Disclaimers In Part 1
Friday, May 13th.
The photo on page nineteen of the previous week's issue of Trackracer magazine had a very telling caption: 'Ouch!'. The photo above the caption was of Sally's #6 Ford GT half-buried in a tyre wall at the first chicane at Monza. Sally herself was standing next to the wreck, nursing her right elbow.
Francesca continued to leaf on in the very worn copy of the magazine, trying to kill some time while the entire collective of drivers and team personnel waited for the Bucharest track marshals to repair the section of guard-rail a wayward GT2 Porsche had destroyed.
Quickly losing interest in the magazine, she threw it back into the corner where she had found it, and got up from the lawn chair she had been sitting on.
Strolling out into the pitlane, she walked over to the perch on the pitwall where Giampaolo was located, looking more bored than humanly possible.
"Are we going anywhere or what?"
"Doesn't look like it."
"Terrific. I only managed to do three laps. What do the sporting regulations say in case they won't get the track opened before the free practice session runs out?" Francesca said and put her hand under her head.
"Well, let's see... hmmm," Giampaolo said, opening a very large book.
"Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm... all right. 'If an untimed practice session cannot be...' hmmm, hmmm, hmmm... looks like they might need to squeeze it in tomorrow morning, extending the final free practice," he said, closing the book again.
"Do we even know when the track opens?"
"No," Giampaolo said, looking at the timing and scoring monitor that only showed a 'SESSION STOPPED - RED FLAG - SESSION WILL RESUME AT xx:xx' message scrolling along the bottom of the screen.
"It'll resume when we reach double-X o'clock," he said with a grin.
"It that a.m. or p.m.? Whatever. Wake me up when we get there," Francesca said and left the perch.
Walking through the Maserati garage and out into the paddock, Francesca turned left, then right and finally left again to find her way through the maze of trucks parked in the lot that was far too small for all the things they were hauling.
When Francesca finally reached their Knaus Sunliner motorhome, she stopped and scratched her hair, wondering how on Earth it was able to fit into such a narrow space. Looking absolutely minuscule sitting between all the large trucks, the motorhome was crammed in between the Maserati spares truck and one of the Nissan transporters.
Shrugging, she knocked on the door to the motorhome and waited for Kathleen to open it.
"I was wondering when you'd show up," Kathleen said with a laugh. Stepping aside, she let Francesca into the motorhome and then closed the door behind her.
"God, I haven't been this bored since... I don't know when, actually," Francesca said and sat down on the couch. Yawning, she swung her legs up and got comfortable, using a small pillow as a headrest.
"But why aren't you driving?"
"One of the GT2 cars made a mess of the guard-rail in the Playboy Chicane. It's too dangerous to continue before they've fixed it, so... well, we're stuck here."
"I don't like this circuit," Kathleen said and sat down on a chair.
"The layout is actually pretty good; better than I had feared. But, you know, it's a street circuit. The barriers are directly on the edges of the track. Zero room for error."
"Like I said, I don't like it. I don't like that sort of thing at all, actually."
"It's an acquired taste, I agree. We haven't had many of them in the championship in the last few years simply because if something goes wrong, it takes ages to get it cleaned up. I actually like fighting in between the concrete walls."
"Well, for one thing, street circuits separate the true drivers from the posers. Street circuits are for drivers with big... um," Francesca said, looking at Kathleen who nodded in return.
"I get it."
"Good. Then you won't have to suffer one of your characteristic blushes you'd surely have when I would describe the..."
"I get it! I get it! Sheesh!" Kathleen said and got up from the chair. Francesca made some room for her, so she hopped over to the couch and sat down in front of Francesca's stomach.
Kathleen put her hand on Francesca's side and gave it a little squeeze - unfortunately, Francesca couldn't feel a thing through her triple-layer fireproof driving suit.
"What do you think the other drivers are doing right now?"
"Luca is bound to be polishing his collection of designer sunglasses. Fabio is reading a men's magazine, and I know that for a fact because I saw it with my own eyes just now. I have no idea what Donny is doing... but I'm sure none of them are having as much fun as I am."
Kathleen sniggered and tried unsuccessfully to claw her way through the Nomex.
"What happens now?"
The question was answered when there was a knock on the door. Kathleen got up to open it and found herself face to face with Patrizia, Giampaolo's daughter.
"Buongiorno, signorina O'Malley. C'è Francesca?" the young girl said with a nervous smile.
"Oh... I'm... in English please, Patrizia."
"Uh... uh, hello, Miss O'Malley. Francesca is here?"
"Sono qua. Ciao, Patrizia," Francesca said as she came over to the door, zipping her driving suit back up.
When the young girl saw the statuesque driver, her eyes lit up like little suns. Her cheeks and ears were tinted in a cute shade of red and she became visibly shy.
"C'è un messaggio per lei A più tardi. Goodbye, Miss O'Malley," Patrizia said and handed Francesca an official press release. She waved briefly, spun around on her heel and ran away.
"Boy, you have definitely got yourself a fan there," Kathleen said and poked Francesca in the side.
"I know. What's this...? Hmmm. Oh, that's interesting. The free practise has been called off for good now, but the organisers have arranged a pitstop competition in the pit lane at a quarter past three, so the spectators won't feel cheated," Francesca said, reading from the press release.
"A quarter past three?" Kathleen said and checked her wristwatch - it was twenty to three.
"Do you want to go?"
"Sure... but don't expect me to carry any heavy equipment or anything."
"Kathleen, the contest is for the mechanics, not us!" Francesca said and laughed out loud.
"Ohhhh. Well, in that case, I'd love to go."
"Good. We've got half an hour. Just enough time to snuggle up and be very, very friendly to each other," Francesca said and pulled Kathleen into an embrace.
Unlike Friday and Saturday, Sunday the 15th dawned with leaden skies that threatened to dump their watery contents onto the circuit at any time.
Francesca stood in the living room of the motorhome at a quarter past eight, quietly contemplating the weather. She was fully suited, booted and ready to go, but the inclement conditions had definitely put a damper on her mood.
From the bathroom, Francesca could hear the toilet flush and a few moments later, Kathleen came out and turned off the light.
"Are you all right, darling?"
"Oh... I'm fine. My stomach reacted because I got nervous from watching you get nervous. You're never nervous. But you are today, and that's why I got nervous."
Francesca chuckled quietly to herself over the cute babbling and then moved back to wrap her arms around Kathleen's shoulders.
"I'm not nervous, Kathleen. I'm just... mmmm... over the weather. You know?"
"I hate the rain. Now, everything is fifty times more dangerous. Isn't it?"
"Not fifty times, no. But we'll see incidents and accidents aplenty today, that's for sure. Some of the privateers will end up kissing the wall instead of the trophy."
"Some of the works cars, too, probably..." Kathleen said quietly.
"Probably. But it won't be Maserati #1, I can tell you that much."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Because I'm damn good in the rain, that's what."
"I'm not convinced," Kathleen said and snuggled even closer to the driver.
"Oh, thanks for the vote of no-confidence! No, driving in the rain is tough, but if you know the basic rules, it can be even more rewarding than driving in the dry."
"Well, stay off the white lines as much as you can. Try alternative racing lines through the corners. Compensate for the reduction in friction by braking smarter, not earlier. Easy on the throttle away from the corner so you won't fishtail it. Things like that. This is what I'm good at, Kathleen."
"But what about things like the spray we always see in Formula One? Won't that be dangerous on such a narrow circuit?"
"We have that, but, you know... I'm starting on the front row again so all I have to do is to get by the Toyota #7 before the first corner. That worked back in Monza, so perhaps it'll work here, too."
"I'm praying that it will."
"That's all I can ask for," Francesca said and leaned down to kiss Kathleen's hair.
As the two women were talking, the first sprinkles of water hit the windows of the motorhome.
Five minutes to twelve, a klaxon blared and a race official walked down the rows of cars holding the CLEAR THE GRID sign.
Kathleen quickly reached into the cockpit and gave Francesca's gloved hands an almighty squeeze. Stepping back to let one of the mechanics close the door, she blew Francesca a good-luck kiss and then left the grid with the engineers.
Francesca watched Kathleen walk away and then concentrated on the race. The rain had eased off to a certain extent, but the track was still quite wet in places.
Having already started the engine, Francesca checked all the gauges and displays thoroughly. The water temperature was a bit on the cold side and she made a mental note to check the gauge frequently.
'Francesca, it's going to be a safety car start, repeat a safety car start. Two exploratory laps under the safety car and then the race will be given free as a single-file re-start,' Giampaolo said over the radio.
"Copy, Giampaolo. Two yellow laps then green. Single-file restart."
'That's right. Out.'
'Damn' , Francesca thought. 'There goes my chance at the first corner.'
The lights on the gantry turned green and the safety car, a Dodge Charger, started with a roar and drove up the front straight. A few moments later, the Toyota #7 in pole position left the grid and followed the safety car. All the cars started on full wet tyres and all of them immediately began to weave back and forth to get the tyres up to operating temperature.
Inside the pits, Kathleen put on her headset, leaving one ear free so she could also listen to the television broadcast. The picture showed a shining track, lit up by the headlights of the twenty-eight cars - the GT2 Porsche that had crashed in free practice had gone home and they had lost one of the privateer Nissans in qualifying as well.
'... no doubt about it, this two-hour Supersprint around the old presidential palace will separate the men from the boys... and girls for that matter. We can throw away the times from the free practice and the qualifying now. This is all about survival and getting to the chequered flag,' the Eurosport commentator said, giving Kathleen yet another hard knot in her stomach.
With the safety car laps over, all the race cars stuttered in line-astern formation through the last chicane before the start-finish line. Francesca had her eyes glued to the rear end of the pole position car so she was ready when the race would be given free.
She turned on the windscreen wiper and briefly checked the right hand side wing mirror to see if the cars behind her were lined up properly - if they weren't, the start would be flagged off for another yellow lap.
Moving closer and closer to the green flag at the gantry, Francesca was about to ask on the radio if the start was delayed when the lights changed to green and the Toyota #7 set off down the track.
A split second later, Francesca hit the throttle and went up through the gears, the cold tyres creating wheelspin even in fourth gear on the way down to the first corner, a ninety degree right-hander.
She changed down to second for the corner and then went up to fourth on a short straight. Watching the stop lights of the Toyota intently, Francesca tried to brake before the leading car did so she wouldn't rear end it on the opening lap.
Down to second again for the ninety-degree left-right sequence at the Pepsi Max Chicane, up to third as she went through a small chute, and then down into second again for the ninety-degree right-left Playboy Chicane.
Even though Francesca was very careful on the throttle, the back end of the Maserati stepped out several times as she exited Playboy. Going up the gearbox, she had it in fifth for a few seconds before she went back down to second for the right-left-right Michelin Chicane that would bring her onto the back straight.
A car flashed its headlights in her left wing mirror and she glanced at it briefly to see who it was - it was Luca, trying to unsettle her so he could slip through.
Luca tried to go alongside Francesca as they screamed down the back straight headed for the Toro Chicane, but Francesca wasn't about to let herself be taken that easily so she kept her car on the racing line, forcing Luca to either back off or go off. As Francesca braked and went down into second gear for the left-right Toro Chicane, Luca came sailing past her, having outbraked himself comprehensively.
'Ohhhh! That's the two works Maseratis going at it on the first lap. Careful chaps, you know what the team manager is going to say if you both come back on foot!' the Eurosport commentator howled, causing Kathleen to take a deep breath.
Francesca retook Luca going into Toro and as she went through the slow chicane, she could see in the mirror that he was scrabbling to get back to the racing line and to stay ahead of the cars queuing up behind him.
The manoeuvre had been costly for both of them as Toyota #7 had managed to stretch out a bit of a lead while the two black-and-turquoise cars had been battling. Coming out of the Toro Chicane, Francesca could see that the Toyota had gained fifty yards on her through that section alone.
She went up through the gears, again briefly touching fifth before she had to brake for the DHL Chicane, a seemingly endless corner that went on and on and on before it finally opened up into the main straight.
Francesca went into third, fourth, fifth and finally sixth gear as she completed the first lap in second place; the car dancing about wildly on the uneven street surface.
She could feel the rough treatment already beginning to gnaw at her tender hip, but she knew that she'd be letting Fabio and the team down if she didn't drive for her full stint - which would last at least forty minutes - so she clenched her teeth and willed herself into ignoring the pain.
Twenty-two minutes later, Kathleen was pacing back and forth in the spectator enclosure, chewing on several fingernails at once. The weather had worsened and the rain was now coming down steadily, making the track even more slippery than it had been before.
There seemed to be a car off at every corner of the circuit and the TV producer and the commentator couldn't keep up with the frantic action.
'... so that's the number sixty three Ferrari F430 in the wall between the Michelin and the Toro chicanes. That could bring out the safety car because it's parked in an unsafe pla... OHHH!' the Eurosport commentator said as the camera whipped around to catch another accident, making Kathleen jump as a result.
The camera showed that one of the works Nissans had ploughed almost head-on into the stationary Ferrari, sending a cascade of carbon fibre fragments all over the racing surface.
'They need to scramble the safety car, there's debris all over the track. The cars will pick up punctures at once if they try to go through the accident site at race pace,' the commentator said.
'Caution, caution, debris on track after Michelin! Debris on track,' Giampaolo said over the radio.
'The safety car is out. It's too early to pit, Fran. Stay out, stay out.'
"Copy. Staying out. I'm at Playboy. Where's the safety car?" Francesca said and turned through the right-left chicane.
'Behind you. It'll be a while before you catch the queue. Careful, debris after Michelin.'
As Francesca exited the tight Playboy chicane, she was caught behind two GT2 Porsches that were already going slowly. All around the track, marshals were busy waving the yellow flags, signalling that the cars should slow down.
In the wing mirrors, she could see a privateer Nissan that was already a lap down, another GT2 car and then Luca's Maserati - the Toyota #7 had been fifteen seconds ahead of her, but now she'd get a second chance at battling with it.
In the pits, Kathleen had been listening in on the conversation on her headset. She thought that Francesca's voice had sounded strained and she started getting concerned that not all was right with the driver. She chewed some more on her fingernails, debating with herself whether she should tell Fabio or not - but came to the conclusion that Francesca wouldn't like it one bit, even if it had been done to help her.
Behind her, two cars blubbered down the pitlane and she turned her attention to the TV screen, hoping that she could see who it was.
The TV cameras picked up the stops a bit late, but it turned out to be both the dark blue works Ford GTs. The drivers were changed in both cars and soon, #5 left ahead of #6, the same order that they had come in. The onscreen graphics said that the cars were now driven by Gomez and Sharpe and Kathleen furrowed her brow, wondering why they'd stop now when no one else did.
She looked around for someone to ask but found that everyone was busy with the race. Shrugging, she returned to the TV.
'Fran, both Fords have pitted. They're trying to get out of sequence with the rest of us. They'll be close to us after the stop,' Giampaolo said.
"Okay. Do we have an estimate as to when the Toyota will stop?"
Feeling the strain on her shoulders, she drove with only one hand on the steering wheel for a few hundred yards and then changed to the other hand. Staying awake through the safety car periods had always been a problem she had found difficult to overcome, and this time was no exception.
The last time she had gone past the accident site after Michelin, the Nissan had been cleared from the track but the Ferrari was still there, meaning that the safety car would still be out for a fair while.
Four slow, achingly dull laps later, the 'SAFETY CAR IN THIS LAP' message appeared on the timing and scoring monitor, making the team managers up and down the pitlane key their microphones and talk to their drivers.
'Fran, get ready. Safety car in this lap, safety car in this lap.'
"Okay. About bloomin' time," she said under her breath as she weaved left and right on the straight to try to keep some heat into the full wets.
The queue of cars crept slowly into the DHL Chicane, following the Dodge Charger safety car. At the last moment, it peeled off into the pit lane and the pack of cars was released.
At once, Francesca nailed the throttle and went up through the gears, closely following the #7 Toyota. The period of low-speed driving had meant that the puddles hadn't dissipated and that there were large areas of standing water on the front straight, so when the cars blasted through it, plumes of spray rose from the wheel arches and the diffusers on the rear of the cars.
Suddenly, the Toyota in front faltered and Francesca ducked to the right, almost coming up alongside it. The other driver tried to squeeze her to the outside of the track, but Francesca kept her nerve, out-braked the competitor cleanly and swept into the first corner ahead of the red and white Toyota.
"Copy," Francesca said calmly as she went up the short straight and into the Pepsi Max chicane, placing her MC12 in the centre of the track so the Toyota couldn't make a stab at her.
Inside the pits, Kathleen let out a loud whoop and jumped up and down several times. Eurosport showed a slow-motion replay and the commentator lauded Francesca for the opportunist move.
"Aw, you better believe it!" Kathleen said loudly.
Fourteen minutes later, Francesca turned off the race track and headed into the pitlane, still scored as the leader of the race.
The handover went smoothly and according to plan - after getting out, Francesca helped Fabio get in, tightened his belts, slammed the door shut and then stepped back so she wouldn't get in the way of the mechanics changing tyres on the left side of the car.
Fabio pressed the starter button and the #1 Maserati was soon off again, stuttering up the pitlane on the limiter.
After checking that the pitlane was clear, Francesca ran across it towards the perch where Giampaolo was seated.
"Everything okay?" he asked as soon as she had reached him.
"Yes, no problems. The traffic is horrendous and I don't think we've seen the last safety car yet. Some of the privateers are way out of their depth today."
"I agree. Stay sharp. On days like these, the strategy tends to be flexible."
