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Why the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the race that defined my career – is so special

5w ago

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Tiff Needell is a television presenter and former racing driver who competed in Formula 1, British Touring Cars and at Le Mans.

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If there was one race that defined my professional racing career then it has to be the 24 Hours of Le Mans. On no fewer than fifteen occasions I ventured across the English Channel to contest one of the three greatest races in the world and spend a magical week in a beautiful part of France.

It’s not the race that most drivers dream of doing first – that would be the Monaco Grand Prix or the Indianapolis 500 depending on which side of the Atlantic you come from – but once those dreams are either fulfilled or found to be out of reach then Le Mans is where you want to be.

It’s been going since 1923 when André Lagache and René Léonard managed to drive 1373 miles in 24 hours to win in their Chenard & Walcker 3 Litre Sport while the current distance record is held by the 2010 winning Audi crew who managed 3362 miles!

1966 and the GT40s come home first, second and third – Ford's first win at Le Mans. Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt would repeat the feat in 1967 as Ford took a run of four straight victories

Mind you, Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt covered only 110 miles less than that in their Ford GT40 way back in 1967 before they added the Ford Chicanes to slow the cars down. Yet even then Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep were only 47 miles short of the current record in 1971 with their Porsche 917 – before they built the Porsche Curves to slow the cars down!

Despite being held in France, Le Mans has also become a very British affair with tens of thousands of fans crossing the Channel each year to fill the campsites with Union Flags – and empty beer bottles!

The ‘Bentley Boys’ set the trend by winning four races on the trot from 1927 to 1930, Jaguar and Aston Martin took six races between them in the ‘50s and British-run Ford GT40s won in ’68 and ’69, but the past forty years have seen almost total German domination. First from Porsche with their 19 wins and then Audi with 13.

The much loved Silk Cut Jaguars did get the flags flying again in ’88 and ’90 and McLaren surprised everyone in 1995 but the last win for Britain was with the return of Bentley to the top step of the podium back in 2003.

The Union Jacks were out for the Silk Cut Jaguar victory in 1988

My drives at Le Mans ran from 1980 through to 1998 and I still can’t decide whether 1980 was the best year of my life or the worst!

I’d made it to the lofty dream of the Grand Prix grid that year with what would sadly be my only start in Belgium driving the single Ensign entry, but then failed to qualify in Monaco. On the 20 car grid after the first wet qualifying session, 19th fastest of the 27 cars trying to make the race – 0.03secs behind some bloke called Alain Prost – but then failing to make the cut when forced into a spare car for the only dry session.

With the team thinking their car was better than their driver, Jan Lammers – who’d sensationally qualified 4th at Long Beach – would take my place for the rest of the season leaving me to accept that perhaps a Grand Prix career was not meant to be – even though Jan would regularly fail to qualify in the same recalcitrant machine.

So, when privateer Ian Bracey offered me a drive at Le Mans a month later in his Group 6 open sportscar I wasn’t going to say no. The Ibec prototype had been designed by former Hesketh Grand Prix designer Harvey Postlethwaite and should have been reasonably competitive with its Cosworth DFV in the back, but it was a very low budget operation.

At the wheel of the Ibec

Ian was something of throwback to an earlier age of motor racing, a jovial Lloyds insurance broker with the blood group on his overalls reading ‘A + Whisky’! In the fifties he might have been able to run a competitive racing team out of his private income, but times were changing fast. He’d been a very successful driver in his own right in smaller sportscars, but he was now moving up – just as he was slowing down! Small in stature but rotund in shape, he was affectionately known as the ‘Baked Bean’.

A novel qualifying procedure was put in place for the 1980 race with results determined by the average speed of each car’s drivers and, with 67 cars permitted to practice in six classes, the slowest two cars in each class wouldn’t get to race. With just one five-hour session to set all the drivers’ times and with the session starting wet and then drying out, any car problems would have dire consequences.

As it was I only drove when it was wet, the Bean was way off the pace and, although co-driver Tony Trimmer set a respectable time in the dry, the 11th-fastest car overall somehow became a non-qualifier.

So it was that in the middle of 1980, in the space of just four weeks, I had failed to qualify for two of the most famous races in the world. All I had to do now was get a drive at Indianapolis and get ‘bumped’ like Alonso to be the holder of the ‘Triple Crown’ of DNQs – not the sort of record I had in mind. The good news though was that I had completely fallen in love with Le Mans...

Although I didn’t get to race on that first visit, the experience of driving round such a famous circuit had been just as exhilarating as my drive in Monte Carlo. Indeed, simply arriving at the track for the first time on the Monday before the race had made me feel overwhelming emotion at being privileged to be following in the exact footsteps of so many of my own heroes. The paddock was much as it had always been – part tarmac, part gravel, part grass – with tall firs still standing in the middle to which the lesser teams attached makeshift awnings.

