Any piece of news sends ripples around itself, directly or indirectly impacting people. And so it was with the news that Corvette Racing was withdrawing from the 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours – it impacted a huge number of people, from the fans to the team members, and many others too.
Here’s one of those stories.
Iain Macbeth has a very unusual tale to tell, as you’ll read below a lifelong motorsports fan, he actually worked for a while in the same organisation that I did – me running a press office, him doing the heavy lifting of introducing cutting edge tech into the Uk capital’s transport systems.
But the tale here is about what Iain did with some of his holiday time – For 20 years!!
I guess it must be a generational thing, but unlike the DSC Deputy Ed, I’ve watched Steve McQueen in Le Mans at least a dozen times. Probably more. It has always evoked childhood memories of holidays to France in the seventies, and trips to Spa and the Nurburgring, although we never made it to Le Mans with my mum and dad due to clashes with the British Hillclimb championship. Not surprisingly it was the first race my mate and I went to after getting a job after university, courtesy of a Page & Moy coach trip. On the ferry back to Newhaven, we met two guys who quietly opened a bottle of champagne, and asked if we would care to have a glass. So to the backdrop of the Beastie Boys, we toasted their 25th trip to Le Mans and an ambition was borne.
Most of you will be familiar with the ‘racing is life’ quote made by Michael Delaney. Dialogue isn’t a strong point of the film, but there is a scene earlier in the film when Porsche driver Johann Ritter (played by Fred Haltiner who died just two years after the movie was completed) suggests to his wife that maybe it’s the right time to stop.
With the announcement that Corvette won’t be at Le Mans in 2020, I was reminded of the moment when Ritter is replaced towards the end of the race by Delaney, and Ritter’s wife asks her husband if it really matters, that he was going to stop in any case and he replies, ‘yes, but not like this’. Because 2020 was due to be my own last race at Le Mans with Corvette Racing.
Not that I would ever have imagined I would be on the grid, let alone in the pits, back in 1987. There’s a whole bunch of fond memories of trips down to Le Mans, camping, fireworks, beer mountains and more, but a chance dinner conversation early in 1998 would change things. My wife’s sister-in-law asked if I was going to that race in France again, and mentioned she used to play tennis with a guy who went to the US and became a racing driver. Now not earth-shattering in itself, particularly not from someone with zero interest in cars, until she mentioned his name was Andy Pilgrim.
As in the guy driving a Porsche GT1 with a young Scottish hotshot called Allan McNish, whose career I’d followed after I had a very close shave when Allan had a huge crash at Donington in F3000. Introductions to Andy’s parents followed, and an invitation to meet up at Le Mans in 98, where Andy was due to drive a GT2 Porsche. Only none of us considered the need to have passes to get into the paddock, and failing to blag my way in, I only managed to meet Andy briefly after the race finished.
We did though keep in touch, and late in 1999, Andy rang to tell me he would be back at Le Mans with the new Corvette C5-R in 2000, and he would get me a pit visit this time. Now I have to confess that I knew little about Corvette’s other than Rocky Agusta’s Callaway Corvette C4 I’d seen at Donington and Le Mans. Let’s just say that when I heard that C5-R fire up for the first time in the pit garage on Wednesday 14 June 2000, just wow!
That noise still gives me goosebumps to this day, although perhaps not quite as dramatic as one young lady who jumped two foot in the air one year, which had us in tears of laughter! (pictured above is Dr Wolfgang Ullrich getting the full V8 experience, a rather louder Le Mans car than he was used to!)
After Andy showed me around the garage at lunchtime, and the guys realised I’d been to Le Mans a few times, things got even better when they asked if I would like to help with the pit board for the #64 car during practice. As in, putting lap times, the number of laps and position over the pit wall as the cars thundered by feet away. At Le Mans! Bloody hell!
“Of course, I later learnt that this wasn’t a job the crew were exactly falling over themselves to do, but let’s face it, that wasn’t in my thinking! Especially when they asked me if I would like to do it during the race. Looking back, I think I was more nervous than race morning than when I took my driving test, let alone any other exams. At the end of the weekend, I was both shattered and elated – I didn’t miss a single lap, and the #64 car had finished third on its Le Mans debut behind the Vipers. Now that was a story for the pub!
The team had clearly decided I was insane, and after a trip to Daytona in 2001 where Corvette won outright, I was invited back to Le Mans, and the rest is history. Perhaps my most memorable time was looking after the fire bottle (extinguisher) and attaching the ground wire during pit stops, originally on the #64 car and latterly the #63 car. It’s a weird mixture of excitement and nerves, especially the first stop of the race when all the cameras are trained on the car, and you’re acutely aware that millions of people are watching that pit stop.
