SupercarBlondie takes Patrick Dempsey on a ride to Le Mans
“How do you fancy driving across France with Hollywood actor Patrick Dempsey?” was the question that was posed to me when I answered a phone call earlier this summer.
I can’t quite remember the response that tumbled out of my mouth but I’m going to tell you that it was eloquent, poised and considered. All I know is that a couple weeks later, my bags (yes, plural) were packed and I was on a plane heading for Monaco.
For the sake of context, while Dempsey shot to fame playing the staggeringly attractive neurosurgeon Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd in the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, he is also a passionate sports- and vintage-car collector who moonlights as a racing driver, having competed in races including Le Mans 24 Hours.
Such is the petrol that runs through his veins, he now not only owns his own racing team (called Dempsey-Proton racing) but he even once stated that he would walk away from acting if he could dedicate himself to motorsports full-time.
I knew we would get along just fine. Synonymous with glamour and motorsports, my first night in Monte Carlo couldn’t be more on point.
None other than Princess Stéphanie of Monaco welcomes a small group of us at a location reserved for her brother, Prince Albert’s, private car collection. To be fair, it’s less a collection and more an entire museum dedicated to his passion. It is there that I meet Dempsey — who I call Patrick; we’re besties now — and some other remarkable characters.
I have a drink with the great-grandson of Jack Heuer — the founder of the Swiss watch brand TAG Heuer, which has a proud automotive pedigree — who shares the most fascinating of stories.
It is actually Jack Heuer who is, in part, to thank for the financial success of motor-racing on a global scale. He originally came up with the idea of sponsoring racing car drivers by adding logos and branding to the cars and racing suits.
This opened up not only a lucrative revenue stream for car manufacturers, allowing them to fund the sport ' and boy is it expensive! — but also a way for brands to gain a closer association with racing at a very core level. It is one of the reasons why you continue to see TAG Heuer heavily involved in the sport today — there’s clearly been a close tie between the two for a long time.
The next day, I wake up ready for our road trip that will take us from the post-card perfect Principality, to the racing heartland of Le Mans. Patrick calls dibs on the Porsche GT3 RS, so I hop into the Panamera Turbo and settle in for the two-hour drive to Le Luc — an old race track, where we’ll be testing some cars.
Eight of us set off in four cars, winding our way up the Riviera cliffs and into the south of France. Unfortunately, things don’t go to plan. My passenger and I are so fixated on a car that has a fake monkey hanging off the driver’s side door that we completely miss the highway exit (can you blame us?), and end up making an hour-long detour to our destination.
To be honest, I’m not too disappointed that I get to spend an extra hour in the Panamera, but there’s someexplaining to do when we arrive at the track, Patrick waiting for us.
With apologies accepted, and kitted out in racing suits, I jump in shotgun with Patrick for a “quick lap” around the track. He is clearly in his element whizzing around in a GT3 Cup Car, which is basically a completely stripped down, race-ready Porsche. This not Patrick Dempsey the A-list actor, this is Patrick the racing driver, who in a few days’ time would lead his team around the famed Le Mans track for the 24 Hours race.
Over lunch we chat about his racing career, which didn’t start until his mid-30s. As someone who came to this world late, I ask if he has any advice for people who want to get into racing. “It’s important to get a solid grounding,” he says. “Start in karts at a good racing school, and learn the proper fundamentals and technique”.
We talk about his life in Los Angeles, kids, dogs and, most importantly, his daily drive. He lists myriad Porsches, with an emphasis on the hybrid models. It’s interesting and rare to hear a petrolhead embracing an electric future.
The next leg of the journey is a 12-hour drive up to Le Mans. Considering the jam-packed days ahead of me, I plump for the more reasonable — or so I thought — six-hour train journey option. Next to buying a 10 euro (AED41.90) packet of crisps in Monaco, it is the worst decision I make on the trip.
I’ve read about the strikes in France, but I only fully understand the meaning of them after my train ‘shortcut’ turns into anything but. After a 10-hour ordeal in the blistering heat (where I receive emergency water and sandwich packs) I finally arrive late at night to kick off my first 24 Hours of Le Mans experience.
That said, all is forgotten when I see our accommodation for the weekend: a castle that can only be described as Downton Abbey-esque, surrounded by lush, green French countryside. I even receive a quick lesson on upper-class etiquette, which, to my surprise, does not involve saying “cheers” before sipping.
Such is its importance on the racing calendar, Le Mans still attracts hundreds of thousands of people to the area. Many of these extreme petrolheads meticulously watch until the very last car crosses the finish line the next day.
As a Le Mans newbie, I am surprised at how close I’m able to get to the cars. I suppose it’s one of the reasons why so many people fly in from around the world — it’s a race where the crowd feels just as much a part of it as the driver does.
As thousands of us stream on to the track before the race starts, we are so close to the cars that you can feel the nerves of the teams’ crews standing by watching. Someone tells me that it isn’t uncommon for a fan who has elbowed his way to a prime photo spot to place his hand on a side mirror for the shot, only to find it fall to the floor minutes before the start of the race. Luckily for the teams there haven’t been any major pre-race mishaps this time.
Back into the safety of the panorama suite upstairs, I watch as the cars roll out. It then dawns on me what it is that makes this race in particular so thrilling. Ferraris are on the same track as Toyotas, dancing around each other in the most nail-biting fashion. At any moment, someone could be wiped out of the race, and inevitably over the next few hours, that’s exactly what I will see.
It’s a unique sensation, spending a 24-hour period eating dinner, sleeping, having breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, all while the drivers remain focussed on the track. But it all ends well, with Patrick’s Dempsey-Proton Racing winning its class category, and as cheers roar up from the garage, some bubbly is taken from the fridge. It seems that after winning the world’s toughest endurance car race, all high-society etiquette lessons are thrown out the window.
And rightly so, too. Cheers.