LE MANS
Post Le Mans
-
17/06/2001
 
Fiona Miller`s
Le Mans Diary
 
Of all the people that put up with John Brooks and I the least, it has to be Fiona Miller. Of all the people that put up the most with me and Brooksie, it's Fiona again. Why ? It is in her amazing background. She has seen or been part of some of the most amazing events of the last 20 years. How about Richard Branson and those silly but cool balloon trips ! After a stint as the PR manager for Virgin Atlantic, our lady of the isles showed up at TWR and ran their presses while Jaguar rolled up the points including another win at La Sarthe. A stay at Aston Martin (her presence was requested by Walter Hayes - a man who understood one's capabilities)before staying home playing mum for a while. Fiona isn't one to be stationary very long and was soon back at Le Mans with Nissan (shoulda won, they didn't) and has been with Panoz since 1998. Racing is in the family as the other half of the household, one Andy Miller learned his trade from David Price, made a name for himself in F3 and recently was Operations Director at Jaguar.

Fiona Miller is a mixture of tough street smarts combined with a good old
fashioned English gentleness and femininity that has earned her both the respect and admiration of a great many people. Fiona simply is the best at taking a sport known for it's rough edges and having it suddenly make sense while maintaining the professional aspect. Something that Brooks and I have not seemed to figure out yet !

The following is from a series of notes kept by Fiona of the adventures of the Panoz Team during the week leading up to and the running of the 2001 24 Heures du Mans. Enjoy !

Kerry Morse.







This year will be my 8th Le Mans 24 Hours and my 4th for Panoz so I feel very much at home both at Le Sarthe and within the team. As each year goes by though I seem to have an increasing inability to say Ďnoí and my job list/responsibilities grow disproportionately to the hours available in the day!


Monday, 11th June:

We are on a private charter from the UK to Le Mans airport and everyone is moaning because itís leaving so early. Tough! Iíve got plenty to do even if the others havenít. Say hi to the team then set up my office in a motorhome, which is based just behind the pits in the main paddock. Itís nice and near the action Ė just where I like to be. France Telecom still hasnít been to connect the phone line Ė add it to the list. Sort out new clothing from Fat Face Ė great leisure stuff which has been sent for the drivers, Dave Price and myself thanks to a last minute sponsorship deal. Put some on immediately, as I managed to throw coffee all over myself on the plane.

Go with Andy Waldrep, Panoz team manager, to the ticket place to collect another 60 passes which I spent hours on the phone ordering last week. They arenít ready so we head off to Carrefour for a quick whiz around to buy towels for the driversí motels and a few other essentials. A womanís work is never done it seems.

Remind the team about all wearing the right uniform for the pic. at scrutineering, sort out some media kits and hero cards to take, then head to town via the ticket office to see the lovely Monique and collect my media pass and the team passes; my hotel to drop off three peopleís luggage (need more space in the car later!) and a lightning change into uniform then drop into the team hotel in town. This year Iíve done the movement schedule which included hotel accommodation for over 60 people. Weíve been staying there for three years now and Madame ADORES Panoz and everyone on the team. She doesnít speak any English so, even though I am not staying there myself, feel it would be politic to drop in. Bought her some flowers on behalf of the boys Ė that will ensure their laundry is done for another few days anyway...



Eventually make my way into Quinconce des Jacobins for scrutineering. See lots of old friends for the first time. It feels good to be back. We are last through so finish at 7pm. Organise dinner for 12, including all the drivers, which is fun despite a heavy-handed waitress who tries to kill half of them by scattering broken glass all over their food. I then do my bit and try to kill Brabs, who has a seafood allergy, by spraying him with juice from a crab claw. For some reason he moves to the other end of the table....

Tuesday, 12th June

Pick up the keys and passes to Donís hospitality suite and check on arrangements for that. Complete set up of driversí cabins, finalise catering arrangements for the week, distribute passes, chase phones, electricians, plumbers and so on and so on. Phone is installed but needs major surgery to be able to plug a modem wire into it for emails. Get two electrical whizzes from the team to come and deal with it but I still canít get my emails for some reason. Paul Ryan arrives from Australia. He was the PR manager for the fantastic Adelaide event and is, for the second year running, coming to help me with the media side.

The day disappears unbelievably quickly and Iím getting more and more frustrated as I canít get online or, now, pick up my messages on my cellphone. Not great for someone supposedly in communications!

Give the team a pr pep talk before they leave the track. We know we are in for a potentially difficult week but they must be careful about what they say to anyone, play up the positives, play down the negatives, etc. Any awkward questions about the car, the future or who e-motion are Ė direct to me. I tell them I know they are the best team in the paddock, now prove their professionalism, be proud of their efforts whatever the outcome.

Have dinner with Cara, Paul and two Aussie photographers in town which is fun. There arenít many chances to get out of the track from now on so itís good to do it while we can. Itís been a rather stressful day with one thing and another so an early(ish) night is welcome.

Wednesday, 13th June

Come in to find a bunch of flowers from our photographer Rick Dole. He said that I looked yesterday like I normally would on a Friday before Le Mans and thought theyíd cheer me up. What a lovely man!

