2004 was my first drive at Le Mans and came just 20 months after getting my race licence. I found myself strapped in to the TVR Tuscon T400R I was to share with team mates Nigel Greensall and Gareth Evans.
In those days you had to complete I think it was 3 laps within a certain time ahead of the race to be able to compete. Exiting the pit lane, I remember driving out, taking the right-hander that leads to the left/right combination before driving under the iconic Dunlop bridge.
Down the hill and suddenly a dilemma.
Because the full circuit is adapted from public roads there are parts of the circuit that can be a bit confusing first time out. Well here was one of those moments.
Sweeping down the hill the circuit had what appeared to be a split to the track, with a track going left or right. I basically had to guess which way to go and out of the corner of my eye, saw a flag marshall to the left so decided to go left.
The circuit was pretty much deserted at the time and after a couple more bends I found myself on what seemed like a public road, with the usual signposts and a pub by the side of the road. This couldn't be it surely? I thought I'd made the biggest mistake of my life and I was going to have to turn round and head back to the circuit. I eased off and began to pull over to the side of the road when Whoosh.......Alan McNish flew past me in his LMP1 Audi! We were on the Mulsanne straight!!
Realising I was indeed on the circuit, I put my foot back down and got on with trying to learn the circuit whilst trying to get within the target time to be able to race. Even for qualifying, the crowds were huge and there was a real satisfaction coming back into the pits seeing all the fans in the grandstands.
I began to recognise the corners that would give real satisfaction when you nail them. The corner before Indianapolis, taken at 180-190mph gives a real buzz, but then shortly after you have the frustration of the 1st gear 90 degree right, which is not enjoyable as it is easy to either brake way too early for or if you leave it till after the nasty little bump in the surface, end up being pushed out of the tyre wall by the marshalls.
But then not too long after are the amazing Porsche curves, this is just a fantastic flowing series of corners where there is little room for error, but get these right and you are bound to have a grin on your face. Having said that, at the end of them is the little known 'bastard left'. It might not have been called that officially but that was the name I gave it. Get that wrong and you basically would hit the wall and end your race.
Le Mans always has massive support from the Brits and as we were a all British team competing in a British GT sports car, we got a lot of interest, particularly from the TVR fans, particularly as a TVR had not managed to finish in 60 years.
So on to the race. 24 hours ahead of us and Nigel, our pro driver takes the first stint. Only it doesn't quite go to plan. On the green flag lap, the TVR's ECU fails and Nigel ends up free wheeling into the pits, it meant for a lot of TV coverage for the car, but not for the right reasons. Straight into the pits and the team had a lot of work to do to change it.
My pal back home who had a TVR dealership in Harrogate was watching the race with some customers on TV and as I rang him to give him an update, the TV cameras came into our garage and focused on me making the call, so he certainly got a live update. If you are going to have a mechanical failure though, that's probably the best time to have it.
After an anxious 20 or 30 minutes, Nigel gets going and we are finally racing. It was swelteringly hot that year and there was very little cooling available in the car. The soles of your race boots were literally melting on the peddles in the heat.
The stint that sticks in my mind was the session I did where it was just starting to change from night to dawn. Going under the Dunlop Bridge, down the hill into the left and right hander and up the hill, there was a guy with a huge TVR flag. The tyres were at the end of their life and going off, so I was able to keep my foot in and get the back end sliding out, which he seemed to enjoy!
The other moment I especially remember is heading down Mulsanne to the first chicane, Colin McRae was driving a Ferrari that year and he went to out-brake me. The back end stepped out and then turning into the chicane the back end came out the other way and the car started to go sideways, I figured of all the drivers out there he was the one most likely to save a slide, but even he couldn't catch it and he ended up in the gravel. In motorsport news the following week there was a picture of him in the gravel and it was interesting to see him say that Le Mans was the toughest race he had ever been in.
I seem to be the one to cop for driving the dusk and dawn stints and being able to see where you are going due to the blindingly low sun can be tricky. You have to judge just where it will be brightest and to tape off your visor down to a certain level to try blocking it out, whilst of course, still being able to see where you are going.
Aside from the ECU problem at the start, the only real worrying moment was when I took over for a stint and immediately the car didn't feel quite right, coming into Porsche Curves I thought I heard the diff going 'bang - bang' and I had to make a very quick decision whether to continue or pit. Should anything fail, it's an 8.4 mile lap, which can prove to be a very long way with a sick race car (and the reason for many a retirement). I decided not to risk it and chose to pull in, which was vindicated when the team found the diff bolts had snapped. Had I not made that snap decision and pulled in, the car would not have made it round another lap and we would have been out.
The race was particularly memorable for us managing to bring the car home and across the line. The first TVR in 60 years to finish Le Mans. There must have been 10,000 TVR fans there cheering us home and ready to party.
After the race we had a big barbecue to celebrate and all I can remember of that is waking up the following morning with a half eaten kebab by the side of the bed and being severely de-hydrated.....great memories!
Chairman, LNT Group
Ginetta Cars www.ginetta.com
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Memory added on June 11, 2012
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