Earlier this year Toyota conducted a global recruitment program to select two enthusiastic fans of Toyota to be officials supporters of the team at 24 hours of Le Mans 2013. Fortunately I earned one of those spots and had a VIP experience at the event. It is an incredible memory and one that I would like to share with you.
Toyota fans from over 80 countries submitted a short essay regarding hybrid technology and their passion for Toyota’s hybrid racing program. From these essays eight finalists were selected to participate in a public interview streamed live on the internet. After I was notified that I had been selected as a finalist I left nothing to chance. I obsessed over hybrid technology, Le Mans history, and driver backgrounds for a week leading up to the interview. My preparation paid off and it was an easy decision for the Toyota team to select me as the “Cool” candidate. You can read more about the contest here and view my interview below (skip to 6:30).
I left for Le Mans on the Wednesday evening prior to the event. Toyota very generously reserved a business class seat for me on my overnight Air France flight. Unfortunately the extra legroom did me no good as I didn't sleep a wink on the flight. When I arrived in Paris I hopped aboard the first TGV train to Le Mans. Once again I was unable to sleep. I was too busy watching the French countryside rush past the window at over 100mph.
I arrived in the town of Le Mans on Thursday at 15:00 and checked into my hotel. Once again Toyota spoiled me with a nice 5th floor hotel room just one block from the train and tram depot. The amenities were typical of an American extended stay hotel but the nightly rate anything but typical. Had I traveled to Le Mans on my on dime I would no doubt be camping at the track instead of enjoying the fantastic view from my hotel room window.
The view of Le Mans, France from my 5th floor hotel room.
Thursday evening I took a ride on the SETRAM tram to a poorly marked entrance to the Le Mans circuit near the Tertre Rouge corner. After an incredible walk I made it to the Toyota Team Hospitality tent where the team, family and friends can watch the action via television and enjoy some food.
Toyota Hospitality area for drivers, crew, family and friends.
Throughout qualifying and the race I spent many hours in the Team Hospitality tent. Not only did I enjoy the free food and the company of pro drivers such as Stephane Serrazin and Nicolas Lapierre, but being able to study the real-time results on the monitors really kept me engaged in the race. During the day the mobile phone networks were completely jammed and it was not possible to access results on my smart phone.
Multiple monitors provided the standard television coverage on one monitor with real-time results on a second.
My Le Mans ticket not only gave me pitwalk access but I also a reserved seat in the upper deck of the grandstands near start/finish. Ironically I had no interest in watching the action from the main straight. Instead I fought the dense crowd to make my way to the Dunlop Curves to watch qualifying. The fence along the track was at least 6 people deep with spectators. I eventually I found an uncomfortable perch on atop a thin wall which gave me a good vantage of the action. Toyota finished qualifying in 4th and 5th behind the three Audis.
After qualifying I returned to Toyota Team Hospitality where I met Toyota Racing's other official supporter, Oliver Townshend. Oliver is from England and this was his second time spectating the race. Oliver was a great companion because he is knowledge about the sport and familiar with navigating the maze of paths throughout the infield.
Oliver Townshend (Left) and James Elterman (Me)
We also met the team we would be working with to report the event from a fan's perspective. It took me nearly two days to understand the relationship of the all Japanese team and I must admit that is still isn't perfectly clear. There were a couple people from Toyota's corporate offices in Japan, a couple people from the marketing agency that was contracted to coordinate the project, a group of people from a media company responsible for the photos, video and website, and finally a trilingual Japanese/English/French speaker that served as our guide. Back at the hotel we were up until 3:30 Friday morning discussing the schedule and objectives for the weekend. When my head finally hit the pillow I had been awake for ~39 hours.
Media Team from Japan
Friday morning we were up early to head to the track for the Toyota press conference. The press conference was conducted in a two story Toyota branded building near the Ford Chicane. Prior to the race this building served as a media center where members of the media could participate in the press conference and interview members of the team. During the race the building served as hospitality for the staff of Toyota dealers in Europe. I was very grateful that my Toyota credentials gave me access to this building during the race.
Outside the Toyota Hospitality Building
There were many ways to keep yourself entertained here. First there was a bar serving beer and champagne. Secondly the second floor outdoor patio provided and incredible vantage of the Ford Chicane. Watching the race cars bomb into the chicane, two wheels over the rumble strips, and accelerating hard onto the front straight; all in front of the iconic Le Mans Ferris wheel is a memory that will last a lifetime.
