The Le Mans 24 Hours is generally considered to be THE endurance motorsport classic, taking up a weekend in June, located somewhere in rural France to the West of Paris. For those who live and breath it, as I have for the best part of 40 years, its shadow extends much, much further.
For most teams, the whole affair actually starts at the previous year's race - those who have lost, start plotting; those who have won, look to consolidate and continue their reign. The next part of the process is getting budgets in place, either internally for the manufacturer teams or externally for those who rely on sponsor or driver funding sources... then comes arguably the most arduous element of the process, obtaining an invitation from the Automobile Club de l’Ouest - initially to the Official Test Day, then hopefully to the race week itself.
Assuming that a team either earns an automatic invitation through its results in the previous season or displays sufficient charm, talent, or perhaps just good old simple Gallic Flair (aka being French) to warrant a discretionary ticket to the Ball, they assemble at La Sarthe at the end of May or beginning of June for the Official Test Day.
Here they dial in the car to meet the challenges of the unique Circuit de la Sarthe, a combination of private track and public highway, there is nothing to match it anywhere else on the planet. The drivers too are vetted, those without recent experience of the race have to first undergo a session for half-a-day in a simulator in Paris. Then at the Test they have to complete ten laps to satisfy the ACO that they have sufficient skill and speed to race without causing risk to others on the track.
For Greaves Motorsport this Test afforded an opportunity to try out a promising newcomer, the 2014 GT Academy winner Gaëtan Paletou. This was at the request of Nissan who have been very active in promoting young, talented drivers through the GT Academy programme. Even by the standards of this intensive course, Gaëtan's progress had been meteoric, sitting in a Nissan-powered Gibson prototype a mere ten months after getting a Competition License... could he make the grade?
Gaëtan drove his laps and ticked all the boxes, the question remained, would he make the race? After much discussion between Nissan and the team, it was agreed that he would make his debut at Le Mans! A dream had come true... well the first part of it anyhow.
So it was onto the main event, the prologue of which is Scrutineering. This involves the teams dragging their cars down into the middle of the city of Le Mans, to the Place de Republic. Here there are checks made to ensure compliance with technical and sporting regulations for the car and also the drivers have their licences and equipment examined.
The competitors' reward for this time consuming and drawn out piece of theatre is the famous team shot.
There are also autographs to be signed, some for the genuine fans and not the gang of ebayers who infest the place with their piles of prints for later resale.
And there is also time for another informal team shot... days like this are to be treasured.
Once this is out of the way, the teams head back to the track. That is Sunday and Monday accounted for... Tuesday has both the Drivers/Team Managers' Briefing and then the Official Drivers Photo. Later in the afternoon the pit lane is opened for a 90-minute autograph session. Cue much grumbling from the drivers, but once it gets underway they get into the spirit of the event.
Quite what everyone does with these bits of paper is a mystery, Greaves Motorsport went through over 1,100 cards on the Tuesday afternoon...
While the drivers are being fawned over, the guys on the team hone their skills with sessions of pit stop practice, hot work in the suits and in the humid conditions. It is vital though as time gained in the pits can make all the difference, even in a 24 hour marathon. The guys at Greaves Motorsport have a good reputation both on and off the track, that takes hard work to maintain.
Wednesday dawns and it will soon be time for action to start. The team has drawn up a test program that will involve optimizing the car and getting each of the drivers some seat time during the hours of darkness. This year, rain kept coming and going making it hard to get a rhythm going - but as the second session approached, the track dried out and the times were set to tumble. Jon seized the opportunity posting a 3:38.958, good enough for second place - job done!
Gaëtan was next out for the team but soon into his stint disaster struck and he clouted the barriers at Mulsanne Corner - hard! The question that now faced the team was how badly damaged was the car and was it repairable? The time rolled on as the Gibson was first recovered and then left in Parc Fermé until the action was over, it was nearly 01.00 before the car appeared in the garage, the next few minutes were tense...