words Anthony Crawford, photography Nick Dimbleby & Rachel Palmer
For me and eight other journalists from various parts of the globe, it began several hours before the 3:00pm start of Le Mans, when I sat sweltering (yes, it can get bloody hot in France sans sunscreen) behind the wheel of a DBS Volante with the big V12 running hot and ready to enter the track at a moment’s notice, once directed by the gaggle of French race officials.
I was driving one of six Aston Martins that were leading a fleet of Chevrolet Corvettes about to lap the 13.65 kilometre circuit in front of a huge crowd of enthusiastic, but well-behaved spectators.
The pace car was a Audi R8 complete with Gendarmerie style flashing blue lights, which meant we were about to enter the Holy Grail of motor racing world, which has been in action since 1923. Yes, I felt both privileged and overwhelmed.
But I was primed for this moment after I’d somehow ended up in the box seat chatting with motorsport God Sir Stirling Moss at the legendary Hotel de France, where he was more than happy to pass on a few choice tips on how best to drive Le Mans circuit, without coming a cropper.
French, German, Italian, Danish, it really doesn’t matter where racing fans are from or what age and sex they are, every one of them had fallen in love with the gorgeous looking DBS Volante – roof down, of course.
It’s an amazing feeling, shifting through the gears and hitting apexes in the world’s best looking convertible, on the world’s most famous racetrack, surreal is one word.
I’ll post a full-length First Steer of the car in a few days when my body clock gets back to normal, but it must be said that even blasting down the motorway at near enough to 270km/h with the roof down, you can hold a conversation and still arrive at your destination, with your hair in respectable shape.
Moreover, the way the DBS Volante sits down through some of the twisty bits is in the same poised manner as the shorter wheelbase Vantage. In many ways, the car is more a specialised sports car than a lush Grand Tourer.
With a top speed of 307km/h, the Volante doesn’t like to hang around, which meant that our lap of honour was over way too quickly.
That didn’t matter though, as we would soon see plenty of Aston Martins on track, and ready for battle with the serious competitors from Peugeot and Audi.
Lining up on the grid for Aston Martin were no less than three specially liveried Lola LMP1 cars in the historic Gulf Oil blue and orange colours, while there were several other private team entries covering GT1, GT2 and LMP1 (Le Mans Prototype) classes.
It’s hard for anyone not to have a soft spot for Aston Martin given their numerous battles for survival over the years, and yet they consistently created some of the world’s most beautiful looking cars.
Aston Martin had arrived here with, figuratively, just a few dollars and truckloads of passion. Its Le Mans budget this year was rumoured to be a tenth that of the three cars that finished ahead of them.
You come here to watch a race, but you get much more than that. You can’t believe how busy this place is, it’s a 24-hour rush hour, and you’ll need to be on high alert to avoid contact with impatient car and scooter pilots eager to get trackside.
And then there’s the supercharged atmosphere of the place, plenty of booze, but a refreshingly well behaved mob.
And you must hit the “village” at least once during the weekend. It’s an eclectic mix of hundreds of shops selling some fantastic branded merchandise from every competing marque (most popular outlets this year appeared to be Gulf, Peugeot and Aston Martin).
There’s plenty of food too, but none to compare with the ‘must have’ Crepes with Grand Marnier, a midnight ritual for many and enough French champagne to fill Lake Geneva, twice over.
With close to 14 kilometres of track, Le Mans has heaps of superb vantage points from which to view or take snaps of the race, and all offer a very different perspective from the high speed runs down the Mulsanne Straight to some of the tighter sections.
You cannot believe the pace the leading LMP1 cars can carry through so called slower sections; you’ll think that your eyes are playing tricks on you at 2:00am in the morning.
Of the grid the cars accelerate to 280km/h towards a right-hander, which they take in sixth with just a single dab, or not, of the brake pedal. At this point the cars are doing 260km/h before braking into the Dunlop chicane and under the familiar bridge.
Believe it or not, the next left hand turn is taken in first at 70km/h then onto the Tertre Rouge at 200km/h before hitting the Mulsanne Straight and accelerating to 330km/h. Remember, this bit is a public road most of the time.
They then brake for the Mulsanne chicane and then back up to 320km/h before jumping on the brakes for the Mulsanne corner, back up to 325km/h and so on.
As an enthusiast, you never get tired of watching the LMP1 cars take the corners at these speeds, without so much as a millimetre of lateral shift. It’s absolutely astonishing and whatever these guys get paid, is not enough.
It might also have something to do with the huge drag car size tyres on all four wheels, they are massive.
These cars are purpose built sports cars with huge downforce and ultra high-tech aerodynamics at work, able to maintain extraordinary stability at speeds in excess of 330 km/h, lap after lap.
You need to know what you are doing behind the wheel of a car like the Lola-Aston Martin LMP1 car, as the specifications are indeed impressive.
It’s a mid-engine, rear wheel drive set up with a full carbon-fibre monocoque and producing more than 490kW and 700Nm from what is essentially the V12 engine in the standard DB9 road car, at least the block and cylinder heads.
That’s all the more impressive, when I tell you that the car weighs near enough to 900 kilograms due to weight saving components such as the vented carbon discs all round.
Even the brake pads are carbon and able to operate at temperatures beyond 300 degrees centigrade.
Aston Martin’s Le Mans pilots shift gears via a six-speed sequential gearbox transversely mounted behind the engine with a triple-plate carbon clutch.
Unlike the Audi R15 and R10 diesel powered cars, both the Peugeot 908 and Aston Martin cars employ a closed cockpit design, which requires air-conditioning at a controlled 32 degrees centigrade or below, which is still frightfully hot for the drivers wearing a fireproof race suit, gloves and helmet.
While it was known that the Aston drivers were under a lot of pressure with lean budgets, that didn’t seem to affect their desire to win here at Le Mans. Success is all the more sweet, when you’ve done it tougher than the next guy.
It’s the same story with the pit crew. I’ve never seen a bunch of guys work so hard for so long and under equally intense pressure, one mistake with the air gun or fuel filler can cost the team a place.
It’s the shifts from 11:00pm to 7:00am that are easily the most demanding for driver’s and pit crews alike. The body says sleep, but the colossal speeds required to finish in the top half, need to be maintained throughout the night and this demands super human concentration from the whole team.
While most of the race attention was on the three LMP1 works cars, the three private teams running Aston Martin cars in GT1, GT2 and LMP1 were also hard at it and every bit cheered on by plenty of punters.
Outside of Britain, most people probably haven’t heard of Lord Drayson, but I can assure you he’s a bona-fide English Lord with an obsession for Aston Martin and a pretty fair steerer himself.
There was also another driver’s name I recognised, Nicolas Prost (son of Formula One legend Alain Prost) was behind the wheel of the private entry Lola-Aston Martin of Speedy Racing Team Sebah.
However, it was the 007 car driven by Jan Charouz, Tomas Enge and Stefan Mucke who completed their mission with honours, finishing ahead of two of Audi’s finest R15’s, two Audi R10’s and two Peugeot 908 cars.
That is a Herculean effort from a company that has been on the brink of collapse too many times to recall, but always saved at the last minute by the undying passion for the Aston Martin brand by some well-heeled enthusiasts.
While it does seem odd, that a German engineer, formerly with Porsche, is running one of the most English of all English companies let me assure you that if you want passion, know how and experience then Dr Ulrich Bez has truck loads of the stuff.
More than that, he lives and breathes Aston Martin 24/7, and along with his fiercely loyal team (and family), this cherished brand is lucky to have him.
Expect Aston Martin to be on the podium next year at Le Mans, regardless of how much the other manufacturers care to throw at this event.