French Leave

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 August, 2007, 12:00am

Five years ago, Matthew Marsh gave up his job to pursue a career in motor racing. His dream? To compete in Le Mans 24 Hours.

MY DAD WAS AN AVID DRIVER, SO I grew up with racing. I had always thought it would be amazing to race full-time, but never followed it with that intent. Even when I decided to give up my job in telecoms and pursue racing seriously, I knew my limitations. I was never going to be a Formula One racing-car driver. But I wasn't going to be nothing, either. Outside Formula One, the biggest event in the sport is the Le Mans 24 Hours race, and that became my goal.

Unlike many other sports, you need a lot of capital to race. The only way to be able to sustain a living was to do it commercially. I had participated in quite a few races over the years, but not enough to warrant full sponsorship.

With some savings still in my pocket, my first goal was to place in as many races as I could until I could approach people for sponsorship. Many people don't realise it, but in terms of participants and the level of skill, Hong Kong is the best in Asia for racing. But ultimately, I'd have to build up a reputation in Europe if I wanted to make it to Le Mans.

In 2004, I was sponsored by a coffee brand from mainland China. When not racing, I was fulfilling my contractual obligations by attending press launches and events. To supplement my income, I wrote for car magazines and, of course, I trained.

In between, I would talk to almost everyone I knew; I told them what I'd been doing, what I was about, what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it. Le Mans was all I could think about and, no matter what, I was going to get there.

This year, my hard work and networking finally paid off. I got a call from an Italian team I had met a few years ago at the FIA GT championships in Zhuhai. They were putting together a team for Le Mans and, having seen me at other races, wanted me to race with them.

The day of the race was surreal. There were parades and bands and a lot of fuss was made to celebrate the event even before the race had begun and I began to get nervous. For safety precautions, each team must enter with three people and no person can drive for more than four hours at a time in case of fatigue.

In a long-distance race such as this, speed is only one factor to consider. You also have to think about how to minimise the number of pit stops and the time in the pits. We decided to drive in two-hour shifts and not to stop unless something in the car ran out or needed replacing.

In a sprint race, you push 100 per cent all the way through to the end. But in something like Le Mans, what tends to win the race is whether or not you have problems. Most of this is luck, but you also have to balance speed with looking after the car.

I prefer the latter type of race. I love repetition and the circuit at Le Mans.

I love the steady rhythm you fall into.

It's almost dreamlike - your actions become subconscious because you're concentrating so hard on how you're pushing the pedals and how you're turning the wheel. I like doing things over and over until it feels perfect, and driving Le Mans at night is an experience every driver has to have.

After 21? hours, the drive-shaft broke. We were on the other side of the circuit from the garage and unable to fix it. That was it for us, we were out. To be honest, I wasn't too disappointed. I could have happily left the race after the first hour and been content.

At the end of the day, as my friend told me, Le Mans is just another racetrack, like any other. It's dirty at times, the traffic's bad and it's tiring. In some ways, I suppose it was a bit of an anti-climax

for me. But I know as the years go on and I look back, in my mind, it will only get better.