FIVE years after he claimed his second Le Mans 24-Hours victory, Dumfries racer Allan McNish finally stood on the top step of the podium once more at the famous French track.
The 43-year-old, partnered by Frenchman Loic Duval and Dane Tom Kristensen, dominated the gruelling race which was fought out in ever-changing weather conditions.
But, while the dark, foreboding, thunderous skies were never far away from the action on the track – witnessed by around 250,000 fans – it was the sombre mood caused by the death of racer Allan Simonsen on Saturday which dominated the weekend.
The 34-year-old from Odense in Denmark had started the GTE Am class from pole position in his Aston Martin but, just 10 minutes into the race, as rain continued to fall, he lost control of his car at the high-speed Tertre Rouge right-hander. His car speared into the barriers lining the left-hand side of the 8.45-mile track.
Simonsen’s death was confirmed hours later by Edinburgh’s John Gaw, managing director of Aston Martin Racing.
“On behalf of all of us at Aston Martin Racing,” 42-year-old Gaw said, “I would like to extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to the individuals, and families whose friends or loved ones were involved in today’s terrible tragedy.”
The race was a major challenge for Kirkcaldy’s Peter Dumbreck. The 39-year-old was a member of the same Aston Martin Racing team as Simonsen.
The Fifer, partnered by England’s Darren Turner and German Stefan Mucke, finished third in the GTE Pro class. But he admitted result was completely dominated by the events of Saturday afternoon, and the podium ceremony, with a Danish flag flying prominently, was understandably understated.
“After I was told of Allan’s death, I still had a few hours before I was due to get into the car for the first time,” he explained. “I know it sounds clinical, but I had to be professional about it.
“I was torn up inside, because Allan was a really nice guy, and a mate. I gave myself a few minutes to sit on my own and take it in. Then I had to get on with it. It’s what Allan would have wanted. But it was tough.”
Simonsen’s death overshadowed McNish’s third Le Mans victory. Like Dumbreck’s podium ceremony, that of the overall winners lacked the traditional whoops of delight.
“When I was told after I got out of the car following my opening stint, I just felt a horrible, sickening hollowness deep inside,” McNish, who started the race from pole position, said.
“You’re reminded when a crash like Allan’s happens that it could so easily happen to you. And I know, from bitter experience, how aggressive this place can be.”
The Scot survived a horrific, violent high-speed crash in the race two years ago, and the fact he was able to crawl out of the wreckage was testament to the strength of his Audi.
“We all have the feeling that it won’t happen,” he continued, “but what happened 10 minutes into the race on Saturday was a reminder that it can.
“In a way, the best thing to do – and it’s what I would want in the same circumstances – is for everyone just to get on and keep racing in the sport we all have a love and passion for.
“Drivers are like brothers. It doesn’t matter where it is, which part of the world it is. We all feel the same as each other, we’re all part of the same group.”
For McNish, Simonsen’s death was all the more pertinent. Kristensen – now a nine-times Le Mans winner – also shared the No 2 hybrid-diesel Audi R18 e-tron quattro.
“The race was tough for every driver in the race after Allan’s death, but it was perhaps most difficult for Tom,” McNish, whose car finished one lap ahead of the second-placed Toyota of England’s Anthony Davidson, explained. “They were great friends, and I know it has hit Tom really hard.”
Kristensen, whose father died in March, mentored Simonsen through the early part of his sportscar career.
And McNish admitted the weather, which dominated the 90th anniversary running of Le Mans, made the race one of the most difficult he’s ever contested.
“Even when the rain stopped, the circuit never seemed to dry fully, and that meant you never knew exactly what level of grip you had,” McNish, who previously won in 1998 and 2008, said.
“All three wins have had there own different levels of difficulty, but this was certainly the most emotionally draining.”
There was disappointment for Bathgate’s Marino Franchitti. Driving the Level 5 Motorsport Honda in the LMP2 class, the car struggled in the build-up with handling problems.
And, early in the race, it was clear there was a further problem with the car’s engine. As it sat stationary during its pitstops, flames would lick from the rear of the car as the engine burned off fuel fumes.
Eventually it had had enough, and was retired to the garage with around five hours remaining. The team, though, did get it back on-track with 15 minutes to go to ensure it crossed the finish line.
“It’s been a difficult week,” Franchitti admitted. “We came into this race confident we’d be able to fight at the front of the LMP2 field but, for a number of reasons, it didn’t work out. But we intend to be back next year fighting even stronger.”