Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. My Sony DSLR blasted through a rapid succession of photos as I sat positioned just down track of that last curve that makes up the Ford Chicane. An Audi RS 6 Avant with giant ‘Medical Car’ written up the side and lights ablaze hammered through this slithering portion of track, tagging the curb and putting a wheel in the air.
I don’t have to roll back the photos. I know I got the shot. Nailed it.
“Nailed it,” yeah, that’s probably what I was thinking, caught up in my own conquest of nabbing a great photo of one of coolest of Audi race support cars. You never know when they’ll be on track or if you’ll have your camera up at the right time… and the race has barely begun. Awesome. It’s the RS 6 Medical Car!
Shit. That was the RS 6 Medical Car! He was really motoring. There was part of me that wanted to think it was textbook. Those first few laps of the race, each of the drivers is jockeying for position. Everyone is in tight quarters. Things happen. Metal gets bent. Carbon fiber shatters. People don’t die though. Right?
Death is something so many of us in racing may have nearly forgotten about. I’m not talking about the guys in the cars. I’m sure they’re always aware just how incredible the speed can be. However, you remember wrecks like Allan McNish’s spectacular end-over-end in 2011 or Anthony Davidson’s Toyota going airborn and hard into the barriers at Mulsanne a year later. Those guys are still fine. They’re still racing. While Kelly McNish may tell you otherwise, fans and even those around racing with any regularity still put it out of their minds. It’s not like the old days.In the 1930s, Hitler wrestled with the propaganda value of nationally backed racing teams and drivers whose star power rivaled his own. And, this historic leader who most notoriously ruled out of fear learnt he had little if any hold over guys who could meet their maker on any given race weekend. Those silver arrows were mind-bogglingly fast, yet their tire tech was just one step ahead of their safety tech… which is to say the cars actually had tires versus a complete lack of seatbelt, flame suit or helmet.
Things hadn’t changed much by the halcyon era when Ford took the Le Mans challenge to Ferrari. In those years, Ferrari (as in old man Ferrari) was both national hero for his victories and pariah for just how many of his drivers went to their deaths at the wheel of his cars. Carroll Shelby rather famously won in 1959 at the wheel of an Aston Martin wearing farmer’s overalls, while the old Le Mans style start of running to one’s car that inspired Porsche to put the starter on the left hand side of the steering wheel also inspired drivers of the time to wait until they’d gotten to Mulsanne to take the time to try to buckle themselves in.
That was a different era. Deaths don’t really happen today. At least that’s what we probably all thought until Allan Simonsen rather tragically reminded us that racing, while immeasurably safer, is still a very dangerous sport. To teach this lesson, the Danish-born Aston Martin factory driver paid with his life following an accident at Tertre Rouge and in nearly the same place Rocky stuffed an R10 TDI years ago.
Of course, it would be hours before Simonsen’s fate was revealed – hours until that reality would settle in.
In some ways, a sense of loss is where this season began. Audi Sport ventured to Sebring for the annual 12 hour enduro. They raced there knowing it carried no points in the chase for the World Endurance Championship title. They raced there to log hours in the cars. Mostly, they raced there because they wanted to bid one last goodbye to the race that’s been such an important part of the marque’s LMP program.They raced, and they won. Fassler, Jarvis and Treluyer took first place, narrowly beating out Di Grassi, Kristensen and McNish who took second.
Minutes after he’d stepped down from the 2nd place box on the Sebring podium, I ran into Tom Kristensen behind the stands. While there was plenty of human din in the air by the podium, it was eerily quiet on the paddock side of the stands. The winningest driver ever at both Le Mans and Sebring was surprisingly stoic.
We chatted momentarily. I probably congratulated him. He’d personally just missed, running the final stint at the wheel of the R18 e-tron #2. He was choked up, but not because he’d lost the race. He admitted in a very real and unfiltered moment that what he’d really wanted for that evening was to dedicate the win to his dad.
Tom had just lost his father over the off-season. In that loss, he’d not just said goodbye to his last surviving parent, he’d said goodbye to a friend and mentor in racing. In that moment, the always cool Mr. Le Mans was intensely human… and you could see he was also on a mission to pay his dad the ultimate respect through such a win.
He’d narrowly missed that opportunity at Sebring. Le Mans, however, was just a few months away.Fast forward to a grey overcast afternoon in the French countryside, and the great Dane stood atop the winner’s podium in Le Mans. The race was as hard fought as it often is, and Kristensen brought his Audi home victorious as he often does.
The toll of this race though, in human life specifically, weighed heavily on everyone on that podium and even the thousands of fans amassed below. No doubt, the weight fell hardest amongst the countless number of Danes, both in the crowd and watching on their televisions at home.Here he was with victory in hand… not just any victory, but his record-breaking ninth win in this monumental race. His fans and his countrymen stood looking up to him literally and figuratively from the tarmac below or through their glowing televisions or computer monitors from the comfort of home. When the microphone was turned to him, Kristensen exuded the sense of class for which he is nearly as unmatched as he is in wins at that circuit.
“This victory was for my dad. He gave me all of the motivation, determination and discipline for this sport… to do the best I can for the most wonderful team in the world… Audi Sport Team Joest. He can wait for the next victory of mine. This victory today I dedicate to Allan Simonsen, a great fellow Dane.”Often when we look back on a race we consider the cars, the passes, the pit stops and the strategies. As a journalist, I might think of the experience, the stories witnessed, or of photographs grabbed amidst the highly eventful fervor of race week.
For those of us here at Fourtitude, 2013 was a little bit different. We feel these very honest and human moments stand out even more. They communicate the loss, and they also tell of finding victory amidst that loss. They speak to the spirit that rains down on the this fabled circuit, flowing through the streets of Le Mans and also through the veins of anyone who’s ever raced here… or even attended. It is an ordeal like perhaps no other in modern sport, and in that the thrill of its victory may just be unmatched.
Editor’s Note: You can watch the podium ceremony 0f the 2013 24 Hours of Le Mans in the embedded video above, including Kristensen’s speech at around 13:04. Having completed that season as a key part of the championship-winning three-man team, Tom Kristensen and his teammates at Audi Sport take to the track this coming weekend with all three cars competing at the 6 Hours of Spa in Belgium. Make sure to follow along this weekend, and also in June when the team returns to the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans.