Ticker tape, the streets lined with people cheering and shouting, drivers running down the sides of the road waving and signing as they go. Rock stars for a day. The drivers’ parade on the Friday evening before the 24 Hours of Le Mans is an incredible experience.
Even the drivers who have experienced it before can’t help but be open-mouthed at the event – here’s Finnish driver Toni Vilander, who was driving the #51 AF Corse Ferrari 458 in GTE-Pro.
For newcomers like Nascar star Michael Waltrip, it’s an obvious buzz. The video camera didn’t leave his hand for the whole evening! He’s been building up to Le Mans with outings in other enduros like the Dubai 24 – those events might prepare you for the track experience, but they have nothing on the Le Mans atmosphere. Only his run at Spa last year would have come close.
The route takes in over 2km of the old parts of the town, leaving from the Place Des Jacobins in front of the Saint Julien cathedral and winding its way through the streets.
For the drivers there’s a lot of waiting around before they actually get to go out into the crowds – first of all the supercar parade takes to the streets. Plenty of time for catching up on phone calls, as here with Audi’s Tom Kristensen.
But it also gives drivers a rare opportunity to socialise: time is short over a race weekend – especially during a 24 Hour race weekend – but the enforced waiting, without the pressure of PRs bustling around, seems to go down well with everyone.
The cars that carry the drivers around the streets are varied – though themed for the big manufacturer teams. Audi sourced a trio of old Auto Unions to ferry their nine drivers; Peugeot similarly had old 1930s Pugs.
Several Excaliburs were also in use: this is a car I have only ever seen in France (although it is American) – I had a couple of Majorette die-cast models of them one I was a kid and never believed they were real cars! These were ’80s re-imaginings of the 1920s Mercedes Benz SS.
Tommy Milner was getting ready with his co-drivers in the #73 Corvette, Olivier Beretta and Antonia Garcia. He was on good form – and what a weekend they would end up having!
After half an hour of sitting stationary, waiting to be directed out, the cars began to be lined up and readied for going out onto the streets.
I decided to track Abdulaziz Al Faisal during his parade lap, who was driving the #88 Felbermayr Porsche RSR in the GTE-Pro class along with Briton Nick Tandy and American Bryce Miller. Their mount was a tiny Citroen 5CV ‘Torpedo body’ – this meant the wooden rear tapered to a point like the prow of a boat, and that there was no way the three of them could fit in! They would end up walking as much as sitting – not that anyone seemed to mind.
Giancarlo Fisichella was one of 18 former Formula One drivers taking part in the 24 Hours this year: his performances for Ferrari in GTE are getting more impressive by the race.
Another ex-F1 pilot was Olivier Panis, driving the #10 Oreca-run Peugeot 908 HDI-FAP. He was looking pretty fed up as he waited in the queue to get out…
But that had more to do with their Peugeot mount having a stereotypical diesel-style exhaust problem.
Local hero and multiple Champcar champion Sebastian Bourdais was again a Peugeot factory driver – their 908 LMP1 would finish second and just 14 seconds behind the winning #2 Audi R18 after the 24 hours of racing – the fourth closest finish in the history of the race.
The all-French-crewed #8 factory Peugeot squad of Stéphane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and Nicolas Minassian: Montangy looks more and more like Michael Madsen…
Grizzled drivers were interspersed with promo girls to break up the testosterone. This year there would be only one female driver in the race, Vanina (daughter of Le Mans legend Jacky) Ickx in the Kronos Lola-Aston Martin LMP1.
Also queuing up were some rather younger drivers. The ACO, the organisers of the Le Mans 24 Hours, put a big effort into both bringing on young talent and getting more people interested in racing.
#3 Audi driver Alan McNish had been on fine form: he’s always massively popular, and couldn’t walk 10 feet without having to sign a dozen autographs. His Saturday wouldn’t be as much fun.
The noise and hustle of the assembly area was swapped for the explosion of cheering as the cars made their way out into the crowd.
This is where the real parade starts: with the fans. I was following the cars through the streets, and to start off with it was almost intimidating with the amount of noise! The drivers also seemed a bit taken aback initially, but within 50 yards of being engulfed they were soon getting into the swing of things.
The only problem for the drivers then becomes a simple maths equation: how do they keep getting signed flyers out to the waiting crowds as quickly as possible? Solutions come fast, and usually in the shape of paper darts.
The other approach is to sign handfuls at a time, and then to fling them into the audience! The road was littered with ones that had fallen short, and all the time the fans are asking the marshals and photographers wandering along to hand them over.
Peugeot’s 404 support vehicle was getting as much attention as the drivers’ cars – though rather more wolf whistles…
Sumo Power’s Nissan GT-R GT1 driver Warren Hughes was one of many drivers at Le Mans who we’re used to seeing in GT cars for the rest of the year. He was driving for the Quifel-ASM squad in their Zytek 09SC LMP1; JRM’s Richard Westbrook could be found in a GTE-Pro Corvette and several other GT1 drivers were scattered across the entry.
Michael Waltrip was a constant draw and at every interview point was being stopped – he seemed to have no problem giving each interviewer as much time as necessary and was another driver with a huge smile constantly etched on his face. He’s going to have a lot of video to edit!
I’d wondered how on earth the cars would have enough signing cards, but more kept being produced from inside the vehicles, signed and then projected into the audience – who were at every level from the street up to the balconies. Some onlookers received particularly special attention from the drivers as they passed. Drivers will be drivers.
Anything and everything was fair game to be signed. What an amazing event!
Abdulaziz and Bryce had fallen well behind their Citroen by two-thirds of the way around the course, and had to sprint to catch up with their 5CV. By about 9pm the final cars and drivers chugged into the holding area at the finish, the barriers were quickly dismantled and the thousands of fans made their way into the bars and restaurants in the town centre. The local economy must have a field day on these weekends.
Fed but not fed up, it was time for a lot of fans to make their way back to the campsites at the track. The recently-installed tram system deposits people in the heart of the circuit and is the perfect way to avoid all the traffic of previous years. The next tram for us was rocking and vibrating as it approached: as the doors opened the blaring strains of the A-Team flattened us, as we squashed in for a half-hour medley of ‘hits’ blasting out of their stereo and pogoing, orange-clad Dutch fans. As the Final Countdown drew our journey to a close, so began the final countdown to the race itself.