The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the endurance race of endurance races. It takes the category to its most extreme. The most difficult thing to do when racing at the Circuit de La Sarthe is simply endure. Make it through to the end. Through blinding sun down the straight toward Indianapolis. Through insidious misting rains in the high-speed Porsche corners. Through dangerous passes where participating drivers might or might not have the visibility and/or awareness to make for a safe, successful maneuver.
Porsche logged its 99th and 100th class wins (GTE Pro and GTE Am) at Le Mans this weekend. Audi marked its 12th overall win. Some are tempted to brush off these accomplishments as if they were pre-ordained. Throw enough money at racing, they say, and you’ll win. Keep doing it, and you’ll keep winning; it’s inevitable. There’s an element of truth to that. Money does matter. But that flyby sentiment misses the reality—that human beings still must exert extreme effort to make for the desired end result. And human beings, no matter what they are paid, are fallible. Especially when faced with a long period of time, as they are at Le Mans.
This axiom of human fallibility is what makes modern auto racing so great. As the machines become more and more robust and precise and capable, they force the human team leaders, engineers, mechanics, and drivers to rise to an ever-higher standard and execute at an ever-higher level. At Le Mans, all participant human beings must maintain the highest conceivable alertness and awareness for every millisecond of a full 24-hour period in order not only to hope for victory, but to avoid disaster. Thus, no racing win of any kind is ever inevitable. Every racing win is elusive and frustrating and unlikely and exhausting, and is therefore exhilarating when it comes about. At Le Mans in particular, any victory is an incredible accomplishment—Tom Kristensen’s nine victories at Le Sarthe is perhaps the nearest thing to ‘achieving the impossible’ that I can think of.
However, when a victory does not come about, it is sometimes more than frustrating—it is fatal.
The racing community faced this reality once again on Saturday, June 22nd, 2013 when Aston Martin Racing driver Allan Simonsen experienced a spin near entry to the Tertre Rouge corner just prior to the Mulsanne straight. The crash occurred on an incredibly slick part of the track—note the other cars of various types spinning in the same spot just moments before—in only the first hour of the race. His Vantage GTE impacted the trackside barrier rear-first at such a speed that the wall itself needed an hour’s repair. Simonsen was reportedly conscious when extracted from the car, but he succumbed to his injuries while being attended to at the Circuit Medical Center.
Simonsen was 34. He had a child. He had the usual career track: Formula Ford, Formula 3, British GT, the Le Mans Series. His Twitter feed was that of a busy professional racer—short, to the point, full of shout-outs to fellow racers, mentions of cars (racing and otherwise), and complaints about air travel. The 2013 Le Mans 24 Hours was his seventh. He had been chosen to drive a brilliant car (the Astons were fastest in testing and qualifying) made by a prestigious manufacturer celebrating its hundredth year of existence. He was in his prime and living the dream.
As you can see, his family urged Aston Martin to continue its efforts despite their loss. AMR did just that, running neck-and-neck with Porsche until the last hour, when an ill-timed safety car period brought on by one of the race’s many rain showers knocked Aston out of range of the podium’s top step and forced them to settle for third.
The fact is, though, that death could have visited any of the thousands of people out racing cars on this summer weekend. Anytime a driver straps on a race car and goes out onto a track intending to be the fastest, it might be the last thing he or she ever consciously does. Thankfully and rightfully, racing has taken many steps to minimize this risk, and driver fatalities occur much less frequently than they used to. Still, if there is anything inevitable about racing, it is certainly not victory—it is death, and drivers know it. That is why Simonsen’s family urged his team to continue to battle—no racer would have it any other way.
Congratulations to Audi and Porsche and all of those who worked so hard to enable them to reach the 2013 Le Mans podium’s top step. Condolences, most heartfelt, to Allan Simonsen’s family, especially to his young one.