When Le Mans leaves a bitter taste

A chance to work for Aston Martin Racing at Le Mans proved both inspiring and physically draining – and then fate struck a cruel blow…

We’ve all experienced the heartache of a car we are supporting breaking down a few laps from the finish. But nothing can prepare you for the utter despair you experience after you’ve been working for a team throughout a 24-hour race only for the car’s engine to disintegrate in the last 60 minutes.

When the number 009 Aston Martin dramatically blew up in the dying laps of the 2010 Le Mans 24 Hours, I was standing in the Aston pits having helped look after its wheels and tyres for the past three days. I couldn’t believe it. Everything had been running so well when a remarkable fourth place was suddenly lost. I felt drained of all the adrenaline I’d been running on for the past 32 hours and, it pains me to say it, but I said my goodbyes and left the circuit before the race had finished. I was gutted.

The idea for this piece was spawned at a sunny press day at Goodwood. Darren Turner and I got talking, and a few months later I found myself sat in front of George Howard-Chappell, team principal of Aston Martin Racing, at its Oxfordshire base. “There’s plenty we can give you to do,” he’d said, “but we can’t let you loose on a wheel gun or anything like that, because you’d need quite a bit of training.” That suited me fine. ‘Idiot journalist ruins chance of Aston Martin podium’ was not the aim of the game here.

A few days later and I’m in the Le Mans pits. The teams’ lorries are lined up inches apart and, unlike in Formula 1, the overspill is parked haphazardly as nearby as possible. There’s not much excess though – it’s said to cost €20,000 to park a lorry in the paddock for the week. In the Aston area there are stacks of wheels, tyre ovens, spare car body parts, and a miniature body shop where last-minute repairs and improvements can be made to carbon-fibre panels.

As you move into the bowels of the operation you pass the ‘HQ’, where over 20 screens display video footage of the circuit and, most importantly, real-time information on the cars. The engineers who watch these screens fastidiously can see what the car is revving up to, the tyre pressures, the engine and gearbox temperature, where the car is on the circuit… and that’s just the start. When you next see an image of mechanics trying to catch some sleep in the pits, bear in mind that in a small room behind them are a bunch of engineers who aren’t allowed to even go to the loo without running there and back, let alone drift off.

Next up is the ‘mechanical’ command centre, where the team works on gearboxes and various other bits and pieces. This area proved particularly popular after someone worked out how to tune in to England’s first World Cup match… Then there are the cars. Chassis 007 and 009 are being quietly worked on when I arrive on Thursday morning, and affable chief truckie Dave French takes me to where the wheels and tyres are stored to introduce me to the team of five (six including me) who’ll be looking after them.

I ask Dave whether he shouldn’t be taking it easy considering he’s driven one of the trucks out to La Sarthe. “Usually you do, but although everything’s still legal in terms of working and driving hours, Le Mans is a bit special,” he says. “I was actually here at the end of May putting the pit together.”

Chief tyre man Simon Hogarth soon puts me to work. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s an important job. If you don’t get new tyres in the oven in time, they’ll go on the car cold and you’ll likely be looking at a very wrecked car and/or a very cross driver. After the wheels are removed a man from Michelin checks for abnormal wear, the pressures are taken and you go to the wheel-washing basins. You scrub away any bits of rubber that have stuck to the inside of the wheel and wash off the brake dust (which gets everywhere – see photos). It gets tiring trying to avoid burning yourself on the wheels, which are still very hot, and lifting them into the basins. They may be made of extremely light alloy, but there’s no escaping the fact that rubber is heavy, especially after you’ve washed up to 20 sets of wheels during a race. From the washing basins the wheels go on the Aston Martin buggy – repaired more often than the race cars, I’m told – and up to Michelin to have new tyres fitted.

The Michelin ‘tent’, five minutes away, is in fact the largest marquee I’ve ever seen. Inside are various assembly lines and on each one Michelin staff form a production line, turning out wheels with new tyres in a matter of minutes. Above the lines are signs saying ‘LMP1, LMP2, GT2’ and so on, but curiously one says ‘Peugeot’. Do they get a line to themselves because they pay more? “No, it’s because they’re bloody French, isn’t it?” says one mechanic…

Thursday afternoon wears on and soon it’s time to get the wheels in the ovens for evening practice. The heaters pump in hot air and a thermostat keeps the temperature at a steady 70 degrees Celsius. “What you want to do is get the wheels hot,” Simon tells me. “If they’re hot then they’ll hold the temperature and the tyres will stay warm.” And, once out of the oven, prove a handy place to keep your breakfast hot…

Practice passes without incident and the team is quick to leave the circuit afterwards, aware that the more sleep they get before Saturday the better. There’s no track action for the 24-hour cars on Friday, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to do. Most importantly the race engines need to go in the cars – and these have just arrived from the factory.

