Choices, choices. The first weekend of June offered the Canadian Grand Prix and the chance of another McLaren demonstration; or the Le Mans 24 Hours. Should l escape World Cup-tom Europe and go to Montreal, perhaps the most enjoyable venue in the F1 season? Or should I join 200,000 dusty, dirty and often inebriated enthusiasts, a third of them British, and make a pilgrimage to the event regarded by its detractors as a monotonous grind requiring little driving talent, and whose supporters call the Greatest Race in the World?
No contest. I belong to the latter category and have done ever since I smuggled a radio into my prep-school dormitory in the ’50s to listen to Raymond Baxter under the bedclothes. For me D-types, DBR1s and Testa Rossas held even more magic than Vanwalls and 250Fs: still do. Twenty years later! found myself doing those same BBC bulletins, on the hour every hour, which helped me understand the extraordinary rhythm of this giant event, the relentless cycle as hot afternoon yields to cool evening, a hard night punctuated by treacherous rain, a fitful dawn, a sour-mouthed morning and back to the same hot afternoon. All the time the cars chum on, ever more stained as the exhausted crews, progressively grimier, try to keep them churning. Les Vingt-Quatre Heures is a huge happening, and it cannot be categorised into an easy pigeonhole.
As everyone has their own romantic ideas of Le Mans, there’s no shortage of people to say the race isn’t what it used to be. It was first run 75 years ago to show who built the fastest, most reliable production cars. The traditional sprint start (killed in 1970 by seat belts) ensured you had a starter that worked, and in the early years you had to run the first hour with your hood up.
And, while the cars got faster, the link with production cars continued. In the ’50s Jaguar’s D-type was designed only to win this race, and shaped by Malcolm Sayer to be as fast as possible on the straight. But it spawned the E-type, one of the most effective mass-production sports cars of the century, which bore its aerodynamic shape and monocoque its construction, proving that racing does improve the breed.
But now, say some, Le Mans has moved so far from its original aims that it has lost its relevance. Look at a projectile like the GT-One Toyota and the link with road cars is hard to make. Which is why I was so pleased that Porsche, in their 50th anniversary year won this year’s race. Down the years, Porsche have, more than most, kept faith with the original concept of the race. Of course their GT1-98 is not a car you’d like to drive through traffic — but the streamlined Bugatti that won in 1939, and those D-types, seemed just as outlandish in their time.
Porsche have been racing for most of their half-century: at Le Mans they’ve been class winners since the ’50s, and in the last 29 years they’ve now won outright 16 times. If you look at a 911 in the showroom you’ll see countless features that are on the car because of that relentless competition development. Racing improving the breed again: it’s much easier to say that about Le Mans than Formula One.
More telling is the GT2 category. Instead of encouraging pure race cars which may eventually influence road cars, GT2 does it the other way round: it admits production cars and, with suitable modifications, lets them race. Which is what the Le Mans organisers were about back in 1923. While the good burghers of the Bentley Drivers’ Club might dislike the analogy, I see a close link between the Speed Sixes of the 20s and the 8-litre Chrysler Viper. The Viper is basically a road car. There were five in the race, grumbling down the Mulsanne Straight at 197 mph. Four finished, with Justin Bell and teammates winning the class by completing 2647 trouble-free miles in the 24 hours. A grand bit of touring indeed.
This year’s race promised much, in particular the greatest battle in recent years between major manufacturers: real works teams from BMW (new Williams-built prototypes), Toyota (devastatingly fast new coupes), Mercedes-Benz (a lighter V8 version of the CLK racer), Nissan (four updated versions of last year’s R390s and 25,000 miles of testing) and Porsche, with their so far fragile GT1-98s.
Mercedes took pole but, in an utter catastrophe of unreliability, lost both cars in the first two hours. Nissan opted for a steady pace strategy which, given the race’s reputation for seeing the fastest cars drop out, could have won the race. As it was, all four finished in the top ten, but their best was only third. But this in itself made history, as Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Aguri Suzuki and Masahiko Kageyama are the first all-Japanese team to stand on the Le Mans podium, drivers and car — even if Tom Walkinshaw had a fair bit to do with the latter.
The much-fancied Toyota team provided this year’s Sarthe heartbreak when its transmission proved to be its Achilles heel. Martin Brundle crashed during the night-time rain, but the Boutsen/Lees/Kelleners Toyota, after five changes of gear clusters, gradually climbed back into the lead. Then, with just 80 minutes to go, Boutsen stopped out on the circuit — with a broken gearbox. Seeing it on their TV screen in the pits, the exhausted mechanics’ oily faces were streaked with tears.
