Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

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millemille
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Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by millemille »

Back in 2011 I got roped back into the bike racing paddock at the 24 hour World Endurance race. It was an experience, and then some, and I was talking to a mate about it a few days ago and he said I should write the story...

..so here it is, in a few parts.

Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

..the trials and tribulations of an Englishman going World Endurance Racing, Le 24hr du Le Mans au 2011

On a grey overcast Monday in the September of 9 years ago found myself arriving at the back gates of the paddock of the Bugatti Circuit in Le Mans to work, supposedly, as a data logging technician for a Superstock team racing in the World Endurance Championship in the world famous 24 hour motorbike race.

How did I get here?

In a camper van...

Ok, but really.

From the mid 90's to early 2000's I raced bikes, predominantly Ducati's, with little success in a variety of classes in the UK and Europe. Due to increasing damage to body and bank balance and not a little pressure from my day job employer to give it up, or at least stop crashing, I hung up my race numbers in 2002.

Over the years of racing I'd built a relationship with one of the UK's top Ducati tuners; starting with just buying parts from him and then using his dyno for my own engines and finally helping refresh engines for the BSB team he supported.

I'd had the opportunity on a couple of occasions to spend time in the garage of the BSB team that I'd done engines for and, partly because my day job as an engineering consultant in the rail industry involved data logging, I got interested and involved in race bike data logging and analysis.

I then spent 3 seasons working, as a second job, as one of several product support technicians for the UK distributor of ECU's, dashes, data loggers, sensors and wiring harnesses which were widely used in the BSB and WSB paddock.

While the job was spread all over the paddock, the reality was that teams at the front end of the grid had their own full time data guys within the team and our involvement was limited to the very occasional failed component replacement. Down the back of the grid, however, was a different matter.

Invariably the smaller teams had either bought previously successful bikes fitted with our kit or had built their own bikes using our kit but had way over-specced the electronics, on the basis that if the winning bikes used it then so must they, but in both scenarios they'd made the purchases without recognising that you need to invest a lot of time and money in employing competent people to extract the data, analyse it, understand the changes to be made and implement them.

So my role, along with the other product support technicians, for these lower teams became much more than simply supporting the kit and moved into data analysis, recommending changes – both to bike setup and how the riders were riding the machines – and, in some cases, actually implementing the changes. Interesting, and on occasion eye opening, times.

The work at the track, both at race meetings and testing, was involving and very hard work but the reality of working with these lower end teams – who were paying the bills for our time – meant that budgets were tight.

Multi leg flights, staging through and landing at airports you'd never heard off, flying on budget airlines with woeful safety records. Hotels hours away from the race circuit in dodgy industrial estates with numerous resident prostitutes. Hours travelling in the back of vans sitting on flight cases or pile of kit bags. No time for sight seeing, no time for team meals, nothing but working or travelling.

But the money was reasonable and I didn't have to put my hand in my pocket from when I arrived at the airport until I left.

In 2006 I spent 36 weekends away from home supporting BSB & WSB and enough was enough, divorce was coming a knocking if I didn't acknowledge my marriage, so I called it a day.

Fast forward to the summer of 2011 and an internet motorbike forum where one of the members, who was part of a previously successful UK based World Endurance Team and was now part of the #44 No Limits Motor Team racing a GSXR in the Superstock class of the World Endurance Championship, is looking for people with racing experience to help the team out at Le Mans.
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by millemille »

I've never had any direct involvement with Endurance Racing but, I'm sure like many, I've watched races like the Bol and Suzuka and, of course, Le Mans and I've been interested, as I'm sure have many of you, in the differences between a superbike and endurance machine. Things like the quick change wheels and how it's done, how they are crash proofed, how do they last 24hrs of track time and so on.

But I wasn't interested and didn't bother posting on the thread, but then the guy in question messaged me directly asking me if I'd come as the team were, in his words, floundering with data acquisition and analysis. I couldn't see any team of any repute allowing a complete stranger to be parachuted into their team and start looking at their data and said so.

But he was adamant they needed me and, given the guy knew my background and experience, I was sure he'd know the score with regards to payment and expenses so, with the blessing of my wife, I agreed to go.

