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Soup of This Day #382: If You Saw Me Driving By In A Car

June 19, 2014

Mulsanne Straight
A view of the famed Mulsanne Straight on the Circuit de la Sarthe. This long section is where the fastest speeds in the 24 Hours of Le Mans are registered. The highest on record was set in 1988 when a Welter Racing Peugot was clocked at 405kmph. That car did not do so well in the race though – The aerodynamics were radically modified in order to achieve the speed. This included taping over the air ducts and thus sacrificing much-needed cooling capacity. The engine subsequently lasted just 59 laps of the endurance test – Photo: Pete Fordham, 2006. Pete Fordham is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

One day back in 1998 I had to drive to Kalgoorlie, a mining town that is just shy of 600km from Perth. I was a learner driver and so I had my boss in the passenger seat – He either wanted me to gain as many kms as I could for experience or he was lazily enjoying not driving, because he left me piloting our lumbering Landcruiser for most of the trip.

This was not a smart play.

I was tired before we’d got started from Perth and that had been late anyway – Around 1:00pm. By the time we passed through Coolgardie, with the winter sun long gone behind us, I was bone weary and missing out on cues around me – It had stopped raining maybe an hour before but I still had the wipers on.

Then I fell asleep.

It was only for what I recall as an instant. My eyes opened and we were still on the road so it can’t have been long. Unfortunately though it was time enough for us to end up on the wrong side of the road.

With a pair of headlights pointed right at us from what seemed like 50m or less distance.

Fatigue is tough on humans. We need regular quality rest or we start to mess up at basic tasks. We can skate by when those tasks only require a low level of functioning, like doing a crossword, but when the stakes are higher, such as being in charge of a motor vehicle, then that skating can be on thin ice.

This is why the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the very pinnacle of endurance motor racing, requires each entering vehicle to have a team of at least 3 drivers, with stints behind the wheel no more than 4 hours and each driver limited to 14 hours in total.

Sure, it’s not all tough – Unlike on that road-trip to Kalgoorlie, Le Mans drivers don’t have to eat a roadhouse-prepared ham, cheese and tomato toastie in under 5 minutes. This is the rough equivalent of turning your body inside out and then walking across a bed of coals on your tongue. Still, those professional drivers do have to pilot their vehicles around the 13.629km Circuit de la Sarthe at an average speed just shy of 230kmph, so it’s not all easy street either.

This lack of a comfortable life for 24 Hours of Le Mans drivers is sometimes curtailed abruptly and unfortunately, via death.

Yep, folks die out there. 21 drivers have lost their life competing on the circuit, while a 22nd, André Guilbert, died while driving to the circuit to compete in the 1925 race. The 1st driver to die during the race was Guilbert’s fellow Frenchman Marius Mestivier. The latter outlived the former by less than a day – He was hardly into his stint when he crashed into a ditch. He may have been knocked unconscious by a collision with a bird just prior to the incident.

It’s a fair bet that the bird was a casualty too.

Nature played a part in the latest death too – Experienced Danish driver Allan Simonsen hit an Armco barrier in the 2013 race. Unfortunately the Armco did not flex under impact as required, most likely because a tree buttressed the barrier at the point of impact.

Sometimes it’s not even just the drivers – In 1955 Pierre Levegh, driving a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR clipped the Austin-Healey 100 of Lance Macklin, somersaulting his roughly 240kmph Benz into the crowd. Some were killed by the resultant storm of debris, while others fell victim to the fire – The 300SLR had a body comprised of a magnesium alloy and so burned white-hot, like a light-bulb filament. Whatever the cause, along with the 49 year old Levegh, 83 spectators died.

Levegh himself had died when he was violently catapulted clear of his car – The drivers at that time had largely eschewed seatbelts, believing them to be an encumbrance and a safety risk – It was thought that it would be better to be thrown clear of a car than to be trapped in it. There was certainly an element of convenience in foregoing the tricky belts at the start of each race, with the famous Le Mans start requiring drivers to run to the car, start it and then peel out as quickly as possible.

This way of commencing the race lasted until 1970. The previous year, Belgian driver Jacky Ickx protested against what he thought was an unsafe method of releasing the field by walking calmly to his Ford GT40. Britain John Woolfe meanwhile sprinted to his car and, in his haste to get under way quickly, failed to do up his seatbelts correctly. Before the 1st lap was done Woolfe crashed and his body was thrown clear of his Porche 917. He died on the way to hospital.

Ickx meanwhile went on to win that race, the 1st of 6 such triumphs. The latter 5 of which were achieved with a rolling start – Each driver starting secured inside their car – while the last 4 were won in a Porsche. That storied marque has won the most 24 Hours of Le Mans titles, 18 of them, although the last was in 1998.

In recent times Porsche have been absent from the top class at Le Mans and Audi have reigned supreme, taking 12 of the past 14 up to the 2014 edition. The last non-Audi winner being a Peugeot in 2009, with an Australian, David Brabham, as 1 of the drivers.

This then brings us to the trigger for this post – In 2014 an Australian, Mark Webber, suited up for the returning Porsche at Le Mans. If he was to win, Webber would become just the 5th Australian and the 2nd to do it in a Porsche – Vern Schuppan had helped pilot a Porsche 956 home in 1st in 1983.

Sadly though Vern must remain alone for another year – The #20 Porsche 919 Hybrid suffered a failure while a very credible 2nd, allowing an Audi R18 e-tron quattro to finish in 1st, having completed a staggering 5165.39km of race distance.

That’s more than 8 times the distance from Perth to Kalgoorlie, an astonishing feat at speed. For me though, I’ll take just getting to my destination safely. I did achieve that all those years ago but it was close. So close that my desperate swerve still cost me a wing mirror.

That was not the part that makes me shake though. That came later, after my boss had prised my hands off of the wheel and we’d driven back down the road to where the other car waited. There I got to see the wallet of the driver I’d almost killed. In that leather folder was a photo of his wife and kids.

I don’t drive tired any more.

If You Saw Me Driving By In A Car

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