"Yep," Francesca said and gave her team manager a thumbs-up. Checking the pitlane again, she ran back across it and went into the Maserati garage.
"Oh, I'm so proud of you!" Kathleen said the split second Francesca sat down on the lawn chair next to the spectator enclosure.
"Thanks, darling. The race isn't over yet."
"I know, I know. But that was a great manoeuvre. Even the Eurosport commentator thought so!"
"Oh? In that case, I guess it must be," Francesca said with a laugh.
Patrizia came up to Francesca holding a towel and a plastic bottle of water.
"Ecco qua, Francesca," the young girl said with a shy smile, handing Francesca the items.
"Grazie mille, Patrizia. E' stato gentile da parte tua," Francesca said and flashed her patented 200-watt smile at Patrizia, making the young girl blush and run away.
At once, Francesca opened the bottle and gulped it down, draining it in one. Putting the empty bottle away, she took the towel and proceeded to wipe her face, neck and arms thoroughly.
"Francesca, are you all right? I think you look pale," Kathleen said quietly, remembering the things she had thought about earlier.
"Oh, I'm fine. It's nothing. I'm fine."
"Now I know something is wrong... what is it?"
"I guess my hip hurts a little bit. The surface is insanely uneven. Especially the big bump on the back straight coming into Toro. The car bottoms out every single time there... and it goes straight up into the seat. And me."
"Oh... can you even finish the race?"
Francesca's head whipped around and for the briefest of moments, her eyes shot fire.
"Of course I can!" she said vehemently.
"All right, all right. I'm just worried about you," Kathleen said and put a hand on Francesca's shoulder.
Francesca sighed and put her own hand on top of Kathleen's.
"I'm sorry, honey. I shouldn't have barked at you."
"Oh, that wasn't a bark. That was just a meow," Kathleen joked.
On the TV behind them, they could hear the Eurosport commentator mention the words that no driver wants to hear - drive-through penalty.
Getting a bad feeling, Francesca got up from the chair and looked at the television to see if it was her car they were talking about. Working on its own accord, her arm found a way around Kathleen's waist and she gave her partner a little squeeze. Kathleen smiled and winked in response.
'... Oh dear, Maserati #2, Luca DiLorenzi and Donny Zorzi, has been given a drive-through penalty. We don't know why yet, perhaps race control will give us that information later on. Currently in fifth place after the recent stops, Donny Zorzi is battling with Toyota #8. This will really ruin their race.'
"Luca is going to blow a gasket," Francesca said, looking over her shoulder trying to find the driver of the #2. When she couldn't see him anywhere, she turned her attention back to the TV.
'... and we've just received confirmation that Maserati #2 has been given a drive-through penalty for passing under yellow. We haven't seen anything after the stop, so Luca DiLorenzi must have done it in the laps leading up to the stop.'
"Why would he pass under yellow? Is it because he's such a hothead?" Kathleen asked, making Francesca snigger loudly.
"No. It's a very easy mistake to make, actually. Especially if it's against a GT2 car. You have to understand that they're a lot slower than us, so we catch them so fast that there isn't much time to react if there's a yellow at the corner or on the straight where we overtook them."
"Oh... but you've never done that, have you?"
"Sure I have. Most drivers have at one point. Like I said, it's a very easy mistake to make."
"Did you blow your gasket when it happened?" Kathleen said, poking Francesca in the side.
"You better believe I did!"
On the TV screen, they followed Donny Zorzi as he peeled off the track and went down the pitlane. Soon, he drove past the Maserati pits, the car stuttering away on the limiter as usual - once he was through, he released the full force of the six hundred and eighty five b.h.p. and re-joined the race, right in front of Sally's Ford #6.
"Oh, there's Sally. The Fords are doing really well today," Kathleen said.
"Yes. They gambled at the first pitstops and it seems to have paid off for them. They depend on another safety car, though. If it's a clean race to the finish... and there's no way in hell it will be... they'll lose time by coming in under green."
The words hadn't even left Francesca's mouth when one of the cameras spun around to show an accident unfolding.
'OHHH! That's the #6 Ford straight up the back of Zorzi's Maserati at the... where is that... at the Michelin Chicane! Sally Sharpe! Good Lord, did she forget which pedal was the brake? Trying an impossible out-braking manoeuvre up the inside at a corner where there is no way to get through, she rammed him at nearly unabated speed! She was going so fast there was no way on God's green Earth she would have made it through that corner by herself,' the Eurosport commentator said.
"Oh, Sally, Sally, Sally..." Francesca groaned, shaking her head.
An emotional outburst at the other side of the garage made both Francesca and Kathleen turn around - Luca had arrived back in the pits just in time to see his car wrecked. Ranting and raving loudly in Italian, he was using a lot of unsavoury words describing Sally Sharpe's lineage, his fortune in general and female drivers in particular.
"Uh...?" Kathleen said, looking to Francesca for a translation.
"I'll tell you later. In private."
Continuing on and on, Luca strode out of the pits and headed down the pitlane.
"Now where's he going?" Kathleen said.
"I'll bet he's on his way up to the Ford pit to give them a piece of his mind," Francesca said laconically.
"What a prima-donna," Kathleen growled under her breath, making Francesca chuckle.
'...Welcome back. We have forty-five minutes to go and the race is building up to a great climax. The safety car is out while the corner workers clean up an accident in the DHL Chicane and we're right in the middle of the final round of pitstops,' the Eurosport commentator said.
In the pits, Francesca gave Kathleen a quick kiss and then pulled her helmet down over her head.
"Love you, Francesca. Go out and win this one!" Kathleen said, smiling broadly - mostly to instil some confidence in herself.
Francesca nodded, fastened her chin strap and closed the visor. Giving Kathleen a brief wave, she went out to wait for Fabio to come in so he could hand the car back to her.
Crossing all her fingers, Kathleen turned back around so she could follow the TV.
'The big story of the race is the fortunes of the Ford team. One car badly damaged after yet another accident and one in third place. The gutsy pitstop strategy definitely paid off for Jonathan Baker in the #5 Ford, vaulting the car up the order. Once the pitstop sequence is over, it'll be in third place after the leading Carrara-Dellassandro Maserati and the second placed Toyota of Kaneichi and Hattori,' the commentator said as one of the cameras picked up the dark blue Ford weaving back and forth.
Fabio finally brought the #1 Maserati into the pits, coming to a perfect stop in front of the mechanics. The driver change went smoothly and before long, Francesca hit the starter button and drove off down the pits.
'Caution, Fran. Coolant and water in DHL Chicane,' Giampaolo said over the radio.
"Copy. Where are we? Who am I racing?"
'Kaneichi Toyota, Baker Ford. You'll slot into the safety car queue right in the middle of a string of GT2 cars. Toyota #7 will be a few cars behind you.'
Francesca smiled briefly when she heard Jonno Baker's name mentioned, but the message that she'd be in the middle of the traffic soon wiped it off her face.
The blue light at the exit of the pits was flashing furiously and she was extra careful when she re-joined the track, almost staring a hole in the right side wing mirror to see where she should slot in.
'Stay behind the blue Porsche, Fran,' Giampaolo said.
"Okay. I'm there. How many laps to go under the safety car?"
'Unknown. More than one.'
"Copy," Francesca said and sighed.
Three laps later, the radio crackled to life again.
'Fran, safety car in this lap, safety car in this lap.'
"Copy, Giampaolo," Francesca said and flashed her headlights, hoping that the GT2 driver in front would make room for her once the race went green.
Coming up to the DHL Chicane for the final time under yellow, Francesca checked the track thoroughly, looking for any remnants of the coolant dropped by the car that had crashed there. The next time by, she'd be going at least twice the speed and she didn't want any surprises.
As she was weaving left and right, she could sometimes spot the red-and-white Toyota in her mirrors. The other car had also turned on its headlights and the two cones of light were illuminating the shiny asphalt.
The rain had fortunately stopped, but since the track was a public street any other day of the week, it was very slow in drying up. Prior to the last stop, Fabio had suggested intermediate tyres but Giampaolo had overruled him and Francesca was glad that he had. She thought to herself that she needed to have a word with Fabio about what he'd been thinking when he made his suggestion.
Francesca finally went through the final part of the DHL chicane and came onto the front straight. The yellow flag was still waved from the gantry at the start-finish line, but just as she was watching it, it was withdrawn and replaced by a green one.
'Go! Go!' Giampaolo said over the radio but Francesca was already under way. Nailing the throttle and going up through the gears, she flashed the headlights non-stop to alert the driver in the Porsche while trying to control the fishtailing car as it danced left and right over the puddles that had formed.
The first backmarker left her plenty of room and she was past that before they reached the first corner, but the timing didn't work for her to get past the next one. Following a red GT2 Ferrari through the corner, she immediately ducked out of its slipstream and raced alongside it towards the Pepsi Max chicane.
As she turned in, she could see the Toyota's headlights in her wing mirror - meaning that it had found a quicker way through the traffic. Mentally girding her loins, Francesca knew that she had a fight on her hands and she concentrated on driving as fast as she could while still keeping off the walls.
Through Playboy, through the short straight and then into Michelin, she let the Maserati fly without taking unnecessary risks. Every time she checked the mirrors, the Toyota shadowed her, but when she reached the nasty bump at the Toro Chicane, it seemed to fall back slightly.
Getting too busy to look in the mirrors, Francesca blasted out of Toro and onto the short straight that would take her to DHL. As she entered the final chicane, she left the tiniest bit of room to react in case the track hadn't been sufficiently cleared, but the racing line was in good condition.
After turning through DHL, she went onto the front straight, blasting past the start-finish line and into another lap.
Kathleen covered her mouth with her hands, staring wide-eyed and completely mesmerised at the television. The battle behind Francesca between the #7 Toyota and the #5 Ford proved to be a very even affair that was eventually won by a do-or-die out-braking manoeuvre by Jonno three laps after the restart.
Sweeping into second place at Toro, he quickly set off after Francesca who was another five seconds up the road.
"Good race today, eh?" Fabio said, but Kathleen hadn't even noticed that he was there. He grinned and tapped her on her shoulder.
"Good race today."
"Yes, yes... really exciting," Kathleen said, unable to pry her eyes away from the television screen.
Fabio grinned again and sat down on one of the lawn chairs to watch the race unfold.
As Francesca crossed the start-finish line for the penultimate time, she looked in both mirrors to see how close the competition was. When she could only see a pair of yellow headlights, indicating that it was a GT2 car, she keyed the microphone.
"Pits, gap to p2."
'P2 plus eight seconds, Fran. Final lap, final lap.'
Without any threats directly behind her, she reduced the pace a fraction to make sure the car would last the distance. Wanting to take care of the engine and the gearbox, she let the car glide into the corners instead of throwing it in like she had done the entire race.
After going through the first corner, she short-shifted into fifth and then sixth on the way up the short straight towards the Pepsi Max Chicane. Going through that and Playboy, she short-shifted again, conserving the engine by not using the full band of revs.
On her way between the Toro and the DHL Chicanes, she thought that the final lap took twice as long to complete as the earlier ones had, but finally she went through DHL, headed for the flag.
The TV cameras were following Francesca's car on the final lap, but Kathleen caught very little of it. She was hiding behind her hands, too nervous by far to look at the TV, but at the same time, she was concerned that she would miss out on anything, so she peeked through her fingers on a regular basis.
Around her, the mechanics and Fabio got up and ran to the pit wall so they were ready to celebrate when the #1 would cross the line, but Kathleen was rooted to the spot in front of the television, holding her breath almost to the point of suffocation.
Coming out of the final corner, Francesca could see a track official wave the chequered flag from his booth. As she crossed the finish line to win the Bucharest Supersprint, she let out a loud whoop and put her hand out of the small porthole in the Plexiglas window of the Maserati.
On the pit wall, all the mechanics were cheering and frantically waving black-and-turquoise and Italian flags. Francesca tried to look for Kathleen's easily recognisable shock of white-blonde hair, but she only had a few seconds and she wasn't able to see her. In celebration, Francesca put her foot down on the throttle in first gear, creating a fifty-foot skidmark right past the pit wall.
A few minutes later, Francesca pulled into Parc Ferme, guided by a track official who showed her where to park the Maserati.
Aching and feeling exhausted, Francesca opened the door and then undid her seatbelts. Climbing out of the car, she took off her helmet and the HANS-device and then proceeded to wipe her flushed face and neck with the balaclava.
Looking around, she soon spotted Kathleen who was standing with the mechanics as close as they were allowed to outside the Parc Ferme, and she gave her a big thumbs-up and a wave. Kathleen jumped up and down and pretended to embrace Francesca from afar.
Behind Francesca, Jonno pulled into the slot for second place in his Ford GT. He revved the V8 a few times for his mechanics and then shut it down and stepped out of the dark blue Ford.
"Well done, Jonno. Great work," Francesca said and patted Jonno across the belly.
"Thanks, Fran. We'll get you yet!"
"Next year... perhaps," Francesca said cheekily.
Five minutes later, all the top three drivers gathered behind the podium, waiting to go outside to collect their trophies. Francesca and Fabio were busy talking excitedly to each other in Italian, but most of the others were just worn out from the exhausting race.
The emcee turned on his microphone and went outside to introduce the top three driver pairings.
"And here's the third placed crew. In the Nippondenso Toyota GT-One, Toshihiro Kaneichi and Shikeagi Hattori," he said, clapping into the microphone.
The two Toyota drivers came out, waving to the crowd below - but not looking particularly pleased with their third place. They went over to the far side of the podium and stepped up onto it.
"And the second placed crew, driving for the Ford Motor Company, Jonathan Baker and Miguel Gomez in the Ford GT," the emcee said. The applause for Jonno and his car mate was much larger than for the two Toyota drivers and they waved back enthusiastically.
"And finally, the winning drivers from Team Mediterraneo Maserati, Francesca Carrara and Fabio Dellassandro!"
Francesca and Fabio went out onto the podium and jumped up onto the top step accompanied by a loud cheer from the spectators and the mechanics. Francesca found Kathleen in the crowd below and blew her a kiss. Fabio settled for waving at the cameras wearing a huge grin.
When the first strains of the Italian national anthem began to play, all the drivers took off their caps and stood up straight - Francesca and Fabio both put their hands behind their backs so the TV cameras could get a clear picture of the name of their sponsor across their driving suits.
Once the anthem was done, Francesca threw her cap into the crowd, but, as usual, Kathleen's arms were too short so she wasn't able to catch it. Francesca noticed and gave her partner a smile and a shrug.
After collecting their trophies, all the drivers stepped off the dais so they could go down to the television interviews.
Ten minutes later, Fabio and Francesca returned to the pits holding their trophies high in the air. They went around among all the mechanics and engineers and congratulated each and every one of them for a job well done.
Her official duties over, Francesca shook hands with Giampaolo and then hurried over to the spectator enclosure to look for Kathleen - she never made it that far. Even before she reached the enclosure, a white-blonde whirlwind flew through the air and wrapped itself around Francesca's long torso.
"Ohhhhh, Francesca, I'm so happy for you!" Kathleen cried out in an almost ecstatic fashion, giving her partner the hug of a lifetime. She finished off by reaching up on tip-toes and planting a big, wet kiss right on Francesca's lips.
After separating, she became slightly more conscious about what she had done, but when she looked around, she couldn't see any people with cameras.
"Thanks, darling. This was a good one. Good Lord, I need a little breather now," Francesca said with a tired smile.
"Good thing we have a bed out in the motorhome, huh?"
"Oh yeah. And a shower. Shower first, I think. Come on, let's..."
Before they had time to go anywhere, Patrizia zipped into the pits and ran up to the two women. She was holding a promotional photograph of Francesca and a pen that could write in gold print.
"Francesca... Potrei avere un autografo, per favore? E' per il mio album," Patrizia said, her face beaming with delight.
"Ma certo, Patrizia. It's for her scrapbook," Francesca said off Kathleen's slightly confused look.
"Oh... I had a scrapbook when I was a little girl. Do you have pictures of all Francesca's victories?" Kathleen said to Patrizia.
"Uh, I do not. I only started at Monza," Patrizia said, shaking her head.
Francesca took the gold pen and decorated the photograph with her name and a lot of little smiley faces.
"Ecco qua. Abbine cura," Francesca said and handed the photo back to Patrizia.
"Senz'altro. Grazie mille, Francesca," Patrizia said with a shy smile. She spun around on her heel and zipped back out of the pits before either Francesca or Kathleen had time to reply.
"I told her to take care of it," Francesca explained once they were by themselves.
"Oh... Francesca, I need to learn to speak Italian. This is starting to annoy me."
"Does it need to be right now? After the shower, I need to get back to the team debriefing," Francesca said with a tired grin.
"No. It can wait until we get home."
"Good. I think I can come up with a few words that should be easy for you to learn. 'Amore'... that's love, get it?"
"Got it. Silly," Kathleen said and wrapped her arm around Francesca's waist.
Laughing, they began to walk back to the motorhome.
Tuesday, May 17th.
Kathleen put her fingers across her lips, trying to hide the devilish little grin she was wearing. She licked her lips and turned her attention back to Francesca who was sitting on a bench, busy lifting weights - it didn't help that Francesca had insisted on wearing only a simple sports bra and a pair of cut-off sweat pants, leaving her shoulders, arms and her entire midriff bare.
"Just once more, Fran. Just once more," Kathleen said, slithering up behind Francesca.
"You're... distracting... me... darling!" Francesca said as she put the bar back on the rack, out of breath after having lifted nearly 150 lbs. ten times.
