Me and my boy
FEBRUARY 22, 2012
Martin Brundle has described the Le Mans 24 Hours as 'unquestionably, in motor sport, the greatest show on earth'. Martin should know. He won with Jaguar in 1990 and also raced in the French classic with Nissan, Toyota and Bentley. And now he's going back.
The difference this time is that his journey will have the emotional attraction of sharing a Nissan-powered LMP2 with his son, Alex. This has got to be one of the most pleasurable experiences a racing dad could wish for; a unique act of bonding fused by the potent mix of familial affection and competitive adrenalin. The feeling of camaraderie, unmatched outside endurance racing, will be heightened by reaching the finish. And, dare it be said, by surviving.
Beating the odds is an essential element of any sport. But, at Le Mans, those odds are arguably more hazardous than in any other form of motor racing; certainly higher than the 158 Grands Prix contested by Martin and way beyond the F3 and F2 racing experienced by Alex during his burgeoning but brief career so far.
I was reminded of this through Brundle's own words when re-reading 'Working the Wheel', a book I had the pleasure of ghosting with Martin in 2004. It is an indication of the race's significance that the chapter on a description of Le Mans should take up more space than any of the 17 Grands Prix tracks accompanying it.
Brundle graphically portrays a LMP1 driver's difficulties associated with the 100 mph closing speeds on GT cars handled by drivers inclined to spend the important pre-race briefing on their mobile phones or, in one case, holding a babe in arms.
Weekend Warriors aside, Brundle also describes the "ultimate nightmare at Le Mans"; a puncture and the subsequent build up of heat as the car reaches 200+ mph on the Mulsanne Straight.
"Because the tyre starts to grow," wrote Brundle, "the engine will not pull quite the same number of revs, plus the tyre itself is creating a bit of additional drag. I would watch the revs like a hawk. If, say, the car ought to be pulling between 6,700 and 6,800 rpm, but was, in fact, only showing 6,500 rpm, I would become concerned and start to ask questions. Did I come out of Terte Rouge too slowly? Did I get baulked in traffic? Why is it doing this?
"When a tyre finally goes at these speeds - say the right rear - then it takes the rear bodywork, rear wing and right-rear brake. The whole lot sails away and now you are in a car that has three wheels, no brakes and is about to take off."
Brundle witnessed the effect at first hand on Mulsanne in 1987 when he came across bits of bodywork belonging to the Silk Cut Jaguar of his team mate Win Percy. As he dodged more and more pieces of purple and white wreckage, Brundle suddenly came across the chassis, minus doors and windscreen, lying on its side with the gearbox and entire rear suspension missing. Percy was fortunate to survive.
If that comes under 'Occupational Hazards', then a description of driving the leading car on a near-empty road just after dawn on Sunday represents one of the most eloquently persuasive passages you will ever read about the lure of Le Mans.
Brundle is no fool. He has examined his latest venture from every angle. Martin may be 52, but a competitive showing and nine hours in the car at Daytona last year confirmed the necessary speed and fitness. Alex, 31 years younger, may not have the experience but, judging by his handling of the media at a Nissan lunch last week, he has the maturity to make the most of his ability - "I'm a bit quicker than my dad - but he's still on it" - and capitalise on a unique opportunity to be his own man and yet benefit from the priceless wisdom gently handed down by his parent.
Brundle Senior has brought that knowledge to bear when investigating the credibility of the team and the car. Greaves Motorsport (winners of LMP2 at Le Mans last year) and the Zytek-Nissan clearly stack up. As does the third driver, Lucas Ordonez, the first Nissan GT Academy winner and a Le Mans podium finisher.
Brundle's basic philosophy is that life's too short. If an opportunity such as this arises, then grab it now rather than sit in your armchair and slippers 10 years hence and wish you had done so. Even better if you can reach for a heart-warming photo of father and son sharing champagne and success.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.