prodrive took a hit when Anthony Davidson suffered a massive accident during the night, after a wheel-bearing
failure approaching Mulsanne Corner.

The BAR test driver was briefly hospitalised after hitting his head on the rollcage, but was released in time to back with the team on Sunday afternoon as Enge, Davies and Kox looked set for a 16-lap victory.

That became 10 laps in the final hour, when the Ferrari parked up for a 20-minute rest, although George Howard-Chappell assured us it was to check all systems for the final stint.

So we had another British victory there to crow about as Jamie Davies drove the final leg, and Ferrari was back on top, albeit with no assistance from the factory. The Corvettes arrived on the same lap, on the same piece of track, split by just 4/1000ths of a second.

The GT category ended in victory for Alex Job-Petersen after both it and the Orbit Porsches had suffered punctured radiators. That should have given victory to the Daytona 24 Hours-winning Racers Group GT3, but its 'bulletproof' gearbox failed and dropped it way down the order.

AJR drivers Luhr, Sascha Maassen and Emmanuel Collard took the win by four laps from the Orbit car, which was pedalled by factory driver Marc Lieb, with Americans Leo Hindery (founder of Speed Channel) and Peter Baron aboard, although both were suffering from the heat.

They were cruelly denied their longed-for podium appearance, despite finishing second, but the team had proved its point. Having started by catapulting t-shirts into the crowd opposite the pitlane, they told us they were now going to have Le Mans tattooed on their shoulders...

We hardly touched on LMP675, the category fizzling out as soon as John Nielsen's DBA-Judd hit starter problems and the pretty little Courage-JPX had to rebuild its engine after a timing-chain failure, only for it to go again.

Noel del Bello's ageing Reynard-VW won the class for the now defunct manufacturer for a third successive year (in 2001 it was at the hands of a different ROC chassis), marking the end of the short-lived 675 category - it becomes LMP2 with a 750-kg minimum next year. Sadly Reynard was no longer around to see its car emulate Audi's back-to-back triple of the past three years.

The race may have finished Sunday afternboon, but Bentley's celebrations were just starting. On Monday, a 'fly-past' up Paris's Champs-Elysees saw the winning car driven by Derek Bell and the winning drivers on board a pair of 1930s Bentley Blowers - one driven by chairman Franz-Josef Paefgen
- cheered on by thousands of French onlookers.

That reminded me of a story about Steve McQueen when he was filming "Le Mans" in 1970, documented in the Michael Keyser / Jonathan Williams book "A French Kiss with Death".

Invited to yet another ACO and local dignitary dinner in Le Mans during the filming, he had more wine than he usual because there were so many fine vintages on offer. Toasts followed, most of them incomprehensible to the American Solar Productions team, but McQueen was called on to respond.

Getting unsteadily to his feet, he asked the assembled group "why are there so many trees on the Champs Elysees?" The question was translated to quizzical looks and Gallic shrugs. He answered it for them: "Because the Germans liked to march in the shade..."

On Wednesday night, Bentley was to entertain its drivers to dinner at London's Savoy Grill, re-enacting that which its winners of the 1927 race shared. "In those days they had to take off the wheels and axles to get the cars in through the doors," said Bentley press director Sarah Perris. "This time they will have to take off the doors."

To conclude, our annual Eurosport commentary team awards:

Driver of the Race: Gunnar Jeanette for holding off the combined might of Jean-Marc Gounon and Jan Lammers in a thrilling final hour fight for fifth place. They were the first to congratulate him in parc ferme.

Car of the Race: What else but the beautiful British Racing Green Bentley?

Moment of the Race: Jan Lammers' recovery from a 200mph spin through the Indianapolis gravel beds when a rear tyre let go; shared with Marc Goossens who had exactly the same happen in the Matthews Riley & Scott.

Yawn of the Race: the LMP675 category, going out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Finish of the Race: unclassified, yes, but the Orange Spyker was still running at the end of 24 Hours. Unfancied, the all-aluminium Dutch GT finished 148 laps (1250 miles!) down on the winning Bentley, but already more successful than the last team Orange backed...
Mark Cole

Thank you Mark: it’s always fascinating to read your view of the event, from on high. Can the Ed. add another Moment of the Race? Tristan Gommendy’s accident in the last hour. Its timing was most unfortunate, the Frenchman having put his heart and soul into the race – only to lose the Dome at the apex of Indianapolis. The ensuing accident was violent, very fast and ultimately frightening, as he hit the tyre wall (behind which photographers stand) at high speed. Then he re-appeared and drove back to the pits – to retire, in tears. It’s a cruel race…

 

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