Toyota TS030 passes Le Mans's iconic Ferris wheel
Panoramic view from the deck of the Toyota Hospitality building
Also within the building was a small theater. Within the theater were two rows of theater style seats and 4 flat panel monitors. Again two monitors displayed the television coverage and real-time results, but the second two monitors were live feeds from the driver's perspective of Toyota #7 and #8.
The final attraction here was the GT86 Simulator. I remembered seeing the video below and I hoped that someday I would have an opportunity to try it.
I am a big fan of the GT86 and an avid Forza Motorsport player so I thought this would be a great fit for me. Unfortunately I came away from my 2 minutes behind the wheel disappointed. The GT86 simulator uses Gran Turismo 5 software but despite my Forza roots that was the least of my worries. Your field of view is actually projected onto the windshield. It is a bit like reading a book 6 inches from your face. It was also disappointing that the car functioned in automatic mode only. Finally and most unsettling was the lack of force feedback in the wheel. The wheel was so loose I found it a challenge simply driving straight, nevermind trying to catch a drift. Any sort of drifting resulted in a pendulum at corner exit. On a positive note I loved the working gauges and hydraulics which made the car pitch and roll. It is just a shame that they didn't simply replace the steering wheel with a proper Logitech G27 steering wheel.
GT86 Simulator: Not as much fun as the real thing.
Back at the Friday morning Press Conference Oliver and I where anxious to ask the drivers and crew questions. Our turn came during the reception that followed the formal question and answer session for the official media.
At the press conference
I am an automotive engineer by trade so I was actually more anxious to interview the engineers than the drivers. While Oliver waited in the long queue to speak to the drivers I had no trouble speaking with Pascal Vasselon, Technical Director and Hisatake Murata, General Manager and responsible for the Hybrid system development. Unfortunately the media team felt that my questions for both were a bit too technical and they trimmed out what I felt were the best questions, leaving the interviews a little generic.
I did get a chance to speak to interview one driver, Kazuki Nakajima. Again I feel the team may have trimmed the best part of our conversation. I asked about the uniqueness of the Le Mans circuit and if there were any other circuits that could prepare a driver for Le Mans. Kazuki's response included his concern for the lack of safety at the track due to it being an old circuit with some street sections. Our conversation haunted me later when I learn of Allan Simonsen's death shortly after the start of this year's race.
After the press conference we had the opportunity to walk along the hot pit lane and watch the mechanics prepare the machines for battle.
The entrance to the Toyota garage. No admittance!
A section of the track was open for walking. A few vintage Le Mans racers were on display.
This gentleman had clearly lost a bet but was in good spirits about it.
In the afternoon we went to the Le Mans town center to witness the Pilot's Parade (aka Driver's Parade.) My experience at the Pilot's Parade was a bit anti-climatic considering the VIP treatment I had already become accustomed to. Like most everyone else I spent the parade on my tiptoes peering over five rows of heads with my camera held high over my head to try to capture a photo. I really enjoyed seeing how the people of Le Mans support the race. Unlike many American towns that impose laws to stifle historic circuits in their town, Le Mans makes the teams and fans alike feel welcome and appreciated.
A rare Spania GTA Spano in the parade. Note the spectators climbing high to catch a glimpse of the parade.
My shot of the #8 Toyota drivers photobombed by a hand.
Sébastien Buemi signing autographs after the parade.
Friday night we got a decent night's rest and did not return to the track until 11:00 Saturday. I thought this was wise considering I had a very long race day ahead but I regretted sleeping in when I realized that I has missed the historic Le Mans cars making laps on the circuit. I suppose I have to leave a reason to return again another year!
Somewhere east of the pits is a limited access area with RV campers stacked bumper to bumper and door to door. The media team rented two campers during the race weekend to serve as editing studios, a place to change clothes or have a nap. It didn't occur to me until after I crossed paths with a few suited drivers but this RV park is where many drivers come to rest between stints. With many drivers and other motorsport celebrities such as Martin Brundle passing through the park it was difficult for me to keep my cool and avoid looking like a star struck fan that managed to sneak backstage at a rock concert.
The Japanese media team were quite impressed with my familiarity with the operation of RV camper awnings.
We watched the opening festivities from the grandstands though I didn't bother finding my seat. The view from the top was fantastic.
Look closely... That's Guido from Cars!