I walked up the steps at the back of the pits and the daunting grandstands opposite reared high above me, the terracing below it forever a reminder of the horrendous 1955 tragedy when Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes had flown off the circuit killing the driver and 83 spectators.

There, still visible on the other side of the track, were the fading circles painted on the road where the drivers used to await the traditional ‘run-and-jump’ starts which had been outlawed some ten years earlier with the arrival of the most basic of safety devices – seat belts! Opposite the roundels were the angled starting lines where the silent cars would sit awaiting their drivers. I soon lost myself in a daydream of all those great races that had gone before.

The whole week that is Le Mans is an occasion that simply builds and builds, from the ritual of the scrutineering in the town centre on the Tuesday to the practice and qualifying sessions on Wednesday and Thursday, and then of course the race itself at the weekend.

One of the Fords heads for scrutineering in the town centre

I walked the whole 8.47 miles on that first visit, blown away by the seemingly never-ending three-mile-long Mulsanne Straight and surprised by the sharpness of the famed ‘kink’ just before the end of it.

Wednesday night was my first time in the dark in a racing car and, with the Ibec being an open-topped sportscar, I remember glancing up at a starlit sky as I belted down that famous straight with more adrenaline pouring into my veins than ever before – oh was I living now!

The long lap with every type of corner was such a refreshing change from the much shorter modern circuits. It took a few laps before I was comfortable enough to take the kink flat out. While the Ibec struggled to do much more than 190mph it was still a corner that grabbed all your attention. The amount of lock needed was as much as it takes just to lean your head slightly to the side and let your hands go with it.

Returning to the pits it was to ‘those’ pits and ‘that’ pit wall that all the greats had climbed in and out of. When work was being done on the car you could stay in it with your helmet off and chat to the spectators lining the little balconies just above you. Le Mans just had an atmosphere like no other and one sadly greatly reduced when those iconic concrete ‘dug-outs’ were pulled down to please the modern world in 1991.

With no radios in the cars, the pit signalling back then was done from a wall on the inside just after the Mulsanne Corner – the slowest on the circuit and about half-way round the lap. Communication from pits to signallers was via telephones that looked like they had come out of the First World War trenches as they had to be vigorously wound to make them ring. So once a lap – once every four minutes – you would be shown a board and probably given a wave of encouragement from your enthusiastic crew and then you were back on your own as you hammered off down the tunnel of huge pine trees towards the Indianapolis Corner. Magic!

We were back the next year and made the race, battling for 15 hours with all sorts of problems before the gearbox cried enough, but 1982 brought the dawning of a new era that would keep me busy across the world for the next ten years... Group C sportscar racing had arrived. Closed roofs and fuel consumption restricted, it had its ups and downs but developed into one of the most competitive eras of World Sportscars.

For ’82 I was in an Aston Martin Nimrod which tried to kill me when the rear bodywork, including rear wing, parted company at 200mph down the Mulsanne Straight and sent me ping-ponging from barrier to barrier! ’83 and ’85 were in an EMKA Aston Martin in which I briefly led the ’85 race – the last time an Aston engine did such a thing.

The EMKA Aston Martin in which I briefly led the ’85 race

’84 was a Porsche 956 and my first top ten finish, ’86 a no-show, ’87 and ’88 factory Toyotas unable to keep the pace with their little two litre turbo powerplants, while for ’89 I was in a Porsche 962 that had me bailing out of a blazing inferno when a fuel pipe fractured just two hours short of a fifth place finish.

But 1990 was the year that it all came good. I was racing a Porsche 962 in the Japanese Group C Championship for a private team and the owner entered us for the 24 Hours. Our American crew chief Gary Cummings, who’d been a mechanic himself, meticulously prepared the car, making small modifications to areas where he could see a potential weakness, and then whipped his small team of Japanese mechanics into shape.

We also had a little trick up our sleeve as this was the first year that the Chicanes had been installed in the Mulsanne Straight so there was a lot of debate going on as to whether trimming all the downforce off with a traditional low drag, maximum speed approach would still be the way to go.

The Porsche factory insisted the low drag approach was still the best, encouraging all the privateers to buy the optional low-drag nose and tail but we still weren’t sure. I’d worked out that the three chunks of the now broken up straight were each about the same length as the straight at the Fuji Speedway, so we did our own back to back tests and were convinced Porsche were wrong.

Our Porsche 962 from 1990

My co-driver in Japan was five time Le Mans winner Derek Bell and I’d brought in Anthony Reid as a third driver for the longer races. Unfortunately Derek was committed to the factory team for Le Mans, so I drafted in another under-rated British driver David Sears to complete our line-up.