Meet Don at the airport with passes. Role of his PA about to be added to my list of responsibilities. Set up a daily meeting schedule for him, do similar for drivers, finalise arrangements for suite, and at last make it into the media centre. The familiar faces are beginning to appear and itís great to see everyone Ė itís good to speak French again too. I manage pretty well on the technical side but every now and then have to go rushing up to Stef, our French mechanic, and seek help. He claims he canít remember any French now as heís been in the States so long, but we get there eventually!



At last the cars fire up and go out. It seems so long to wait until 7pm. Problems straight away with gear selection on both cars Ė God, not again. Car 11 does a couple of alternator belts too, a recurring problem for months. The other car fares even worse, with a propshaft breaking and Jan stranded out on the track.

Host a dinner and organise pit tours for 10 French businessmen, between practice sessions. They are the guests of a local vineyard with whom I have done a deal for Le Mans. They provide us with ample liquid refreshment in return for us hosting a couple of dinners and a meeting between Don and their chairman.

The second session doesnít get much better. Klaus, Jamie and Gary at least get all their night qualifying laps out of the way but itís pretty disastrous for the other car. The car goes out late in the session due to the new propshaft being fitted and then they have gearbox problems again. Brabs hasnít even been in the car yet. Everyone is very down and dejected and we all leave the track as quickly as possible. Got to believe that tomorrow will be better.

Thursday, 14th June

Crisis meeting between Pricey and the engineers. Could swear I heard heads being clashed together. Dave also spent more time in the garage than I ever remember him doing before Ė encouraging, checking, joshing. Even found him in the truck telling the sub assembly team how to get around the alternator belt problem. Iím amazed by the guysí resilience in the face of all the problems to be solved, the hours of work ahead. There are a few who are always cheerful and they seem to keep the others going too.

Spend most of the morning chasing after Don to either get him to meetings or arrange them. The Scarlet Pimpernel had nothing on him! Spend some time chatting to journos, finally get around to answering the mass of emails that have come in while I was Ďoff airí. Thank heavens for Paul who has been busy doing bits for the website, both written and on video.

Make last minute arrangements for VIP guests who arrive tomorrow and try and spend some time writing releases / notes / diary.



Much better two sessions this evening. All the drivers spent time in the cars and were able to work on set up rather than fire-fighting recurring technical problems. Worryingly, had a problem with a loose wheel while Jamie was driving. New wheels might be a cause but everythingís being looked at. Janís car stopped out on the track about 25 minutes before midnight, which was eventually found to be caused by a burnt out wiring loom. Overall though, spirits are higher because progress was made. We are still slow and much further down the grid than in previous years, but all drivers are night qualified and finally got some laps under their belts.

Did our release as quickly as decently possible and then head back to The Ranch Ė our log cabins in a park near the Novotel. Iím invariably Priceyís designated driver, as tonight. Thereís a huge line of cars leaving the track and Iím really tired so maybe not concentrating as much as usual. We stop a bit suddenly a couple of times and heís having a real go at me about my driving. The next time he does it I screech to a halt, get out of the car and tell him to drive himself. He tries to drive off without me but canít find the central locking button quickly enough to stop me getting into the car. Bet no one else suffers as much abuse from their boss....

Friday, 15th June

Foolishly imagine Iím going to have an easier day and can spend time writing some pr notes and seeing all the tv people. However, am drafted in to help the ALMS directorate out of a crisis with a reception they are holding for teams and manufacturers. The caterers / rooms / pa system are not ready at the time the event is due to start and no one from the US speaks French. Get it all sorted eventually and then act as receptionist to greet guests. By this time itís peeing with rain which makes everything twice as lengthy and complicated.

Get Don, Scott and Dave up to Radio Le Mans for the debate and diffuse the biggest potential crisis of the weekend. Donís lost his lighter and is desperate for a smoke. Bag two freebies from the Tabac for him.

In between pit tours for guests, attend pre-race strategy meeting with drivers and engineers. Itís a fairly light hearted affair despite us all knowing that the chances of getting two cars to the finish are remote. Give the meeting Donís pr views on the car, our presence at Le Mans etc. They give me a hard time about it but I know theyíll toe the line when it matters.

Get the drivers off to the parade in town and finalise arrangements for a sponsors / guests dinner at the track. My night is made later when Kerry Morse and John Brooks drop in to disrupt things. I quieten them down when I sit on Morseís knee!!!

By this stage of the week Iíve become obsessed by sleep and / or the lack of it. Desperate to get an early night to stack up the zeds, but canít sleep. Thinking about all the things I havenít done, need to do, what might happen, etc. Eventually sleep some time after 3am.

