Our 24 Hours of Le Mans/1

I am at Le Mans. I didn’t tell anyone about it, but I went on my bike and I’m enjoying the race from inside. And now it’s time to tell you a little about this fantastic adventure
By Stinger

 

Prologue
I had decided to go to the Le Mans 24 Hours some time ago. My first time as a journalist! And recently I also bought a new bike with side panniers. I received the press pass, I checked my bags, and I was ready to leave at dawn on Friday morning.
From my home in the Cotswolds, near Wales, I have to travel more than 170 miles to get to the train station where I will take the train to cross the Eurotunnel.
As soon as I climbed to the top of the hill from my house, I found myself in a thick mist. Fortunately, as I approach London the sun comes out and it gets warmer and warmer.
I drive a little too confidently and manage to get to the Eurotunnel an hour in advance. And there are a lot of motorcyclists heading for Le Mans.
After 50 minutes by train I’m in France, in a countryside that is still very reminiscent of the English one.
The colors are similar, but the smells are different. Here, in the villages I smell the scents of boulangerie and norcinerie, while in the countryside the stink of manure saturates the air.
I arrive at Le Mans around 9 pm, tired but happy, especially for the last miles that, thanks to a bendy road, becomes my personal TT.
The Accreditation Center is on the opposite side of the circuit and the queue is unbelievable. I’ll wait until tomorrow and opt to take a look at the red parking lot near the entrance. I am faced with a Dante’s Inferno of salamis cooked on improvised fires, and of motorbike engines of any kind sacrificed in endless over-revving in neutral, to make flames from the exhaust.
I see (or hear) a couple bursting, live. As a lover of good mechanics – in any form or shape – this kind of torture makes my heart sink, but the whole thing is undoubtedly scenic.
The desire to have fun is great and no one takes themselves too seriously.

Here I am, in Le Mans Paddock

Finally on track!
Alarm at 7 o’clock. The accreditation centre is nice, modern and they are all very nice. But my pass is nowhere to be found, because they have inverted first and last name.
Solved the problem, I leave the bike to the free parking (supervised) in front of the main entrance and I go hunting people with whom we are in contact.
It’s a hot day, very hot, and in the paddock the climate is dynamic but not stressed. There is no particular frenzy, but everything is done quickly and efficiently. Few frills, lots of substance.
The circuit is very nice!
The parade of trucks, of official and not official teams, is remarkable and at the level of the most famous competitions.
The warmth of the public is impressive, the tribunes are literally filled to capacity and fans makes their presence evident, with encouragement, screams, waving of flags. All very composed however, in stark contrast to last night’s hell.

I meet Roberto Rolfo. He races with the Yamaha R1 of the French Moto Ain Racing Team and his teammates are Alexis Masbou (Fra), and Christoffer Bergman (Che). I find him in the camper as he puts on his tracksuit for the warm-up session.
We chat, and he tells me how the environment of Endurance is much more genuine, in some ways relaxing, compared to other world championships. He wants to underline the good relationship he has with his teammates, with whom he also has a good feeling for the bike setup. And then the fans, because even with them there is a relationship. In short, a dimension that is reminiscent of motorcycling of the past, and that has perhaps been lost in MotoGP.

A view of the Paddock

Shortly after that I enter the paddock of the Ducati Special Team and meet Jacopo Zizza, Team Manager, who is a former pilot and Eurosport’s Italy commentator for the British Superbike. But there is nervousness: they are facing some problems with electronics and engine temperatures are just too high – a problem faced also by the only other Panigale on the track. In the race they will have to stop after just an hour of racing, as Federico Natali recounted in his article. To add to this, Manuel Poggiali – his top pilot – fell on Thursday and will not run.

 

Indeed, Zizza invites me to eat something in the hospitality, where we meet Manuel (Poggiali), wearing the collar after the accident of two days ago. He tells me that he doesn’t remember anything at all, but from telemetry, it seems that he put the front wheel on an oil patch left by another bike. The wheel lost grip and crashed on the escape route. “It’s a shame, I’m extremely upset because I really wanted to run”.
We eat a plate of pasta together, and I’m struck by how much Poggiali – although being a two times World Champion in 125 and 250 class – is approachable, a person with a great sense of humour, so much so that he poses for a fun photo with his chief mechanic.

That of humanity and the friendly and helpful temperament of the champions I met is a recurring theme here in the paddock. From the outside, you may see them as unapproachable, but many of them have a great desire to talk, to be seen as the normal people they are. With their fears, their dreams, their strengths and their weaknesses.

Next, I go to meet Kevin Manfredi, a rider from Team 33 Accessoires – Louit Moto who races with the Kawasaki ZX-10R.
Sorry Kevin, your name is a tribute to a certain Schwantz?
“Exactly! And in CIV – Italian Superbike, equivalent to BSB – I was the first one after 8 years to bring the Suzuki back to victory, and with the number 34!”.

You are a very fast driver even in sprint races, how did you get to the Endurance?
“Federico Natali, who writes on your website, brought me here. I thought it was the championship where you arrive at the end of your career. Instead, once here, I rediscovered stimuli that I no longer had. Endurance is a clean, healthy and very professional environment. And there is a great relationship with the fans; thanks also to the Pit Walk initiative, fans can take a pit ride and meet teams and drivers”.

Indeed, it is now the time for the Pit Walk, the reconnaissance lap and the start! A ritual in which everyone is the protagonist: riders, motorcycles, spectators. And there is also the French Air Force, which flies Rafale fighter jets over the starting line.
Reconnaissance tour, motorcycles parked at the pit wall, riders on the other side of the track.
The public is encouraging them. They respond with applause. A pressing music in the background, the commentator who almost seems to tease the pilots, the public laughing, some pilots stationary in position as panthers ready to shoot on the prey, others who throw their arms to the sky and you can sense that they are laughing inside the helmet.
Everything seems ready, the muscles are stretched, it seems that they are about to start and, another Rafale Jet darts above the finishing line instead!

There we are, silence, then the riders start racing towards the bikes. And suddenly the noise is deafening. Traffic also. 60 motorcycles that start simultaneously flat out.

The first lap on the finish line is just as spectacular. It feels almost like a thunderstorm is approaching from the distance until they unleash themselves in the straight line.
Magic.

Now I am preparing for my night on the track, between the press room and the paddock.

The window of the press room is an excellent vantage point to experience the race

 

This is the view from inside a pit.

 

Paddock life: wheels ready to be fitted are brought to the pit

 

Manuel Poggiali jokes with his engineer

 

There’s plenty of room for cheerfulness and good humour, at least as long as things go well…

 

Roberto Rolfo prepares for the Warm-Up session

 

Kevin Manfredi prepares for his round on track

 

After a fall, even damaged parts find a new life!

 

This is my helmet. Notice NetBikers official sticker!
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