Le Mans 24 Hours - Mike´s Report.

Samstag, 25. Juni 2016

Le Mans 24 Hours - Mike´s Report.

Here I am - back from Le Mans and I really needed a couple of extra days to let the event sink in. So many impressions, even though I only have been there for 2,5 days.

There are two major differences to my usual reports:

  • it’s in English only this time and
  • you can click on all pictures to enlarge them.

This was only my 3rd Le Mans visit after the bicycle trip 2012 and 2013, when I have been granted asylum at the Audi Sport Camp. As often the original plan was completely different: I handed in 1 week vacation and wanted to drive over for Sunday to Thursday. Then back home to enjoy the complex action on a multi-screen setup.

Then this happened: PR of Ford of Germany - the Director Ralph Caba to be precise - got in contact and asked if I want to join their trip from Friday to Monday. Wait - WHAT?

Let me offer some background to put this into perspective: I work for Ford since many years - I joined the organisation after my MSc in 1993 and had to move from London to Cologne. Where I stayed ever since - Ford is my first and only employer. It’s a great company and I work for Dealer IT Strategies for Europe, which I enjoy a lot.

On the other side I work in the Motorsport area in one way or another since even longer. I run my own little business, which is nice because it’s so different to the big corporation. And it contributes to feed the family too.

There was never a link between the two and I made efforts to keep it that way. Work is work and private is private. I would have loved to cover more Ford content in the past, but there wasn’t much happening from Ford in the sport I love so much.

In January 2015 it changed big time when the Ford GT got introduced. Back then it was only a supercar, no mentioning of Le Mans even though everybody hoped it will take part. When Raj Nair came to Cologne one month later for the Focus RS introduction I asked him about Le Mans, but he kept the answer open. At last year’s Le Mans there suddenly appeared a Ford hospitality and then in June at the Le Mans 24 it became official: Ford will race in Le Mans.

Suddenly it was all dreams come true for me and I first met the GT at Spa 6h.

Being a Ford guy I got super-excited, my desktop at work changed to GT in no time ever since it got introduced. I had no connection to Ford Performance though, they are based in US and subject-wise pretty far from Dealer IT too.

And then - out of nowhere - came this call asking if I want to join their flight to France. As you can imagine I made my decision faster than Williams makes a pit stop!

Originally I would have taken my Transit, bike in the back and all equipment properly sorted to deal with anything, which might come up. But flying is a different story - also you have no van on site to quickly alter the equipment.

I had a long thought about how to be able to do my usual photographing and blogging. With the great experiences I had with the 100D both in Spa als well as during the Nürburgring 24 Hours I decided to stick with that: lightweight and flexible beats heavy and bulky.

Ein von renn.tv (@renntv) gepostetes Foto am

This is the kit, which made it into my bag and I carried these items with me all the time:

Proved out to be the right decision, with a schedule packed like this you need to be able to use spare time to get productive. I got myself a larger WLAN SD card just in time. That way the best pictures from the 100D could go straight into my Instagram feed.

I’ve never joined a race based on an invitation and I was really looking forward to what might happen. My journey started at Brühl train station, which has a direct connection to Düsseldorf airport from where we got on a flight to Paris. Once there it took a while to find our shuttle, but eventually this nice Ford Edge turned up:

… and we had a long, but smooth ride through Paris traffic:

In Le Mans I was really impressed by the location of the Ford hospitality. Look at this picture I uploaded to Facebook. Did you know that a smartphone panorama picture is automatically converted by Facebook into the new 360° experience? Give it a try - great feature!

When I looked to the right I got instantly reminded that this will be the first Le Mans without Gustav Büsing. These are the containers, where all the commentators live:

It made me sad - Le Mans will never be the same without him.

Porsche has a permanent base these days, which clearly does come in handy during race weekend:

There was still some final preparation in progress and this picture is another demo of the great tiny 100D: 250mm in 1/60s free hand - shot from pretty far from the other side of the race track:

Little camera keeps impressing me.

Funny to see spectators around, even though there is no track action on Friday:

I would rather do it like these guys and try to sneak into the pits:

Somebody you know maybe?

