High-Stakes Endurance Racing Is More Fun To Watch From Pit Lane
Photography by Will Broadhead
A race that lasts for 24 hours is exciting. The event takes longer than most, but within the long race are dozens of smaller ones taking place in multiple classes on multiple parts of the circuit at once. Seeing the way the cars dance around their competitors and sources of traffic at the speeds they do lap after lap is a magnificent thing to see from close up, but having photo access to the track is only part of the overall story at a race as long as this one.
For a track famous for its straights, the one containing the start-finish line and the pit lane is rather small. A crucial piece of the narrative takes place here despite the cars on track passing by in a matter of seconds, played out among the pit crews and strategists behind each car. Though they may only touch the steering wheel to swap in a new one, these guys are very much competing in a test of endurance with consequences that can determine who stands where on the podium.
We looked at the 2019 race in an overall sense soon after it ended, but revisiting it weeks later I am reminded that most of my favorite memories and sensations came from the pit lane. “The pits are no place for tourists,” Jeff Carter tells us in our photographers’ safety briefing, “it’s a dangerous environment and if you’re in there, it’s because you’re working.” It’s easy to be flippant about safety advice in these days of overzealous fine print meant to avoid being sued, but he isn’t joking. We’re protected from the rare yet ever present danger of fire by FIA-spec fire suits, but unlike the mechanics none of us have anything on our hands or faces, but the six second suits ought to at least save our lives, if not our looks, if the worst should happen. It’s exciting but not frightening if you keep your wits up.
If you don’t mind staying out of the way of cars and pit crews on short notice, the pit lane is a wonderfully unique place to be during the small hours of a major endurance race. There is a constant stream of traffic in and out as cars come in for planned or recently necessitated stops for fresh bits of bodywork or new fluids, or drivers. Soaked in the fluorescent light of the garages and just a little bit of sweat from the fire suit, the creeping shackles of sleepiness that tend to work their way in at 3AM are thrown off by the frantic but professional pace required to keep cars barreling along the Mulsanne all night. You won’t be checking your watch down here.
It is an fast, loud, and generally electric environment to be in the middle of as cars stream into their boxes and bounce up on their air jacks, for the duration of the stops, apparent chaos ensues as wheels are flung about, brake dust fills, the air mechanics leap onto cars all Gazelle like to clean windscreens. Of course, it isn’t messy at all, and everyone knows their route and function and what they have to do to deliver a faultless pitstop. Any time spent here is time not spent racking up laps and despite this being such a long race the cars can take it at near sprinting pace, meaning there’s even less time to lose when the inevitable problems and planned stops occur.
For all the noise and movement that happens when the cars are in, the pits have a quiet side to them in the rare empty breaks, and gazing into the garages to find the curled-up bodies of mechanics grabbing minutes of sleep where and whenever they can is more interesting than seeing them at work. Peeking in to these moments seems to calm the flurry of activity in the immediate background. Seeing enough nappers has me thinking about a quick one of my own, but I head out around 3AM for more shots of cars instead.
Nearly half the race later I am back into the pit area as the teams that have survived the night and morning enter the last hour of the 24. The commotion in the garages hasn’t dissipated despite there being more of them with their doors pulled down as the casualties of the race have mounted up. The fluorescent light is replaced by a blinding sun, and its unclouded heat is making life uncomfortable for all of us down here on this blacktop cooktop. Everyone is tired. Mechanics, engineers, FIA stewards, and the drivers waiting in the wings are all doing their best to keep one another awake and sharp. There is no time to switch off, but mistakes are happening more often, as occasional wheel nuts get dropped while aching limbs take just that fraction of a second longer to pick them up.
Then there is that pitstop, as the #7 Toyota comes in from the lead to replace a punctured wheel, followed by a repeat of the process just one lap later, thereby relinquishing the lead that had been holding so easily for so long. Even when they don’t have other factories to race against it seems that Toyota is never free from last-minute heartbreak. The anguish is almost audible, and it represents the very bottom of the trough as far as the emotional rollercoaster of pit lane emotions go. Jeff Carter is right, this isn’t a place for tourists, but boy is it exciting to take a business trip here.