You can see way more of the 24 Hours of Le Mans if you stream it online or just watch it on the TV with a six-pack in the fridge. But if you can, you simply must go there one day. It's just one of those things.
[Full disclosure: Audi invited us to Le Mans and paid for our flights and accommodation at the track. They also lent us cars and their VIP passes took care of the beverages. We, on the other hand brought them luck. With a double victory, it really was a win-win.]
While Le Mans is in France, the race itself is just as much a British gig. This year, a record 263,300 people went to see the big fight between Audi, Toyota and Porsche, and trust me, the parking lot had more TVRs or Caterhams than caravans.
Having said that, there were enough tents and motorhomes around the track by Thursday to make sure the party doesn't stop until Sunday afternoon.
Luckily, we didn't have to deal with that. We could observe their location from a helicopter, but at nighttime, we slept right where the rest of the Audi team did: at their temporally racing hotel.
We could also avoid getting half naked at midday from having way too much Kronenbourg. (That's a beer.) We had much better things to do, like getting a tour of the track with John Hindhaugh on board. If you have 37 minutes, you can get one too. It's worth it.
While finding parts of Audi's completely annihilated #1 R18 was certainly exciting, we've also realized just how narrow this circuit is, had a look at all the modifications for 2014 (including those new curbs that can totally shatter the bottom side of a car) and learnt that since most of the tarmac is public roads, the Mulsanne straight got more truck-generated tram lines thanks to those hot summers than one would prefer while reaching those insane downforce figures.
On top of that, you have tree roots pushing up the track here and there as well. At least there's no potholes!
That's the weird thing about the Circuit de la Sarthe. You look over the fence, and there's a KFC outside. There's also three Triumphs rotting next to each other on someone's yard.
Then there's also the woods. No car should fly into them like Webber did back in the day with his Mercedes because the hump that caused that sort of sudden departure got leveled, but still, anywhere you look, there's evidence of this being a constantly evolving stretch of 8.469 miles.
Next year, the grass will be gone from Mulsanne as the straight gets tarmac all the way to the fences.
With all that knowledge, blasting down the track was a piece of cake. And the experience of a lifetime. We are lucky bastards, I know.
Qualification is sort of ridiculous when we talk about an endurance race that's longer than all the Formula-1 races in a season combined, but with Audi's guys not getting any sleep whatsoever building a brand new #1 car for Thursday, there was no question about them taking it seriously. And with Audi finishing at third place, the speculation in and outside the pits could start all over again.
But everybody knows Le Mans can't be conquered by speed alone.
Let me fast forward to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Fernando Alonso waves the flag, and they're off.
Corvettes getting louder than anybody. Porsches, Ferraris and Aston Martins fighting against them and making us wonder where the hell is McLaren from this lineup, and LMP2 cars navigating their way between GTEs and the big trio up front.
Toyota is in the lead.
Nobody was really surprised when Nissan's all-electric ZEOD RC stopped working, but let me tell you that their transmission connecting rod snapped like if it was cut by a diamond. A faulty piece of metal. That was it.
Rain is another thing that can ruin a team's race, especially with all those amateur Ferrari drivers who always happen to be on the screens moving in slow motion towards the sand trap or the tire wall.
The #3 Audi got a big enough hit to end it all before the sun dried up the track, with one of the Toyotas being lucky enough to sustain only minor front damage. Losing a car at such an early stage sucks monkey balls, and you may wonder why Audi was the only team with three entries. After all, that's a huge advantage.
I couldn't get an answer to that all weekend. Budget pops into mind, but Audi's is no greater than Toyota's or Porsche's as far as I know.
The beauty of the LMP1 class at Le Mans is that while the FIA regulates the hell out of Formula-1, the rules here are flexible enough for the manufacturers to use very different approaches while chasing each other.
Porsche came up with a gas V4 turbo hybrid, Toyota used a naturally-aspirated gas V8 with supercapacitors instead of batteries while Audi stuck with the TDI and an electric system that's twice as powerful as last year's car. This variety of technologies makes the race far more interesting from an engineering perspective.
The illuminated red dot shows that at this point, Porsche's V4 turbo reigns with Toyota's supercapacitors not far behind. Meanwhile, Audi's guests are smoking fine Cuban cigars at the lounge.
There's nothing to worry about in Ingolstadt at this point.
As the two Audi's colorful LEDs get more and more visible at dawn, the most exciting part starts. Le Mans at night.
Feel free to call me a pussy, but despite all that excitement and all the spectators lighting campfires and drinking a truly French amount of wine on the side of the track to keep their spirits up, I went to sleep at around 2 am. I had to if I wanted to see the end of it with my eyes open, and I did want to be there on Sunday at 3 p.m. when it's all over.
Waking up early in the morning at Le Mans is better than Christmas. Yes, you might wonder what's under the tree, but when you wake up and Audi is in the lead with Toyota at second and Porsche third, the question mark is far bigger.
And that puts us to why Audi won this race 13 times out of 15 now.
Toyota had electrical problems. Their superb idea couldn't work flawlessly for more than 13 hours. But that wasn't the end of it.
Audi ended up changing the turbos on both of their cars. The first took 20 minutes, the second took only 17. The best team in the world possible wearing the most fireproof gloves in the world as those Garrets get to 1,000 degrees Celsius at the track, and it's not like they could wait until they get to room temperature.
With the Audis now way back and those 991 RSRs were fighting against 458s, the prototype Porsches started to look very good.
Webber's car was in the lead. Audi was gaining, but it was supposed to be a very tight one at the end. Then suddenly, Webber had to slow down. To zero. Drivetrain problems put Audi back in the lead. The #14 919 was soon to follow, giving the reigning champions that reassuring 1-2.
Oh boy, that last hour was intense, but by Audi's last pit stop, we knew they got it.
The Porsche team got the #14 running again for the final lap. They got a massive applause and we'll see them next year for sure. They weren't far off at all.
I was worried about Toyota though. You know, getting that third place was a huge fucking deal. Yet, no applause for them from the stands, or at least not much of it. It's an image problem they have. Also, the lack of Webber fans in kilts.
Simply put, Audi wins as far as the drama goes as well.
While the only visually exciting thing about the Porsche was how tiny it is, the Toyota was plain boring compared to the R18's theatre.
First of all, the Audi R18 e-tron quattro doesn't sound like a car. It's a jet from the future. If they could make all TDIs sound like this, I would be a very happy man indeed.
Secondly, than they have those freaking LEDs. With laser light, you know. Anyway, it's colorful, but mostly red as the satan himself, so just imagine a very sinister jet on wheels going and stopping at physics defying speeds day and night.
The funny thing is that the Toyota and the Porsche can do the same, but nobody will remember that.
They will remember this, however:
Next up, it's the Nurburgring 24...
Photo credit: Máté Petrány