"Oh, we can't have that, can we," Kathleen said and let her fingers run across Francesca's taut stomach, clawing the smooth, bronzed skin.
Francesca sniggered and tried to take Kathleen's hand, but the author was too quick and she moved away before she was caught.
"I'm so envious of you. You're always so deliciously tanned. Look at me, I never go beyond pink, even at the height of summer," Kathleen said and kissed Francesca's shoulder.
"Personally, I'm quite fond of pink," Francesca said and wiped her face with a towel.
"No, you're not!"
"On you, you better believe I am. C'mere."
"Not yet. I need to see a bit more first," Kathleen said and ran her hands up Francesca's long arms. Using her fingernails, she started scratching Francesca's biceps hoping to get a reward - she did; a saucy little flex.
Kathleen continued to stand behind Francesca, keeping a grip on the firm body. She let her hands roam freely, up the arms and down the long torso. Over the flat stomach and down across the abs, stopping tantalisingly close to the elastic band of Francesca's sweat pants before moving further down and around the well-toned thighs.
"Mmmmm," Kathleen hummed, definitely liking what she saw and felt.
"Have you seen enough now?"
"You're a hard mistress. But I'm sure you know that already," Francesca said and stepped away from the rack.
"Oh yeah. Are you going to try the other machine... you know? The one where you put your legs into the..."
"No, I can't today, darling. My hip is still too sore."
"Oh. Okay," Kathleen said and started chewing on her lip, pondering which one of the exercise machines she'd like to see Francesca work on.
"Mmmm, no. Perhaps..."
"Perhaps we should just stop talking," Francesca said and gently pushed Kathleen up against the wall of the exercise room.
"Perhaps we shou..." Kathleen said but was silenced by Francesca's lips on her own. The kiss started easy but soon went far beyond that. When Kathleen could feel an insistent tongue probing her lips, she sighed sensually and allowed Francesca inside.
Kathleen's hands worked on their own accord - one of them ran up and down Francesca's arm, feeling up all the muscles it found there, and the other behind Francesca's head, pulling her even closer into the kiss.
Soon, their tongues were engaged in a wonderful dance that only ended when they had to break off to get some air into their lungs. With a cheeky grin, Francesca pulled Kathleen off the wall and over to the bench at the rack. Putting her hands on Kathleen's shoulders, she pushed her all the way down so she ended up flat on her back.
"How far do you want to go, darling?" Francesca said, toying with the button in Kathleen's jeans.
"All the way, baby," Kathleen said breathlessly, earning herself a new grin from Francesca. She started fumbling with the button, but Francesca swatted her hand away.
"Hands off. That's my job," Francesca said and unbuttoned Kathleen's jeans. Leaning down, she took the zipper between her lips and tried to pull it down, but it was too tight so she ended up having to do it with her fingers.
Once the zipper was fully down, Kathleen raised her hips off the bench so her jeans could slip off. Francesca put her strong hands on Kathleen's hips and pulled the trousers off painfully slowly, loving every inch of the dark green panties that slowly saw the light of day.
Putting her hand on Kathleen's panties, Francesca clawed the golden patch of hair and then used her free hand to pull off the jeans in a quick manoeuvre, making Kathleen sigh in surprise.
The sigh was instantly turned into a moan when Francesca reached down and pulled Kathleen's panties up so the hook strained against her already sensitive folds. Content to be toying with her partner for the time being, Francesca pretended to begin slipping off the panties, but as soon as Kathleen raised her hips, Francesca let go and continued elsewhere.
After doing that twice, Kathleen whimpered and pressed her abdomen insistently against Francesca's hands.
With a grin, Francesca relented and pulled off Kathleen's already quite soaked panties. She pulled back, staring lecherously at the writhing, half-naked woman before her. Licking her lips in anticipation, Francesca moved her strong hands up under Kathleen's blouse and pulled it up, sliding her hands up along the firm, but delicate, torso.
Kathleen helped by whipping off her blouse, giving Francesca a heated kiss while they were close.
Coming to a rest just below Kathleen's breasts, Francesca began to claw the flesh gently, something she knew always drove Kathleen wild. Moving her hands further up to cup the two mounds, Francesca leaned down and kissed Kathleen's cleavage several times.
After a few kisses, Francesca pulled back and moved in between Kathleen's legs so she could lie down flat on top of her. As soon as Kathleen felt Francesca's weight on her, she instinctively pulled up her legs and crossed them behind Francesca's back so she could pull her very close.
"Baby, I'm going to take you. I'm going to take you hard," Francesca whispered into Kathleen's ear.
"Ohhhh... Oh, God," Kathleen groaned, her hips bucking as a response to Francesca's words.
"I'm going to take you so hard that the only thing you'll be capable of is to come for me. Do you understand?"
Kathleen moaned again, trying to nod.
"Do you understand?" Francesca repeated, pressing her abdomen down onto Kathleen's throbbing centre to prove her point.
"God! Yes! Come on... Oh, God, I want you," Kathleen breathed, grabbing Francesca's arms and digging into the hard muscles.
"Get up and turn around," Francesca said sternly and moved back. When Kathleen followed the role-playing by responding a little slowly, Francesca pulled her up from the bench.
Francesca reached down and took off her sweat pants. She had been hoping that the event would turn into what it had, so she wasn't wearing any underwear - a wise choice as it turned out.
"Kneel," Francesca said, took Kathleen by the shoulders and turned her around so she was kneeling on the bench, facing away from Francesca.
Kathleen whimpered again, feeling a delightful buzz flow through her. Within moments, Francesca's strong arms had wrapped themselves around her body and gave her a squeeze that left her wanting more.
Francesca's hands began to move all over Kathleen's body, across her neck and her breasts, fondling her already erect nipples. After lingering there for a few seconds, the hands continued further down, running over Kathleen's soft, smooth stomach and onto her thighs.
Growing ever more impatient, Kathleen steered Francesca's hand onto her slick folds, groaning when the strong fingers ran across the sensitive area, caressing, probing, teasing.
The moment lasted all too briefly as Francesca moved her hand back up to Kathleen's stomach, caressing it slowly by moving the tips of her fingers from left to right and then back the other way. The response was immediate - Kathleen sighed sensually and clamped her hand down onto Francesca's.
Undaunted, Francesca moved her free hand up and began to caress Kathleen's neck and throat. With her fingers, she began drawing little lines on the skin from the centre of the inviting neck, going forward towards the left ear and further down Kathleen's throat. When Kathleen cocked her head to the right to make the access easier, Francesca continued the movement down onto her chest, stopping above the swell of Kathleen's breasts.
Kathleen sighed again and let go of Francesca's hand that immediately went down to cover her well-lubricated centre. When Francesca briefly let her middle finger slip through the folds and into the velvety cavern, Kathleen bucked hard into Francesca's hand, an instinctive signal that she was ready to move onto the next level.
"Are you ready?" Francesca whispered.
"Oh, God, yes..."
With a growl, Francesca turned Kathleen around and picked her up effortlessly, pressing her bronzed thigh up against Kathleen's heated centre.
Electric currents raced through both women the split second their heated skin made contact, and they both let out identical throaty moans and continued to press hard against each other.
Francesca wrapped her strong arms around Kathleen and moved the two of them down onto the bench as one body. A few seconds went by and then Francesca spread Kathleen's legs and carefully inserted first two, then three fingers into her burning hot opening.
A deep moan bubbled up from Kathleen's chest and she leaned her head forward, silently begging Francesca to begin. Francesca listened and began a rhythmic motion - slow at first, but soon building up speed until the two women found a rhythm that satisfied both of them.
Francesca had her free arm underneath Kathleen's shoulder, and at random intervals, she flexed her muscles to give the author a firm squeeze. Kathleen always responded by groaning and by digging her fingers into Francesca's back - in turn prompting Francesca to add a few twists and tricks to the grinding motion.
Kathleen opened her eyes and looked at Francesca's face as she was making love to her. The ice blue eyes were hooded and almost dark, and her face and upper body were flushed from the exertion of constantly riding Kathleen's centre.
"Ohhh, baby..." Kathleen whispered, feeling every single thrust that Francesca offered her. Deep inside her, a spark ignited that sent cascades of fire through her system, making her skin tingle and become super-sensitive.
Every little touch, every little breath that hit her skin sent a wave of thrills through her, and suddenly she felt like she and Francesca were one soul sharing the experience.
Instinctively, she tightened her grip around Francesca. The firmness of Francesca's body added to her pleasure, making her feel like she was riding on the crest of a wave. Closing her eyes again, she leaned her head back and let out a long, growly groan.
Sensing that Kathleen was already close to climaxing, Francesca eased off the grinding motion, gradually slowing down until she was barely moving. Baring her teeth in a wolfish grin, she knew that switching positions once Kathleen was close would increase the author's orgasm exponentially, so she decided to take it easy for the next few thrusts.
"No, no, God, no... don't stop.. don't stop now," Kathleen breathed, but Francesca just shook her head.
"I won't allow you to come yet," Francesca said and began to fondle Kathleen's breasts and rock hard nipples. She cupped the two mounds, squeezing and kneading them gently, just applying enough pressure for Kathleen to feel it but not enough to make it painful.
"Not yet," Francesca whispered, moving the palms of her hands back and forth across Kathleen's nipples. As she cupped the breasts again, she moved up onto the bench and positioned herself between Kathleen's legs.
Deciding that it was time to resume the game, she let her hands run slowly down Kathleen's body until they were at the golden patch of hair. Clawing the skin gently and enjoying the whimpers it produced, she moved her hands even further down, gripping Kathleen's thighs and separating them so she had full access.
Francesca leaned down and kissed the outer folds, earning herself yet another sigh. Once again, she started probing and teasing, running her tongue up and down and occasionally venturing inside.
Carefully spreading the folds with her fingers, she found Kathleen's little bundle of nerves and let the tip of her tongue run across it - a split second later, Kathleen responded by groaning and pressing her abdomen up into Francesca's face.
Feeling her own fluids drip down her thighs, Francesca inserted a finger into Kathleen's opening and resumed the riding motion at a very slow cadence. As she was doing that, she continued alternating between suckling gently on the clit and swirling her tongue around it; trying to get Kathleen as close to the edge as possible without actually falling over it yet.
After a few seconds, Francesca inserted a second finger and began to pick up the pace, riding faster and faster against Kathleen's completely soaked centre. By the time she squeezed a wonderfully erect nipple between her thumb and index finger, she was back to full speed, using three fingers to thrust hard into Kathleen.
Kathleen leaned her head back and let out a series of increasingly uninhibited moans and groans, and Francesca knew that it was time to deliver the final blow.
"Open your eyes!" Francesca said sternly. When Kathleen complied, Francesca plunged a fourth finger deep into her centre and rode her as hard as she dared. Looking directly into Kathleen's misty green orbs, she said,
"Kathleen, I want you to come. Come for me... Now!"
The look on Kathleen's face changed to one of shock and then unbridled ecstasy as she let go. Within seconds, the orgasm that exploded somewhere deep inside her made her entire body tremble and arc off the bench. Her inner muscles trapped Francesca's fingers like they wanted to squeeze the life out of them, and the gesture was mirrored by Kathleen's hands grabbing Francesca's arms.
When Kathleen finally cried out, it was a husky, hoarse scream that sounded like it came from a being much more dangerous than a 36-year old author, and it made all of Francesca's nape hairs stand on edge.
As the aftershocks rushed through Kathleen's body, she convulsed several times and pressed her abdomen against Francesca's hand in an attempt to extend the pleasure. When the tension finally left her, she became a boneless creature that slumped down onto the bench; her arms lost their grip on Francesca and fell limply down her sides.
Several heartbeats later, Kathleen opened her eyes and looked at Francesca. She began to cry quietly, like she nearly always did when the afterglow engulfed her. Large teardrops rolled down her cheeks and onto the bench below, staining the leather surface.
"Shhhh. I've got ya. Enjoy it, baby. I've got ya," Francesca whispered in a voice that had lost the sternness it'd had before. Holding Kathleen's body tight, she soothed the author by humming quietly.
"I love you, Francesca," Kathleen whispered in a trembling voice.
"I love you, too, baby," Francesca said, kissing Kathleen's eyebrows.
Wednesday, May 18th.
When the telephone rang, Kathleen put down the newspaper she was reading and walked over to pick up the receiver.
"The Carrara and O'Malley residence, it's Kathleen."
'Hello, Miss O'Malley, it's Sally Sharpe. I was wondering if I could get to speak with Miss Carrara, please?' the young driver said in a distinctively American accent.
Kathleen narrowed her eyes and stared blankly into thin air. Suddenly a flock of butterflies started flapping their wings in her stomach, almost like it was trying to tell her that trouble was brewing.
"Oh... yes... yes, of course. Hang on," Kathleen said and put the receiver down on the small table.
"Francesca? Telephone for you!"
"For me?" Francesca said, peeking around the corner to the kitchen.
"It's Sally. Sally Sharpe," Kathleen said and moved away from the telephone.
"Sally Sharpe? What on Earth...?"
Francesca put the bread knife down on the kitchen table and walked into the living room. Kathleen had already moved over to the couch, and on Francesca's way past her, she reached down and mussed the white-blonde hair as a quiet reassurance.
"Hello, Sally? It's Francesca."
'Hi. Ummm, I was wondering if you... well... no, I better take it from the top. I have something I need to talk to you about.'
"Oh," Francesca said, relieved that she wasn't about to hear some half-baked declaration of love.
'I've been... well, I've been rested from the team. I've had too many accidents this year.'
"I'm really sorry to hear that, Sally," Francesca said, getting Kathleen's attention.
'Thanks. So, to come back to the question I wanted to ask you... I was wondering if you could give me any pointers, career wise?'
'Yes, the dos and don'ts, you know. Things like that. How I can improve, frankly.'
"Well, I... Sally, I can't do that over the phone. I need to talk to Kathleen first, but would you have time to come to our cottage tonight for dinner?" Francesca said, looking intently at Kathleen.
'Yes, no problem. I can come over for dinner.'
Kathleen furrowed her brow and leaned forward on the couch. Her initial reaction was so say 'no', but on the other hand, it sounded like it could be a good opportunity to really get underneath the young driver's facade. After weighing the pros and cons for a short while, Kathleen nodded at Francesca who replied by quickly waving a thumbs-up.
"All right. Kathleen agrees. How about a quarter to seven tonight?"
'Six forty-five sounds fine by me. By the way, I already know where you live. I asked Jonno if he thought it was all right that I called you and he told me the directions.'
"Oh... Okay. Well, see you just before seven, then. Goodbye, Sally."
'Bye, Miss Carrara.'
Francesca hung up and leaned back in the chair. She crossed her legs and put an index finger across her lips.
"What was that all about?" Kathleen said, folding the newspaper she was reading and putting it away.
"Sally's been taken off the driving squad."
"Oh...! Because of her accidents?"
"How unfair!" Kathleen said, surprising herself by defending the young driver.
"Mmmm. To be brutally honest, it was inevitable. At this level, there's no room for so many errors," Francesca said and moved over to sit next to Kathleen in the couch.
"I think that's very harsh."
"It's harsh, but you have to remember that the teams invest an incredible amount of money into the sport. Drivers employed by the works teams must deliver at all times, or else..."
"I understand... could this happen to you? Surely it couldn't?" Kathleen said and put a hand on Francesca's knee.
"Yes, it could. If I started getting lazy or if I caused too many incidents or accidents on the track, I'd be warming the reserve bench in no time."
Kathleen opened her mouth to speak, but she closed it again at once. She sighed and leaned in towards Francesca, resting her head on the taller woman's shoulder.
"I'll bet that Fabio or Luca wouldn't get treated like that," she said quietly.
"Actually, they would. All right, it would be very bad press for the team to bench the reigning world champion, but Luca has been moved aside a few times."
"He has? I didn't know that. When?"
"Well, you were right there for one of them. Last year at Spa. Remember that he wanted to take my seat during the race?"
"Oh yeah, that's right... that was so charming of him..."
"I would've done the exact same thing, darling. Anyway, Giampaolo knew that upsetting the team right in the middle of the championship race would be idiotic so he told Luca no."
"And then the prima-donna left in a huff, didn't he?"
"That's right," Francesca said and gave Kathleen a little squeeze.
Francesca laughed and then mussed Kathleen's hair again.
"So Sally Sharpe is coming over for dinner. What should we make for her? I'm not doing sandwiches again. I always end up with the turkey coldcuts. I hate turkey coldcuts," Kathleen said with a deep sigh.
"It doesn't have to be anything fancy. She's a driver, remember? She probably won't eat more than two lettuce leaves and have a glass of mineral water on the side."
"Even if she's being rested?" Kathleen said, turning around to look at Francesca with a puzzled expression on her face.
"Well, yes. She might get a call-up from someone else. If she arrived at a test out of shape and flabby, she'd kill her career in an instant."
"Oh... I didn't think of that. Not that she's particularly out of shape..."
"No, she's quite good-looking."
"What? Do you want me to wear a chastity belt while she's here just to be on the safe side? I'll even let you keep the bronze key," Francesca said in a teasing voice.
"No, I... hey, I didn't know you had a chastity belt?" Kathleen said, suddenly interested.
"I don't. Down, tiger."
"Oh. Mmmm. Maybe for your birthday," Kathleen said and snuggled closer to her partner.
A quarter past six, Kathleen was strung up so high that she was positively electric. She was bustling back and forth, setting the dinner table, stirring the pot with the fancy Italian tomato sauce, minding the oven where she was making tagliatelle and wafer-thin slices of pork cutlets with melted cheese on top, and constantly checking and rechecking everything.