After the start of the race Oliver and I were on a short leash. We had time to watch the race but there were also times that we were expected to interact with fans of the Toyota team.
When the sun set the media team went off to bed and Oliver and I were free to explore the circuit. The most memorable part of our tour was visiting Tertre Rouge at the race's mid-point, roughly 3:00 Sunday. The atmosphere was a bit haunting. The ground was heavily littered with debris from the tens of thousands of spectators in the past 12 hours. Die hard spectators were huddled in sleeping bags on the lawn. Unbeknownst to them a light rain was falling slowing saturating their sleeping bags. And of course meanwhile racecars were roaring past as I stood along the fence, almost as if I were all alone.
You'll have to take my word; that is the Toyota TS030 on the right.
A Gentleman Driver crashes after spinning through the rain soaked Esses in the early morning.
Come 7:00 I could not fight sleep any longer. I knew I could have held out until the race end but I knew I would have been miserable Sunday evening. I opted for a one hour nap back at the RV and it was just what I needed to recharge.
On Sunday afternoon with just 40 minutes left in the race I decided it was finally time to make use of my reserved grandstand seat. During the final safety car delay my Toyota gear caught the attention of a cameraman and I gained a few seconds of international fame. Humorously my boss spotted me while he was watching the television coverage at home. Fortunately I wasn't playing hooky this time.
Screen capture copyright Fox Sports & Speed Channel Inc.
As you already know Toyota placed 2nd and 4th at the event. Although this was a very admirable result it was clear from some reactions we received from the team following the race that they were not satisfied. From my vantage point both the 1st place Audi and 2nd place Toyota who was just 3 minutes behind ran nearly error free races and the result nearly came down to circumstance. Had the race seen more green flag laps under wet conditions I think it would have been an incredibly close race.
An incredible sight to see these beasts locked up in impound.
On Sunday evening Oliver and I were invited to dinner with the project team. I have eaten in a fancy restaurant or two but this was my first to a proper formal French restaurant. I have to admit that I thought our translator was joking when he described the main course as your choice of raw salmon, rabbit something, or goat testicles. Despite the ruckus laughter from the group at the thought of goat testicles, three of the team members chose it, and fortunately only one of them got sick two hours later.
I'm not sure if it is 4 goat testicles or just 2 cut in half. Either way... gross!
Like any good Jalop who finds themselves out to dinner with representatives from a manufacturer I waited until my host had a few glasses of wine and then asked about future Toyota products. I may have even made a few product suggestions of my own. Jason Torchinsky would be proud. I would love to share that conversation with you but I was sworn to secrecy. The best I can say is that there are more exciting things to come from Toyota.
As I boarded the plane in Paris for my return flight I thought for certain my fun was over; but I was wrong. The man who sat next me in business class was an LMP2 driver from the event! I will not share his name because I did not ask his permission to share his comments. I will reveal that he was a paying driver, though not what I would consider a "gentleman driver". I say that because judging from his resume and finishing position he clearly had talent. After learning he paid for his seat at Le Mans I quickly forgot my manners and asked how much a drive at Le Mans costs. His response; "six figures". I don't know what the ratio of professional driver to paying drivers is a Le Mans but I'm sure it would surprise many people. Feel free to speculate. My guess is 50:50.
We also discussed what would make Le Mans better for fans and drivers in the future. We agreed on two things. First, the track must be safer. After Simonsen's death at this years event I am certain that the safety of the track will be reassessed before next year. Secondly the chicanes need to be more effective. The GT cars were abusing the chicanes so much that they were getting a better run onto the main straight than many Prototypes. The short-cutting was blatant and there were no penalties. I don't know if this is common at Le Mans but it seemed to be getting worse as the race progressed.
"Turn? What Turn?"
Thank you for sharing my Le Mans experience! I hope everyone has the opportunity to witness Le Mans live once in their life. Thank you Toyota for giving me the experience much sooner in life than I anticipated!
Full disclosure: Toyota flew me to France, put me up in a nice hotel, and made me feel like a rock star at Le Mans. Toyota did not ask me to write this article. I wrote this article because I'm sincerely thankful for the opportunity Toyota gave me and I want to share the experience with my fellow Jalops.
About the Author: James Elterman is an engineering manager in the automotive aftermarket and a semi-professional racing driver. His racing background includes Time Attack, Time Trial, and Autocross. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife and four children.