The small airport is located directly next to the track and there was a constant stream of private jets coming in:

For us it was time to check in into the hotel - which pretty much blew my mind:

Quite a contrast to my usual Transit flat! It was really nice and also silent, but as you can imagine there was no time to enjoy this. We had not a single breakfast there. However it was really nice to the eye. I wonder how long it takes to mow the lawn.

There was a barbecue in the evening and some drivers came along for a chat:

Including Andy Priaulx, who I will always remember for his first appearance at the Nordschleife. Not only because he did it with the beautiful Ja zum Nürburgring Design, but also because he was the first one I remember, who came to the Ring and was directly up-to-speed. It’s pretty normal these days, but it was different back then. He went on to win the Nürburgring 24h that year with Dirk Müller coming in in second - on the mighty BMW GTR, for which I produced that well-know DVD movie.

Andy confirmed he prepared well for that race - to make a difference these days you have to become even more professional.

Billy Johnson - here on the right - played a major part in the development of the GT and it’s GTE version:

Next to him is Dave Pericak - head of Ford Performance - with Mark Truby on the left - VP for Ford of Europe PR.

Sébastien Bourdais came around too, he is actually born in Le Mans:

Did I mention that the hotel was rather nice?

After some sleep it was already race day and we decided to leave early to try to avoid some traffic:

Back at the track Mark Fields was already there and was looking forward to the race:

He is Ford’s CEO since July 2014, when Alan Mulally left the company. I never met him in person, so this was a bit special. He is more or less the boss of 200.000 people - including myself - so I thought I better behave for a change!

It was time for free practice and for us it was the first time to see the cars in action:

GT obviously got a lot of attention:

This is Roelant de Waard:

Europe’s VP for Sales and Marketing. He too is a proper petrol head and seeing him standing there and watching the GTs on track was a real special moment. A kid on Christmas couldn’t be happier and for me it felt really good that we have racers up there in senior management positions.

Track action was nice and the cars came pretty close to the viewing point when they were about to enter the pits:

Next on the agenda was something I was looking forward to: a lap on the race track with a couple of Mustangs. I read about these hot laps before on the agenda and all of us got registered. But again it went completely different: Wolfgang Kopplin - on the right - joined the company in a similar time period as myself and we actually used to work together back then. He went on a steep career path and by now is MD of Ford of Germany. He wanted to know if there is something he shouldn’t miss and clearly these hot laps were my recommendation - can’t get much better right before the start. Only that no places were left anymore and there went my plan: I offered my seat. I actually enjoyed doing that because the more racing finds it’s way into our organisation, the better.

It’s Wolfgang on the right and Matthias Mederer on the left. Matthias works as photographer for RAMP - can’t wait to see his pictures. He was part of our group of 5 from Germany and even though I didn’t hear of RAMP before, it got my attention now.

My change of plans meant that I pulled the garage tour ahead, which was originally planned for the evening:

Even though no pictures were allowed in the pits, this one was fine:

Once in the paddock I had a look around, plenty of known faces like Benoît Tréluyer:

… or Jörg Bergmeister:

If TV viewers could see how it looks on the other side:

The support race was GT3 with LMP3:

The LMP3 were at 3:55, which is GTE level - while the GT3s were at 4:02,7 on this snapshot.

The Rebellion hospitality was rather classy and they had matching beats for this setup:

It was good to catch up with Pierre Kaffer:

Further down the road was another Ford hospitality, which was more geared towards drivers and team. For example Harry Tincknell:

Inside Raj Nair was present:

… as well as Chip Ganassi:

Allan McNish came by too:

By now it was 13:20 and the grandstand packed already:

Grid walk was about to start and I was lucky to sneak in, that’s the trophy they’re all chasing:

I love the way ACO is celebrating the grid walk, people get a chance to experience the atmosphere:

And the team members, who are enjoying the build-up too:

Even kids!

Some took extra risks for that special picture:

While the cars were hidden in the crowd. Yes, that’s a Porsche LMP1 hidden there somewhere:

Rather difficult to make pictures of these cars, one is mostly shooting pictures of people shooting pictures:

Jacky Ickx has been around too - supporting Porsche:

I have to admit I didn’t mind that HJS didn’t cross my way at all during the weekend, as I expected him being super-present all time.