Francesca was standing in the doorway, holding a stack of napkins she had been given and staring wide-eyed at Kathleen's frantic activity.
"Good Lord, darling... will you calm down? This wasn't supposed to be a state dinner, you know. It's just a fellow driver."
"That's no excuse for not doing it right. Perhaps you expected me to serve bangers and mash?" Kathleen said sternly, putting her hands on her hips.
"No, that's not what I..."
"This is my kitchen. I'm the General here."
"Of course, but..."
"You drive, I cook, we each have our gifts. Now let me do my job," Kathleen said and spun around to tend to the pot.
"Yes, dear. I better put these onto the table. Just yell when you need me," Francesca said, not particularly eager to get into a debate with Kathleen.
"Don't worry, I will!"
Kathleen's voice carried all the way into the living room, quickly followed by a stern harrumph.
"I'll bet," Francesca said to herself as she put down the napkins. She took a step back and studied the dinner table - everything was carefully selected so the colours would match perfectly. The dinner plates had a small, green band on them around the outer rim, and the tablecloth, the cutlery, the glasses, the napkins and even the salt and pepper shakers all wore an identical green band.
Chuckling over Kathleen's perfectionist streak, she fluffed and arranged a few of the pillows in the couch and then moved the vase on the coffee table so it was at the exact centre.
"Do you think she'll be here on time?" Kathleen suddenly said, peeking around the corner.
"Do you think Sally will be here on time?"
"I really have no way of knowing, darling," Francesca said with a smile.
"Oh... no. You're right. I better be ready for anything."
"I'd say you already are," Francesca added under her breath.
"Pardon?" Kathleen said, peeking around the corner again.
"Love you," Francesca said, wearing a broad smile.
At first, Kathleen raised an eyebrow, but then she relented and cracked a smile.
"Love you, too," she said and winked.
On the dot of a quarter to seven, a car pulled into the driveway and stopped. A car door was closed and Francesca could hear crunching footsteps in the gravel leading up the front door.
She got up and went over to the door even before Sally had time to press the doorbell. Opening the door, Francesca smiled at their guest, who smiled back, holding a large bouquet of flowers.
"Hello, Miss Carrara. Thank you for inviting me."
"Oh for cryin' out loud, Sally, my name is Francesca. And you're very welcome. Oh..." Francesca said, instinctively reaching for the flowers when she spotted them.
At the exact same moment, Kathleen came into the living room wearing an apron and carrying a small tray. When she saw what was going on at the door, she came to a screeching halt, the unreadable expression on her face showing that she wasn't too pleased with the situation. A few moments later, she spun around on her heel and went back into the kitchen.
"Actually, they're for Miss O'Malley," Sally said with a grin and walked past Francesca's outstretched hand on her way into the cottage.
"Oh. Cheeky," Francesca said and closed the front door softly. She went over to the bookshelves and found an empty vase to put the flowers into.
Walking a bit slower than before, Kathleen came back into the living room. She had taken off the apron and had brushed her white-blonde hair so it was absolutely perfect. She was wearing a pair of dark tan slacks and a fairly tight, form-fitting forest green shirt, and in her ears, she had the studs Francesca had given her for Christmas.
Francesca's eyebrows twitched when she looked at her partner and she only had one thought in mind - 'Rrrrwoarhhh!' .
She looked at her own black jeans and her faded cotton shirt and wondered if she should've dressed for the occasion, but shrugged it off when she saw that Sally was dressed more or less the same - blue jeans and a denim shirt.
"Look, darling, Sally brought you flowers," Francesca said, trying to steer her mind back to safe ground.
"Me? They're for me?" Kathleen said, once again stopping with a jerk.
"They are, Miss O'Malley. I know it was rather short notice, so I thought I'd better bring a hostess gift," Sally said and walked around the couch.
Kathleen involuntarily took a step back, but when she noticed that Sally was putting out her hand for her to shake, she mentally scolded herself for being so insecure.
"Hello, Sally. I'm sorry about your situation."
"Thank you, Miss O'Malley. Well..."
"Oh, what's this Miss-thing, Sally? We've already met. Please, call me Kathleen," Kathleen said and put her hand on Sally's biceps. She didn't know if she had done it deliberately or by accident, but the result was the same - the muscle mass she felt underneath the denim shirt was quite similar to Francesca's, and it only made her even more conflicted than she already was when it came to the young woman standing before her.
"All right. Hi, Kathleen," Sally said, oblivious to Kathleen's confused state.
"Uh... hi, Sally. So... the dinner is ready, actually. Let's get something to eat while it's still hot."
"Sounds good to me. It definitely smells wonderful here," Sally said, trying to be as polite as she possibly could.
"Yes, it does, doesn't it? We're having pork chops a la Roma and tagliatelle with my mother's super-secret recipe for the tomato sauce," Francesca said and put her hand on Sally's back to guide her over to the dinner table.
"Oh, excellent. I love pasta. Um, would you mind if I didn't drink alcohol?" Sally said, finding her chair.
"Francesca doesn't either, so we've made a pitcher of mineral water the two of you can share," Kathleen said and put a tray with the steaming hot pork chops down on the table.
"Oh, that's great," Sally said with a smile.
"Yep, and we've even bought some lemons and a few mint leaves so we can make ourselves a real Club Soda if we want to," Francesca said, grinning.
"Wow, we really live a life of luxury, huh?" Sally said, taking her napkin.
As Kathleen carried a bowl with the tagliatelle to the table, she paused momentarily and looked at the smiling Sally. Kathleen felt like she was getting ever more confused by each passing moment. She knew that she didn't really have a logical, rational reason for disliking the young woman so much but she knew that she definitely did - and it annoyed her.
The dinner proved to be a lively affair with Francesca and Sally sharing tall tales from their exploits around the race tracks of the world. Mostly, Kathleen sat quietly and listened to them;
even though she had a few stories to tell of unexpected events and peculiar goings-on from the world of biographies, she felt they weren't good enough to match the colourful stories told by Francesca and Sally.
Kathleen leaned back in her chair and studied Sally closely. The ash-blonde woman with the pretty grey eyes had told them that she was twenty-five years old, that she was a graduate of some Michigan college Kathleen had never heard of and that she had raced in the smaller divisions for nearly eight years - but Kathleen didn't pay much attention to any of that.
Instead, Kathleen was studying Sally's body language. Studying how her foot bopped up and down when she told an exciting or funny story. Studying how she liked to play with her right ear lobe as she was looking to the left, towards Francesca. Studying the gestures she made with her long, slender fingers. Studying how she cocked her head in a very particular fashion whenever she spoke with Francesca - but never when she spoke to Kathleen.
Studying how Sally Sharpe seemed to be trying to flirt the panties off Francesca.
Kathleen crossed her arms over her chest, slowly getting that feeling she dreaded the most - that unstoppable sinking feeling where she could only watch helplessly while everything around her came crashing down.
Kathleen's thoughts began to roam freely, finally stopping at the darkest place she could imagine: being alone and lonely, with only her infrequent biographies as companions... and the only physical love she would experience would come from the purple vibrator in her dresser drawer.
'I lived like that for five years before I met Francesca. I can't go back to that. I just can't,' Kathleen thought with a sigh that actually felt more like a sob.
Francesca picked up Kathleen's almost inaudible sigh and the two partners locked eyes. Some of Kathleen's insecurities must have been transmitted because Francesca put her napkin up on the table and pulled back her chair.
"Sally, why don't you take a seat over on the couch? I think we're boring Kathleen with all our stories," Francesca said and began to collect some of the empty plates.
"All right. Oh, let me help you with that," Sally said and reached for the same plate Francesca had already picked up.
"No, it's all right, Sally, I've got it. Darling, why don't you show Sally some of your biographies while I do the dishes?"
"Oh, I..." Kathleen said, looking from Francesca to Sally and back. She noticed that Francesca was winking at her, and she finally connected the dots.
"I'm sure it'll bore our guest," Kathleen said with a polite laugh.
"Oh, no, I'd love to see your books, Kathleen."
"That's settled, then. I shan't be long, dear," Francesca said and picked up a stack of the green-rimmed plates.
"I'm quite envious of you, Kathleen," Sally said as she was leafing through the biography on Davey Boy Hearty.
"Oh... really?" Kathleen said, feeling a chill race down her spine.
"Yes. You have a great command over the written word. I wish I had that skill," Sally said as she put the biography back on the shelf.
"Well, I... uh."
"I have a touch of dyslexia. When I get tired, I suddenly... well, I have a hard time reading even simple texts; makes it difficult to go over the data printouts in the team debriefings."
"Oh, I didn't know, Sally."
Sally shrugged and pulled out another biography. After quickly leafing through it, she put it back on the shelf and then turned around to face Kathleen. She put her hands into her pockets and chuckled quietly to herself.
"Of course, it gives me an excuse for not reading the articles written about me in Trackracer Magazine," she said, shrugging again.
"Trackracer... now there's a gutter rag," Kathleen said, remembering the poor article James Fenton had written on Francesca a few months after her accident at Le Mans the year before.
"It's the market leader, unfortunately. If we ignore the journalists, or even tell them to go to hell, we'll end up reading all about it in big, bold types," Sally said, casually scuffing the tip of her right shoe on the back of her left trouser leg.
Kathleen had an unpleasant flashback to the photo of her and Francesca in the Sun and she shivered briefly.
"Yes, well. I don't know what drives those people. I c..." Kathleen said, but then stopped abruptly when she realised that she had just used yet another term her mother had often used - 'those people'. She hid her discomfort by coughing and then taking a deep breath.
"Uh, ahem, I couldn't work for such a magazine," she said, studying Sally's face for any reaction. When she didn't get any, she furrowed her brow.
"Which magazine, darling?" Francesca said and clicked off the light in the kitchen. Rolling down her sleeves, she came back into the living room and sat down in the couch.
Kathleen and Sally took that as a cue and sat down as well - Kathleen made sure that she was sitting next to Francesca, and she put her hand on her partner's thigh at once to claim her stake.
"My words exactly," Kathleen said with a chuckle.
"Sally, we haven't really talked about your problem," Francesca said and put her hand on top of Kathleen's.
Sally sighed and leaned back in the chair, crossing her legs at the knee.
"I've tried, I really have. I just find myself in situations I can't get out of... literally. In Barcelona, I was just trying too hard to impress the suits who had come over from the States. When I finished Silverstone with only a few problems, I thought I had the worst behind me, but..."
"But then it went the wrong way," Francesca said.
"Yes. The crash at Monza was so damn embarrassing. I just lost it under braking, rattled over the curbs and smacked into the tyre wall."
"Sally, we've all done that."
"I know, but now I've done it four damn races in a row. Man, I'm telling you, I got my ass handed to me on a plate when I returned to the pits over in Bucharest. Jeez," Sally said and ran her hand through her hair. She sighed deeply and suddenly looked far less confident than she had been only moments earlier.
"And this Monday afternoon, my team manager called and told me that I've been taken off the driving squad. They've got a pre-Le Mans test lined up a few days ahead of the official test day. Unless I can show that I'm good enough there, I can just bend over and kiss my ass goodbye," she continued.
Chuckling over the direct language, Kathleen snuggled even closer to Francesca so Sally couldn't possibly miss their connection.
"Sally, I think you're trying too hard. And I think it's just gone too quickly for you. Granted, the championship was different when I started a decade ago, but I spent two seasons driving for a privateer before I was noticed and was given a factory ride. And even then, it was in the junior car. If I had to start today in a full factory car... frankly, I think I'd crack under the pressure," Francesca said sincerely.
"I know what you mean. I... I think one of the reasons why they picked me out of the SCCA ranks was because they had little, sparkly dollar-signs in their eyes when they thought of the PR possibilities."
"Mmmmm," Francesca said, nodding. That had been at the core of her thinking, but she hadn't wanted to say it to Sally's face.
"You should see some of the commercials they've made me do. Jeez, one of them made me feel so damn uncomfortable. It was for a hair care product. I mean, it was filmed in a shower and the director practically asked me to act like I was in a soft core skin flick. And I was like 'what the fu... uh, what the flip is going on here?'."
"I know exactly what you mean, trust me," Francesca said, remembering her own mishaps in the seedy world of advertisements.
"But I did it. I had to... it's in my contract that I have to be available for commercials. If I had refused, they could've sued me for breach of contract."
"Oh, that just reeks of sexism," Kathleen said angrily, slapping the palm of her hand down onto Francesca's thigh.
"Sorry, Francesca. Oh, things like that just... just... just make me upset! I'll bet that none of the men in your team were pressured into doing such a provocative ad."
"You're right, they weren't," Sally said, nodding.
"You see? Sexism. On that note, I need a cuppa. Would you like some?" Kathleen said to Francesca and Sally as she got up from the couch.
"Good idea, darling. I'd like a thistle-blackberry, please."
"All right. Sally?"
"I have to admit that I'm not sure what we're talking about...?"
"Tea," Kathleen said with a polite, little grin.
"Oh. Would it be too much trouble to make me a cup of coffee instead? I'm not too hot on tea."
"Coffee is fine, but we only have instant."
"Oh, that'll do just great, thanks," Sally said with a genuine smile.
"Go on, you can talk shop while I'm in the kitchen," Kathleen said and winked at Francesca.
After Kathleen had gone into the kitchen, Sally put her leg down and shuffled around on the chair. With a sigh, she turned her attention back to Francesca.
"So you're saying that getting taken off the squad could actually be a blessing in disguise? That I need to, uh, pay my dues at a smaller team first?"
"Well, I'm not sure I'd put it like that, Sally. But I do know that we all have to learn the ropes before we can climb the podium... to mix a few metaphors."
"What is Ford doing next year when the GT1s are going to be abolished? Drop down into GT2 ?"
"That's what I've heard, yes. That way, we'll be up against General Motors. That fight is still very important in the States. We'll be using the same car with a detuned engine."
"We haven't decided yet."
"Oh. Well, anyway, I'm going to try my damnedest at the pre-Le Mans test. I really want to be included in the squad at Le Mans. That race is why I started doing sports cars in the first place, dammit!" Sally said and slammed her fist down into her open palm.
"Me, too," Francesca said, leaning forward on the couch with a knowing grin on
Saturday, June 4th.
'Where are you now, darling?'
"Just driving into the parking lot at W.P. Carruthers," Kathleen said into the mic on her Bluetooth headset.
'Better you than me. Good Lord, to spend a Saturday afternoon in the company of God knows how many stuffed shirts... ugh.'
"Oh, ha, ha. It's their seventieth anniversary, Francesca. I was invited by W.P. himself in a hand-written letter. I have to be here," Kathleen said as she manoeuvred her Focus into a parking space.
'I definitely wish you all the best.'
"Thank you. What are you doing right now?"
'We're having a sort of a tea break. We lost a spark plug on the car and the...'
"... Mechanics are trying to find it? Did they look in the motorhome?" Kathleen said, sniggering loudly. She turned off the engine and leaned back in the seat, trying to postpone the inevitable for as long as possible.
'Cute. They're replacing all of them. Once they've done that, we'll go back out on the circuit.'
"How is the test day going, apart from that?"
'Pretty good so far. The usual little worries and niggles. Odds and sods, you know.'
"Did you set a time yet?"
'Yes, I was third quickest in the first session. Currently, we're fourth in the second session. Fabio set it, I haven't been in the car yet.'
'The misfire started halfway through his opening stint, but we can handle it. No problem.'
"Oh. Listen, I have to run. Thank you so very much for calling. Take care, okay? I love you," Kathleen said and blew Francesca a kiss through the telephone.
'Love you, too, darling. Don't bore yourself to death at W.P.'s, please.'
"I won't. Bye!"
Kathleen sighed and took the Bluetooth headpiece off her ear. Rubbing her ear thoroughly afterwards, she cursed the designer of that electronic nonsense, opened the glove compartment and threw the headset in there.
With a groan, she got out of the car and took off her windbreaker. After she had put it in the back, she smoothed down her skirt and locked the car.
She began walking towards the entrance of the building on slightly wobbly legs. Because she didn't want to get a crimp in her neck from spending an entire afternoon looking up at people, she was wearing the only pair of high heeled shoes she had - but she was regretting it even as she was walking across the parking lot.
A few minutes later, Kathleen found herself mingling with a whole host of 'stuffed shirts' inside a conference room at W.P. Carruthers Publishing, Limited.
The centre of the room was equipped with several tall tables that looked like they had come from some old-fashioned Gentlemen's Club, and in the corners of the room, large leather armchairs had been placed in clusters of three, all turned towards each other so the people there could talk semi-privately.
Waiters and waitresses carrying trays loaded with wine glasses and snacks walked around the room servicing the guests and the staff. When Kathleen noticed that they were all wearing identical blank stares, she shivered, wondering if she had accidentally stepped into an episode of Doctor Who.
Kathleen snatched a glass of white wine from one of the waitresses and began to walk around the room. She didn't know any of the other guests so the infrequent greetings never went beyond 'how do you do,' and all in all, the reception soon became a chore for her.
To kill the time, she positioned herself at one end of the room and started observing the other guests closely.
'So, let's see... roughly fifty guests. Six... no, seven women, the rest men. Four blondes, two brunettes and a redhead. Six of the seven wear glasses. Hmmm. Perhaps I should've brought my reading glasses. Looks like it's almost compulsory here. God, I'm bored,' Kathleen thought, sighing audibly.
She sipped the white wine and was astounded when she discovered that it was actually quite good for a change. Taking a larger sip, she made a mental note to ask one of the waiters which brand it was.