Given I'd committed to this I thought I'd better learn as much as possible about world level endurance racing and contacted everyone I could think of who knew anything about racing a motorbike for 24hr and particularly at Le Mans.

What I learnt was diverse, interesting and challenged several assumptions I'd made.

First of all, the idea that Endurance riders are riding at anything less 100% effort and holding anything back is long gone.

The schedule at Le Mans is daylight practise sessions Wednesday, day and night practise Thursday, Qualifying day and night Friday, Warm up Saturday morning and race Saturday and Sunday.

Each team has four riders, identified by colour and with corresponding colour coded arm bands which also contain their own personal timing transponder. Three riders will race and one is a reserve in case of injury or a rider being dog slow during qualifying.

Riders have to be ready to go ten minutes before the planned pit stop and rider change and have to stay in the pits, fully kitted and ready to ride, for ten minutes after their session to get back on the bike in the event of a crash.

No one racing in the Le Mans 24hr is allowed to ride on the track for several weeks before the race until the practice sessions start, but being France, the land of erratic and byzantine rule enforcement, there is a“Track day” on the Monday before the race, but it's the fastest track day you'll have ever seen and every single bike out on circuit appears, in some bizarre unexplainable coincidence, to look very much like an endurance racing machine.

Bikes are set up as a compromise between all riders, although if – like our team – you've got one rider who's markedly faster than the others, no matter what you try in practise for the others, then bike set up is biased towards the fastest rider.

It soon became apparent that the racing is won or lost in the pits. The team that spends the shortest duration, over the 24hrs, in the pits will win.

The hugely successful French Suzuki team, SERT, who happen to be based a stone's throw from the ciruit, are the masters of keeping the time not spent thrashing the arse out of their bike on the track down to a minimum. This may be helped at Le Mans by them having the garage closest to the pit lane entrance, but their team principal, Domonique Meliand, has a fearsome reputation and it's possible the riders simply bend the laws of physics at his behest.

Strategy is driven by a balance between fuel consumption, tyre life and rider endurance. If you can't make your 24 litres of fuel last for an hour then you will be nowhere but there's no point looking for much beyond 75 minutes as the rear tyre will be shot and the rider on their chinstrap.

Rear tyres get changed every stop, fronts every other stop, front brake pads – as part of the complete front caliper – get swapped at 12 hrs. Chains are lubricated and tensioned every other stop. The engine oil filler caps are replaced with an aeroquip style fitting which allows the oil to be topped up, using a pressurised container, throughout the race.

No limits have got their GSXR working well on fuel consumption and they can get about 70 minutes out of their tank of the Elf ethanol rich fuel that the teams have to buy – at an eye watering number of euro's per liter - from the circuit, more of which later.

Each team can have two bikes per entry, an “R” and a “T” bike identified on the number boards, which both go through scrutineering before putting a wheel on the track. Once qualifying has been completed the team has to decide which bike is going to be raced and then inform the stewards. The frame and crankcases have official marks put on them as they are the only parts of the bike which are not allowed to be changed during the race. The spare bike is warmed up and in the pit lane for the start so that in the event of a first lap crash and restart the bikes can be swapped and the team carry on. Once the first lap has been completed the smaller teams, like ours, quickly strip the bike down into sub-assemblies – front end, back end, tank, air box/throttle bodies and so on – which are laid out in the garage ready for crash repair duties. Larger teams have numerous sub-assemblies in their parts inventory so the spare bike gets wheeled out to the race truck and packed away.
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by millemille »

The pit stops, for the top teams at least, are amazing to watch. Carefully choreographed, they are a syncopated ballet of mechanical dexterity, working within the prescriptive rules of the pit lane.

Each team has four “mechanicians”, identifiable by their arm bands, who are the only people allowed to lay hands on the bike outside of the garage. These are the guys who remove and fit the wheels and axles and carry out caliper swaps and other planned maintenance.

Then there's the two catchers who, as their names imply, catch the wheels that the mechanicians have ripped out of the bike, and literally thrown behind them without looking what's where, before they go bouncing off down the pit lane.

