LE MANS
Post Le Mans
-
17/06/2001
 
Mark Cole
A Week On Air
 
Eurosport commentator Mark Cole was on air for 20 hours for this year's Le Mans 24 Hours - but TV has its plus sides too....



A 20th Le Mans 24 Hours for me, and one which I was looking forward to with as much relish as the previous nineteen, as both journalist and commentator. This year was again for Eurosport, always a tough call as we are broadcasting to the most knowledable audience in motorsport - the Brits.

While 55,000 of my countryman make the trip to La Sarthe in their Bentleys, Jaguars, Porsches, TVRs, MGs, Marcoses and Caterhams (so many!), another two million are at home hanging on our every word, and quick to e-mail us with corrections, comments or expletives.

Covering the world's greatest race live is never as easy as it looks, with 144 drivers in 48 cars, who need to be instantly identified live on air in pitstops or incidents. It means long hours crammed into the tiny, noisy glass booths on the 6th floor of the Automobile Club de l'Ouest's main building opposite the pits, partnered this year by Martin Haven and David Leslie, with the indefatigable Amanda Stretton in the pitlane.

It means missing meals and sleep, struggling to be both bright and informative in the small hours. Nor does our work start only at 16.00h Saturday, when the lights go green - the whole Le Mans week is filled with pre-24 hours programming: previews, reviews and qualifying, providing Eurosport's build-up to the weekend. We covered the Legends race live too.

The 24 Hours coverage itself is carefully planned to slot in with Eurosport's other sports - but the best-laid plans...With rain in England, the Stellas Artois tennis at Queen's was called off Saturday, and we found ourselves live from 3.15pm until 11.45 pm, with not so much as break. Thank God we are all racefans - and thanks for staying with us!

Sunday was less frantic, but still four hours of live coverage, building up to the magic moment that the clock strikes 4pm, and the chequered flag goes out for the travel-stained, weary long-distance voyagers.

The 2001 Le Mans 24 Hours may not go down in history as one of the most competitive, but the 69th edition of the world's greatest race was certainly one of the wettest. The result may never have been in doubt, and may have looked pre-ordained, but there the weather was the joker card this year. From our commentary position, throughout qualifying and the race, the weather always looked like being to be the final decider in this 69th (how very French) edition. And it was.

After last year's 1-2-3 blitzkrieg by the Audi squad, it was difficult to get excited about this year's two factory cars swishing and sweeping to victory, often powerboating. Both had to change gearboxes during the race before finishing one lap apart - an operation which took just five minutes for each - but success had always seemed assured.

We were as stunned as anyone by the ferocity of the rainstorms which hit the race soon after the start, lined up one after another, sweeping in from the south-west. The first almost brought proceedings to a halt in a multiple-car pile-up after just 17 minutes. Race director Jacky Ickx, a six-times winner, threw the first of four full-course yellows as the scrapyard was moved off-piste, and by the time the race ended we had more safety cars periods than the average Indycar race.

One might have thought that Audi, with four cars in the top five grid places would have capitalised on this, but Bentley's Martin Brundle emerged from the confusion to lead Le Mans in front of the world's television cameras. And not only that, but Mark Blundell had the little Chamberlain-run MG 675 up into third place, unprecedented after a string of pre-race engine failures. And MG's managing director just happened to be on the pitwall...All this was manna from heaven for a British broadcaster, and we made hay while the sun shone. But not for long - the rain which had benefitted them came back with a vengeance, and water found its way into all the wrong places. After four weeks of glorious May English weather, neither British team had had the chance to wet-weather test.

MG was eventually out, but not until after half-distance, and had proved to itself and the fans that it is going to be a force to be reckoned with in years to come.



The rest, as they say, is history, but suffice it to say Bentley's wonderful podium finish had the Brits packing the stands below us ecstatic. Even the Hawaiian Tropic boys...

Audi was almost flawless in Reinhold Joest's professional approach to preparation and winning for a second year, but victory was not without its downside, over-zealous security officials preventing journalists from access to their garages, even to the extent of blocking our world-feed cameras when there was a hint of a problem. This is not what sportscar racing is all about - ask the 250,000 fans packing the spectator areas - and more than one colleague suggested Audi was showing it is now fully prepared for Formula 1.

Bentley may have the same adoptive parents through VAG, but the very Englishness of the whole project won many hearts and minds, and provided a taste of what next year's outright Le Mans winner may look like. User-friendly access to team personnel and drivers make everyone's life that much easier - we want the news, they want the publicity. Full marks also to the PR team for sending their three Bentley Boys - Andy Wallace, Butch Leitzinger and Eric van de Poele - to the podium in 1920s flying helmets and racesuits. What a return after a 71-year absence!



Corvette made few friends by repeating its 2001 Daytona 24 trick of bringing in its two C5-Rs for almost an hour in the pits because they were so far out front in GTS. Ron Fellows told us on air there was no need to risk the cars until the end, but many felt it was outside the spirit of competition.

And so the fans jeered, and what had looked like a dream second appearance at Le Mans went a little sour despite winning. At the time the lead #63 car (the outright Rolex winner) - stopped, it was 5th overall and looking at 4th. But by the time the two yellow birds returned to the action with a half-hour remaining, they had dropped to 8th and 14th overall, beaten by the two GT-category winning Porsche GT3RSs - surely not what the Corvette marketing men had in mind? Porsche will no doubt be crowing it beat the might of GM...

Thanks to all the guests who joined us in the cabin, and gave us a chance to chat about our sport with some of the greats - Mario Andretti, Derek Bell and Stefan Johansson among them - while many drivers and team managers came to give us their version of events.

Down in the pitlane Amanda collared David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert, before climbing onto the roof of the GTP-winning Bentley to interview a mobbed Andy Wallace.

Our end-of-race votes:

Man of the Race: David Terrien, for trying against all odds to get his wrecked FFSA Viper back into the pitlane
Car of the Race: MG for confounding all the bookies by lasting far, far longer than the forecast first hour
Moment of the Race: Seiiji Ara frantically trying to phone his crew as his ORECA Chrysler burned - only to get a constant 'network busy' message

Of such things are broadcasting at Le Mans made - longer shifts than most of the drivers, and the same adrenalin which lifts you above the all-pervading tiredness of covering a 24 Hours race. Come Sunday night when the weariness sets in, one always swears that it will be the last - but by Monday morning you are ready for next year. It can't come soon enough.






Official website of the Le Mans 24 Hours
Official website of the Le Mans 24 Hours

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