"Oh, hello, Miss O'Malley. I'm really glad to see you here," W.P. Carruthers said and put his hand on Kathleen's elbow.
"Hello, Mr. Carruthers. Thank you for inviting me."
W.P. began looking around, soon spotting two empty armchairs across the room.
"Miss O'Malley, would you mind...? I have something I need to talk to you about," he said, nodding at the chairs.
"Oh... of course not, Mr. Carruthers," Kathleen said and took her wine glass.
As they walked together across the room, the guests parted like the Red Sea for Moses.
'Probably don't want to upset the big boss,' Kathleen thought, trying hard to suppress a snigger.
When they reached the leather armchairs, W.P. waited for Kathleen to sit down before he sat down himself. Kathleen crossed her legs in a very proper fashion and tried to hold her wine glass like a real lady.
"Miss O'Malley, regarding the unfortunate incident with Miss Silverman..."
'Uh-oh,' Kathleen thought.
"... since the biography will not go ahead as planned, I'm afraid that we have to ask you to return the advance fee."
"You understand?" W.P. said, leaning towards Kathleen.
"Oh, I certainly do, Mr. Carruthers. But perhaps it would be easier for both parties if I found another client for a new biography instead."
"We already have someone else lined up for you, Miss O'Malley. That is, if you're interested...?"
"Well, I... I know it's not common practice to ask for these things, but considering the complete lack of success with Miss Silverman, I think I need to know who it is before I can commit to it."
"It's a snooker player by the name of 'Steady Hands' Andy Merrick."
"Snooker? A snooker player?" Kathleen said and sat up straight.
"Yes. He's won the East Anglia regional snooker championship eleven years in a row so you should have plenty to write about."
"But I... snooker...?"
"His wife had read your biography on Kaye Jason and she thought that you did such a good job on that one that she called the publishing house to inquire about you."
"Oh. Well, that's... that's something at least."
"Indeed. Now, if you will excuse me, Miss O'Malley. I have other guests to see."
"But of course, Mr. Carruthers. Thank you for letting me know."
W.P. nodded as he left the cluster of armchairs. Kathleen slumped down in hers, leaning her head against the backrest.
'A snooker player? A bloomin' snooker player?!' Kathleen thought and drained her wine glass in one gulp. When a waiter walked by in the very same moment, Kathleen expertly put the empty glass on his tray and snatched a full one in a single motion.
'Well, at least it isn't likely that a snooker player would want to teach me the intricacies of tantric sex...' Kathleen thought and began to snigger.
"Ohhh! You're Kathleen O'Malley!" a female voice said from somewhere behind Kathleen, who craned her neck trying to see where the voice came from.
A middle-aged woman came around the chairs and sat down in the one recently vacated by W.P. She clapped her hands together excitedly and leaned forward so she could get closer to Kathleen.
"I read your biography on Margaret Lester-Williams. Oh, that was excellent," the woman said and waved her hand at Kathleen.
"Um, thank you," Kathleen said - she vaguely recognised the woman, but she couldn't remember her name at all. She desperately tried to dig through her brain so she wouldn't appear to be impolite and uncivilised, but she soon had to give up. A faint smile creased Kathleen's lips and the other woman seemed to pick up on it.
"Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm S.J. Robertson, the author of the Inspector Morrison series."
"Oh, of course! Oh, I'm terribly sorry, Miss Robertson. How do you do," Kathleen said and shot forward so she could shake hands with the acclaimed author.
"How do you do. It's Mrs., actually, but please call me Sandy. You've written so many good biographies. My daughter just swallowed the one on Davey Boy in one sitting."
"Did she? I'm pleased to hear that. That was an, uh... interesting biography to work on," Kathleen said, hoping that the other woman didn't look through the PR talk.
Sandy looked left and right and then leaned even further forward, prompting Kathleen to do the same.
"I have to admit, if that had happened to me, I would've escaped to Timbuktu or Outer Mongolia, or somewhere similarly remote," Sandy said quietly.
"Ummm... Davey Boy's biography?"
"No, the picture in the Sun. The one where you kiss that tall, gorgeous woman. I'm heterosexual and happily married to a wonderful husband myself, but it makes me really proud to be so close to someone who is willing to fly the flag for gay rights."
Kathleen leaned back in her chair with a bump. The smile faded from her face and left her staring blankly at Sandy Robertson.
"... but I'm sure you've heard that countless times already. Please tell me that you're still seeing her?"
"Y-yes. We, uh... we live together."
"Oh, that's so wonderful to hear! Are you going to participate in the London Pride?"
"The London Pride?"
"It's in August... don't tell me you've never been to the Pride?" Sandy said and touched her throat with the tips of her fingers in a very theatrical fashion.
Kathleen shook her head.
"Oh, but you should! I went with a few friends last year to show our support. It's loud and colourful and everyone is having so much fun. You really should consider going, Kathleen. You'll meet so many of your gay brothers and sisters there."
"Well, I'll..." Kathleen said and shrugged non-committally.
"I hope you'll consider it. Oh, there's W.P. I need a word with him. It was very nice to meet you in person, Kathleen," Sandy said and got up from the chair. They shook hands again and then the middle-aged woman left Kathleen behind, striding across the conference room floor.
Kathleen sighed deeply and drained the second glass of wine. Over the next few minutes, she thought she could hear whispers going around the room that all said the same thing - 'Kathleen O'Malley... the Sun... kissing...'
She thought she could feel their eyes burning into the back of her head and little by little, she was working herself into a state of anxiety and anger. Snatching another wine glass from a waiter, she drained that, too, and then got up from the leather armchairs. Not bothering to say goodbye to W.P. or any of the guests, she staggered towards the exit on suddenly unsteady legs.
A warm summer breeze caressed her face as she left the building, and she took a deep breath to remove some of the cobwebs that had formed in her mind. Wiping her eyes to get rid of the tears that trickled down her cheeks for no logical reason, she began to walk towards her car.
After sitting down in the driver's seat, she let out a long, trembling sigh.
"God, why is it such a big deal for everyone? Why can't they just let me live my life how *I* want to live it...?" she said out loud, wiping her eyes again. Feeling deflated, she buckled up and put her fingers on the ignition key. Her conscience was screaming at her that she was well over the legal limit, but after pausing for a few moments to weigh her options, she turned the key.
Several hours later, Kathleen put her favourite ball point pen away and leaned back in her swivel chair. She let her eyes skim the words she had just spent the last few hours writing, thinking that it had done her good to pour out her inner feelings onto the paper.
After she had read her own words for the umpteenth time, she reached for the bottle of white wine she had brought into the study when she started writing. Suddenly noticing that it was empty, she looked up at the clock to see what time it actually was - nearly eight p.m.
"God... no wonder I'm hungry," she said and started to get up from the swivel chair. A few moments later, she bumped back down, too tipsy to get up in a hurry.
She sighed and rubbed her face with her hand. Trying again, she managed to get up and staggered into the kitchen. When she had so much trouble aiming for the light switch that she didn't hit it until the third attempt, she realised that she was in trouble again.
She groaned and leaned her forehead against the cool tiles in the kitchen. New tears escaped her eyes and began to drip down onto her cheeks. Wiping them off angrily, she turned around and opened the refrigerator.
Five minutes later, Kathleen carried a tray with a few sandwiches on it into the living room and put it down on the dinner table. She cracked open the can of 7Up she had chosen and poured some of it into a glass, hoping that the carbonated soft drink would help her clear her mind.
Picking up a salami sandwich, she took a bite and began to chew slowly. The living room was so quiet that she could clearly hear the rhythmic tick-tock from the clock on the shelf, and even the faint hum from the refrigerator out in the kitchen.
Suddenly feeling that the silence was threatening her, she got up from the table and walked over to the CD player. Once she started going through her CDs, it didn't take her long to decide to hear one of Loreena McKennitt's older albums. Taking the silver disc out of the cover, she popped it into the player and soon, the easily recognisable opening strains of The Mystic's Dream filled the room, drowning out the dreaded silence.
After finishing her snack and doing the dishes, she came back into the living room and sat down in the couch. Pulling a blanket over her, she snuggled down in the corner of the couch like she had done hundreds of times in the five years where her life had been devoid of any close relationships.
Eating alone had given her a few unpleasant flashbacks to the time when she did that every single day, and as the sandman slowly claimed her, her mind began to connect the separate images into a sequence.
'So, what do you think of her? What do you think of Becky?' Edward had said the morning after Kathleen and he had been at the airport to pick up his sister after she had returned from Africa where she had worked for a charity organisation.
'She's a very pretty girl, Edward. That obviously runs in the family.'
'Are you staring at me? Why are you staring at me?' Becky had said after she had caught Kathleen red-handed trying to stare a hole in the back of the brunette's head.
'Oh, no particular reason,' Kathleen had said. At the time, she was wondering why her stomach had been transformed into an aviary.
'Becky, I...' Kathleen had said a few weeks later, stuttering as she tried to get the words across.
'I...' she tried again, but the words still wouldn't come.
'No, Becky, please let me speak. I... I th...'
At that point, Kathleen had taken a deep breath that was supposed to give her confidence.
'Becky, I think I'm in love with you.'
'In love? In love with me? You're in love with me?' Becky had said, seemingly taken aback by the statement.
Becky leaned back in her chair and began to chuckle. The chuckle soon evolved into a full belly laugh that grated terribly in Kathleen's ears. After a little while, the laughter died down.
'Filthy dyke!' Becky had suddenly said, jumping forward to deliver a hard slap across Kathleen's face.
Kathleen awoke with a jerk strong enough to send the blanket flying down onto the floor. She looked around in a panic, unable to comprehend where she was or what she was doing. After a few frantic moments, her foggy mind connected the dots and she became aware of her surroundings.
Letting out a trembling sigh, Kathleen fell back down on the couch and rubbed her brow. Peeking at the clock on the wall, she could see that she had slept for slightly less than two hours - it was now ten thirty. The buzz the wine had given her had worn off, replaced by a dull pain originating somewhere deep inside her brain.
Sighing, she swung her legs down onto the carpet and walked out into the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea.
A few minutes later, she realised that she had an almost painful urge to hear Francesca's voice, so she put down the mug of tea and picked up her mobile phone.
Turning it on, she quickly found Francesca's number in the registry and then leaned back in the couch while it rang.
'It's Francesca,' the familiar female voice said at the other end of the connection.
"Hi, honey, it's me," Kathleen said and pulled her legs up underneath her.
"You sound tired...?"
'I was sleeping.'
"Oh... so soon?"
'Yes. It's been a long day.'
"Oh. I... uh, I'm so sorry, Francesca. I just wanted to hear your voice and... I'm sorry. I'll hang up now so you can go back to sleep."
'No, wait a minute. I'm up now, so we might as well talk. Are you all right? You sound a little funny.'
"Funny? I guess I'm a little down tonight. I miss you."
'I miss you, too, darling. How did the reception go?'
"I'll tell you later. I think I may have a new client for a biography, though."
'That's good news,' Francesca said and yawned audibly.
"Oh, God, I wish you were here with me. I need your arms around me so badly," Kathleen said in a very despondent voice. She rubbed her brow, trying to stop the inevitable tears from coming.
"I need you," Kathleen said quietly.
'I... I can't come home right now. I have another full day tomorrow. I have obligations here, Kathleen. You know that.'
"But what about your obligations *here*?" Kathleen said. The words had been far stronger than she had intended and she knew the split second they had left her lips that she had crossed the line.
Her words were answered by a very long silence.
'That. Was. Unfair,' Francesca eventually said, emphasising every word in a tone of voice Kathleen hadn't heard her use since at the very start of their relationship.
Immediately, Kathleen felt an icy wave crash over her and her lower lip started quivering. She slammed her eyes shut but the tears still came, soon spilling over and running down onto her cheeks.
"God, I'm s-sorry, Francesca. I d-didn't mean t-to... I'm so s-sorry," Kathleen said, sobbing more than speaking.
"Please f-forgive me. Please!"
'I love you, Kathleen. Of course I'll forgive you. But I did not deserve that quip.'
"I know. Please forgive me. I didn't mean it, it j-just... slipped out."
'Have you been drinking again?' Francesca suddenly said.
"D-drinking...? Earlier, yes... B-but I'm sober now."
'Kathleen, when I get back on Monday, we need to have a talk about that. I worry about you sometimes.'
'Let's talk about that when I get home. I really need a good night's sleep, so... so how about we said goodnight now. I promise I'll call you tomorrow morning before the early session starts.'
"I... Okay. I understand. Goodnight, Francesca. L-love you...?" Kathleen said, adding a question mark to the end of the sentence. Fearing the worst, she held her breath as she waited to find out how much she had hurt Francesca with her juvenile remark.
'Love you, too, darling. Talk to you tomorrow morning. Goodnight,' Francesca said and hung up.
Mightily relieved but still rather upset, Kathleen let out the breath she had been holding and turned off the telephone. When she reached for her mug of tea, she discovered that it had gone cold while she had spoken to Francesca, and she pushed it away in frustration.
Feeling a familiar spark of anger inside, she got up from the couch and went straight over to the cupboard in the corner. She tore the door open with a whoosh and stared at the bottles of spirits she kept there - Gin, vodka and an exclusive Italian brandy.
Rounding up all three bottles, she stomped into the kitchen and put them down on the kitchen table with a loud clunk. The vodka only had a fifth left so that was the one she decided to start with. Unscrewing the cap, she poured the clear contents into the kitchen sink and down the drain, watching intently as the bottle rapidly emptied itself. Once that was done, the half-full bottle of gin soon followed.
When she held the brandy ready over the drain, she suddenly remembered that Francesca had given it to her for Christmas. As they had been unwrapping the gifts on Christmas morning, Francesca had told her a silly little story that it was practically a family brand because the distillery was owned by her father's half-brother's grandfather.
Kathleen's lips creased into a faint smile when she remembered that story - and the 'thank you' kiss that had followed.
'To throw one of Francesca's Christmas gifts away would be the ultimate insult. And I've only had one drink of it. No. This stays.'
Sighing, she put the cap back on the bottle and carried it back into the living room.
Monday, June 6th.
Kathleen was looking out of the window, fidgeting endlessly and feeling very much like a sailor's wife waiting for her partner to come home after a six months journey on the seven seas. She checked the clock on the wall every five seconds, wondering why time always went by so slowly when she was waiting for something important to happen.
When the taxi finally pulled up at the end of the driveway, Kathleen felt she would explode if she had to wait for one more second, so she opened the front door and ran down the garden path.
Francesca barely had time to pay the driver and carry her travel bags out of the taxi before Kathleen arrived, and the crushing hug that followed almost made the two of them tip over and land rear-end first on the gravelly surface.
After almost smothering Francesca with a kiss, Kathleen took a step back and put her hands on Francesca's sides.
"I'm so sorry for the things I said the other night, Francesca. Please forgive me," Kathleen said, trying very hard to keep eye contact with her partner through a veil of tears.
"I forgive you, darling. I told you Saturday night and I told you again Sunday morning," Francesca said and wiped away a few of Kathleen's tears with her fingers.
"Come on, let's go inside. I really, really need to get my shoes off," Francesca said with a chuckle. Reaching down, she picked up her bags and began to stroll towards the cottage.
"I've made us lunch. I think you'll love it."
"Sounds good, darling. Do we have time for me to freshen up first?"
"Oh, of course. I've bought you a new shampoo. I noticed that the old one was nearly empty."
"Let me take that," Kathleen said and took the bag with Francesca's helmet. Smiling broadly, she skipped back up the garden path, leaving Francesca behind with a dumbstruck, gawping expression on her face.
Twenty minutes later, they were sitting at the dinner table eating a freshly made Greek salad with black olives and chunks of soft feta cheese - one of Francesca's favourite dishes.
"Do you like it?" Kathleen said, only stabbing at her own plate.
"It's exquisite, darling," Francesca said around a mouthful of salad. She reached for the garlic granulate shaker, but before she could pick it up, Kathleen had intercepted her hand.
"Francesca... no garlic. Please. I have something special planned for tonight and I'd rather not be wearing a gas mask... if you know what I mean," Kathleen said, batting her eyelids.
"Oh... I believe I do. I very much believe I do, darling," Francesca said and pulled her hand back. She picked up her fork and continued eating. "It tastes absolutely wonderful without, anyway. New shampoo, Greek salad... what's the occasion?" she continued.
"Oh, that you've returned."
"Well, I was only gone for three and a half days, you know."
"I also wanted to make up for the things I said over the phone. I don't know what I was thinking. I'm really sorry f-for those... those words," Kathleen said, shaking her head slowly.
Francesca put the fork back down and reached up to caress Kathleen's cheek. She let her thumb run across the delicate cheekbone, earning herself a wistful little smile in the process.
"Look, darling, I've already told you more than once.... I forgive you. It's very easy to do because I love you so much. Your words stung, I won't deny that. But I've always believed that it's better to get it out than to keep it bottled up. And you most decidedly did. All right?"
Kathleen shrugged and reached up to put her hand on Francesca's.
"All right," she said. Her voice broke up slightly so she cleared her throat and looked down, unable to hold Francesca's gaze.
"All right. That's all water under the bridge," Francesca said and clawed Kathleen's cheek gently.
"Thank you. I didn't tell you yesterday morning, but after we had spoken Saturday night, I thought about what you had told me. You said you worried about me sometimes, and... and I think you are right. I was drinking far too much. Well, I've poured the gin and the vodka down the drain. This is a new start for me," Kathleen said quietly, putting both hands on the table.
