A Journey to the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans

So what’s it like to attend the current 24 hours of Le Mans as a spectator? I have been lucky enough to attend the race three other times, but as a member of the media. However, this year I was fortunate enough to be extended a generous invitation by Michelin. Here are my highlights for the weekend, and the storylines that unfolded on the track, with an unforgettable and heartbreaking finish.

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Thursday

I arrived in Paris on the Thursday before the race and we spent the day exploring Paris and seeing all the sights with the Michelin staff and the rest of our group. Our journey would start at the Arc De Triomphe and then on to lunch on the Champs Elysees, and we would continue to the Place de Concorde, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Musée d’Orsay, Grand Palais, Hotel des Invalides, Jardin des Tuileries and many other sights.

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I have to admit it was nice not to have to rush straight to the track – previously. I would arrive and then drive the three hours on Sunday morning to get ready for scrutineering.

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Friday

The next day, we took the train from Paris to Le Mans just in time for the Grande Parade des Pilotes des 24 Heures du Mans, which is one of my favorite parts of going to Le Mans. With media credentials, it is possible to walk along with the chaos that is the driver’s parade. This time, I had a different perspective. Our seats were close to the stage where the drivers and various locals and performers would cross. First across the stage would be the Audi R8 driven by Race Control and an RS 7 Performance Safety Car.

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Each team would stop, and the announcer would ask the drivers about their thoughts on the race. The Porsche driver that claimed Pole Position received his trophy and many other awards would be handed out. There were marching bands, dancers, and advertisers mixed in with the drivers and this year seemed to be extra chaotic. However, it is amazing to see all the fans and the people of Le Mans come out and cheer on their favorite drivers and teams.

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Saturday

I am standing in the Michelin pit box overlooking the starting row of cars. 2016 would be Michelin’s 25th victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Michelin’s 19th consecutive win. Their record would start in 1998 with the Porsche 911 GT1-98 and continues to this day with the Porsche 919 Hybrid. Michelin’s participation in racing has allowed them to test their tire compounds under the most extreme circumstances. For example, the Audi R18 was able to run for five stints on one set of tires, covering 750 km with an average speed of 200 km/h (124 mph).

Sixty cars are waiting at their grid spots, and it takes about three minutes for them all to roll away from their starting positions. The noise and sensation of all these cars leaving the grid are intense. Some of these cars, like the Audi, Toyota and Porsche Hybrid LMP1s with their hybrid drivetrains, are producing over 1,000 horsepower. When you compare the first 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, the Chenard et Walcker 3.0L I4 in 1923, to the current machines that are taking to the track today, 93 years seems like an eternity. Some things have not changed, though. That first car was also wearing Michelin tires.

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Once the race was about to get underway, a downpour started, and the teams struggled to figure out the appropriate tires to install. Some quickly switched to the intermediate slick and others the full wet tires. There’s a river running down the front straight as the teams scurry out of their garages carrying all the gear necessary to switch tires again from their starting positions on the grid.

24 Hours of Le Mans

The Audi mechanics are even wearing portable air tanks to power their air guns to switch out the tires at a moment’s notice. Audi has already changed their minds twice about which tire to use. We are glancing at our weather apps and it looks like the storm will pass quickly according to the radar.

However, it is Le Mans, and those tiny bands of heavy rain seem to stick around for eternity. 3:00 PM rolls around and Brad Pitt waves the start flag. The rain has yet to let up and for the first time in Le Mans history, the race would start behind the safety car. Following the all-clear from race control, the green flag would drop, and the race could finally start. It would take André Lotterer a few laps to move from fifth place to first place. However, the #7 Audi R18 would lose the chance for the top step of the podium during the second hour of the race when the turbocharger failed.

With the race finally underway, it was time for something that I have always wanted to do. A helicopter flight around the track. The helicopter guides broke us up into groups, and we need to provide our weight. There’s no lying here as the passenger weight is distributed evenly. We depart and as we approach Tertre Rouge and the start of the Mulsanne Straight it is even more apparent how fast these cars are traveling as they quickly disappear from view – even from the helicopter. After two laps of the track we touch down. Another bucket list item checked off.