Trust me, the world really does go into slow motion! I guess one thing that people probably don’t realise is just how limited your field of vision is, so for the refuelling crew, you very much rely on being in the exactly the right spot as the tyres, wheel guns, drivers and photographers mill around you. It’s a testament to the practice that we never once had a serious pit incident at Le Mans and Corvette Racing’s reputation for having the best pit crew in the business is hard-earned. Perhaps even more remarkable and less well appreciated was that several guys were also volunteers like myself, and 2019 was probably the end of an era as these roles were gradually absorbed by folks from Pratt & Miller and several of the guys stepped down.
After eight class wins and multiple podiums, it is hard to pick out particular highlights, although of course, the first win at Le Mans in 2001 was a memorable moment. My favourite car was the GT1 C6.R, but I guess the race that probably stands out and was the most hard-fought was the last and only victory for the C7.R in 2015.
The team arrived with high expectations, knowing the car was fast, and of course, having won at Daytona and Sebring. However, calamity struck during practice, with the #63 car being damaged beyond immediate repair in a big crash through the Porsche Curves, fortunately without serious injury to Jan Magnussen.
Figuring out what caused the crash was a priority, so the #64 car didn’t take any further part in practice. One car, starting from the back of the grid, one shot against a bunch of hugely professional and talented factory teams, but that was a special moment when the #64 car crossed the line and Doug Fehan waved Corvette’s signature flag! Which incidentally belongs to me, and is entrusted to Doug every year.
Of course, it’s not always a celebration, and there have been a number of crashes over the years which have meant retirement for the cars, fortunately without any serious injuries, a testament to the safety and integrity with which Pratt & Miller have designed and built the cars. In many ways, it is the crews that suffer the most in these incidents, as Le Mans is the highlight of the racing year and so much effort goes into that race. It’s very difficult to find any comforting or appropriate words at these moments, but there is an amazing team spirit that perhaps isn’t so obvious to the outside world. But looking back, the most difficult race was 2013, when Allan Simonsen was killed early in the race.
Corvette has very strong Danish support due to Jan’s presence, and indeed a trip by the drivers to the Danish campsite has been a highlight during race week for many years, so many of the guys knew Allan and we’d seen the accident unfold on the onboard footage. I guess we all know it could happen to any of the teams, and we had a job to do to keep us focussed, but the rest of the race was a very subdued affair. It was probably only afterwards that the accident really hit me, recalling when I’d met him at a DSC cricket match (below – just before ‘Simmo’ got a jolt chasing a ball beyond the boundary, not realising that the fence he was looking to climb over was electrified!). Let’s just say Allan was much more embracing of a game that has never inspired me!
Thankfully, such moments are rare, and the final laps where Jordan Taylor and Jonny Adam traded positions in the final laps in 2017 was another memorable battle with Aston Martin, a rivalry that goes back many years – check out the YouTube clip of the Corvette and Aston crews racing each other on the grid!
Ah yes, the grid – now that is just something else! Standing with the car, all the celebrities milling around, saying hi to people you haven’t seen since last year, wishing friends and rivals ‘bonne chance’and all in front of those packed grandstands is just brilliant. Best of all is lining up with the crew and drivers next to the car when the grid has cleared, and the flag is delivered by helicopter.
I’ve always enjoyed the early morning drive to the circuit on the Saturday morning before the race, arriving at the track as the paddock starts to wake up, with just the teams around and smells of breakfast in the air, the calm before the storm. With the final chapter closing in on the C7R in 2019, I’d been thinking it would be a good time to step down and actually watch the race for a change, more so when (l-r next to me) Doug Fehan, Serge Vanbockryck (GM’s European PR guy), Truckie and fueller David James (also the man who looks after the now legendary Corvette Racing Train horn ‘dinner bell’, Richard Prince (Corvette’s long-standing ace snapper) and Technical Director Doug Louth posed for a photo to celebrate being the only guys to have done all 20 years with Corvette at Le Mans.
Of course, when I mentioned these thoughts to Doug, he was having none of it, saying 21 years was a much better number, plus I’d get to see the C8R in 2020! So who knows – maybe that day will be in June 2021.
It’s almost impossible to say thanks and name-check everyone I’ve met through Corvette Racing, but it would be remiss if me not to mention Andy Pilgrim, Olly Gavin, Brian and Anna Hoye, Dan Binks, David James, Dave Barefield, Gary Pratt and above all, Doug Fehan for what has been an amazing ride. Or to forget many friends across the paddock and Corvette fans and owners. It always amazes me how many fans say they love to hear the Corvette rumble, and it has been a huge privilege to have been a very small part in such an amazing team. Merci!