"Oh, I'm so glad, darling. I don't want to judge you, but you did drink too much at times. That's what I meant when I said I worried about you. I'm glad you saw it, too," Francesca said sincerely.
"The only thing left in the cupboard is the Italian brandy you gave me for Christmas. I... I didn't want to throw away a Christmas present."
Francesca smiled and stabbed the last black olive with her fork.
Kathleen had volunteered to do the dishes so she was busy out in the kitchen. Frowning and taking a deep breath, worrying over what she might find, Francesca got up from the dinner table and walked towards the cupboard in the corner of the living room.
Constantly looking over her shoulder at the hallway so Kathleen wouldn't catch her snooping around, she opened the door to the cupboard and peeked inside. All that remained of their spirits was the bottle of Italian brandy, and that was only half-full.
For the briefest of moments, a thought regarding how much had been in the bottle the last time she had looked at it flashed through Francesca's mind, but it was too elusive for her to grasp hold of.
A contented smile broke out over her face and she nodded to herself, having just had a fantastic idea. After closing the door to the cupboard, she turned around and tip-toed over to the telephone.
A few minutes later, she put down the receiver and went into the kitchen to help Kathleen dry the dishes.
"Darling, you said you had a possible new biography lined up. Should I hire some protection for you? A few beefy bodyguards?" Francesca said as they were sitting in the couch, listening to some relaxing music.
"No, no... it's a snooker player."
Francesca bit her lip to stop laughing but it only took her a few seconds to realise that it wasn't going to work. Laughter bubbled up from her chest and she leaned her head over the backrest of the couch and let out a loud belly laugh.
"A snooker player? What's the world coming to?" she said, still chuckling.
"Well, just so you know, his wife recommended me," Kathleen said and poked Francesca in the side with her thumb.
"Oh, did she? Well, that's something at least. A snooker player... Well, perhaps you could get some tips and tricks that we could use when we go on one of our infrequent visits down to the pub. We could make a fortune, you know. You could be a snooker wizard and I could be your manager."
"Yeah," Francesca said and pulled Kathleen even closer.
Suddenly the doorbell rang and Kathleen looked up at the clock on the wall - it was a quarter past three in the afternoon.
"Who on Earth could that be...? Are you expecting someone?"
"Nope," Francesca said, wearing a sly grin.
"Francesca Carrara, what did you do?"
"I didden do nuthin'," Francesca said in a mock accent, doing the sign of the cross and then kissing her fingers.
"Oh, sure. That's what they all say," Kathleen said and got up from the couch. She went over to the front door and opened it - and stopped dead in her tracks.
A twenty-something man was waiting outside, dressed in a typical courier uniform and holding a gigantic bouquet of flowers and a small white card in his hand.
"Miss Kathleen O'Malley?" he said, reading off the card.
"Flowers-4-U would like to wish you a happy anniversary, courtesy of Miss Francesca Carrara," he said and handed Kathleen the bouquet.
Kathleen stared in wide-eyed disbelief at the bouquet. She didn't know what to say or to do so she just turned away from the door and walked back into the living room.
"Miss? Miss...? I need your signature on the receipt," the courier said and held up the white card.
Kathleen looked back at him, wearing a completely blank expression on her face. When it finally got through to her what the man was saying, she nodded and carefully put down the flowers on the dinner table. Walking on very wobbly legs, she returned to the door to write her name on the dotted line.
Once the courier had left, Kathleen turned around to look at Francesca who hadn't moved at all - apart from curling herself up into a corner, resting her hands on her head. The look of pure, unbridled love in her ice blue eyes was undeniable and unmistakable.
Kathleen let out a cheerful whoop that unfortunately came out as a strangled sob. She forgot all about the flowers and ran straight over to Francesca and threw herself into her partner's arms, hugging her strong torso to the point of crushing it.
"Oh, God... oh, God..." Kathleen said; her voice was muffled by speaking into the nook of Francesca's neck.
"Shhh, it's all right, darling," Francesca said and ran her hands up and down Kathleen's back.
"God, I love you so much."
"I love you, too, darling. Did you like the flowers?"
"Y-yes, they're magnificent. Wh-when did you order those?"
"Not long ago. While you were doing the dishes," Francesca said with a beaming smile.
"Oh... but why did he say it was an anniversary?"
"Well, that's because they didn't have a 'miscellaneous' category. It was either a birthday or an anniversary. I chose anniversary. And actually, it is an anniversary of sorts."
"Sure. This time last year, we were sharing a flat in the pension in Paris, remember?"
"I remember. I had a wonderful time," Kathleen said and gave Francesca a new hug.
"Do you want to go back with me to Le Mans on Tuesday the fourteenth or would you rather stay at home?"
Kathleen's only reply was to bury herself even deeper into Francesca's embrace.
"Darling?" Francesca said after a little while of complete silence.
Kathleen sighed and pulled back so she could slip down next to Francesca on the couch. Baring her teeth in a grimace, she ran a hand through her hair and wrapped an arm around Francesca's waist.
"I swore that I'd never go back to that dreadful place, but on the other hand, I know how much that race means to you."
"Darling, if you don't want to go, that's fine by me. I'll just text you regular updates like..."
"No, hear me out, please," Kathleen said and put a finger across Francesca's lips.
"I'll go out of my mind if I have to stay here... at home, alone... while you're racing around the clock."
"But you could follow the race live on the 'Net...?"
"No. If I listen to Radio 24, I'll be a nervous wreck. I'll constantly worry about hearing your name when they're talking about an acci... no, that won't work. I'll have a panic attack before the first hour is over."
"That could happen at the track, too, you know," Francesca said and mussed Kathleen's white-blonde hair.
"I know, but I want to be with you, Francesca. Wherever you may wish to go, I want to be right there, next to you," Kathleen said, leaning her head down on Francesca's shoulder.
Kathleen sighed again and turned to look at Francesca. Making up her mind, she took Francesca's hands and gave them a little squeeze.
"Love, I wrote something on Saturday afternoon that... that wasn't really supposed to be read by anybody. But now, I'd like you to read it. It's very personal."
"Hang on, I'll get it. You'll know what I mean when you start reading it," Kathleen said and got up from the couch. A minute later, she returned holding the hand-written note she had made on Saturday.
"Here. Please don't comment on it until you've read it all," Kathleen said quietly, handing Francesca the note.
As Francesca started unfolding the piece of paper so she could read it, Kathleen moved away and began to take care of the bouquet of flowers.
'I need to put these thoughts down on paper or else I'll go insane from the pent-up frustration. I have good things I want to talk about and bad things I need to talk about. I'll start with the bad things to get them off my chest first.
Sally Sharpe, my rival.
One day, Francesca will come home and tell me that she's leaving me. Leaving me for Sally Sharpe. I know she will. It's inevitable. How can I compete with her? I'm a mouse and she's beautiful, clever, young, witty and she already knows the ins and outs of Francesca's world. Unlike me who has to have everything explained; sometimes more than once. I have a feeling it frustrates Francesca more than she lets on.
Rachel Silverman, rebel without a cause. Or a clue.
I don't even know where to start with Rachel. I never thought the difference between someone's public persona and the way they conducted their private life could be so great. I felt annoyed. Disgusted. Betrayed. The straw that broke the camel's back wasn't even her peculiar, inappropriate offer - no, it was the simple fact that she was so irresponsible. Clearly a case of too much money, too little sense.
Kate O'Malley, my mother.
Like in the tragic tales of the ancient world, I have become my mother. At least, that's how I feel sometimes. I don't understand why or when it happened, but it has. All I need to do to see my mother is to hold up a mirror. Every now and then, I catch myself using phrases that she has used; I judge people by negative stereotypes like she does; I make the same wrong decisions she has already made. I look, act and sound so much like her it scares me.
I can't understand where she's coming from or why she's acting the way she is towards us. I wish I did. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that I'll never know why she's so dead set against us. That also means that we'll never have a chance to set things right between us.
And now the good things:
My recent birthday on May 26th.
I had such a wonderful time. Francesca and I went to eat lunch in a fancy restaurant, then we caught a movie I had wanted to see. When darkness fell, we had a simple, late dinner and then we had a glorious time in the bedroom, making love in the most extravagant, wild, unrestrained fashion imaginable. We collapsed in each other's arms, completely spent and completely in love. It was a wonderful day.
Francesca Carrara, my friend, my lover, my soulmate.
Whenever Francesca is away, I feel incomplete. Like one half of my soul is missing. I have never felt this way before in my life; I have never even heard or read about it. At first, I thought something was wrong with me... but then I realised that it was love. I love Francesca dearly, of that there's no doubt. I could live without water, without air, without food. It would be impossible for me to live without Francesca.
When I first met her, I was intimidated by her. She was an imposing woman; a blue-eyed Italian Goddess. However, it didn't take me more than a few days to realise that she was far more than that. She was a warm, wonderful human being - with a Goddess-like stature, mind you.
All she needs to do to make my knees weak is to smile at me. That beautiful, sexy smile of hers that can light up a dark room. When her eyes sparkle, I lose the ability to speak. When we touch, I lose the ability to think. When we make love, I lose myself completely! Every last bit of me becomes a part of her. It's quite extraordinary. I never, ever want to lose that.
I will love Francesca with all my heart until the day I draw my last breath.
"Oh, darling," Francesca said quietly as she put away the note. Finding a balled-up hankie, she used it to discreetly dab away a few tears that had escaped her eyes. Suddenly feeling quite emotional, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly in a long, trembling sigh.
"Did you read it? All of it?" Kathleen said, coming up to stand behind Francesca so she didn't have to look her in the eye.
"Well, that's who I am. That's what I feel right now."
Francesca turned around in the couch so she could look at her partner.
"You needn't worry at all, darling. The only thing that can make me leave you is *you* telling me to take a hike," she said and took Kathleen's hands.
"That won't happen," Kathleen said with a sad, little chuckle.
"Then I'll never leave. That's a promise, not a threat. And by the way, I never tire of explaining things to you."
"I love you, Francesca," Kathleen said and put her hands on Francesca's shoulders.
"I love you, too, Kathleen. Now come and sit down so we can, uh, cuddle for an hour or two," Francesca said, patting the seat next to her. Her features were graced by the very smile Kathleen had described in the note, and as usual, it made the author's resolve melt away like a snowball in summer.
Kathleen nodded. With a sniff, she walked around the couch and let herself fall down into Francesca's waiting arms.
Tuesday, June 14th.
"Uh... Francesca Carrara, uh, avec Kathleen O'Malley. Uh, equipe company automobile. Je suis pilote de Maserati Corse. Racing pilote, uh, in, uh, la course. Le Vingt-Quatre, you know," Francesca said to the French highway patrol officer who had pulled them over at the side of the Auto Route that led to the city of Le Mans.
The officer didn't seem too impressed by Francesca's attempt at speaking French - instead, he was studying her driver's license closely, occasionally looking at her face to compare it with the picture on the plastic card.
"Miss Carrara, I'm giving you a ticket for driving above the speed limit. You were driving 67 KM/H in a 60 zone. That's a 100 Euro fine. Here you go, Miss," the officer said in near-perfect English, tearing off a ticket from his well-used notepad and handing it to Francesca.
"Oh... uh. Thank you, officer," Francesca said, chewing on her lip as she was looking at the ticket.
"And Miss Carrara?"
"The next time you get pulled over, try English first."
"Er... thank you, officer."
The Gendarme closed his visor and went back to his motorcycle. A few moments later, he turned around and went back to the place he had been watching from.
"Oh, great. Just great," Francesca said and handed Kathleen the speeding ticket.
"I'm sorry, Francesca. I didn't even notice how fast we were going. I would have told you if I had," Kathleen said and patted Francesca's thigh.
"I know you would, darling. Oh, well. Are you still buckled up?"
"We better continue on, then," Francesca said and started the engine of her brand new Maserati GranTurismo S company car.
"Love, will this affect your racing license?"
"No, not when it's just a speeding ticket. If I lose my regular driver's license, I'll lose my racing license as well."
"Oh. Well, let's hope that won't happen on this trip," Kathleen said and patted Francesca's thigh again.
"Huh! I'd say!"
Twenty minutes later, they drove slowly underneath a bridge that had 'WELCOME TO LE MANS - CIRCUIT DE LA SARTHE' written on it in large, bold letters.
Francesca pulled up to a booth and showed hers and Kathleen's access cards and pit credentials to the man working there. After checking them thoroughly, he nodded and handed them back to Francesca.
Francesca was about to drive off when an idea hit her. She looked briefly at Kathleen and then back at the man in the booth.
"Is it still possible to buy a pass for a lap of the circuit?" Francesca said, digging into her jacket to find her wallet.
"Yes, Miss. Fifty Euros for two laps."
"Actually we only need one lap, if you have it."
"Sorry, Miss, two laps is the minimum."
"Okay. Whatever," Francesca said and handed the man in the booth a fifty Euro bill.
He tore off a small piece of paper with a sticker on it and handed it back to Francesca.
"This needs to go on your windshield before you enter the circuit, Miss. You can apply it right over there," the man said and pointed at a small parking lot not far from the booth.
"All right. Thank you," Francesca said and drove off, headed for the small parking lot.
"Wait a minute, are you... are we actually going onto the circuit now? Isn't that dangerous?" Kathleen said and turned around in her seat.
"I thought I'd show you a lap of the Circuit de la Sarthe, yes. And no, it's not dangerous. The race cars won't take to the track until tomorrow afternoon. They're all in the city of Le Mans itself, at the Place Des Jacobins for the technical scrutineering."
"Oh... Okay. Francesca, please don't drive at 200 m.p.h. I think I'd wet my pants if you did that."
"That's a promise. I'll drive like my grandmother did when she travelled around Rome in her Fiat Cinquecento," Francesca said with a broad grin.
After making sure the sticker was on straight, Francesca got back in the car and started the engine.
"Welcome to Le Mans, darling. You're about to go where very few women have gone before."
"And for a good reason. Very few women are crazy enough to be here," Kathleen added under her breath and made sure her seatbelt was tight.
"Oh, no. It's such a wonderful circuit. I think you'll agree once we've done a lap," Francesca said and drove slowly past the pits complex and out into the empty pitlane.
Seeing the track and the main grandstand completely empty was a strange experience for Francesca. Even on the test day, there would be activity in the pitlane, and there were always fans looking on.
As soon as they drove past the lights at the end of the pitlane, Francesca accelerated, enjoying the responsiveness of the rumbling V8 in the front of the GranTurismo S.
"All right, first we go up the hill towards the Dunlop Chicane. We usually take the entry in first and stay in that gear until we've through. Back in the old days, this chicane didn't exist. It was just a flat-out blast from the Ford Chicane and down into Tertre Rouge," Francesca explained as they drove through the chicane and under the Dunlop bridge.
"That sounds dangerous."
"Back then, it was murderously fast, so for once, I agree with you. Okay, here we have the Chapelle and the Forest Esses. Pretty boring section of the track, if you ask me," Francesca said as they swept through a long right, then a harder left and into the short straight that would take them to the famous Tertre Rouge section.
"This corner has actually been opened up quite a lot for this year. Now, it's really great. We can accelerate non-stop from the exit of the Esses until this point..." Francesca said and pointed at a signboard they went past.
"... feather the throttle through Tertre Rouge and then it's foot to the floor for the fastest part of the track, the first part of the Hunaundieres... better known as the Mulsanne Straight."
"Fascinating," Kathleen said, secretly rather enjoying being able to watch Francesca applying her trade in person instead of on the TV.
"On the test day we reached 208 m.p.h. here, foot to the bulkhead in sixth, going at nearly ten thousand revs. The twelve is making that glorious trombone-like sound again, howling at the top of its lungs."
"It's a car, dear, not a human being," Kathleen said and patted Francesca's thigh. Suddenly she noticed that the speedo read 110 m.p.h. and she could feel her jaw fall down.
"Are we doing a hundred and ten? We're doing a hundred and ten!" Kathleen said and grabbed her seatbelt.
"Yeah, and you can hardly feel it. Lovely stuff," Francesca said and began to brake for the first chicane on the Mulsanne Straight. She crawled through it at 35 m.p.h. so Kathleen wouldn't get scared, but as soon as she went back onto the second part of the Mulsanne, she floored the throttle again.
"The second chicane is much faster even though they're supposed to be mirror images of each other. I've never worked out why," Francesca said as they were approaching the second chicane. Checking her mirrors, she let the car glide into the chicane, scrubbing off speed as it entered. The right-hand side tyres howled briefly, but Francesca soon turned the car to the right, transferring the weight to the left side.
Once they were back out on the straight, Francesca kept to a lower speed for one of the more spectacular sections of the track.
"Here we go, darling, this is the hump," Francesca said as they crossed over the Mulsanne Hump at the end of the straight.
As the car plunged down the other side of the hump, Kathleen felt her stomach fly up into her throat and she let out a squeal.
"God, how fast did we go just now?" she said, trying to see what the speedo said.
"85 m.p.h. In the race car, it's closer to twice that."
"I didn't want you to lose your lunch all over the upholstery, darling," Francesca said with a grin.
Francesca was already braking for the second-gear Mulsanne Corner, taking it easy on the road car's brakes so they wouldn't get too hot too soon in the lap.
"Now we're on the return trip. I'm going to stop in a moment," Francesca said as they made their way past the old signalling pits and up towards the first brow on the straight between Mulsanne Corner and Indianapolis.
"This is where you had your accident, isn't it?" Kathleen said quietly.
After they had gone over the second brow, Francesca pulled over by the side of the road and turned off the engine. Putting both hands on top of the steering wheel, she took a deep breath and looked at the guard-rail on the left side of the track.