Without the luxury of a high boost qualifying engine we lined up 20th on a grid packed with factory entries from Jaguar, Nissan, Mazda, Porsche and Toyota. With no fitness gurus, masseuse or dieticians on the squad we elected to single stint the early hours and then maybe double in the cool of the night. Driving flat-out for every lap.

By the end of the first hour we were 15th, an hour later 10th. By half distance we were 9th, three quarters of the way and still six hours to go we were 5th. Gary’s car was running faultlessly, and our Japanese crew never made the smallest of slip-ups. In the end we didn’t even double stints at night, so it was one hour in and then two hours off all the way.

Sunday was very hot and the heat of the sun burning through the screen was testing our stamina, with no power steering on the Porsches and a hefty synchromesh gear change, they were very physical cars to drive. Added to that the leading factory Nissan that had qualified 3rd was edging closer and we wanted to at least be the first Japanese entry to finish – the pressure was mounting.

With an hour to go we were 4th and the Nissan had dropped away, we could relax a little and be exceptionally proud of our achievement but then, with just three laps to go, we were gifted an unbelievable podium finish when the private Brun Porsche running 3rd – that had also opted for a high downforce set-up – ground to a halt. Le Mans is a race that gives and takes at its will.

Tears flooded my eyes as I cruised the final lap in convoy with the two factory entered Silk Cut Jaguars that had finished in front while behind us would be a works Porsche, a works Nissan and a works Toyota – a result to be very proud of!

Up on the old podium in 1990

The podium that year was to be the last to be held on the famous Pits balcony that was about to be demolished and 1990 was also the last year of the great Group C era as new regulations slowly brought about its downfall.

I returned for two more outings in Porsche 962s, one in a Jaguar XJ220 – that we had up to 5th when the crankshaft broke – and then two grand finales with the mighty Jaguar V12 powered Lister Storms. But I’d go back tomorrow if anyone offered me a drive!

With its ever evolving regulations, Le Mans is at something of a turning point at the moment with more road-car based ‘Hypercar’ regulations being discussed for the future. Audi and Porsche have departed the scene and only last year’s winners, Toyota, remain as a factory entry running to the very complex hybrid regulations at the head of the LMP1 category.

Only six privateers – two Rebellions, three BREs and one ENSO CLM to be precise – challenge Toyota in the top class and, despite constant adjustments of the regulations to try and make their non-hybrid cars more competitive, few would predict anything other than another Toyota win this year.

Over the last eighteen months the FIA have altered the calendar for their World Endurance Championship so that it now ends at Le Mans, meaning the 2018/19 series began at Spa last May and includes two 24 Hours of Le Mans for this season only.

With almost double the points going on the Le Mans race it’s hoped that the title will almost always be decided at the end of the French Classic and that is the headline story for this year’s event as the two Toyota crews battle it out between themselves.

The 2018 Le Mans winning crew of Alonso, Buemi and Nakajima have the advantage and even if their in-team rivals Conway, Kobayashi and Lopez take pole position and win the race they only have to finish 9th to secure the crown so they are odds on favourites to take the title.

The winning crew of 2018

Should they fail to finish then, depending on who gets the extra point for pole, the Conway crew would need to make it home in 5th or 6th to steal it away.

Should both Toyotas falter, going on past reliability records, it’s just as likely that one of the 20 LMP2 cars entered could take the overall win rather than the privateer LMP1s. Strict regulations offer them only one choice of engine – the 4.2 litre normally aspirated Gibson V8 with around 600 horsepower – and a choice of four makes of chassis. This year’s entry has just two Italian Dallaras while the rest of the LMP2s are all French – 12 ORECAs and six Ligiers. They might be ten seconds a lap off the Toyotas but they’re much closer to the other LMP1s.

Another twenty seconds further back is my favourite class, the GTE PROs. 17 entries from six manufacturers and the fastest eight were covered by just half a second on the test day! This is a race that almost always runs till the very last lap with cars that all look very different and the fans can really relate to.

Aston Martin will be hoping for a repeat of 2017's dramatic last lap win for Jonny Adam

Porsche won it last year with a one-two finish ahead of Chevrolet and Ford while the year before Jonathan Adam grabbed the lead for Aston Martin on the very last lap as the leading Corvette dropped from 1st to 3rd behind the top Ford GT. Picking a winner this year is almost impossible but no doubt Ferrari and BMW will reckon it’s their time to shine.

Behind them run the 17 GTE AMs for last year’s cars with eight Ferraris proving the most popular choice ahead of six Porsches, two Aston Martins and a lone Ford. With at least one of the three drivers in each line-up graded as a less accomplished ‘Bronze’ competitor it keeps alive the tradition of amateurs being allowed to enter this great race – and in with a chance of a class victory.

So there you have it: 62 entries from which there will be just four winners and plenty of tears of both joy and despair. Simply finishing this great race is something pretty special but to stand on the podium is an unforgettable experience that will live with me forever!

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