The 69th Anniversary of the "24 Hours of Le Mans"
June 16-17th, 2001
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As a life-long motorsports enthusiast, Iíve been to many great racing events. I love the sounds of Formula 1 cars. Daytona, Sebring, and the Indy 500 each have their own legend. The phenomenon of NASCAR is lost on Europe, but Talladega is amazing. Any NHRA Drag racing event is a spectacle, but nothing quite compares to "Le Mans" The legendary status conferred on this annual event and the always underestimated physical and mental challenges make the "24 Heures du Mans" the racing spectacle it is each year. For 2001, as the chief photographer for a new publication, I arranged to return with Bentley Automobiles to the legendary circuit de Sarthe, as the track is known. The Bentley Automobile brand name will always have a place at LeMans. "The Bentley boys" had won five races from 1923 to 1930, including a 4 consecutive year stretch. The team also finished 1-2-3-4 in 1929, itís most spectacular year. The Bentley Automobile company retired from racing after the 1930 race. 71 years later, the "Bentley Boys" were back to "give it another go" as they say in the Queen's English. Bentley is also the only automotive brand name that started the very first 24 Hour race at LeMans, that still produces cars today. This was a story we had to go see.
This editorial page replaces the "photo files" from the 2001 24 Hours of Le Mans event. This text is from the "Day in the Life" article written for the premiere issue of an auto-enthusiast magazine based in the USA.
Clients searching for historical images should view this link.
For the 2001 race, Bentley was returning with a strong team, begining with the car itself,
the "EXP Speed 8 LMGTP" coupe. The name sounded regal and fast, even before the
first practice sessions. The marketing department brought all the emotional connections
it could rouse. The chassis was low, lean and elegant in appearance, with the
complimentary silver accents painted over a deep BRG (British Racing Green) colored
body. Across the front deck and on each shoulder of the coupe was the great "winged B"
The Speed 8 reflects the style of the Bentley marque. These cars were also the only
fully enclosed coupe prototypes. That was both good and bad as it turned out. Power
came from a 3.6 litre twin-turbo charged engine.
The specs of the EXP Speed 8 were exciting to those who know the challenges at
LeMans, but the on-track performance during testing boosted every Bentley fans spirits.
The team did not really expect to win on their return to France, but a good showing was
a real possibility. The team had a car that could do the job.
All that was needed now was the victory we had come to see. That chore was in the
hands of two driving teams, staffed with LeMans veterans. Andy Wallace has been the
winner of every important sports car racing event in the world. Heís won Daytona 3
times, Sebring twice, and won on his first visit to LeMans in 1988, with my old team, the
Partnering with Wallace in Car #8 are, Eric van de Poele, a winner at
Sebring with experience in 7 prior at LeMans events. Butch Leitzinger is the best known
of the Bentley drivers to the USA audience. Heís a 3 time Daytona 24 winner, a two time
WSC Champion and "On Track" magazines "Sports Car Driver of the Decade (the 90ís).
Lead driver of the number 7 car was Martin Brundle. Best known in the States for his
Formula 1 driving, he is no stranger to endurance driving. After winning Daytonaís 24
hour event in 1988, He was a winner at LeMans with Jaguar in 1990. Stepane Ortelli has
been on the winning team at LeMans once, and finished 2nd in his last three trips to the
Sarthe. The baby of the team is Guy Smith. He was rookie of the year his first trip to
LeMans and is all of 26 years old.
Anyone with even the most passing interest in auto racing will know the format of
LeMans. It sounds so simple. Iím commonly ask, "How can it be so difficult?" The
difficulty I explain, is in the simplicity. Race-prepared automobiles will start a race
at exactly 4pm Local time and travel a course of local roads for a period of 24 hours.
The winner is the car that travels the furthest distance.
If you've never watched the 1970 movie "LeMans" starring Steve McQueen, it's frequently available in most video rental shops.
In the movie, Race driver Michael Delany's (Steve McQueen) romantic interest says "... but, what is so important about driving faster than anyone else?" His reply is "the quote" of the film. "A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing is important to men who do it well. It's life. Anything that happens before....or after, is just waiting."
And so, In 2001 we waited. We waited on the arrival of 4 PM, We waited for the rain and the attrition we knew would come. We waited for the long darkness and the sunrise that always follows. ... and again we waited, for the return of 4 PM on Sunday. There have been some minor changes to the race course over the years. The first races ran the local roads, just as today. In the 1920ís and 30ís the pits were canvas tents and only the driver could make repairs to the cars. All the tools and spare parts needed for repairs were carried in the cars. Over the years, the circuit has been shortened slightly, but it is still massive. At 13.6 km ( 8.4 miles), the exact route has been adjusted for local road changes and maximum driver safety. No longer customized road cars, Todayís race entrys are high-tech, purpose built prototypes that far excede the capabilities of the original French roadways.