"That spot right over there is where I ended my race last year. And probably lost the world championship as well."
"God, Francesca! Who cares about that... you could've lost your life there!" Kathleen said, clasping her hands together in front of her in a gesture that almost looked like she was praying.
In her mind's eye, Kathleen saw the accident unfold - she saw the silver Mercedes come up behind the Toyota and then take off, flying through the air more than fifteen feet off the ground. She remembered the silence that spread out in the pits and in the main grandstand; she remembered how she had sprinted all the way up the paddock to get to the infield medical facility to see Francesca, and most of all, she remembered how frail Francesca had looked in the hospital the next day when Kathleen had gone to see her.
"Mmmm. I don't remember much from the crash. I can remember some of the lap leading up to it, but not the actual impact," Francesca said, absentmindedly rubbing her hip.
"Francesca, ten days ago on the test day... did you hesitate when you reached the second brow for the first time?"
"Not even a little bit?"
"No. I didn't hesitate, I didn't lift the throttle, I didn't do anything out of the ordinary. Kathleen, like I've told you before, the moment we start thinking that, even subconsciously, is the moment we're done. And I'm not done yet. Not by a long shot."
Behind them, a Porsche 997 Turbo on German license plates came out of Mulsanne Corner and began the drive up through the forest. Within seconds, it came whistling past where the Maserati was parked, reminding Kathleen how fast the cars would actually be going there once the race started.
"This is a dangerous section of the track. It's so narrow and the trees are so close... I can't understand why they don't change it," Kathleen said, looking at the tail lights of the Porsche as it turned into Indianapolis several hundred metres ahead of them.
"Well, I don't know, to be honest. I guess this is the heart of Le Mans. The straight between Mulsanne and Indy is pretty much unchanged since 1923."
"How many drivers have died here over the decades?"
"On the track as a whole, or just here?"
"As a whole."
Francesca sighed and looked back at the guard-rail on the opposite side of the track.
"I don't know the exact number, but it's a few. It's been a couple of years since the last one now, but the next one is always just one mistake or a mechanical problem away. If you want to measure yourself against the greats, you'll have to come here. Some drivers want it just a little too much, I guess."
"I understand the history of the place, but..." Kathleen said and visibly got the shivers.
"Come on, let's move on. No point in dwelling on the past," Francesca said and started the engine. After checking the mirrors thoroughly, she drove back onto the track and was soon up to speed.
Six hundred metres further up the track, she went through the soft right kink, braked into the left-hand Indianapolis corner and immediately set the car up for the ninety degree right-hander at Arnage.
"Do you know why it's called Indianapolis, darling?"
"It's because it's banked."
"It's a long story, darling. Anyway, this is Arnage, the slowest corner on the circuit. It's so damn slippery even when the track is bone dry. It's definitely not my favourite part. Look at the tyre barrier at the outside of the corner," Francesca said and pointed at a large stack of tyres protecting the outside.
"I'll guarantee you that those tyres will get intimately acquainted with at least five cars through the race. Gua-ran-tee it. It always catches out the unprepared... and even the prepared some times."
Francesca stepped hard on the throttle coming out of Arnage and the Maserati began the trip towards the entry of the Porsche Turns.
"This section of the circuit is fantastic, especially in the magic hour when the sun goes down. It's so fast, you almost feel like you're flying... er, bad choice of words. Anyway, the soft left and the hard right are fantastic corners."
"I have to take your word for it. I just think they're fast," Kathleen said; her eyes glued to the speedo which read 95 m.p.h.
As Francesca entered the first of the Porsche Turns, she kept to a moderate pace and just let the car flow through the sequence of left and right corners.
"Back in the really old days, the circuit didn't come through here. It went straight on where we entered the Turns, going through the Maison Blanche section. Damn, I would've loved to try that."
"I believe you! Sheesh!" Kathleen said with a loud chuckle. She hung onto the panic grip above the door, getting shoved left and right in the seat as the car went through the turns.
"We're coming up to the end of the lap now, darling. Do you want to do another one? We bought two laps, remember."
"Oh, I... would you feel disappointed if I said no?"
"Of course not."
"I'd rather go back to the pits. I'm not cut out for all this fast driving. I think I need a pair of pliers to get my fingers off the panic grip, actually," Kathleen said with an apologetic chuckle.
"No problem," Francesca said and took her foot off the throttle so the car could run out of steam on its own. Instead of going left into the Ford Chicane, she steered right into the pit lane entrance, braking gently as she navigated the left-right sequence designed to slow down the cars.
Once they were back in the pitlane, she made sure that she was sticking to the 15 m.p.h. speed limit so they wouldn't get in trouble with the track officials. A short while later, she turned into a small access tunnel that would take them back to the paddock.
"That was a lap of Le Mans, Kathleen. This weekend, I'll hopefully do, oh... three hundred and eighty laps or so. That should take us somewhere near the podium. The rest is up to the racing Gods."
"I hope you'll make it. I know how much it means to you," Kathleen said and reached over to give Francesca a soft kiss on the cheek.
"Thanks, darling. It would be awfully nice to see my name on the trophy, that's for sure. Oh, here we are," Francesca said and drove into a small parking space next to their regular Knaus Sunliner motorhome.
"Motorhome, sweet motorhome," Kathleen joked and unbuckled her seatbelt.
"Definitely beats the sheep shearing shed we were staying in last year. God, remember that?"
"Yes. The blanket was too short even for me."
Francesca laughed and rubbed Kathleen's thigh with her hand.
"While we're on the subject... remember Belle?" Kathleen said, winking.
"I remember Belle. I wonder if she's here this year. She was a pretty good press liaison, so I'm thinking she must be. Hey, I'm sorry the two of you didn't get along last year."
"Well... it was inevitable, really. The ex and the current never get along."
"True," Francesca said and opened the door.
Once out, she stretched her back and went around the car to open the trunk. Taking out their travel bags, she looked around at some of the other motorhomes present.
"Jeez, look at the behemoth Toyota has put up. That's not a hospitality area, that's a bloomin' palace," she said, nodding at the three-story structure made exclusively in glass and chrome.
"Where is the Maserati one?" Kathleen said, putting the strap of a bag over her shoulder.
"It's the dark blue one with the large trident on the front. Looks like they're working on putting up the tent for the guests as we speak," Francesca said, pointing at a group of men working hard to erect a large tent a bit further down the paddock.
"The Mercedes hospitality had free food and drink last year. Do you think Maserati will have the same now?"
"Not sure... but we have plenty of time to check it out later. I think we probably will. We're Italians, how can we live without pasta e vino?" Francesca said and unlocked the door to the motorhome.
"Oh... and amore, of course," Francesca added after a few moments, flashing Kathleen her patented 200-watt smile.
Wednesday, June 15th.
"Honey, would you mind getting the door? I'm standing in my knickers here..." Francesca said from the bedroom.
"I'm on it. Don't want to give anybody a heart attack before the race has even started," Kathleen said and got up from the plywood bench doubling for a couch.
When she opened the door, she was greeted by Patrizia's smiling face. When the young girl saw that it wasn't Francesca, the smile briefly faded but was soon back on.
"Buongiorno, signorina O'Malley. C'è un messaggio per Francesca. Uh, I mean... note for Francesca," Patrizia said and held out a formal looking piece of paper.
"Grazie, Patrizia. I'll let Francesca know that you were here," Kathleen said with a smile and a little wave. Patrizia echoed the wave and ran off.
"Francesca, there's a note for you!" Kathleen said loudly so Francesca could hear it through the closed door. "It's the, uh... the time table for the weekend!"
"No need to shout, I'm right here," Francesca said and opened the door to the bedroom. As she came out, she zipped her driving suit down a little bit so she had more space to breathe.
"Oh, ha, ha. You weren't before."
"What does it say?" Francesca said and sat down so she could put on her racing boots.
"The time table, darling."
"Oh. Well, it's..." - Kathleen checked her watch - "Twenty past two now. All right, let's see... At three, there's an official team photo shoot in the pit lane. Three fifteen, team briefing. Four thirty, official start to the first free practice session. Seven thirty, dinner break. Eight thirty, second free practice. Eleven thirty, the track closes for the night. Eleven forty-five, team debriefing."
"Thanks," Francesca said and moved Kathleen's hair away so she could kiss her on the neck.
"Wait a minute, does that mean I won't get to see you until past midnight?"
"Mmmmhh! In that case, you better give me a goodbye kiss that'll last for a wee while! And I mean right this instant!" Kathleen said and stomped down her foot on the plush carpet.
"Your wish is my command, my dear," Francesca said and grabbed Kathleen with both arms. In a fluid motion, she dipped her impossibly low and claimed her lips in a searing kiss that left both of them out of breath - and wearing goofy grins.
"Will that do?" Francesca husked.
Ten minutes later, Francesca and Kathleen left the motorhome and ventured out into the pitlane that was slowly coming alive. More drivers had arrived in their posh company cars and hordes of mechanics were swarming around the large transporters, unloading the precious cargo that had returned from the scrutineering.
As they were walking slowly through the paddock, Kathleen looked left and right, taking in all the sights. With the things she had learned in the twelve months that had passed since she had been there last, she understood far more of what she saw than she initially thought, and she was quite proud of herself for doing so.
She had borrowed a dark blue Maserati polo shirt with a small, white Trident on the breast pocket, and she was wearing the colours with pride. She had decided on wearing a pair of dark blue jeans so the ensemble would match, and as she walked very close to Francesca, she thought she very much looked the part.
"What's the time, darling?"
"Two thirty plus two minutes. You have plenty of time to make it to the photo shoot. Would you mind if we..."
"Francesca! Hey, Francesca!" someone said from somewhere behind them. When they turned around, they could see a group of fans walk towards them carrying Maserati bags with PR material sticking out. One of them turned around and waved excitedly at someone even further away.
"Photo?" a man said, holding up a small digital camera.
"Sure, why not," Francesca said and put her arm around the man's shoulder.
The man's wife snapped a couple of times and then gave Francesca and her husband a thumbs-up.
"Anyone else want a picture while we're at it?" Francesca said loudly in an exaggerated Cockney accent, much to the amusement of the fans.
Several people put their hands in the air, and Francesca waved them over with a broad smile on her face. One after the other, people took pictures of Francesca and each other until they all were satisfied.
When most of the group of fans walked on, a young boy of about ten stayed behind, clearly wanting to ask for something - and equally clearly not finding the courage to do so.
Kathleen picked up on his hesitancy and put her hand on his shoulder.
"Would you like to have your picture taken with Francesca?"
"N-no. I w-would like her to autograph my poster... please," he stuttered.
"Well, who says we can't do both. I need a pen, though. Do you have one?" Francesca said with a smile.
"Y-yes. Right here," the boy said and held out a ball point pen he had been clutching in his hand.
"And then I need the poster, please."
"H-here," the boy said, reached into his Maserati bag and picked out a promotional poster from the championship race at Spa the year before.
"Oh, that's a nice promo shot of me, don't you think, darling?" Francesca said as she doodled her signature on the poster in a free space above her own head.
"What's your name?" Francesca said.
"Tommy Wilkins it is. Here you go," Francesca said and handed back the poster.
"Do you have a camera?" Kathleen said, but the boy just shook his head as he very carefully put the poster back in the bag.
"Oh... well, perhaps we'll bump into each other again some time this weekend, huh?" Francesca said and gave the boy his ball point pen back.
"Th-thank you, Miss Francesca."
"You're welcome, Tommy. Now run along before your parents get worried."
"Yes, Miss," the boy said and darted off down the paddock.
"Oh, God, if only every celebrity was as accommodating as you are," Kathleen said and wrapped her arm around Francesca's waist.
"Well, you know... hey, what time is it?"
"Quarter to three."
"Damn, then we don't have time to check out the hospitality area," Francesca said and slapped her forehead.
"But I'm hungry!"
"You can go there yourself, you're a big girl," Francesca teased and quickly moved away in case Kathleen would retaliate.
"So now we won't see each other until after midnight, right?"
Kathleen looked left and right and then leaned in towards Francesca to give her a quick peck on the cheek.
"Love you. Please drive carefully."
"I will. Love you, too," Francesca said and gave Kathleen's hands a little squeeze before she took off down the paddock.
Thursday, June 16th.
'Hello and welcome to the third qualifying session here at Le Mans. It's nearly six p.m. and the track is about to be opened. If you weren't watching last night, all you need to know is that it was raining on and off the entire evening so hardly any competitive times were set. You're watching Eurosport, I'm Patrick Murphy and with me in the booth is a true Le Mans veteran, Derek Harrison. Welcome, Derek,' the commentator droned.
Kathleen was sitting on a chair in the spectator enclosure, watching the preparations unfold with great interest. She could feel that everyone was more nervous because of the bad weather the previous day and she wished she was taking notes for a book - she was sure it would be a best-seller.
'Today it's going to be make or break, do or die, now or never... or any of the two dozen other clichés you can think of. Derek, you've often been in this situation. How does a driver prepare him- or herself the best?'
'Well, he or she closes the visor and steps on the throttle, Patrick.'
'And that's all there is to it?'
'More or less, yes.'
'Where do you think we'll see the most fireworks tonight?'
'Well, Maserati for one. They're defending champions and they're really on a roll. Fabio Dellassandro and my old team-mate Francesca Carrara...'
As soon as Francesca's name was mentioned, Kathleen picked up her ears and put on the headset.
'... have won two in a row and they're joint leaders of the championship. Let's see, where are they on the provisional grid...?'
'The two works Maseratis #1 and #2 and the semi-works #33 are in ninth, fifth and twelfth respectively after last night's rain-affected session, but that doesn't mean anything.'
'No, those times are inconclusive. Anyway, they'll be worth looking out for. The two factory Nissans form the other major story. Their entire project is based on success here, but so far, they haven't really shown anything. However, scuttlebutt has it that they're running with an engine referred to as a 'superbomb'. They've screwed the turbo boost knob up as far as it'll go and according to a mechanic I spoke to, they're squeezing nearly one thousand b.h.p. out of it,' Derek Harrison said.
'Well, that's quite astounding if that figure is really true. Derek, one team that isn't here this year is of course Mercedes, your old team. Do you think we'll ever see them back?'
'There's a very short answer to that question, Patrick, and it's 'no'. We all remember what happened to Francesca last year, and... frankly, it was a PR disaster.'
'Yes. I believe the clip of the accident has several million hits on YouTube.'
When Kathleen heard that, she got the shivers and crinkled her nose in disgust.
'Indeed. Well, like I said, the focus will be on those two teams with the factory Toyotas possibly getting a look in. My gut is telling me that the turbo cars, chiefly the Nissans but again, possibly the Toyotas, will claim the first row but third and further down is up for grabs for anyone interested.'
'And they all are. We're just going to take a quick commercial break before the action begins, so stay with us, please.'
Once the ads started, Kathleen took off the headset and turned back around so she could watch everything that went on in the pits.
"Fran, you're going out first. The weather report says that it'll be clear and dry all evening. Very little wind and twenty degrees centigrade. Conditions should be pretty good," Giampaolo said.
"Right," Francesca said and closed the little Velcro straps on her gloves.
"No heroics to begin with, don't forget we're only ninth after yesterday's times. I want you to do a banker and two flyers as usual. Once the front runners have set times, we can look at adjusting the approach."
"Green light in two minutes. Get in and get ready."
"Yep," Francesca said and pressed the little button to open the door. Taking a deep breath, she slid across the wide tunnels and climbed into the racing seat.
'Green light in thirty seconds, Fran. Off you go,' Giampaolo said over the radio, giving her a thumbs-up through the windscreen.
Francesca put her finger on the starter button and felt the twelve coming to life behind her. She checked the gauges thoroughly and then selected first gear.
After stuttering down the pitlane on the limiter, she went up to the end of a line of cars waiting for the lights at the end of the pits to change to green. Finding herself looking straight up the tailpipes of one of the factory Toyotas, Francesca couldn't help but wonder how often she'd be in the same situation come race day.
When the lights changed to green, she and all the other drivers let the clutch in slowly and began to roll out of the pits and onto the track. It only took her two corners to feel that the surface was still quite slippery after the rain the day before, and she made a mental note to remember to take it careful in the Dunlop Chicane on her first fast lap.
The exploratory lap went by quickly as usual and Francesca soon turned out of the Ford Chicane and onto the pits straight. She eased it into sixth just as she passed the start-finish line, soon preparing to let the car glide into the first chicane.
As she reached Dunlop, she knew at once she had gone in too fast. The fronts lost grip and the MC12 understeered into the first part of the chicane. Francesca let out a few colourful curses and tried to steer it through the left-right sequence, but the car just went straight on and rattled over the curbs on the outside of the corner, ending up four feet off the track - but more importantly, just short of the deep gravel trap.
Francesca cursed again and checked her mirror before she re-joined the track. Knowing that her mistake would soon turn up on the timing monitor, she keyed the mic.
"Pits, I went off at Dunlop. Skimmed the gravel. Car okay, car okay," she said and turned back onto the track itself.
She hugged the inside line down through the Chapelle and into Tertre Rouge to keep out of the way of any faster cars that could come up behind her. Once she was back on the Mulsanne, she went up through the gears and was soon mentally preparing herself for another attempt at setting a qualifying time.
At the end of the next lap, Francesca could see on the on-board display that she was well up on the split time in the second sector. Feeling a lot more confident in the car than on the first lap, she threw it into the first of the Porsche Turns, hoping that she wouldn't meet any slower traffic that would disrupt her flyer.
She went through the fast sweepers on the very edge of the tyres' adhesion, riding the razor's edge between being in total control and being totally out of control.
