Le Mans Road Trip – in full

Olly has written up his road trip to Le Mans in the Corvette ZR1 for GM Europe so here it is for your enjoyment!

For years I’ve watched as racing friends from other manufacturer-led teams have arrived at Le Mans in a variety of cars representing the huge number of entrants at the world’s most famous sports car.   From Aston Martins to BMWs to Audis to Porsches, I’ve watched enviously as there simply weren’t enough Corvettes available in Europe for all of us drivers to benefit in the same way.

This year, however, was different and thanks to Eric Neve and Cornelia Harodt from GM Europe a pristine, white Corvette ZR1 was delivered to my home the day before I was due to leave for France.   The official Le Mans 24 Hour test day was reinstated this year after a two-year hiatus and I, together with the three other regular Corvette Racing drivers, Jan Magnussen, Olivier Beretta and Tommy Milner, were joining up with the French customer team, Larbre Competition, to  get some valuable test data in the bank before the June race.

Bank Holiday traffic was BAD

The original plan to invite a journalist to travel down to Le Mans with me was a good one, but scuppered by the fact that it was Easter weekend and there were also a number of other races going on in the UK and Europe, I travelled solo from Northamptonshire in the middle of England to Le Mans in north west France.

Despite the fact it was Good Friday and a public holiday, or perhaps because of it, there was plenty of traffic on the roads as I set off on the 3-hour trip to the Channel Tunnel via the east of London and the considerably smaller Dartford Tunnel.   The ZR 1 handled this perfectly and was extremely comfortable the whole way – handling the traffic conditions with ease.  I arrived in good time for my train crossing but there were slight delays and I didn’t arrive in France until 1500 hrs CET.

First of several fills!

First port of call was a fuel station and then on my way via Le Havre and Rouen to Le Mans.  I managed to hit Rouen just at the wrong time and there were huge traffic jams but the ZR1 turned a lot of heads and I decided to have some fun with the car!  I had to go through a couple of tunnels so with windows down, I slowed right down and then gave it full throttle in second gear which made a great noise.  I might have scared a few old ladies in Renault 5s…

The Corvette has massive power and handles extremely well on and off the autoroutes, although I had to be a little careful in the way I accelerated onto them as you can find yourself going very quickly in no time at all.

The main entrance to the famous Le Mans circuit

I was extremely conscious at all times of the potential power under my right foot and the ease with which the tyres and chassis handled that power.  But, mindful of speed limits, I drove quite conservatively and made a second fuel stop about 60 kilometres from Le Mans – save all that for the track, I was thinking to myself the whole time, albeit frustratedly.  I arrived at the gates of the track at 1900 hrs, the country still bathed in fantastic sunshine as it was in much of Europe over Easter.   There was just enough time to catch up with the team before making my way to the team hotel just off the Le Mans ring road for a well earned dinner and sleep.

Enough room for race kit - all that matters!

I had a huge smile on my face the next morning as I set off to the track in the Corvette, and the trunk was the perfect size to take all that a racing driver needs: bags containing race suit and helmet.  It’s a bit different for the race as we’re there for a whole week and need a ton of stuff to see us through racing, sponsor and PR events, plus whatever you usually need for a week away from home.  In race week we drivers all stay at the track, either in motorhomes or in our own little cabins which are in the hospitality paddock.  They are pretty well equipped, and it’s not too noisy at night (once the cars stop running!) but it’s good to get away from the track every now and then and the Corvette was the perfect car to do that in this time.

There were about 25,000 people at Le Mans for the test day, despite the only planned track action being on Sunday.  A good proportion of those were around on Saturday too to hang out in the pitlane and see the teams work on the cars.  It was also a good chance for fans to catch drivers for photographs and autographs.

Olly with the ZR1 in front of the Larbre pit

With the help of GM Europe’s motorsport PR specialist, Serge Vanbockryck, I managed to get the ZR1 into the pitlane on Saturday afternoon which created a massive amount of attention.   It’s pictured here sitting in front of Larbre’s garage and their Corvette C6.R – actually Jan Magnussen’s ALMS car from last season – which Danny Binks and a couple of our guys were working on with the team’s own mechanics.   Some time ago the decision was made to delay sending our own race cars over from the USA until nearer the race date, so we collaborated with Larbre Competition and had the use of their car while, in return, they were able to pick our brains for feedback!

On Saturday evening I had the best fun in ages when I drove team boss, Gary Pratt, back to the hotel via the Mulsanne straight.  We got up to a fair speed (there aren’t any policemen reading this are there?) and then, egged on by him, I kicked up a bit of rubber and tyre smoke at the second chicane for the benefit of our engineers who were watching the pictures on the track TV back at the track.  We weren’t completely sure they’d seen us but we got an SMS quick enough confirming they had!!

The Larbre Competition C6R was our car for the day

And, so to the reason we were there in the first place – the official test day on Sunday.   We ran through a list of planned testing areas and managed to finish the day pretty successfully so we ended up achieving all we’d set out to do.  It was a bit of a scramble from the track when the chequered flag fell on Sunday evening as I was keen to get a train home that night so I could spend the following day (also a public holiday in the UK) with my family.  I left at 1800 hrs and comfortably made it in time for a 2140 hrs departure, including a fuel stop.  There were quite a few racing people on the train so it was a very sociable 30 minutes of travelling.

I got home by 0020 hrs, after a very sensible trip back to Northamptonshire.  Having seen someone being pulled over by blue flashing lights within 20 minutes of leaving the Channel Tunnel, I wasn’t prepared to take any risks!  I clocked up 916miles, or almost 1500 kilometres, in total and loved every minute of it.  Thank you Corvette for a great car, and thank you GM Europe for a great experience.

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