In the 2001 event, each Bentley Speed 8 will travel a distance greater than the entire 16 races
of the Formula One season. The race would be the NASCAR equivilent of more than 6 races at
Talladega, run non-stop, at a higher average speed, and do it all in just 24
hours. The maximun top speeds were highest during the late 1980ís and early 90ís. In
1998, my Silkcut Jaguar had a top speed of 237 MPH, at the end of the famous, long
straight from Terte Rouge (red mound) down to the tight, right turn at the town of
Mulsanne. During the 2000 race, the winning Audi R8ís averaged almost 130 MPH and
traveled a distance of 3,109. By comparison, the 1930 race winning Bentley averaged 75
MPH, and traveled 1,950 miles.
If you are ready, Letís go to the 2001 24 Heures du Mans.
First, we must arrive at the track. As a spectator, journalist or team member, this is your
first challenge. There really is a town called "le Mans" < notice the small L, Capital M,
for those of you who donít speak French.> By automobile, the town is two hours south
of Paris on any day, except the one before "race day". On that day, the traffic fairly
oozes cars, vans, and trucks of all description into every corner, crevice and side lane of
the French countryside, for 200km in every direction. 200km is about 125 miles,
remember we are in France. My photography team had arranged to stay in the nearby
university town of Tours. While an hour away on race day, weíve learned that the pace
of life is easier in Tours. The citizenry are used to an influx to tourist from all over the
world. The town is the center of the castle exporation area
Tours is also on the train line from Paris, so we were able to fly directly into Charles
deGaulle Airport and arrive several days ahead of time to plan our attack of the great
As it was in the beginning, The race is run over local roads. Since 1923 the roadways
have changed greatly, but the path is the essentially the same. Safety concerns have
required the implementation of better road surfaces and the removal of trees further back
from the road sides. One tell-tale sign that something extraordinary takes place here is
the array of massive guard rails, located in odd spots along public roadways. A few race
segments run opposite the work-a-day traffic flow patterns, leaving stark monuments to
this annual event scattered oddly about the local commuter roads.
Wednesday and Thursday --Qualifying results--
Day session - (Bentley #7 - 5th place) / (Bentley #8 - 9th place)
Night session - (Bentley #7 - 6th place) / (Bentley #8 - 7th place)
Our plan was to get some photos of the highly touted race entries early. Surprisingly, 24
hours isnít enough time to get the mixture of photos requested by clients and news
organizations. Of course, everyone wants photos of the winning car, but this year had so
many other stories too. Would the Audi contingent win for the second year in a row? The
Bentley Automobile company had returned to the race, after 71 years away. The
Bentleyís return overshadowed the entries from another British marquee. Two
MG-badged cars were entered in the LMP class of cars. The French-Cadillac LMPís
would share the GM corporate banners with the Pratt&Miller Corvettes, which arrived in
France fresh from thier win at the Daytona 24 hour race. Gulf Oil was using nostalgia in
thier marketing plans too. One of the Audiís was going to run with the famous livery
paint colors of Blue and Orange, but Iíve gotten ahead of the story.
During the day, both Wednesday and Thursday preparations continued. As all the sponsor signage is erected and the television crews prepare, the roads remain open. Regular traffic moves like any other day, in the days leading up to the race.
Wednesday and Thursdayís night practice is scheduled for 7 PM to midnight. We wanted to get some pictures in the dark. I call them "art-shots". You know the ones I mean. The streak of pretty red tail lights going around a corner, and the glare of headlights trying futilely to illuminate the pitch-black French countryside are standard photos every editor requests. The reality is that night falls slowing during summer evenings in the south of France. With a clear sky and a well lit moon, the landscape is illuminated past 10pm. As always, we shoot the best we can. It is always a good idea to "walk the track" before photographing any race. Taking a hired car is a better idea at LeMans. Remember, the length of the circuit is 8.4 miles. LeMans is a wondrous place to photograph. The race circuit has a miriad of locations to shoot from. No one could possibly be in every great spot during the course of the 24 hours. The temptation is too spend time in the hospitality suites on these two days of practice. The optimism is infectious and the food is spectacular. If you have the right Press credentials, the price is right too, but we were here to work. Grabbing all the portable cuisine we could abscond with, the photo team spent two nights communing with nature in the French forest.