You've got the stop board/release man who's responsibility it is to ensure the bike stops on the marks on the pit lane floor, which the team put down during practise to align where the stands, tools and parts are laid out ready, and ensures that the bike is released safely once the pit stop is complete. This is critical as the pit lane is heaving with bikes, other team members, fire marshalls, security guards, stewards, press and associated hangers on and an unsafe release can see a bike skittling bodies and kit everywhere.

At most other rounds of the World Endurance Championship the fuelling is done using a dump can, weilded by the largest member of the team. Holding 24 or more litres of fuel, it's not light but once it's lifted up in the air above the fillers on the tank and dropped it's weight works in your favour and the fuel flows very quickly.

But not at Le Mans, oh no. Here there's a fuel header tank, fed from the circuit's fuel distribution system through a meter and holding about 50 liters of fuel, mounted about 8 foot up in the air on the wall in the mouth of the garage and full of the circuit's own fuel. On the bottom of the header is sprung loaded “Dead man's handle” valve that has to be pulled and held open to allow the fuel to flow and is operated by the “valve man”. The idea being that in the event of a massive fuel leak from the rig the flow can be stopped instantly by the valve man simply letting go of the handle.

From the valve runs two lengths, about five meters long, of 4” flexible hose; one to carry fuel to the bike's tank and the other to carry the air, expelled from the tank as the fuel goes in, and the fuel overflown as the bike's tank is brimmed, back to the header. Some teams – the ones with deep pockets - use the fancy Staubli tank connector which uses a very clever double wall single, larger diameter, hose.

On the end of the hoses is a quick fill nozzle assembly, type depending on the fillers on the bike tank, with handles that are weilded by the fueller.

The fueller can only touch the bike when no-one else is, so the wheel changes and any other maintenance has to be complete before the fuelling can start.

The third person required for fuelling is the “Fire man”; equipped with a fire extinguisher their responsibility is to stand ready at the shoulder of the fueller to heroically save the day in the event of a fuel spill catching fire.

All three people involved in fuelling have to wear fire proof overalls, gloves, balaclava hoods and googles so look incredibly macho and in no way like a music hall comedy act if the kit doesn't match or fit.

And then you've got one person overseeing all of this, making sure the right people are doing the right thing at the right time and keeping all of the hundreds of bodies milling about out of the way.

By my reckoning that's eleven people before you start adding in the people looking at the bike without touching it, while others are working, to check for leaks and damage and missing fasteners and the like....
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by Yorick »

Wow, that's probably the best thing I've ever read on an internet forum. Can we have more ?
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by millemille »

Yorick wrote: Sat Oct 31, 2020 10:26 pm Wow, that's probably the best thing I've ever read on an internet forum. Can we have more ?
Thanks. Yes, there's a massive amount more to come....
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by Yorick »

millemille wrote: Sat Oct 31, 2020 10:33 pm
Yorick wrote: Sat Oct 31, 2020 10:26 pm Wow, that's probably the best thing I've ever read on an internet forum. Can we have more ?
Thanks. Yes, there's a massive amount more to come....
One of my best pals, Dave Crampton, was 2019 Euro Endurance (Senior) champ and I had no idea there was so much going on. He keeps asking me to go to a race. The tight arse probably needs unpaid helpers :mrgreen:
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by millemille »

A couple of weeks before the race I get back in touch with your man, let's call him “Mark”, on the forum to sort out travel and accommodation.

“Do I need to book my own flights and hotel or is the team doing it?” I ask “Mark”.

“No need” says he “I'm driving the “The” Motor Home down and we'll travel and sleep in that as it gets parked up in the paddock”.

The emphasis he places on “The”, and knowing the size of the motor homes in the race paddocks I've worked in, that sounds reasonable. So we agree to meet at Nell's Cafe, just down the road from Brands Hatch and my home, by the M20 and on “Mark's” drive down to Dover. Friday afternoon, for a Friday night sailing on the freight ferry over to Dunkerque.

Come the allotted hour I'm at Nells, waiting expectantly for a substantial, Winnebago style, motor home to pull up in the car park.

“Mike?” a voice asks. “I'm “Mark”...”

I follow him out to the car park, wondering where he's got “The” motor home parked up.