So the GT1 Porsches, which, this year have had difficulty finishing three-hour FIA GT Championship rounds, scored a great one-two, crossing the line in photogenic echelon exactly a lap apart. The leading driver, in the winning car, shared with Frenchmen Stephane Ortelli and Laurent Aiello (standing in for the injured Yannick Dalmas), was Scotsman Allan McNish. Throughout qualifying and the race McNish was quick, consistent, far-sighted and controlled – exactly what an endurance racing driver has to be. Various setbacks have blighted his career path when it seemed clear all the way to F1, so it is good to see McNish’s talent finding a worthy outlet in the Porsche team.
At Le Mans the race is only part of it. I’ve been there as journalist and broadcaster some 24 times, and still its atmosphere remains unparalleled in motorsport. I watched the GT40 of the Jacky Ickx beat Hans Herrmann’s Porsche by a few feet in 1969, and I saw Jaguar’s triumphant victory end Porsche’s run of seven wins in 1988 – which produced from the British spectators scenes of jubilation more heart-warming than anything Nigel Mansell’s fans could do at Silverstone. Always the scene as the race finally ends on Sunday afternoon, and the crowd are allowed to swamp the track while the drivers come out onto the podium balcony, brings a lump to the throat. Even though there were no British manufacturers to cheer this year a lot of Union Hags, and several St Andrew’s Crosses, waved in the huge crowd to greet the British winner.
There was time to talk to the weary but happy finishers in the pits – British privateer Hugh Chamberlain got both his Vipers home – and hear stories of glory, disappointment and might-have-been before finding a television to watch the Canadian Grand Prix. With McNish’s victory at Le Mans and Coulthard on pole in Montreal, the tabloids were doubtless preparing headlines about Scotland’s Great Motor Racing Weekend. In Canada it was not to be, with both McLarens failing. A more apposite link between the two events would be Weekend Mercedes Would Like To Forget.
Watching on TV, I’m not really in any position to comment on Michael Schumacher coming out of the pits and apparently driving poor Heinz-Harald Frentzen straight off the road. If Schumacher was truly innocent and unaware of Frentzen’s presence as he claimed, then his 10-second stop-go penalty was unjust. If however he did know that Frentzen was there in third place – and Schumacher, whatever else he may be, is the most intelligent of racers, and with the help of his pit crew and his radio usually knows exactly where everybody else is – then the stop-go was a footling penalty for a deliberately dangerous act.
All race long we were, of course, watching another superbly aggressive, fighting drive from Schumacher, and one wonders what the outcome might have been of his pressure on David Coulthard had not the MP4/13’s fly-by-wire throttle stopped flying. But, in the worst way as well as the best, his Canadian display reminded me of no-one more than the great Ayrton Senna. Ayrton was unstoppable when he was on a charge, but he drove as though the other drivers didn’t exist, and he was not above using his car as a weapon. Ask Alain Prost.
Nevertheless Schumacher was perhaps justified in his ire at Damon Hill’s weaving efforts to stay in front when he was coming back through after his stop-go. There was no way the Jordan could keep the Ferrari behind, whoever was driving: the most charitable view one can take is that, between Mr Schumacher and Mr Hill, there is a bit of history when it comes to overtaking and blocking…
One way and another, F1 didn’t come well out of the Canadian GP. Jacques Villeneuve got it completely wrong in his home GP for the second year running, while Schumacher’s little brother Ralf had more than a little to do with both first-corner incidents, stalling on the grid first time round and spinning in the middle of the pack on the second. Still, I have to admit it made dramatic viewing as I sat on the terrace of my hotel in the Sarthe countryside, glass in hand: and losing both McLarens did put an unusual cast on the race. Giancarlo Fisichella was an impressive second for the second race running, and Alex Wurz did a good job in the spare Benetton to take fourth behind Irvine’s Ferrari after his first-corner roll: two Ferraris on the podium, both David Richards’ lads in the top four and, hooray, both Stewarts in the points. Rubens Barrichello in the early stages was wonderful to watch. And, whatever you feel about the complaints of M Schumacher, it was good to see Damon get the recently pathetic Jordan up into second place and sad to see it eventually fail him with an electrical problem.
It was a very different sort of circus from the one in France. Driving back among all the British enthusiasts on Monday morning, I reflected that Formula One continues to be what I want to watch most weekends of the year. But Le Mans is like Christmas. Once a year is enough but you can’t miss it when it comes around.