***Warning - Stay away from this post if you are NOT a motor-sports fan***
I am liveblogging the 24 Hours of Le Mans as two factory Audi R10 TDIs finish 1 and 3 overall. If you are an auto racing fan like me, you will know that this is a monumental event. The 24 Heures du Mans is probably the most historic of auto races in the current racing calendar. This is the 74th edition and so this is possibly the oldest race in motor sports that still races in its original format.
If you are fan of the Mercedes Benz racing teams, like I am, its interesting to note that the a horrific accident at Le Mans in 1955 that killed 77 spectators caused Benz to withdraw from all racing till they came back in 1987. And Le Mans is also the scene of the famous trio of back flips that the Mercedes CLRs (one of the most beautiful cars ever, if you ask me) performed in on their Le Mans debut in 1999 along the Mulsanne straight, one of them during practice by current F1 driver Mark Webber (he had another during the actual race at virtually the same point on the track!) which has caused Mercedes Benz to stay away from from Le Mans since then (click here to see a Google video, which btw, has a funny description of what happened).
Now Audi powered cars have been winning first overall in this race for the last 7 years (six by the R8 cars and one win by a Audi powered Bentley in 2003) in a row. This year has been even more special. After being virtually unchallenged since the turn of the millenium, Audi decided to make things challenging by getting a completely new 5.5 litre diesel engine this year and the car became officially known as the Audi R10 TDI. And a few minutes ago, just as I started typing, the R10 became the first diesel powered car to win the 24 hours race.
It has been a weekend of racing coincidences. Last Sunday, I came back to find that my latest Netflix DVD had arrived. It was the one Steve McQueen movie that I had been hunting for a long time - Le Mans. With the last 10 days being as tiring as they did (will post on that sometime), I never got a chance to open the DVD. Yesterday I did and having some problems in my DVD player setup I put it off and turned on Speed Channel to find catch the start of this year's 24 hours race at Le Sarthe.
Since Speed cut off coverage after a hour to switch to a Nascar show, I decided to go and watch a movie. And the only movie that was beginning when I got there was Cars. And the lead character voiced by Owen Wilson was called - Lightning McQueen ( a nod to Steve McQueen)!
While I knew last week about the Cars connection, I did not realize that this was the Le Man's weekend because for some reason I was thought that the 24 Hours was always during the first weekend of July.
Once I came back late at night after the movie, I caught another hour of the race as Speed was switching back and forth. And this morning, I again caught snatches as the cars raced closer and closer to the finish. In the end, the C06 Corvettes, always strong performers in the American Le Mans series (of which the 24 hours is the flagship race), ran a very good race too and one of the them finished 4th overall. The C06 won the GT1 class along the way after one of the Aston Martin DBR9s that was leading for most of the way with a one lap advantage fried a clutch prompting a pitstop with less than 4 hours left. The Aston Martins finally finished 2nd (sixth overall) and fifth in their class. The GT2 class was won by one of the Panoz Esperantes, a fitting acheivement since this year marks a decade of their participation in ALMS.
For all the trivia enthusiasts out there, Steve McQueen was a budding American Le Mans series racer himself (Paul Newman is another, I think) who drove a Porsche 908 at the 12 hours of Sebring race in 1970 while preparing for the Le Mans movie, finishing second overall (and first in class) behind the winning Ferrari of Mario Andretti. Another interesting peice of trivia is that McQueen holds1 US patent #D219584 (click picture to enlarge) for something that millions of people use everyday while driving - the bucket seat! Talking about multi-dimensional movie stars, for Steve Mcqueen, racing WAS life.
Another Le Mans trivia nugget - every car manufacturer makes left hand drive cars with the ignition key on the right hand side of the steering wheel. Well, every manufacturer except Porsche! This is a direct nod to their Le Mans winning heritage2.
In the old days (till 1970, a year after seat belts were made mandatory), the start of Le Mans, like Formula One, used to be stationary (now it's a race with a rolling start, like NASCAR). The drivers had to run to their cars from the opposite side of the track from the pitwall and start their cars and drive off. Having the ignition on the left helped since the drivers could save a few seconds by starting the engine with left hand while engaging the 1st gear with the right hand, depressing the clutch with left foot and stepping on the gas with right foot simultaneously thus allowing the Porsche to get off the starting line more quickly than other race cars. And so it is perhaps no surprise that Porsche have been perennial winners (16 top overall finishes) at Le Mans.
 Source: The First Steve McQueen Site
 Source: Wikipedia