Friday 9 December 2016

Motor Sport: High-octane nostalgic trip down memory lane

Passing of the years does not dull the senses, writes David Kennedy

Published 19/06/2011 | 05:00

One weekend, two great races. The Canadian Grand Prix and the Le Mans 24hr endurance race. The only pity was they were on the same weekend. When I got a phone call from Mazda Japan to say they would be commemorating their 1991 win by bringing the Mazda 787B to Le Mans and would I like drive it in front of 140,000 spectators around the town, it was hard to refuse such an invitation.

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Twenty years ago I was part of the team that brought three cars to race at Le Sarthe. One of those cars, number 55, driven by Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Veidler won the race.

Together with my team-mate Pierre Dieudonne, we had chosen the drivers, set the cars up and watched as the toil of many years hard work and the efforts of three hundred team members finally paid off. To this day Mazda remain the only Japanese car manufacturer to have won the legendary race.

It was extraordinary weekend in 1991, June 22/23. The memory never leaves you. To be afforded the honour of reliving the past, in what is still a futuristic-looking car, around the city of Le Mans, it's gothic cathedral providing a dramatic backdrop, was very special.

The fans lined the route; some weren't even born 20 years ago. John Doonan, Vice-President of Mazda US had brought over a special guest in the form of Patrick Dempsey of Grey's Anatomy fame. The American was flanked by four bodyguards and chased by dozens of photographers and many a swooning woman.

But my heart pounded for the roar of the rotary engine, a sound that still ignites a primal urge in those who had the fortune to drive this 800bhp beast. It might be murder on the eardrums but it's worth every decibel.

Last Sunday, we were coming down from the euphoria of that memory lane adrenalin-rush when we tuned into the Canadian Grand Prix.

At one stage it looked like the Grand Prix threatened to last as long as the Le Mans 24 hours race but eventually, after an almost interminable red flag stoppage, the skies parted and the second part of Jenson Button's career-defining drive got under way.

Button's performance was as brilliant as it was unexpected. The team-mate who frequently lives in the shadow of Lewis Hamilton produced a late race flourish comparable with any legendary Hamilton victory, and did so on a treacherous track, unseating Sebastian Vettel within sight of the flag.

One suspects Hamilton watched on with admiration as he awaited his habitual trip to the stewards room.

Perhaps we shouldn't have been too surprised with Button's performance given his 2010 victories in the wet in Australia and China, both of which were also the products of daring and panache.

However, this time, as well as intelligence and application, Button showed that he could include an ingredient that is best described by Italians: grinta. The dictionary defines grinta as determination or grit. From now on perhaps the lexicon should include a hyperlink to a YouTube clip of Button's last 10 laps in Montreal last Sunday evening.

Having extricated himself from the mire of midfield following the two-hour race stoppage, Button climbed stealthily through the order, his progress helped by timely tyre selection and the impetuousness of others, not least Felipe Massa and Nick Heidfeld who found out how fragile front wings can be.

Button's progress was serene but this much we expect of him, especially in the damp. Webber struggled to find a way past Michael Schumacher and eventually tripped himself up at the final chicane. Button scythed past the Aussie and quickly dispatched the seven-times World Champion with hardly a backward glance.

Still, the Button of old might have been satisfied with a great drive back to second and a place on the podium alongside Vettel. Something in the air above the St Laurence River last Sunday evening inspired the Englishman to greater glory and, as the reigning World Champion woke himself from his late race slumber with a series of personal fastest laps, he discovered too late that that Button's pace was unmatchable.

Having lauded Vettel on several occasions for the polished steel of his 2011 performances, it was a shock to see him crumble in the face of Button's onslaught in sight of the flag.

Vettel knows now, if he didn't already, that there can be no let up in his application towards his title defence, especially as the FIA plan to rejig the technical regulations from the British Grand Prix onwards to ban the use of 'off throttle' exhaust gases to feed the airflow over downforce producing diffusers.

That could well impede Red Bull more than most and any change will be unwelcome for the prevailing Milton Keynes squad.

Meanwhile, another untidy weekend for Hamilton ended in a trip to the headmaster's office, much to the delight of some of the class bullies in the media. Niki Lauda, that most erudite and sharp witted of world champions, excited the headline writers with claims that Hamilton was a danger to others on track having had three collisions in as many laps in Montreal. But the great Austrian is, on this occasion, being unnecessarily harsh.

Hamilton escaped with no penalty from Canada, a sensible decision on a day of treacherous driving conditions when his only crime was to attempt to race.

Bernie Ecclestone has also defended Hamilton in the wake of the controversy suggesting that he is the heir to Ayrton Senna's legacy.

All in all it was a long day. The longest F1 race in terms of total time taken to complete the event and the most amount of safety car interventions -- six in all.

Certainly Button will look back at that race and feel the pangs of nostalgia in years to come. Meanwhile he can head to Valencia next weekend on a high, though it's unlikely to rain.

As Mazda were celebrating their 1991 iconic victory at Le Sarthe, Audi and Peugeot gave us a stunning display of sustained lap for lap slugging throughout 24 hours; a win that will earn its own party in 2031.

For all the doom merchants and naysayers that grab the headlines, there is much to celebrate in modern motor racing.

Time seems to go by as fast as the winning cars but the passing of the years does not dull the senses. They say you can go home but you can never go back. After Le Mans last weekend, having done both, I beg to disagree.

Sunday Indo Sport

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