Ordinarily, seeing former Manchester United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez gunning around a Grand Prix circuit only to be overtaken by a vehicle bearing the name of owner Jackie Chan, is the point where you wake up, hit the alarm and realise you need to lay off the cheese. But no, here we are, seven hours into RISING’s first experience of Le Mans 24, attempting to make sense of the madness from trackside.
The jewel in motorsport’s ‘Triple Crown’ (the Monaco Grand Prix and Indy 500 are the other two), Le Mans 24 stands apart because of its sheer endurance and the volume of different classifications competing, many of them prototypes. RISING has been to F1 races; we’ve seen rally cars blast past close enough to taste the gravel; hell we’ve even chalked up hundreds of hours on Gran Turismo. But nothing could have prepared us for this: an unrelenting high-octane pursuit fought between sleek machines your inner 14-year-old desperately wants to hang on his wall, flying past for hours on end.
When darkness begins to fall, the spectacle is dialled up once again as beaming headlights and LED designs on the cars’ wake shine enough neon onto the track to make it seem like a mash-up of Fast & Furious Tokyo Drift and TRON, colours swiftly blurring as thousands of fans crane their necks to follow the light trails through the searing heat.
‘Removing his helmet, the departing wheelman makes a beeline for a big bowl of sweets, dipping in for a gummy snake’
Heading to the pits, I worm my way inside the Ferrari garage. It’s now 1.10am. Many of the hardworking pit crews I’m ducking past are already wilting with exhaustion and the race isn’t even halfway through. They’re soon called into action when one of the drivers comes in for a pitstop, to make way for another. Removing his helmet, the departing wheelman makes a beeline for a big bowl of sweets, dipping in for a gummy snake in a desperate bid to raise flatlining sugar levels.
Meanwhile, at the back of the paddocks, teams continue to rush around in brand-approved fashion. Aston Martin’s chino-loving squadron whirl around in a spacious green and white golf cart, while Ferrari’s boys dash about on a bright red scooter. Nearby campsites are strewn with weathered supercars and so many boisterous fans that it feels as if I’ve entered Top Gear-Palooza. Mancunians Michael and James Ferguson, 30 and 37, have made their fourth pilgrimage to north-west France along with their dad and some friends in a Ford GT40 and an Aston Martin Vantage. ‘Everyone keeps saying there’s more Brits here than the FA cup final. Everyone’s great and for race fans there’s no event like it.’
For the teams, however, it’s more than just fun – it’s a chance to test the most experimental kit out there because, unlike F1, much of the technology eventually does filter down from track to road. To get some insight into just how much, RISING went behind the scenes with Kai-Uwe Witterstein, Global Motorsport Sponsorship Manager at Shell…
Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention
Despite the firm’s history with this event stretching all the way back to 1927, Witterstein tells RISING the most pivotal Le Mans moment for Shell came with the new millennium: ‘In 2000, when we came with the Audi R8, few expected us to win with diesel and we did. It was a big success story for us.’ Eight years later, Audi led the charge once again, becoming the first team to use next-generation 10% BTL biodiesel manufactured from biomass.
‘For driving tech going from track to road, there’s no race quite like it’
When RISING asks what impact the 2017 batch might eventually have on everyday motoring, Witterstein’s eyes light up: ‘There’s not many races like it. From ABS to engine advancement to the safety belt, a lot of things tested at Le Mans go from track to road. Only a few weeks ago, I learnt that the rear-view mirror was developed at an Indy 500 Series in 1911. Before that, a mechanic would sit alongside the driver to look in the opposite direction to make them aware of traffic. The teams thought, “How do we get rid of 70 kilos?” and there it was.’
‘We could sponsor football or skydiving, but what makes Le Mans great is we’re testing in the toughest environment on earth’
With a glut of aerodynamic treats on show – ranging from custom-built prototypes (LMP, the top classes, normally resembling horizontal space rockets) and production-based cars split into two GT classes – Witterstein calls Le Mans ‘the perfect testbed’ for motoring.
‘In terms of motor racing, we’re testing in the toughest environment on earth. We’re also able to demonstrate that not all fuels are the same, like with V-Power or Diesel. The organisers have kept a lot of the history, which is great, but they’re also forward-thinking and very open for regulations. Garage 56 is always testing something outstanding.’
Epitomising the maverick spirit of the race, Garage 56 is the experimental workplace reserved for something especially future-shaping, which, in previous years, has seen hydrogen and lithium-based engines take to the circuit, and last year they succeeded in putting a double amputee behind the wheel.
How To Make Sponsorship Work Both Ways
The other big plus for Shell is how natural a fit Le Mans is, with Witterstein believing the best sort of sponsorship is always two-way, as he explains: ‘We could do football, ice hockey, or skydiving, but what makes this great is it’s product-related. We also work closely with our long-term partners Ferrari in ensuring we learn from it. That’s the way good sponsorship and business should be. At Le Mans, we know our fuel makes the difference.’
It’s hard to disagree. During the race, we also visited Shell’s Track Lab, a science centre on wheels parked just behind the paddocks, where lab technicians test fuel samples and lubricants for the teams, mapping chemicals like CSI would fingerprints.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Supercars?
For the future, there’s plenty more innovation to come: on the back of Shell’s Project M, a small car with a one-cylinder engine and fuel consumption of less than 1 litre, Witterstein suggests the eventual goal is a carbon neutral combustion engine, leaving no carbon footprint at all: ‘Efficiency is important for us, and nothing should be beyond the realms of possibility.
‘For now, we are moving into H2 engines, producing electricity with a fuel cell engine and filling hydrogen into your car as you go. This can take you distances of 500/600km at a time, which is a hell of a lot. In fact, we are currently building 400 hydrogen sites in Germany to provide the infrastructure for it.’
So, should we expect to hear a hydrogen engine race car revving up in Garage 56 any time soon? ‘It’s possible,’ replies Witterstein, with a wry smile. ‘Think back to 20 years ago, what odds would you have on everyone using Facetime today?’ Probably not far off those for Fabien Barthez racing at Le Mans…
WHAT NEXT? Being innovative isn’t easy, but Witterstein believes there are golden rules to success: ‘If you can combine good products with good people, and keep one eye on the future but also keep it accessible, you are in a strong place. People will take notice and dig further into what you offer.’