The last minute preparations had better be finished. The look on a team managers face will tell whether the cars are ready. There is always one more last minute chore to fill the time on Friday. The pace of activity in each pit will tell whether the team is working, or just "make-working". One of the wonderful traditions of LeMans, is the "Parade des Pilotes". This is a bit of fun and pageantry done on the Friday night before the race. In the picturesque old town center, near the cathedral of St Julien a spectacle unfolds. Over the next several hours, we are treated to a parade in the true sense of the French word. The world has come to celebrate the most famous of endurance races. Vintage and historic cars transport the drivers through town, team by team. Drivers toss tokens, candy or post-card sized autograph cards. When you add a few strolling musicians, the Hawaiian Tropic girls, some local social clubs and a politician or two, it looks like a parade to me. Speaking of the Hawaiian Tropic girls, the history of the tanning creme company and Le Mans over the last 20+ years has proven to be a winning combination for both groups. The girls have been a media magnet every year at Le Mans since 1979. They draw enormous crowds of racing fans. The white bikini shorts and tight, red T-shirts are a famous uniform, just like the livery on any race car. It also gives photographers an excuse to "waste" a few frams of film. The extensive media exposure over the years has made these ladies just one more part of "the show". Thier presence at the Le Mans Driver's Parade and pre-race promotional activities are almost expected now. They act as good will diplomats for the "Brand", draw crowds for the teams and pose for photos with the drivers. This too continues to be a staple in the rich history of the event.
Remembering that the race starts at 4PM, by 7AM in the morning the roads are clogged.
The local traffic enforcement officers have their work laid out for miles ahead of them.
There is no "interstate by-pass" as youíll see in small town America. Oh no, The
invasion begins before sunrise and would dissipate only after the race had begun. Just as
in the States, Some fans always believe they will be able to "drive right over and see the
race". Across cultures and countries, Race fans are the same the world over. Happy
campsites pop up everywhere that there is a patch of grass unused for parking. The view
of little tents at the ready and campfires getting started puts to shame the smaller
versions of this annual ritual at Daytona and Sebring. Visit the
Rolex 24 at Daytona galleries, and the
Sebring photo pages.
Inside the circuit grounds, a temporary city has sprung to life. The commerce of racing has begun. The auto makers are here to sell their cars with the glory of victory come Monday. Pierre, Marcel, Jaque and Charles are here to sell you beer, a pastry or a fashionable item of appreil, right now. The hat was only FF96 < about usd$14.oo >. At that bargain price, Iíll take three. Souvenirs are important to those left behind at home too. At the hospitality tents, the smorgasbord of the world comes to life. Itís like a cultural boxing match taking place inside your nose. The food in the Audi compound is from every October-fest youíve ever attended. The French-Caddillac team had seafood and crepes. The Bentley contingent had thought ahead and imported more than automobiles too. The ploughmanís sandwiches were a great lunch for a lad who misses his stays in the UK. I promised myself I would be first in line for "bangers and mash" at breakfast too. The Yankeeís from GM had tents full of Corvette fans from the States, with the typical "burgers and fries" American food to keep them insulated from the gastronomic mysteries of this foreign land.
All the sights and sounds are enough to over-whelm you and itís still just barely noon. We look at each other and say in unison, "Wasnít there supposed to be an automobile race around here somewhere?". Our challenge awaits us. Off we go with a plan in hand, knowing that it will change, and then change again as the next 24 hours unfolds. Rain had been forecast since Wednesday, but had not interrupted preparations. We had no way of knowing we would be part of another "legendary" Le Mans story. The photo team was prepared for the rain. We always are. Ponchos, rain shoes and covers for the cameras are standard fair. As we walked to our spots for the start of the race, the summer sun popped out from behind the clouds and offered the promise of a beautiful afternoon and a cool evening. We had no way of knowing then that the sun was telling us lies. It was a long hike to my pre-planned photo spot, for the race start. Leaving the pits, I made my way through the paddock and exit security. Up the hill, through parking lots, campgrounds and another hill or three, we march lugging our gear. Each time I do this I promise myself I will never gripe about the long walk at Sebring ever again. My first assignment is the race start. All of the cars, shiny, new and full of hope and promise, will come roaring towards my chosen spot in about 45 minutes. My plan must have been a good one, because every other human with a camera had the same idea. I rarely ever wave my press credentials around to get things my way. Sometimes, itís just nice to have friends that allow you to stand really close to them. Now itís just a matter of waiting, something we will do a lot of in the coming 24 hours. A modern LeMans race is different from the famous "run across the track, jump in the car, and speed off with a seatbelt half undone" routine of old. Driver safety and professional decourum now requires a pace car to bring a smooth start to 48 cars surging across the starting line at exactly 4pm. The cars are grouped by speed class to ensure a fair and pictureque start for Live TV coverge to the world and the100,000 fans in attendence. There will be no allowance for "Oops ! Letís try again, shall we"
We'll Start the race, and fight the rain, the dark and fatigue..... Next, on page Two.
F Y I: We donít pretend to provide editorial coverage. We are a photography team. To read more about the 50th Anniversary 24 Hours of Le Mans, go to our links page and visit any of the several sites that maintain archives with the complete story, and some additional photography work we did.
The pages inside the "Hidden Photos" section are working tools for us and can be changed at any time.
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