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Le Mans


I finally made it to Le Mans!

The race has fascinated me from childhood, and I've been trying to get there ever since. There's simply no race like it and I came away wondering why Formula One and CART jockeys earn so much adulation. I must admit that I've been star-struck by F1 myself on and off over the years, but that was before I saw real race car drivers topping 300 km/h in the dead of night after hours at the wheel. When you ponder the fact that Mika Hakkinen toils for less that two hours to rack up another F1 win, it seems nothing in comparison with the task that faces a driver sitting on the start line at Le Mans. Even if time behind the wheel is equally shared between three drivers, the workload for each equates to completing more than four F1 races in one weekend - and don't think that the speeds are that much different either. Many drivers put in a lot more than eight hours too. For heaven's sake, some of the second-string guys logged more high-speed track time at Le Mans than Jacques Villeneuve has tallied in every race this season.

I was at the race as a guest of the Audi team for the event, so I'll focus on their incredible debut at Le Mans. Audi has an amazing reputation in all kinds of motorsport and has won in every class in which it's competed - races or rallies. From the wonderfully quirky rear-engined Grand Prix cars of the 1930s to the ground-breaking World Rally Championship Quattros and more recently, touring cars, Audi has been a winner. Le Mans 1999, though, was a ''first'' and I was proud to in on the historic moment when the cars with the four interlocking rings tore off the grid.

Le Mans, of course, is more than just an auto race. It's a vast gathering of humanity with fans coming from all over Europe to take in the unique sights and sounds that are Le Mans. It was hot and humid, especially on the Saturday, and the noise was ear-shattering and ever-present, but I'd bet that there wasn't one of us at the track who'd want to be anywhere else in the world that weekend. There are whole ''villages'' of shops, bars and eateries of every kind and prices were surprisingly fair. Stalls would sell you any combination of three quality t-shirts and caps for just $25 - try that at your average CART or F1 event. When I got my swag home I found that the cars on the T-shirts were 1999 entrants and perfectly reproduced, probably from press photos. The only snag with Le Mans is that they provide one washroom for every 20,000 spectators, or so it seems, and it's wise to ''plan ahead.'' Also, traffic around the 13.605 km circuit (part of which incorporates what are normally public roads) can be horrendous, so it's best to stay off the roads - or fly in like our group did. Within 40 minutes of the race ending, we were airborne in a jet chartered by Audi and speeding back to Paris.

British racegoers were especially prominent and were there by the thousand. There were huge parking lots and camp sites crammed with fans from the UK and the Union Jack fluttered everywhere. Even the small airport next to the circuit was packed with light aircraft of British registration. It seemed that everyone in Britain who had the slightest interest in auto racing was there - even though there were no British cars running.

I did a couple of laps of the circuit in a helicopter and it gave me a good idea of just how demanding this race is, both to drivers and cars. Most Le Mans films seem to emphasise the famed Mulsanne Straight, but there's much more to the race than that. The circuit is a mass of tight corners and hazards of every kind. Even the super-fast straights can hold dangers, as Mercedes-Benz found out when its coupes proved they could fly rather better than a certain Russian fighter jet at the Paris Air Show which kicked off during Le Mans weekend. Coming up fast on a slower car and picking up turbulent air can cause all kinds of problems if a car's aerodynamics are not quite right. Thankfully, no one was injured in the Mercedes incidents, but the team wisely withdrew its remaining car as a safety precaution.

Audi's historic entry consisted of two open cars - Audi R8Rs - and two coupes - R8Cs. Bodywork is of carbon fibre around the usual steel cage safety structure. Power comes from a 3.6-litre 32-valve V-8 enhanced by a pair of Garrett turbochargers. Audi quotes a horsepower in excess of 600, but one can assume they were getting something much higher than this. A six speed sequential transmission is fitted and both coupe and roadster weighed in at 900 kilograms, dry. F1 luminary Tony Southgate was deeply involved in the design of the cars and they were built in England. The team was run by Reinhold Joest, no stranger to the winners podium at Le Mans.

The Audis didn't qualify that close to the front, but grid position is not the full story at Le Mans, as race fans know only too well. The Toyotas were super-quick during qualifying and hogged the front row with England's Martin Brundle showing everyone a clean pair of wheels on the pole. BMW and Mercedes were well to the fore and one of the Panoz entries qualified a surprising 5th. The two Audi roadsters took ninth and 11th places on the grid and the two coupes were further back in 20th and 23rd places. Besides the Toyotas, Audis, Panoz and BMWs, contenders for overall victory included Nissan, Lola and a lone 333 SP Ferrari. GT class contestants included a swarm of very fast Chrysler Vipers and the inevitable Porsche 911 derivatives. In all, there were 46 cars on the grid.

The start at Le Mans is one of the great sights of motor racing, although the halcyon days of drivers sprinting for their cars have, of course, long gone. After the first lap the field swarmed by, led by the bright red Toyotas and everyone settled down for a very long session of auto racing. I found it quite amazing to be hanging around the Audi pit after four long hours (two F1 races, remember) and reminding myself that the race had only just begun.

The Audi roadsters quickly proved that reliability was on their side and gradually moved up the field, although one of them had a gearbox change that took just nine minutes. The coupes were less successful, although they certainly looked spectacular. The crowd seemed particularly supportive of the Panoz effort and every time one of the odd-looking front-engined roadsters flew down the home straight there was a huge cheer from the fans. They knew exactly when to expect one, thanks to the distinctive roar of the rather low-tech iron block Ford V-8. After a few hours at Le Mans you get to know which car is coming by its engine note, with the screaming BMW V-12s especially prominent.

It was a race full of exciting incidents and the finish was shaping up to be one of the closest in Le Mans history as the #3 Toyota of Katayama, Tsuchiya and Suzuki closed on the BMW of Winkelhock, Martini and Dalmas. With just half an hour or so to go, Katayama suffered a huge rear tire blowout on one of the fastest stretches of the circuit and only his masterful driving prevented catastrophe. Race commentators were still talking about Katayama's skill at the end of the race and an in-car camera showed the car heading straight for the wall until the Japanese ex-F1 pilot got it under control. I was near the Toyota pit when he brought the car in and the crew decided to take their time for safety's sake and fit new bodywork in addition to replacing the shredded tire and shattered wheel. The car was sufficiently ahead of the third place Audi not to worry about second place, but the chance of a win was gone.

As the 24-hour mark approached, cars secure in their positions began to form up and prepare for a ''ceremonial'' finish. Pairs of Vipers and Porsches crossed the line and, to the joy of the crowd, a duo of Panoz roadsters roared down the home straight. BMW beat Toyota by a handy margin when time ran out and Audi made one of the most impressive debuts most could remember. Third place went to the Audi R8R of Pirro, Biela and Theys and fourth to the similar car of Alboreto, Capello and Aiello. Vipers dominated their GT category. It was BMW's first win at Le Mans as a manufacturer (it has supplied winning engines) and a popular triumph for team boss Gerhard Berger of F1 fame. Plucky low-budget Panoz took seventh overall and the top Viper came in 10th overall.

The French were thrilled to see compatriot Yannick Dalmas in the winning car and he now joins Oliver Gendebien and Henri Pescarolo as a four-time Le Mans victor. For the record, Jacky Ickx tops the all time win list with six, followed by Derek Bell with five.