Emanuele Pirro:1981 Le Mans

Le Mans - from Hell to Heaven

My first experience of Le Mans was in 1981. I was given the drive by Lancia as a prize for having won the Formula Fiat Abarth championship. The team boss decided he wanted to give me experience of some World Endurance championship races. Lancia were a top team, they took me to the Daytona 24hours. I’d only driven the car in the Fiat parking lot. It was my first ever race abroad, outside of Italy and all I’d ever raced was the Fiat Abarth when I arrived at Daytona. When I saw the huge banking on the track I nearly turned the rental car straight round and head back home! It looked so scary. I ended up winning the class, a world championship win, and finished fifth overall, which was a great result for a young kid. But to me, at the time, I didn’t really understand endurance racing, it just felt as if you were driving round and round, preserving the car, not knowing what position you were in, driving slow and it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I loved to race, to drive fast and it just didn’t feel like racing to me.

I then went to Le Mans for my first race there. It was a horrible experience. I shared car 67 with Beppe Gabbiani. Gabbiani started the race then when I got into the car I did my first competitive full lap of Le Mans. On the second lap there were yellow flags, there had been a big crash and Jean-Louis Lafosse was killed. It was a horrible accident, the car was absolutely shattered into pieces and we had to drive through the debris for many laps behind the pace car. It’s hard for any driver when that happens but for a kid, it’s even worse. We finally got under way again and after just one lap under the green flag, another big crash this time involving Thiery Boutsen and a marshal was killed, with two others lying on the ground seriously injured. In one hour so many horrible things had happened. I give the car back to Gabbiani and after another hour I am waiting in the pits to jump in for my next session. He doesn’t appear. There was no radio, eventually we hear the news that car 67 has crashed on the straight, has caught fire and the driver has been killed. He had crashed and the car did have a small fire, but because of the awful atmosphere from what had already happened the news spread that my team mate had been killed. Fortunately this was not the case.

All of the accidents happened because of mechanical failure, I knew motorsport was dangerous and I was comfortable in thinking I may pay for my own mistakes, I balanced the risks when making decisions but until that point I had never taken into account that you could die because of something completely out of your control. I left the circuit during the race thinking I never ever wanted to see the place ever again. I’d driven to Le Mans from Rome in my little VW Polo and as I got onto the motorway I looked back on the race and said to myself I would never go back there.

Many years later Audi entered sports car racing and I did of course return to Le Mans. From hell it became paradise to me. The cars had changed so much from those early days. You could drive fast, you could push as much as you wanted, the cars didn’t have to be nursed, they could be raced. I’d experienced Formula 1 and I’d also driven Touring Cars, I needed the adrenalin of real speed and suddenly I could get it from sports cars. The Audi was quick, really quick and it gave me that buzz, driving through Porsche Curves there was that feeling of speed. I immediately felt a good connection with the car, the circuit, the fans, the atmosphere. From 1999 I had nine consecutive top3 finishes. The feeling of finishing the race is very special, it is such a long preparation, it’s like an Olympic Games, you work so hard with your body, with the car, with the mechanics, with the team. There is so much passion in Le Mans, so many fans simply go to support the race, not just one driver or team and you can feel this in the atmosphere the whole weekend. Standing on the top step as winner is just amazing. Despite feeling exhausted after 24 hours, each time I won I then stayed up partying till the next morning! Le Mans really did go from Hell to Heaven.

I really got to understand what it is like for the fans at a race in America, we were battling for the lead all through the night and I was getting quite nervous, so I went and watched alongside the fans when I was not in the car. It was such a strange feeling watching my car racing, but stood there alongside fans who were having barbecues, beer, seeing the speed, hearing the sounds, it really gave me an understanding as to why they also love racing.

Emanuele Pirro


Our sincere thanks go to @celebkarting and @racedriversinc for making this memory possible. Emanuele was interviewed whilst participating in the Autosport International Karting Challenge (AIKC), run in association with Race Drivers Inc. and presented by Johnny Herbert.

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Memory added on February 26, 2013

1 Comment

Very interesting read, thanks a lot for posting this!

– Bas, March 11 2013 at 09:06

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