Long arms came in handy:

Loïc Duval was around - I find him very photogenic:

Remember that shot I did back in 2013? It’s one of my all-time favorites - especially as he went on to win the race:

Needless to say that the Audi looked much nicer back then.

It was time to say good-bye to the front row and by moving down the grid it became less busy:

Much nicer.

Especially as I met Mackie Messer - always nice chatting together:

When I finally reached the GT grid it was time to meet Dirk Müller, but also Henry Ford III, who looks after the Marketing side of Ford Performance:

I’m sure we will hear more of Henry Ford in the future!

Since I arrived I was in the hunt for symbolic Ford vs Ferrari pictures and this out turned out nicely: Dirk talking to Sam Bird and Toni Vilander. Toni was part of the no. 82 car, which kept close contact to Dirk´s winning no. 68 Ford until the end:

That’s Sam’s car next to the Ford GTs:

Yes, I’m biased, but the beauty of the Ford is incredible. Even more so as it is a form-follows-function car - just stunning from every angle:

The GT has seen Le Mans the first time 2 weeks prior the race on test day and there wasn’t much data available for them. Other compete since many years and they know what to expect, but this racer needed to learn a lot. I might be wrong, but to me this looks more like trial-and-error than science. Nothing wrong with that, but also illustrates the steep learning curve:

Time for Mackie to join the party:

I continued with my photo hunt and I like that one a lot:

For the team members grid walk can be boring, as it takes so long - on the other side tension is high - this is just 1h before race start!

Which meant everybody but team members had to leave the grid for that classic Le Mans setup:

On my way back to the hospitality I went shopping first:

Daddy can’t come home with empty hands! I really like the 24h logo - it’s such a clever and beautiful layout - and timeless too. And our little girl enjoys it too!

Back home it started to rain - just in time for race start - and umbrellas went up everywhere:

The rain became that strong that the race director decided to start behind the safety car. At Ford people were looking forward to the race - no matter what!

The installation laps became a pretty wet affair, but later the race as such remained dry:

I was a bit surprised to see the marshals without any weather protection, at Nordschleife they a least are allowed to install some kind of roof between the fences:

I did have the luxury of a roof, which was nice and allowed me to concentrate on shooting nice pictures - like this one:

I always miss the Air France parade 5 minutes before the start and this year was no exception:

When you hear them it’s already too late!

The rain was no surprise, as it was forecasted and people came prepared:

All grandstands were packed! What a massive crowd:

It took a while before the race got started properly, but then even the sun came out. The no. 68 car was the one to look out for - here it is already in the lead in the early stages of the race:

After 2 hours it was dry throughout and time for a pit stop:

While we got a chance to visit Michelin:

As a French company Le Mans for them is really important and they supply tires to 33 teams. So how many tires would that be? As it turns out: 6.000! That’s a lot.

We have been fortunate to meet Jérôme Mondain (left) - the Endurance Racing Program Manager - many thanks to Michelin’s Michael Küster (right) for organising this:

I kept asking questions - here is my take out:

  • Tires need to stay 1 hour at 80°C before they can go onto the race car.
  • Pressure is 1,2 bar cold and 1,8 bar hot.
  • In GT they usually drive 3 stints and in 4 in LMP 1. Not because the tire wouldn’t allow more, but everything longer might destroy their strategy due to the maximum allowed driving times of the drivers.
  • The GT3 tires they use elsewhere are the same as the GTE tires they use here.
  • Even though the works teams develop their own tire, they can only choose from a set of options. Michelin does not keep that secret, but instead would allow the competition to test the choice of the others too. However hardly a team makes use of that.

While I did that I noticed some bloke gaining attention:

… which turned out to be Keanu Reeves - Selfie time!

I’ve never heard about Arch Motorcycle Company though - it is actually his own! How cool is that.

But wait, it gets even better:

Co-founder Keanu Reeves has logged tens of thousands of miles on all manner of motorcycles, all over the world. (..) In fact, he’s only ever owned a couple of autos – a vintage Volvo and a contemporary Porsche.

They certainly got a new follower on Instagram now!

Back in the paddock we first went to the team hospitality:

… and to the lounge above the Ford pits afterwards:

You could see pit stops from above - see the GT on the monitor at the time everybody is trying to catch some action.

