I am not sure what prompted me to finally make the pilgrimage to Le Mans in 2002. My interest in motorsport had always centered around the cars, and there had been ample opportunity to observe and enjoy these first hand at a variety of other venues, particularly in the United States. Add to this the consensus that Audi would triumph yet again, and there was little to suggest that Le Mans 2002 would be a particularly notable event.
However, having been drawn increasingly into the bosom of motorsport after a mid-life hiatus when family and career were clearly top (and only) priority, it somehow seemed appropriate that I should make at least one trip to Le Sarthe. Final encouragement from several close friends whose knowledge and credentials in the sport vastly exceed my own tipped the scales, and I joined the faithful in their annual trek to the hallowed ground of endurance racing.
Those same friends went one step further and suggested that I might jot down a few observations of the experience. While it is hard for me to imagine that I could add insight to the volumes of material produced every year about this epic event, I felt at least that this way I would earn my trip and, who knows, there might be the odd lay observation which appears of some interest to the informed or uninformed reader.
The experience met and exceeded every expectation in both predictable and unpredictable ways. The most predictable expectation was that of an Audi victory, which was produced apparently effortlessly, except for the odd puncture which conspired particularly to delay the #2 Audi. For those hoping for at least some inter-team rivalry, the punctures either confirmed one's belief in the destiny of a hat trick for Kristensen, Pirro and Biela or contributed to the conspiracy theory that somehow or other Johnny Herbert would never be permitted to win a major event in an Audi. The Audis then certainly met expectation.
The circuit exceeded expectations. While it can be argued that Spa and the old Nuerburgring have the same physical power and Monaco as strong a sense of history and occasion, there is no other circuit which combines the two and presents itself with such majesty. This enduring effect even compensates for the tinkering that has occurred to the circuit layout, including most recently the Dunlop Bridge sweep to the esses (built I am told to accommodate bikes).
For me the most telling example of the mystique was the ability to still visualize the Mulsanne as a continuous straight by looking through the chicanes and imagining the extraordinary experience of completing that stretch of circuit flat out. It put in proper perspective a Le Mans story told to me by Didier Theys. On that occasion Theys and his teammate, both driving 962s, slipstreamed each other on the Mulsanne for hour after hour simply to save sufficient fuel to add one lap to each stint. Incidentally, slipstreaming on a road circuit at 220 mph to modestly improve fuel economy, while requiring obvious bravery and skill, is probably the most convincing argument for modern engine mapping.
The mystique continues at Indianapolis at dusk and is further reinforced by witnessing the sound and sense of jet-like speed as cars break for the Porsche curves. Even the refurbished grandstands and main strait when viewed from the Ford Chicane capture the atmosphere and character of the old pits and grandstands. In short, the circuit has no equal.
As the race unfolded, on what proved to be a glorious June weekend, the power of the circuit combined with the need for endurance, which the race itself demands, began to mould my perception of what is truly at the heart of sports car racing. First, I realize that the unique characteristic of Le Mans is the way the event tests man and machine to a degree unequalled in any other sports car or endurance series. Clearly, the 24 hours of Daytona, where two-thirds of each lap is spent on the banking, can't compare, and while I admire Sebring as a physically demanding, knock-down, drag-out track, the race is too short. Everything else is a sprint. This is, of course, why Le Mans remains unchallenged as the ultimate test for endurance racers. It is the reason why people will build cars for this race only and why Bentley, though no longer the same marque it was in the '20's, has been so focused on its return to Le Mans and is so determined to prevail there. Only perhaps the Indianapolis 500 creates the same emotion and, at least in the past, inspired constructors to build custom cars for the event. Now, I suspect Indy 500 historians would confirm this has changed with the development of modern commercial race series.
While this conclusion will probably draw a yawn from aficionados, it might be a useful observation for the non-professional motorsport participant seeking to establish a true benchmark for sports car performance.
This then was something of a revelation and caused me to look at the cars with which I was very familiar in a different light. I found that I became more objective when reviewing their performance, and this in turn pointed to some clear conclusions about what it takes to win in this form of racing. I realized that these conclusions are often glossed over in shorter sprint-style races. To my eyes this new prospective, witnessed first hand, was telling.
First, I was amazed given the commitment required to just qualify for this event, how few teams are adequately prepared to win it, either overall or by class. Professionals will undoubtedly argue that statistically the odds of winning if you compete in only one event each year are substantially reduced. However, this is presumably common knowledge, so one assumes it is a reality anticipated by each entrant. The fact still remains that the majority of participants have very little chance indeed.
As an extension of that thought, the other clear observation was the apparently substantial difference in the amount of development work conducted by the various teams. Conventional wisdom, of course, correlates technical development with the size of each team's respective budget. Obviously, this is to a very large degree true. It clearly explains why the perennial winners of late have been Audi, Chevrolet and Porsche. The gap between these teams and the rest is virtually unbridgeable. At the other end of the spectrum, for example, one must consider the MGs. It is common knowledge that this is a technically sophisticated, well-designed and very quick car. Nonetheless, it seems that relatively little work has been done to develop the car, and as a result it has fallen short of expectations at major venues. For the moment at least it will be confined to competitive performance in sprint racing only.
For me, given this new reality, the unsung hero of the event might not have been a car (the Audis are, of course, in a league of their own) but an engine. The Judd V10 has in my view had a fantastic year and appears to have made the difficult transition from the world of high-revving sprint performance to a competent endurance powerplant, affordable and efficient as an engine for privateer teams. They had a tremendous race.
It was perhaps this series of conclusions which left the most lasting impression concerning motor racing or at least sport cars racing. Because it is the defining measure of the competence of car and team, Le Mans represents the strongest possible metaphor for the sport. Essentially, there is always likely to be an unbridgeable gap between a handful (or fewer) of teams who are not only properly funded but understand and are committed to a development program, and everyone else in the field. This means, of course, that it is generally unlikely that we will have exciting racing (as that term is normally used) but instead will have to seek out examples of individual excellence or triumph over adversity. Incidentally, and as the sport's qualified historians will likely confirm, this has probably always been true. Furthermore, there are examples that even I can remember, including the Jaguar and Porsche battles in 1987 and 1988, the Barth, Ickx, Haywood victory in 1977, Lehto's wet stints in the McLaren F1 GTR in 1995 and McNish's drive in 1998 with the Porsche GT-1.
The other observation involves the debt of gratitude that the sport owes to everyone else in the field. That same thought was captured recently in a motorsports publication which also applauded the lower level grid participants (in Formula 1) and properly recognized how crucial was their participation to the survival of the sport. Upon further reflection this is probably healthy, and to the credit of motorsport confirms that it is indeed still a sport which like other sports encourages active participation irrespective of prospective results.
It is Le Mans and Le Mans alone that for me highlights these essential truths. The circuit provides the historical context with which to make comparisons. The race is uniquely demanding in every respect. Because teams make a supreme effort to compete effectively in what may be their only race of the year, we can assume they are offering their best and so we can compare among the best. This defines the benchmark for endurance racing and underscores emphatically the uniqueness of this historic race in this historic place. Irrespective of how many times I return, I now understand what people say when they call this the greatest race in the world.
For me personally the event and the experience have become the benchmark. I shall continue to attend and enjoy sports car racing, particularly in North America, and hope once again to get closer to the cars or even to participate in the sport in one form or the other. My enjoyment of that experience will have been enhanced by knowing what it takes to produce and prepare and develop a proper contender. As a reminder of this, one need only consider past generations of Le Mans winners and to study their philosophy, their approach and their standard of technical excellence to appreciate where that benchmark is set. This will be the enduring legacy of my trip to Le Sarthe in 2002.