So the 85th edition of the Le Mans 24 hour race has been and gone! It was my 11th time at the race but my first time the other side of the fence.
Whilst we are a growing website with some great news articles and images, even if I do say so myself, this does not guarantee your application to the ACO for media accreditation will be successful. However, after building a very good relationship with Clearwater Racing our application went in to the ACO and we waited….
Then, 18 days before scrutineering we received an email confirming our acceptance… wow! The game was on now for sure! We already had our travel and accommodation booked well in advance, but the rest would need some quick work. So we packed the car with everything we would need for a week, and most things we would not… like waterproofs thankfully… but you can never tell, it’s Le Mans after all!
Our first treat was driving into the circuit - so many years we’d followed signs for Parking Blanc - through the gates we went, under the track and down onto the Bugatti Circuit… parking just next to where Valentino crashed out of the MotoGP.
Off to the Media Centre we went which would become home for the next week. A week before the race itself Le Mans is like a beast starting to wake up from a yearlong hibernation… there’s drivers wandering around not getting stopped for autographs, teams building their garages and miles of cables being laid out. Not really knowing the ‘etiquette’ we chose our desks in the Media Centre above the Clearwater pit garage only to be promptly told desk allocations had already been sorted out…doh! We were however very happy with ‘our’ allocation, good views of timing screens and surrounded by the likes of Daily Sports Car, Sportscar 365 and Ferrari – we were in good company!
Next up on the list of requirements was the photographers safety briefing which then rewards you at the end with the all-important track tabard! Handily the briefing was given in the Place de la Republique where ‘Pesage’ (scrutineering) was taking place, it was off into the building heat and growing crowd I went, camera in hand waiting to get snapping. I had told myself not to take ‘too many’ images… this I did not stick to on the first day as I found out when I got the message “CF card full” after wondering why my camera had stopped working!
My main focus for the week was Clearwater Racing. As we set off for scrutineering we hoped we would beat the team, we actually ended up following the Ferrari 488’s on the back of their flatbeds – more by luck than judgement but I think it was a good omen. So shots of the team pushing the cars around, the crowds and then the traditional team photos in the centre of the square, our first part of the week was done! We headed back to our gite and the local bar to use and abuse their WIFI… and the beer! But on our way back we just had to drive as much of the circuit as possible… for research you understand!
A day of photo shoots was on the cards! Walking out of the pit lane and onto the start finish straight it was starting to sink in where I was, looking over the finishing line and seeing the the grandstands and pits… wow I was here! I took a moment to take it all in before taking up my position in the throng of photographers waiting for the drivers to appear for their official photograph.
This was just the start, next up was the Asian Le Mans cars and teams on the grid followed by the Porsche LMP1 team photos, which strangely not a lot of photographers attended – all the better for me! This concluded my photos and so I headed off to the media centre to download and ‘tinker’.
This was the first day of track action! The media shuttles which were provided to transport photographers around the circuit obviously went to Hogwarts as they had clearly learnt the skill of being invisible! After much time was wasted waited for one of these to appear, I eventually found myself down at the first chicane along the Mulsanne. After shooting at the chicane, which was quite restricted for photographers, I managed to catch another shuttle only to be deposited on the inside of the second chicane in the middle of a ‘red zone’ – these are areas where photographers are not permitted to take photographs as they are deemed too dangerous - I quickly realised I was stranded… and boy was it hot!
I consulted my map and it was quite a trek to the nearest shuttle stop and the temperature was rising. As luck would have it, Ford had built a hospitality area in the same place, so in my best ‘broken French’ I managed to explain the issue and the hostess went to get ‘a man’! A short time later I had water, a nice seat with a view in the shade whilst ‘my man’ sorted out my repatriation to the Media Centre. After a very silent trip back in an electrician’s van (no English spoken), I found myself in the Techno Park, next to the pits!
This was not the end to Wednesdays photography exploits! There was the first night session to contend with and I had pit access - I based myself in the Clearwater pit, which was handy for Porsche LMP1 who were next door and Toyota just a bit further down. Unfortunately it possibly the hottest and most humid day of the week! You may not know but at all FIA WEC rounds and Le Mans you have to wear a fireproof suit and helmet when photographing in the pit lane (due to the live refuelling that goes on), which when at Silverstone can be quite nice and warm, but in 30+ degree heat and with almost 100% humidity is not the most fun! This was swiftly forgotten went I walked out onto the pit lane for the first time and looked down to see all the garages lit up and the crowds looking on from the grandstands. Now I have worked in pit lanes before, but Le Mans is special and very long, with 60 garages you need to keep a keen eye out for what’s going on and an ear on the radio to find out what car is coming in. After 2 hours in my fire suit I called it a night and headed back to Clearwater, and was handed a nice cold bottle of water from one of the mechanics…I loved that man!
Thursday was a slightly easier day for me, opting out of going trackside during the day session and concentrating on editing images in the comfort of the Media Centre. We did get the chance to interview some drivers, and I had a promotional shoot to do for IWI Watches Ambassador Matt Griffin. The last session before the race was the final qualifying session, but as is sometimes the case the best time had been set already, but it gave teams a chance to run some race simulations. One thing was for sure, the amount of fans attending was growing steadily.
Now onto Friday, our day of rest we had decided after talking to other photographers about the Drivers Parade - we decided not to go into the city centre as we had been told the crowds made it impossible to get any decent shots unless you got there early. Not to worry, we spent the afternoon in the AF Corse hospitality chatting to drivers, team members and guests and finishing off editing images, oh and had a nice meal in the local bar!
Considering it did not start until 3pm we got to the circuit for 10am to account for the 258,500 fans also attending! Anna (the other half of Prescott Motorsport, and more importantly Mrs P!) had opted to have the grid walk wrist band (I say that lightly as she is near me!) so I took to the track access roads and got in position at the Essess for the start of the race. The build-up was amazing, listening to Radio Le Mans in one ear and the crowds cheering in the other the start of the race was nearing. As every year I had to wipe away a tear or two as ‘Hindy’ read out the ‘Role of Honour’, but shortly thereafter the PA system blasted out Richard Strauss’ Sprach Zarathustra from the film Space Odyssey and the sight of the leading LMP1’s cresting the hill under the Dunlop Bridge meant my first Le Mans as a photographer only had 24 hours left!