Saturday, 16th June

Drama from the outset as itís bucketing with rain one minute and then warm and sunny the next. In the warm up Klaus suffers a puncture (analysis from Michelin shows a cut tire due to debris) and thereís further worry that it might have something to do with the wheels. Fortunately not, and Klaus is shaken but not stirred. Spend the next couple of hours running around doing pit tours for VIP guests, last minute briefings for key media types about running orders, and making sure the drivers know where and when theyíve got to be for the pre-race stuff. Iím so lucky to have six drivers who are all either native English speakers or have an excellent command of the language. Franckís English is probably the least fluent, but the advantage of having a Frenchman on the team at Le Mans far outweighs that and heís got a great sense of humour so fits in very well. They just get wheeled in front of cameras or microphones from around the globe and get on with it Ė professionally and brilliantly. Jan and I have had a little chat (one that we have every now and then) about doing ďa bit moreĒ on the pr front and he is pulling out all the stops. Stars, every one of them.

I get nervous as the race start gets closer, and pace around the garage while they are all out on the grid. The dramas continue as Klausís helmet radio is not working Ė he can hear us but we canít hear him. They do a frantic check on the grid and run down there with a spare helmet, but it still doesnít seem to work. He works out a yes / no code signal with Rick, his engineer who will feed him questions about tires, etc.

The weather is still playing tricks on everyone but both Chris (Gorne) and Rick (Mayer) have decided to go out for the start on intermediates. Theyíve consulted with and trust implicitly the advice of Donnie Wilson, our long-time Michelin engineer, but itís a gamble as almost everyone else is on slicks. This same gamble Ė using inters Ė paid off for us at Nurburgring last year so fingers are crossed.

After three laps Jan is screaming down the radio that the inters are going off (more explicit driver language was used of course) and wants to come straight in for slicks. Chris pleads with him to be patient for another lap and, yippee, it starts raining hard. By the end of lap four, itís chaos on the track but our two cars should be ok.

Jan has a shunt, goes up the back of someone in the awful conditions, and has damaged the nose. He says you canít see a thing. Comes in for repairs and wet tires.

Five laps later Klaus is up to P3 and no one can believe it. He pits for fuel only and rejoins still high up the leaderboard. A nice moment when car 57 (the FFSA car) finally makes it into the pits Ė all our mechanics go to the front of the garage and clap David Terrien as he passes.

Lap 14 and Klaus passes the Bentley to go, albeit briefly, into the lead. An experience he will remember for some time to come. I ask Paul to put out a press release immediately Ė it may be the only good news we have for a while.

Only a short time later and it all starts going horribly wrong. Within a few laps of each other, both cars are in the pits with wheel problems Ė Janís had come off completely and a new front upright needed fitting as well as front splitter. Not sure of the exact cause of the problem but it looks as if some component is breaking. Don makes the call to continue but only after the cars are called back in to re-check everything once again.

Two hours into the race and we have fallen way back down the timesheets. Itís still pouring but both cars are out there and going round. Thatís small consolation when they are on the third page of the timing screens. No one has ever had to look that far down for a Panoz before Ė not good.



After about four hours we run into more problems. Both cars are having problems with gear selection which, it turns out, is being caused by waterlogged compressors. We arenít the only ones in the pit lane with this, but that is small consolation.

DB gets into his car for the first time around 9pm. Itís nearly dark and itís p...ing with rain. Isnít he the lucky one. All the drivers are nervous of potential breakages or accidents but they are all doing a good job. DBís been in the car about an hour when the engine cuts out on the track and we think thatís it. Somehow he gets it going again and soldiers on. About an hour later he pits again saying the car feels very strange at the front end, bad vibration. It turns out to be a puncture caused by a cut tire.

Around midnight and Klaus prepares for a triple stint. No one expected us to last this long and, while the rain has without doubt helped us in some ways, we have also run without alternator troubles, gearbox or cooling problems Ė two areas which have given us repeated concerns in the last couple of months. Ok, the gear selection is not great but we know thatís due to waterlogging of the compressors.

About 1.30am, I go upstairs again to the media center and see the hardy souls who are still there working away, then pop into the Chrysler press office to see my mate Cara. Iím just sitting down to rest my weary bones when I hear over my radio that weíve got problems with both cars and dash back to our pits.

Car 11 has gone off at the Porsche Curves. Klaus is, fortunately, ok but Ė until he gets back to the pits Ė we donít know what caused the off. The car is too badly damaged to continue. At the same time, car 12 comes into the pits with major electrical problems and suddenly our day is done.



Iíve never had both cars go out before at Le Mans and itís a funny feeling. Thereís the obvious disappointment but also a sense of relief. Deep down, despite trying to be SO positive about it, I knew the cars were unlikely to finish the race and now itís happened. Paul and I do a release, update the website and I do a last walk through the media center updating people on whatís happened. Then back to the Ranch for some unexpected but much needed sleep.




Sunday, 17th June

Didnít sleep well despite the fatigue Ė mind wouldnít stop. Still, canít complain, as Iíve had more than everyone at the track. Go back about 10am and pack up. Do another few rounds in the press room to let people who werenít there the night before know what happened. Everyone is very kind and say that we did better than expected and at least we led the race. My first few years here were with TWR / Jaguar and Iíve been lucky enough to experience winning Le Mans. Leading for a lap and crossing the line 1st and 2nd is still some way apart but I guess thatís what spurs us all on to return Ė drivers, team management, mechanics and pr people Ė winning is everything.

Fiona Miller.





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