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26 June 2013

24 hours on from the 24 Hours: some thoughts

Thoughts on an emotional 90th anniversary race at Le Mans

Michael Harvey
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There’s a line in the Rush trailer that I think is somewhat wide of the mark: “the closer I am to death, the more alive I feel”. Would James Hunt really have said that? Racing drivers just don’t suffer such existential angst, or if they do they sublimate it and just go out there and race, as they did for all but 10 minutes of this weekend’s 24 Hours following the horrific accident that claimed the life of Allan Simonsen, the Danish Aston Martin driver (above).

Not that I am suggesting for one minute they care less. As dusk fell, there was an interview on Eurosport with former F1 winner Giancarlo Fisichella that was painful to watch. And you probably need to go see a therapist if the sight of all the cars — beaten and grimy after a day and a night — buzzing the Aston Martin pits as they finished didn’t bring tears to your eyes. That the Astons race in colours that evoke so much racing’s history, both tragic and euphoric, only added to the overwhelming sense of familiar melancholy mixed with pride.

Racing (as Hemingway pointed out, drawing his now familiar parallel with fighting bulls and climbing mountains) makes other sports looks like pastimes. The mortal threat underpins its every narrative, and did so vividly on Saturday, illuminating Tom Kristensen’s win and Aston Martin’s desperate battle for victory. Both stories were chased through the night by #winitforAllan hashtag.

Le Mans is A Great Race, and this weekend was indeed a great race. In the sunshine and the clear night it is a test of endurance, under the pall of black thunderclouds it is pure adventure. I watched this race from home, but have watched many from beside the track, or from the safe isolation of the press room, and I can tell you when those low clouds roll in, turning the valleys of trees around back of the track in to dark tunnels, your heart thumps. Each time a car comes back around you breathe out, each time the safety car goes out, you inhale and wait for news.

Almost three hours of this year’s race came behind the fleet of safety cars, yet it didn’t hurt the racing. I don’t know about you, but in any circumstance, I wasn’t unhappy to see Audi win again. Le Mans is as much about the cars as it is the drivers, and the R18 e-tron quattro is one of the race’s greats, rivalled only by the Porsche 917 to these eyes. I loathe the word ‘awesome’, but with that car Dr Ulrich deserves the moniker. It is almost unimaginable how engineering that complex can be pushed so hard for so long and not fail. Implicit there too is an acknowledgement of Toyota’s achievement: racing Audi to the same lap after just two years with this technology. Audi have been there all this century.

There was of course a great race in GTE too, Aston Martin losing out but for one tyre call in the last hour. The prospect of the ACO’s GTE class and the FIA’s GT3 class making up and next year’s grid featuring McLarens and Mercedes and Audi R8s alongside the Astons and Ferrari and victorious Porsche 911s means 2014 can’t come soon enough.

And it will, of course. feature Porsche, not just in GTE, but in LMP1. Porsche prototypes — 917s, 936s, 956 and 962s, WSC-95s and 911 GT1s — are Le Mans’ greatest narrative. Le Mans is Porsche’s race and it wants it back. That to do so it will have to make a car more capable — more awesome — that the R18 should have you making midsummer plans for next year today.

Racing never really moves on completely — I can’t think of any other sport that has such regard for its fallen — but move on it does, not through any lack of respect, quite the reverse in fact. Overused, yes, but “it’s what he would have wanted” is true here. Everyone out there was trying to #winitforAllan, just as they will next year and the year after.

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