“What the fuck?”. He opens the door on a shitty, mildewed, tired, old, “dormobile” type of camper van. Now, what I should have done at this point was say “No thanks mate, not interested” and gone home.

Instead, I grabbed my kit bag and kissed my wife good bye, with a cheery “see you in 10 days”, and got in....
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by millemille »

We trundle, at a steady 50mph, down the M20 to Dover. No problem, I think, he's taking it steady because he's early for the ferry and doesn't want to spend ages sitting in a grotty lorry park at the docks.

Nope, he drives everywhere – for the full 800 mile round trip – at this painful speed.

But wait, I hear you say, it's only a 700 mile round trip from Nell's to the Bugatti circuit! Well, while we're eating dinner on the ferry, which we'd bought for ourselves but I'd kept the receipt in the expectation of submitting to the team for expenses payment, “Mark” tells me that we're making a diversion on our journey and we're going via Paris, Charles de Gaulle airport to be exact, to pick up another person who'll be working for the team.

Turns out it's another forum member, an Australian who goes by the username “Suspensionsmith”. This guy is flying half way round the world to meet a total stranger and be driven into deepest, darkest France to work for a team of Italians racing motorbikes for 24hrs.

Fair fucks to the feller...

Actually, this is great news. Suspensionsmith is a kindred spirit, an inveterate tinkerer with bikes who's fond of jamming oversized engines into frames that were never intended for such monstrous power – FZR400 with a Blackbird lump sound mental enough? - or making stupid off road machines – a ZX10R 'crosser anyone? - and he's also a funny front end devotee, which is fortuitous as both my Bachelor's thesis and Masters dissertation were funny front end related, one bicycle and the other motorbike.

Anyway, we get off the ferry in the early hours of Saturday morning and start driving, slowly, toward the bright lights of Paris.
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by millemille »

We've been on the autoroutes for about 3 hours and haven't reached even the outskirts of Paris, being overtaken by EVERY other vehicle on the road, when “Mark” pulls up over at an “aire de repos”. If you've not driven on French autoroutes before an “aire de repos” is a car park by the side of the motorway with no facilities other than a set of, normally disgusting, pissoir toilets. No shops, no petrol station, nothing but trees, overflowing bins and shit spackled holes in the floor...

“Grab your sleeping bag” say “Mark” “we're stopping here as I'm too tired to drive any more”.

“Hang on” says I “One, what sleeping bag and, two, why don't I take a turn at driving?”.

“Oh” says Mark “Did I not tell you you'd need a sleeping bag?”.

“Very definitely not” I reply “And do you know how I know that you didn't? Because I wouldn't fucking be here if you had. MIKE DOESN'T SLEEP IN A SLEEPING BAG! You asked me to come, the least I expect is a hotel room or decent motor home with beds and duvets, not my own sleeping bag in this turd of camper van”.

We retreat, in silence, to opposite ends of the van, “Mark” into his sleeping bag in the bed over the cab and me, wearing pretty much all the clothes I'd packed in an attempt to keep warm, on one of the narrow, rock hard side benches.

Turns out “Suspensionsmith's” plane doesn't land until lunchtime, so there's no need for us to to take turns driving. I'm baffled as to why we had to get the ferry on Friday night, any normal person would have left early Saturday morning and driven, at the speed limit, straight from the port to Paris in a matter of a few hours.

After a few fitful hours sleep, on my part at least, we're on the move – slowly – again. We stop at proper service station for breakfast, again I keep the receipt to claim it back from the team on expenses, and then slog our way round the Periphique to the airport to pick up “Suspensionsmith”.
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by millemille »

Picking our way through the notorious Paris rush hour traffic, which in reality is pretty much 24/7, we get to the arrivals part of the terminal. “Mark” hops out of the driving seat, opens the door to get out and tells me to take over driving and just keep circling until he comes back with “Suspensionsmith”. “Why not just park in the short term car park and claim the parking charge back from the team on expenses?” I ask. “Mark” just shuts the door and heads off to find our Aussie charge.