Back in the paddock I came across more known faces - like Dave Richards:

… or Fritz Enzinger:

Porsche had their engine on display - really nice:

By now it became dark and beauties like this looked even nicer than during the day:

How about a Lego GT40?

They even had a Carrerabahn in the hospitality and the level of detail was amazing:

I used the time for some night action shots:

… and it was good to see that Mark Fields was still around:

We even had a little chat and it was nice to see that he really enjoyed the atmosphere.

Conditions obviously became difficult for pictures, but the little Canon still managed to deliver:

This one was funny, the flash from the grandstand came synchronised with my shot:

I love pictures of people shooting pictures:

We then went back for some sleep and it was another early day in the morning to avoid traffic. I did however see a right hand drive Mustang for the first time - would love to try that:

Back in the paddock I had the best coffee since some time:

I enjoyed shooting - this Ferrari at 1/15s - and followed the race via Radio Le Mans:

It looked good for Ford - but also for Toyota, which I liked a lot.

The second place Ferrari had a problem with the position signal light - but besides that I like the fact that it’s going through the Ford curves on this picture:

After lunch:

… we had the chance to visit Hunaudières:

… which was pretty exciting. Usually you can’t get there as a spectator, but Ford installed a pretty nice visitor point:

Thanks to Radio Le Mans I’ve been in the known throughout and kept my fingers crossed for the no. 68, but also for the no. 5 Toyota:

When we came back I headed back to the paddock - however I was a bit undecided on where to watch. The lounge above the pits was packed:

It was already 15:40 - funny enough it’s 15:40 now too while I write this! - and the grandstand was packed as well:

So I tried to sneak into a pit - preferably the Ford one. Not easy, but I managed (thanks John!).

And what an experience that was! Tension was really high - especially when the Toyota no. 5 broke down right at the finish line - 5 mins before the race ended. That’s Dave Pericak, Raj Nair, Henry Ford and Mark Fields standing in front of the monitors:

That all burst into joy, when the no. 68 crossed the line:

… and needless to say it was very special for me too!

I even got soaked in Champagne, which was an unforgettable moment:

These pictures don’t need any explanation:

However, it was really sad to see the tough luck that hit Toyota, while at the ceremony everything was ready to go:

That’s the moment when everything is flooded with people - and I have been part of it:

Clearly Porsche guys were happy:

… but what I loved most was the way Porsche handled the tragic events after the race.

The no. 5 Toyota, which had a clear advantage and was ready to take the win, didn’t even classify, because it exceeded the maximum time of 6 minutes for the last lap. From the biggest success in Toyota’s history to nothing - within 5 minutes.

While these guys started National Selfie Day:

… I thought it’s time for me too:

I waited for the GT podium and it was nice to see Mark Fields with his son as part of the crowd too:

I’ve never seen equipment like that before:

When I tried to upload something it mostly failed due to the network overload. Lucky us that we had WLAN in the hospitality!

Then they came and it was good to see Dirk up there - now with a Le Mans class win under his belt:

And because Risi Competizione is US based as well, it was an all American affair:

Here they are again: Toni Vilander and Dirk Müller - remember the picture from the grid?

One proud Mr Ford:

… correction: 2 proud Mr Ford!

… and Sébastien Bourdais knew what to do:

Funny that, because the Champagne shower got invented exactly 50 years ago - when the Ford GT first won Le Mans!

It was great to see Sébastien Bourdais up there - the man born in Le Mans:

Only after reading this you realise what a tough job this has been.

The biggest applause however came for this man: Fred Sausset managed to finish Le Mans despite having no legs or arms:

Such a remarkable achievement!

Nothing is safe when the fans assist the teams in getting ready for the journey back home:

And over it was, the race went in no time and it took me a while to sort through all of the impressions I had in such a concentrated form!

Ford’s performance has been a discussion point during and after the event. Clearly I’m biased - who wouldn’t after 22 years of service. Graham Goodwin just published this piece yesterday, which is an interesting read.

Bottom line I’m proud that I was able to witness the race in such intensity and very much look forward to the things to come.

If you made it to here: thank you for reading and I’m always interested to hear your feedback via social or email!

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