Before I headed out to Le Mans, someone told me that it’s the Oscars of racing. I had never been to the 24 hrs of Le Mans, but I’d had the opportunity to attend the 24 hrs of Nurburgring 5 times in the last 10 years. So in a way, I knew what to expect from the event. But little I did I know just how spectacular and different from Nurburgring it would turn out to be.
Even though BMW was not racing in this year championship – a return is scheduled for next year – the folks at Michelin extended a generous invitation to go experience Le Mans as a preparation for next year. Call it orientation before the job starts. Before I hoped on the plane, I wanted to find out more from Michelin and what their Le Mans trip is all about.
“Compared to other tire makers who simply hand you out a plane ticket, hotel reservation, race credentials and meal vouchers, Michelin takes pride in guiding our guests through the exciting program and making sure we fully immerse them in the Le Mans experience,” said Johnny Valencia, Michelin Influencers Program Manager.
With that in mind, I knew I was in for a treat. The following events occurred over the course of 6 days, so I’ll do my best to fully relate the extraordinary experience through words.
I arrived in Paris on the Thursday before the race and to shake off the jet lag, I quickly joined the Michelin team and their group for a tour of Paris. I’ve been to Paris before, several times in fact, but never have I really had the time to decompress and experience the city at a normal pace. A tradition within the Michelin team is to start at the famous Eiffel Tower, Paris’ pride and the most visited touristic point in the French capital. From there, we headed out to the Arc De Triomphe and to the vibrant and touristy area of Champs Elysees where we spent some time decompressing, visiting different car exhibits, as I enjoyed a proper Creme Brûlée.
Next on the list was a quick bus tour around Paris and a glance at the Notre Dame, Grand Palais and Musée du Louvre. A few hours later, the energy level dropped and after proper French Cuisine, I was ready for some shut eye in preparation for the event.
The best way to get from Paris to Le Mans is by TGV, which stands for Train Grande Vitesse, a bullet train that reaches 320 km/h and it’s more comfortable that any bus ride. We made it to Le Mans just in time for the Grande Parade des Pilotes des 24 Hours du Mans, one of the crowd’s favorite events during the weekend racing. With proper credentials, you can go behind the scenes where the parade’s cars are being prepared and spend some time with their owners and racing teams. BMW was represented at the parade by a fleet of Safety Cars, including the M2, X5 M and 4 Series Gran Coupe.
Then on scorching hot weather, the parade kicks off en grande fanfare with marching bands, dancers and the master of ceremony inviting drivers to share their thoughts about the race. Among the famous drivers, there were also two famous French football players, Fabian Bartez and Bixente Lizarazu. As expected, there was a lot of crowd cheering and gift sharing, so everyone was happy, despite the 100F weather. The night would end again with a French meal and some wine, to compensate for that hard working day.
One thing that stood out immediately on Saturday was that this is Michelin’s home turf. No other tire maker had such an imposing presence at Le Mans and hosted so many guests from around the world. The two Michelin hospitality buildings were setup to host hundreds of people who enjoyed the race from some of the best corners possible.
At 3PM sharp, as the 24 hrs of Le Mans was ready to kick off and to capture that moment, Michelin invited us to their pit box overlooking the starting grid. This year the exciting LMP1 category was pretty much going to be a Porsche/Toyota affair, so everyone was excited for a great comeback by the Japanese after last year’s heartbreaking loss.
To learn more about Michelin’s involvement in the race, we reached out again to Mr. Valencia. “Michelin uses the Le Mans race not only to showcase the greatest advancements in tire technology, but also to test the rubbers under difficult and demanding racing conditions,” said Valencia.
The variable weather also makes for any number of challenges. It can go from wet to hot and dry very quickly. Some cars reach speeds up to 187 mph, so great tires are much needed.
Michelin’s tires won the very first edition of the race in 1923, and have claimed the last 20 consecutive overall victories, after this year’s race. At the event, Michelin has brought no less than 5,000 sets and stored them in a 900 square meter warehouse. Most of those tires are reserved for LMP1 prototypes. In the same warehouse, there are dozens of Michelin technicians working on mounting and balancing tire sets.
Michelin’s technical advisers and engineers are also embedded within the racing team, helping analyze the tire performance during the race and providing the best tire compound at that respective moment.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is contested with four different classifications of cars on the track at one time: LMP1, LMP2, LMGTE Pro and LMGTE Am. The 3PM race start was uneventful this year and the 24 hour clock began its reverse countdown. The Porsches and Toyotas LMP1 are sitting at the top of their class, while Corvette, Aston Martin, Ford and Porsche are battling for the GTE crown. Jackie Chan and his LMP2 team were also in the race.
To watch the race from different corners, we embarked on a trip throughout the circuit. But the best has yet to come. Michelin had one more surprise in store for its guests – an helicopter ride to watch the race from the sky. From up in the air, the Circuit de la Sarthe shows off its beauty and watching the cars from above is simply a spectacular experience.
The day continued with a visit to the Michelin paddock where we got to watch their technicians working on mounting and balancing the tires, while Michelin USA Motorsport Manager Sarah Robinson gave us an overview of Michelin’s role in the race and the hard work that goes beyond the 24 hrs of Le Mans race, work that begins months in advance.
The night quickly closed on us and we decided to head over to the famous Le Mans Ferris wheel for another sky view of the race. Night racing is what Le Mans and Nurburgring are all about, with new challenges for drivers and their teams, and lots of excitement for spectators. You could sense the intensity floating in the pit boxes where teams have to constantly adjust their strategies. And that proved to be true with Kamui Kobayashi and Toyota leading the way in the battle for supremacy, but mechanical issues forced the team to retire.
The No. 1 Porsche car led for much of the race but suffered a loss of oil pressure in the 21st hour, leading to a retirement from the race. The No. 2 Porsche lost over an hour in the garage during an MGU change, which led it to the back of the field.
But the Porsche prototype headed back to the track and after a perfect race retook the lead in the 23rd hour of the race passing the No. 39 Jackie Chan LMP2 car. Jonathan Adam drove the No. 97 Aston Martin home to win the GTE Pro field as well. The No. 84 JMW Ferrari came home to win the GTE Am field.
The GTE Pro class came down to the final lap. Jordan Taylor, driving the No. 63 Corvette, kept his lead over the Aston Martin GTE, but he suffered a tire puncture which allowed the Brits to take the glory. The podium was now ready to be introduced and thousands of spectators gathered around the grid line to cheer on the winners. The 24 hrs of Le Mans 2017 edition has come to an end and the famous race has once again lived up to the expectations. It was now time to hop on the TGV back to Paris for some much needed R&R and, you guessed, more food.
Instead of recovering from the 30 miles plus walk during the weekend, we set out to explore Paris once again. This time we hopped on a boat tour to learn more about the Parisian history and its famous buildings. The night ended with Michelin’s Guide expert Ryan Hilley explaining to us the company’s history with Michelin Star restaurants and a quick lesson in wine. And food, of course.
Full Disclosure: Michelin loves BMWBLOG community so much that they put up with us on their own dime, providing transportation, lodging and meals.