While the qualifying engines – which have no more power than the racing version – are being taken out, Simon introduces me to perhaps the most satisfying job a tyre man has: scrubbing off excess rubber. It was a role I’d get familiar with over the weekend, especially when the team cottoned onto the fact that I quite enjoyed it, despite one of the 009 drivers showing a remarkable ability to go off-line and pick up excess rubber…

Aston has designed a metal fitting to go on the end of its heat guns (which fire air out at 650 degrees) that makes it easy to scrape off the pick-up. “When you do this in America you get a massive crowd of people watching you,” says truckie Dave. “They love it!” Even at Le Mans various VIPs who were being shown round the pits stopped to take photos. “Are you taking a layer of rubber off?” they asked. I say I’m just taking the excess off, leaving the tyre with plenty of life in it – and I sound like I know what I’m talking about! Little do they know I’m just a moonlighting journalist…

Race day is soon upon us and everyone leaves it until the last moment to change into fireproof romper suits for morning warm-up. “You don’t want to change too soon, otherwise people will think you’re really weird,” Simon warns me. But come 1.30pm everyone is suited and wired up to the team radio.

The race starts without drama and straight away the pit is filled with fold-up chairs and mechanics trying to snooze. It’s not easy – dozing team members must beware of people taking their pictures or tickling their heads with a tape measure…

Luckily it doesn’t take me long to get into a rhythm: car in, wheels off, check the pressures and tyre wear, into the washing area, up to Michelin, back in the ovens, double espresso, food, try and sleep; car in, wheels off… As the night wears on things start to get monotonous. Your headphones – which under no circumstances are you to remove – get heavy and make your ears hot, your eyes start to sting, and the fireproof suit has a curious ability to make your boxer shorts ride up to your armpits.

By now the pitcrew is running on autopilot, trying to find a quiet area at the back of the garage when there’s nothing going on. It’s only when the call comes over the radio “box in two laps, box in two laps” that everyone jumps to attention. When there’s something to do everyone is 100 per cent focused – it’s astonishing given how little sleep they’ve had.

I’ve heard people say that if you stay up all night you reach your lowest ebb at 4am, and by 4.15 I know what they mean. I am shattered, but I have too much adrenaline pouring through me to sleep for more than 10 minutes at a time. I start querying my mental state – why had I asked to do this? But just as I think we are through the worst, at 9am the radio blurts into life, waking me from another camera flash-filled sleep. “The gearbox oil temperature is too high on 007, we may need to get it in the garage…”

Everyone is up in a second. A gearbox problem is no small matter – the whole thing will have to be removed. Chairs are cleared, guests (who are usually very welcome) are unceremoniously thrown out and the spare bodywork that’s been lying on the pit floor in case of an emergency is stacked wherever there’s space. The whole team is stretched to the maximum removing the gearbox when it’s time for the other car, 009, to come in for fuel and tyres. Chassis 009 has started to need ‘oil bombs’ – a canister filled with two litres of pressurised oil. When the car comes in the ‘bomb’ is plugged on and the oil administered to the engine in a matter of seconds. Then 009 goes back out and shortly after 007 has a new gearbox. The speed at which the team has worked is astonishing.

As the day wears on the works Peugeots drop out and the atmosphere in the As

“Negative, I didn’t lock up.”

“Sam, slow down, we saw blue smoke, try and get back to the pits.”

And then the engine went. Along with the energy I had left, the excitement, the satisfaction of a job well done and, most importantly, Aston Martin’s chance of recording another fourth-place finish at Le Mans.

“Sam, try and stop near a fire marshal.”

“Where are the fire marshals? I can’t see any. Shall I get out?”

“There’s one there, stop. Yes, confirm, get out otherwise you’ll be on fire! Take the mobile phone with you. I’m sorry.”

Even if the car I was working on didn’t finish, Le Mans 2010 was an amazing experience. Some of the guys in the pits couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in what they do – to them it’s an everyday job. To me it was a chance to see what goes on behind the scenes, a chance to be part of a team – a British team at that – and something that will remain as a very special memory. For Aston Martin it’s now a case of waiting for the 2011 regulations and then planning an assault for outright victory at La Sarthe. After this year’s efforts, I think they deserve it.