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We would return to the pit suite and from there we would tour the Porsche garages, where a Porsche PR representative would give us nearly full access to the garage. Unfortunately, there are no photos allowed. There were 919 parts neatly organized and ready at a moment’s notice. The drivers, mechanics, and engineers were all fixated on the various screens mounted around the garage. Everyone here has a job to do, and they will not slow down at any point during the 24 hours. There’s not a square inch of the garage that is unoccupied. Watching the Porsche team work was very cool.

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We would also stop buy the Michelin garage to watch their technicians working non-stop mounting and balancing tires. Choosing either the Michelin Slick, intermediate slick, or wet tires is one of the most difficult decisions a race car engineer needs to make at Le Mans. Switching from wet to slick too early or choosing the wrong compound could be mean the difference between a podium finish or not. The dedication Michelin gives to each of their teams is incredible. Each team is assigned an engineer who sticks with the team through the season.

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As night fell, next up was another bucket list item. I have used the famous Le Mans Ferris wheels several times as a backdrop for my photos. However, this year I finally had the time to be able to experience it. The line moved quickly, and before we knew it we were seated in the gondola and off we went.

The view from the top was fantastic and yet nerve-wracking, as I am not the biggest fan of heights. However, I soldiered on and enjoyed the moment. After the Ferris wheel, we decided that it was snack time and indulged in some French Churros. They were just what we needed to stay awake.

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Later that night we would also be allowed to enter the Audi garage, Audi was more restrictive than Porsche. However, they did have a small visitor area set up so that we could watch the team work and not be in the way. Our guide displayed various carbon fiber parts from the R18 and explained what goes into building one of these prototypes. Just before the end, he opened up a box, and inside was an R18 steering wheel. Even the steering wheel is a work of art. We were able to hang out for a few minutes and watch the activity in the garage. The level of discipline among the mechanics and engineers in the garages is intense.

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Sunday

A few people would head back to the hotel. However, us diehards spent most of the night at the Michelin hospitality building watching the race unfold in front of us. Night time at Le Mans brings a whole new set of challenges for the drivers and teams. As the track temperature drops, so does the levels of grip. The cooler air also changes the engine behavior. Not to mention the fact that there’s hardly any light other than the cars’ headlights. The #8 Audi R18 kept pace with the Porsches and Toyotas throughout the night and into the morning. The #8 trailed the leaders with a gap of fewer than two laps, which would be almost impossible to make up. A defective brake disk would cause the gap to widen to twelve laps with four hours left in the race. The #7 car would also be called into the pits to have its brakes changed as a precaution.

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Before the end of the race, we would head back to the Michelin garage for a tour. Michelin brings over 7,000 tires to the track and while they plan on using a fraction of those they are always ready. Also, each and every tire that a team uses must be returned to Michelin. Each tire is inspected and analyzed to help further develop the tires construction and compounds. The whole choreographed effort that goes on behind the scenes was cool to watch. There was a just a constant cycle of teams rolling through dropping off their old tires and picking up the new ones.

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After a heartbreaking finish for Toyota, which would see their leading #5 car come to a stop at the start finish line and quickly be passed by the Porsches. To worsen the pain of defeat, the #5 would not be classified in the race results for failing to complete the final lap of the race in under six minutes.

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The #2 Porsche 919 would go on to claim the top step of the podium; the #6 Toyota TS050 second place, the #8 Audi R18 would take third, nine laps behind the leading car and the #7 car landed in fourth place. Audi would still achieve its goal of bringing both new cars home and score valuable points in the FIA WEC battle.

It was certainly a memorable few days for me with Michelin.

Full disclosure, Michelin wanted me to experience and see first how their brand plays such a big part of the 24 Hours of Le Mans that they provided airfare, accommodations, and meals for this trip.