Wednesday 21 February 2018

Motorsport: Le Mans fraternity will rally after Simonsen tragedy

Classic contest can banish forgettable year and rise again.

David Kennedy

The Le Mans 24 Hour is a race like no other. For spectators, it's a pilgrimage to the high altar of sportscar racing where they come to pay homage to a symphony of sounds and a feast of fast cars. Camping is almost compulsory; that is, if you want to absorb the atmosphere from the soil up. To every team and competitor, in whatever class they're racing, winning Le Mans is the ultimate. Just to compete is a privilege.

Le Mans has grown exponentially since its inception in 1923. It was recently ranked the number one sporting event by National Geographic, topping the World Cup and the Super Bowl, with around 250,000 attending the event and 200 million watching TV broadcasts screened in 114 countries.

There are two different categories of car, 'Le Mans Prototypes' (LMP) ie sportscars. These are subdivided into LMP1 and LMP2. The second category is 'Le Mans Grand Touring Experience' ie GT cars. These are subdivided into LMGTE Pro (professional racing drivers) and LMGTE Am (Amateur gentleman drivers). Fifty-six cars competed this year.

The battle royal was Audi v Toyota. The German manufacturer was once again victorious, their 12th victory at the Circuit de La Sarthe. That leaves Mazda, my former team, with their record intact for being the only Japanese team to have won Le Mans (1991).

It wasn't for the want of trying on Toyota's behalf. The first five finishers were Audi, Toyota, Audi, Toyota, Audi. Toyota must wonder when their day will come. I wonder how 'tiocfaidh ár lá' translates in Japanese.

Last Sunday's race was won by a formidable trio of drivers. Scotland's Allan McNish, who now boasts a non-consecutive hat-trick of Le Mans victories, Loic Duval from France, who scored his maiden win, while veteran Danish driver Tom Kristensen clocked up a remarkable ninth win at La Sarthe.

But the podium, indeed the event itself, was bleak. Heavy were the hearts that conquered this year's Le Mans because Allan Simonsen, who had been on pole position and was leading in the GTE Am category in an Aston Martin, spun and crashed heavily into the Armco barrier at the ultra fast corner Tertre Rouge. He died soon afterwards from injuries he sustained in the accident.

Maybe he was still testing the boundaries in the tricky damp conditions because the accident happened on the third lap of the race. An inquest will eventually explain the unexplainable. He was just 34 years old and had recently become a new father. It was the first fatality in 27 years during the actual race. Tom Kristensen dedicated the win to his fellow Dane.

Simonsen's death naturally cast a sombre atmosphere over the circuit, matching the lugubrious clouds that hovered overhead. At night it compounded the already eerie combination of noise and lights as drivers take over the wheel during frantic pit-stops. The reality – that a fatal accident can be the ultimate price you pay for your sport – was felt by all. Twenty-four hours seems an eternity when you're confronted with the death of a fellow competitor, particularly one as decent as Allan Simonsen.

Our HVM Status team had its own major scare. We were running in the LPM2 category when, not long after 2am, our Canadian driver Tony Burgess had a massive accident in the Lola-Judd B12/80 Coupe that ripped the rear off the car which then caught fire. Despite the ferocity of the crash, Tony mercifully suffered nothing more serious than severe bruising, but he was nonetheless detained in hospital overnight for observation.

It was testimony to the strength of the safety cell of the Lola chassis that he got away so lightly. By then we had reached halfway in the race. That's the thing about Le Mans, you're grateful for every minute you spend competing. To retire is disappointing for sure, but you never felt the team's endeavours were wasted.

The HVM Status Lola had the backing of the state of Florida who are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de León's arrival on Florida's east coast, which he named 'La Florida'.

A delegation came to Le Mans to see their 'Visit Florida' liveried car compete at the 90th anniversary of the iconic race. It was led by Governor Rick Scott and included Nancy C. Detert, a member of the Florida senate and descendent of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence during their battle against British rule; his ancestors hailed from Offaly.

HVM Status was one of three teams with Irish connections that competed at Le Mans. Murphy Prototypes did the tricolour proud by finishing 12th overall and sixth in class.

They lost five laps in the first three hours but made good ground during the night stint when former F1 driver Karun Chandhok drove a four-hour stint while Red Bull reserve driver, New Zealander Brendon Hartley, made up more time during the day. When team boss Greg Murphy isn't running the endurance team his interests lie in biofuels, renewable business and alternative-powered vehicles.

The KCMG Morgan-Nissan LMP2 car became the first Chinese outfit to compete at Le Mans. Managing director Paul Ip and his deputy John O'Hara from Kildare, a successful driver before he hung up his helmet, steered their three drivers Alexandre Imperatori, Ho-Pin Tung and Matthew Howson to an impressive sixth in class in qualifying. Unfortunately, a leaking fuel cell forced their retirement after 19 hours.

Le Mans – the world's oldest sportscar race – may not have delivered an epic race in 2013; the inclement weather and 11 safety car interventions didn't help matters. It was a sombre affair and a personal tragedy for the Simonsen family.

Yet, like Mount Everest, drivers will return next year to try and conquer it, to outwit it, to prevail. Man against Le Mans. That's what it's all about.

Irish Independent

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