90 minutes of “just circling” later, convinced any minute I'm going to be leapt on, with extreme prejudice, by the CRS due to the extremely suspicious behaviour of a foreign registered vehicle at an international airport “Mark” hoves into view with “Suspensionsmith” in tow.

Quick introductions made and “Mark” is back in the driving seat and we're now heading for Le Mans.

“Hang on” I say “Where's your luggage “Suspensionsmith”? He's only toting a small rucksack.

“Air France has lost it, mate”

“Oh shit. Well, I've got loads of spare clothes you can use until we can get to a hypermarket and get you some more and a sleeping bag...”

“Sleeping bag?”

“Yes mate, I'll explain later...”

“Nah, she'll be right” Yes, he's Australian and he genuinely said that. “I've given the airline the address of the circuit and they've said they'll send it to the track as soon as they find it”.

“Mate, they've just told you that to get rid of you. You're never going to see your luggage again!”

“Nah, she'll be right. That's my luggage for the rest of my trip so they'll find it and get it to me..”

It turns out the rest of his trip is to the West coast of the states to see the giant redwood trees. Why, you may ask? Because it turns out that before “Suspensionsmith” made a living fettling suspension and building bonkers motorbikes he was a tree surgeon, and not just any tree surgeon but the official tree surgeon for the Australian Prime Minister's residence in Canberra.

I. Have. No. Words

“Suspensionsmith” gets his down for a nap to try and recover from his jet lag as we trundle south west, passing fields full of big arse Charolais cows.
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by singlesman »

Just brilliant, can’t wait for the next episode.
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by millemille »

We pull off the autoroute a good hour away from Le Mans and spend an interminable time driving around looking for the cheapest fuel in several small towns until “Mark” is satisfied he can't find any cheaper, and then puts barely enough into the tank to, in my opinion, get us to Le Mans. Odd, as all he needs to do is fill up and keep the receipt and claim it back from the team on expenses.

“Mark” takes the opportunity, once we've arrived, to drive us round the public road sections of the full “La Sarthe” circuit used for the 4 wheeled 24 hr race. Fuck me! The Mulsanne straight is very, very long. Even more so at 50mph in a camper van.

What I find a little strange is that, despite Le Mans and the Bol D'or being such massive events that attract tens of thousands of mentalist spectators on all kinds of bikes, there's little or no evidence to be seen of the race being less than a week away.

We head into town and find a Carrefour and me and “Suspensmith” head in to get food and sleeping bags.

The camper van is parked up in a layby and after some exotic French hypermarket nosebag I climb into my new sleeping bag, which is made from the most nylony nylon in the history of nylon so, while I'm not particularly hot, I'm sweating buckets within seconds and building up a static charge that is going to remove eyebrows when it discharges like something from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by demographic »

Bloody good read, keep em coming.
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by millemille »

It'll be a few days before I post much more, there's so much to remember and write that I'm just doing a stream of consciousness page dump at the moment and then I've got to put it into some semblance of order.
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by Supermofo »

Cracking read :thumbup:
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by Nidge »

Excellent read, thanks for sharing
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by the_priest »

Superb read and a great sartorical style!
2 Kings 9:20
So the watchman reported, saying, “He went up to them and is not coming back; and the driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi, for he drives furiously!”
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by Horse »

Excellent and entertaining read. I somehow get the feeling that things won't improve ...
You don't have to believe everything you think
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by Supermofo »

Horse wrote: Mon Nov 02, 2020 3:20 pm Excellent and entertaining read. I somehow get the feeling that things won't improve ...
I must admit I'd have been staying on the Ferry when it docked :lol:
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Re: Dazed and confused in la Sarthe...

Post by weeksy »

Supermofo wrote: Mon Nov 02, 2020 3:38 pm
Horse wrote: Mon Nov 02, 2020 3:20 pm Excellent and entertaining read. I somehow get the feeling that things won't improve ...
I must admit I'd have been staying on the Ferry when it docked :lol:
We've all had trips like this... LOL.

Once upon a time a bloke on TRC crashed his 749 in France. He was looking for help to go and get it...

I took 3 days out to go to France, collect it and bring back.... i'm still waiting for him to put his hand in his pocked for food and beers. He was a little shy shall we say.