Coming into the Ford Chicane, she braked at the limit and flung the car into the left-right-left-right mess at the end of the lap. The car fishtailed slightly as it came onto the front straight, but it wasn't enough to have an impact on the lap time.
When Francesca saw 3:38.472 show up on the display as she crossed the start- finish line, she grunted and allowed herself the briefest of smiles.
'Second position, Fran. Position two, position two.'
"Copy, pits. Starting final flyer."
Kathleen listened in on the headset, using both hands to hold it close to her head to drown out the sound of Luca's MC12 that was still warming up in the other pit bay.
"Come on, come on..." she whispered, trying to cross her fingers.
One of the TV cameras picked up Francesca's black-and-turquoise Maserati as it went onto the first part of the Mulsanne Straight. Francesca was flashing the headlights furiously to warn a slower GT2 some two hundred yards ahead of her.
'There's Francesca Carrara in the #1 Maserati. She's just set a time of three minutes thirty-eight and change, good enough for second place. Let's see, what's her time in the first sector...? All right, thirty-four seconds, not bad. But now she's coming up behind some traffic and that could spoil this lap,' the Eurosport commentator said.
'Well, never count Francesca out. I've seen her do a few surprising things,' Derek Harrison said.
"Oh, you better believe it!" Kathleen said loudly and then realised that she was talking to the television set. She looked around but no one had noticed.
'One of the Nissans flashes across the line aaaaaaand... yes! We have a new pole position time of three minutes thirty-six seconds point eight nine seven. That's going to be tough for the others to beat,' the Eurosport commentator said.
'Indeed. Looks like the mechanic was right when he told me about the superbomb engine.'
'Well, one thing's for sure... they can't use that in the race. They'd only last five laps!'
When Francesca crossed the line on her second and final flying lap, she did it with a time that was slower than her first attempt, and because of the pole position time set by the Nissan, she had been bumped down to third.
Kathleen grunted and sat down on the lawn chair. A few minutes later, she could hear Francesca's voice in the headset and she pressed it even closer against her ear so she wouldn't miss a thing.
'...seeing a water temperature warning light. I'm on my in-lap. Procedure?'
'Continue at reduced pace, Fran. We can see an increase in the water temp on the telemetry. There's no need to take risks. Pit, pit, pit.'
'Copy. Pitting. I don't think I've run over any debris.'
'We'll find out when we scoop out the radiators. You're in third, plus 1.575 seconds behind Nishigawa in Nissan #23.'
Grunting again, Kathleen turned around, trying to see if she could spot anything on the computer monitors, but they were too far away for her to see any details. Disappointed, she turned back around to study the timing and scoring monitor instead.
Running her finger down the screen to find the Fords of Sally and Jonno, she was rather surprised to note that they weren't even on the first page. After clicking on the NEXT button, she finally found them languishing in seventeenth and twenty-second place; Jonno ahead of Sally.
As usual, Kathleen felt conflicted when she thought of Sally Sharpe. One part of her - the one where her jealousy lived - was quite satisfied with Sally's poor showing, but another part knew that it was terribly unfair to think that way.
At the other side of the pits, Luca's Maserati finally left the bay, leaving everything in relative silence and making Kathleen breathe a sigh of relief. She took off the headset, but moments before she would've put it on a small shelf, she could hear Francesca's voice again - and this time, she was sounding upset.
'Pits, every... lit up like... ristmas tre... lectrical failu... othing wor...' Francesca said - and Kathleen could clearly hear the unrestrained frustration in her voice.
'Fran, repeat please. Do you have an electrical failure?'
'...firm. Electri... ure. The dashboard is lit up... a Christm... Oh, fuck it!'
The last three words came through loud and clear, and Kathleen's cheeks instantly blushed crimson red. She covered her eyes with her hand and couldn't stop a throaty laugh from escaping her lips.
'All right. Where are you? Can you get back under your own power?'
'...rnage. Misfire, misf... I'm putter... econd gear. I'm tryi... ge... ack, but I can... loody do anyth...'
'Fran, you're breaking up.'
'I'm no... reaking up, I'm breaking down!' Francesca said in a growly voice followed by several Italian words that Kathleen didn't need a dictionary to understand.
Three minutes later, Francesca drove up in front of the Maserati pit. As usual, several mechanics ran out into the pitlane and pulled the car back - even before it was fully into its bay, Francesca opened the door to get some fresh air inside.
Realising that it wouldn't be a two-minute job, she unbuckled her seatbelts and climbed out of the car wearing a frustrated expression on her face. Putting her hands on her hips, she took a step back and cast a critical eye on the car.
While a mechanic dove into the cockpit to check the fuse box, others went to work on unclipping the front and rear bodywork. Once the engine and the other mechanical parts were revealed, they began to meticulously check the air ducts, the radiators and the engine bay for the cause of the problems, using flashlights and smaller penlights that could go in anywhere.
Giampaolo came up to stand next to Francesca and put his hand on her shoulder.
"We'll fix it. Don't worry," he said and gave her a pat on the back.
"Who did you say was on pole?"
"We can't beat that," Francesca said and zipped her driving suit down a bit.
"Well, we can try," Giampaolo said and went back over to check the computer monitors.
Out of the corner of her eye, Francesca caught a glimpse of Kathleen's worried face, and she gave her a small wave. Deciding that she had a few moments to talk, she went over to the spectator enclosure, going the long way around the car so she wouldn't disturb the mechanics.
"Yes. Electrical failure of some kind. Everything lit up like a Christmas tree. We can probably fix it, but it may take some time," Francesca said through her helmet.
"But you have several hours to do it, haven't you?" Kathleen said, checking her wristwatch.
"Oh, sure. We have until eight o'clock, and then again from ten 'til midnight."
"Derek Harrison spoke very highly of you, Francesca," Kathleen said with a smile.
"Derek was here?"
"No, no. He's one of the Eurosport commentators," Kathleen said and pointed at the television still droning on in the background. The cameras were following Luca's Maserati #2 as it went through Indianapolis and up the short straight to Arnage.
"That's nice. Perhaps I'll pay them a visit some time this weekend. It'd be fun to see the old man again."
"All the TV stations share the glass suites on the top row of the main grandstand," Francesca said and pointed out of the pits at the gigantic structure across the track.
"Oh... I wasn't aware of that."
"Yeah, you need to remember not to pick your nose. You might get caught on camera or something... oh... sorry, that didn't come out right," Francesca said and reached up to muss Kathleen's hair with her gloved hand.
"It's all right. I'm mostly over it now," Kathleen said and took Francesca's hand in her own.
Behind them, a mechanic started the engine in the #1 Maserati. At first, it sounded a bit rough, but after a few cycles, it ran cleanly.
The chief engineer unplugged the laptop from the jack on the side of the car and shouted several words in Italian.
"Great, they've fixed it. I better get going," Francesca said and gave Kathleen's hand a little squeeze.
"Uh... uh, um, fair wind, Francesca! Remember, please drive carefully. Fast, but carefully."
"Thanks, darling. I'll do my very best."
Saturday, June 18th - Raceday.
'La Marseillaise!' the circuit commentator said proudly, cueing the French national anthem. A large part of the two hundred and fifty thousand spectators sang along to the familiar tune, creating an atmosphere that gave Kathleen goosebumps all over her body as she was wading her way through the various VIPs and hangers-on trying to reach Francesca's car.
Back in duty as Francesca's umbrella-girl, she found the going incredibly hard, and at one point, she was worried she wouldn't make it up to the sharp end of the grid before the race would start.
Up near the front, Francesca manoeuvred her car into the proper starting slot without too much difficulty. After turning off the engine, she checked both the wing mirrors to see if they were in the right place and then unbuckled the seatbelts.
Climbing out of her car, she wore a neutral expression on her face that concealed the fact that she felt untypically nervous. As her mechanics began the final preparations by plugging several laptops into the car, she rolled back her sleeve and checked her wristwatch again - half past two, p.m.
After taking off her helmet and the HANS-device and putting them inside the car so they wouldn't get lost, she ran a hand through her short, and recently trimmed, hair.
Behind her, a few fans chanted her name, so she turned around and gave them a thumbs-up and a brief wave, constantly hoping that Kathleen would hurry up and get there before the strong sun had time to burn a hole in the top of her head.
Two minutes later, Kathleen slipped through the final line of people and half-walked, half-ran up to stand next to Francesca.
"I'm so sorry, Francesca. I couldn't even kick my way through this crowd," Kathleen said and opened the umbrella.
"It's all right, darling. I'm just glad you're here."
"Here's the concoction you call water," Kathleen said, holding a bottle of a vaguely brown liquid.
"Thanks," Francesca said and immediately unscrewed the cap of the energy potion that the team's physiotherapist had mixed for her.
"You know, I think the grid is even more crowded than it was last year," Kathleen said, looking up and down the incredibly busy grid, awash with all sorts of team personnel, VIPs and scantily clad women promoting Hawaiian Tropic and several other items that apparently required showing a lot of skin.
"I think you're right."
On the PA system, the German national anthem started playing, prompting a new wave of singing from a different group of fans.
"Have you seen any celebrities yet?" Francesca said as she put on her sunglasses.
"I wouldn't know. I can only see their backs. But I did see a few expensive suits so I guess it's possible that celebrities were wearing them."
Francesca laughed and went over to muss Kathleen's hair.
"Your hands are cold. Nervous?"
"Mmmm. Darling, I'm glad we kept up this tradition. It calms me down to see you here," Francesca said for Kathleen's ears only.
"Oh... thank you. I never thought I'd come back here, that's for sure," Kathleen said, first looking at the gigantic building that housed the pits and then at the equally large grandstand.
"I'll bet. Oh... I think we're going to get interviewed in a moment."
"Oh...?" Kathleen said and craned her neck to see what Francesca meant - not far from them, a Eurosport camera crew was walking directly towards them. "Looks like it. Is my hair okay?"
"It's fine, darling."
"Francesca, do you have a moment?" the Eurosport interviewer, an Asian woman in her late twenties, said.
"I'm Josephine, by the way."
"Hi, Josephine. Nice to meet you," Francesca said with a smile.
"Likewise. So, we're not live just yet, but we'll ask you a few questions for the highlights. Maybe we'll go live, I don't know yet."
"Ready?" Josephine said.
"I'm ready," Francesca said and took off her sunglasses. In the background, 'God Save The Queen' started and Francesca knew immediately she'd get in trouble with some viewers for talking over the national anthem. The British fans began singing loudly as usual, and for a few moments, it felt more like the British Grand Prix than Le Mans.
Josephine cleared her throat and then held up the microphone. Looking intently at her camera operator, she waited for the man to give her a signal to go ahead. When it came, she took a deep breath and turned around.
"We're here with Francesca Carrara. Francesca, we all know how your race ended last year, but what do you think you can do this year?"
"Well, Josephine, Team Mediterraneo Maserati very much hopes that we'll be in the fight for the podium. We didn't come to finish fourth, fifth or whatever. I don't know yet if we have what it takes to challenge for the lead. Time will tell."
"You're starting in fourth place on the grid with a 3:38.177 that you set yourself late on Thursday evening. Will you be able to maintain that pace throughout?"
"Yes, I believe we will. We realise that our main competitors are a couple of seconds ahead of us, but we're quite confident that they won't be able to keep up that pace over an extended period of time."
"Well, for your information, Francesca, the Nissan on pole has changed its engine, the regular race engine is now back in after the so-called Superbomb was used to grab the pole position."
"And there you have it. We've beaten the Nissans on a regular basis in the first three races; we shouldn't have many problems doing it here again."
"Well, there's certainly no lack of confidence in the Maserati team. All right, thank you Francesca," Josephine said and turned off her microphone.
Once the camera crew had moved away, Kathleen moved back in so she could resume her duties with the umbrella.
"Are you really that confident or was that just a load of hot air?" she said into Francesca's ear.
"Well... you know. Little of this, little of that," Francesca said, adding a wink.
In the background, the Italian national anthem started playing and several of the Maserati mechanics began to hum along to the grandiose tune. Francesca discreetly crossed her fingers, hoping that she'd hear it on Sunday afternoon while she was standing on the podium instead of watching it on TV.
The anthem had only just finished when no less than nine fighter jets from the French Air Force performed a flyby over the circuit trailing red, white and blue smoke. The crowd erupted in a large cheer that nearly overpowered the sound of the jets.
"Now I know we're at Le Mans!" Francesca said and laughed out loud.
At twelve minutes to three, the klaxon blared out and two track officials began walking down the grid, one holding a FIVE MINUTES TO PACE LAP board and the other the familiar CLEAR THE GRID.
"This is it, darling. Wish me luck."
"No! No, I won't do that! Are you kidding? If I jinx you, I'll never forgive myself. And I won't say break a leg, either, because that's exactly what happened last year..."
Francesca chuckled and began to mould her earplugs so they'd fit perfectly. After doing that, she put on her balaclava and the HANS-device and then pulled the helmet down. Rolling her shoulders, she put on her gloves and closed the little Velcro straps on the back of her hands.
"Oh! I know... break a record! Ha! That should do it," Kathleen said, wrapped her arms around Francesca and gave her a strong hug - mindful of not giving herself a black eye from bumping into the hard helmet.
"Thanks, darling. See you in two and a half hours or so after my first three stints," Francesca said in a voice that was muffled by the helmet.
"I'll be waiting in the pits. Take care. I love you."
"I love you, too, love," Francesca said and climbed into the car. Two mechanics helped her get strapped in and then adjusted the wing mirrors one last time.
Giampaolo talked into his headset and a few moments later, the engine came to life. It belched out a tiny amount of black smoke at first, but after Francesca had blipped the throttle a few seconds, it ran cleanly.
Like the year before, the line of bikini-clad Hawaiian Tropic girls all thought it very, very funny to walk very close to Kathleen, and, just like the year before, Kathleen's cheeks blossomed crimson red.
"Sheesh, I wouldn't do that for a million quid," Kathleen said under her breath as she closed the umbrella. When she realised she had to follow the semi- dressed women closely all the way back to the pits, she let out a groan and rolled her eyes.
Once the grid had been cleared, the clerk of the course stepped out in front of the race cars and waved a large green flag.
As per tradition, the pole position car left on its own, but it was soon followed by the rest of the pack. One by one, the cars left the starting grid and immediately began to weave left and right to scrub off the tyres and to get some heat into them.
Like always, Francesca put some weight on the brake pedal with her left foot while she was accelerating so the carbon brakes would get up to temperature quickly. Filing into the Dunlop Chicane, she checked both mirrors and all the gauges, trying to empty her mind of everything but the coming start.
Kathleen hurried back into the spectator enclosure of the Maserati pit and put the umbrella and the bottle with the energy potion away. A throng of guests had suddenly appeared out of nowhere, but Kathleen pushed her way through, determined to get as close to the TV as she could.
Once she got there, she noticed that the sticker on the headset she had been using wasn't reading 'Guest' any more but 'K. O'Malley. Team Mediterraneo Maserati.' She felt an acute sense of pride and started looking around for Giampaolo so she could thank him, but soon came to the conclusion that everyone would be insanely busy for the start so she better wait a while.
Instead, she turned to the TV and concentrated on watching the cars drive around on the warm-up lap.
'... In pole position with a time of 3:36.879, we have the #23 Calsonic Nissan GTR driven by Ukyo Nichigawa, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Hideo Fukuyama. Nichigawa is the starting driver. On the outside of the front row is Calsonic Nissan #22, making it an all-Nissan front row, driven by Richard LeMarie, Masahiko Kondo and Shunji Kasuya. The GP2 hotshot Richard LeMarie set the time of 3:36.912 and will take the start.
Row two sees the #7 Nippondenso Toyota GT-One driven by Toshihiro Kaneichi, Shigeaki Hattori and Masanori Sekiya. Kaneichi will start after setting a time of 3:37.467... and then we have the #1 Mediterrano Maserati MC12 with Francesca Carrara and the reigning world champion, Fabio Dellassandro. Mario Balzani, the third driver, will join the crew for the night hours. Francesca Carrara set the time of 3:38.177 and will take the start. This is the fastest of the normally aspirated cars and it will be quite interesting to see how much they can hound the turbo cars ahead of them... if at all.
On row three, we have last year's winners, the #2 Mediterraneo Maserati MC12 on 3:38.520 with Luca DiLorenzi, Donny Zorzi and Carlo del Bello, Luca DiLorenzi starting, and then the second Nippondenso Toyota GT-One, the #8 car, driven by Toshio Suzuki, Naoki Nagasaka and Hitoshi Ogawa. Ogawa will start after setting the car's time of 3:39.255.
In seventh place, we find the first of the privateer GT1s with the #37 Yamashi Galleries Toyota GT-One...'
At the end of the warm-up lap, the pack of race cars, led by the Audi S6 safety car, came out of the last of the Porsche Turns and drove slowly towards the Ford Chicane. All the cars at the front were driven by professionals so they were all lined up in orderly rows of two, but further back, some of the less experienced drivers weren't as disciplined, creating a bit of a mess from the tenth row back.
Up on the gantry above the race track, the clerk of the course held the Tricolour ready. As the arms on the clock slowly made their way around to the top of the hour, 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' started blasting out of the PA system, adding yet another dimension to the already surreal atmosphere.
As the cars drove through the Ford Chicane headed for the flag, Kathleen held her breath and began to chew on her knuckles. Even the TV commentators kept quiet so the viewers could enjoy the magical moment.
When the safety car peeled off into the pitlane, the clerk of the course raised the starting flag - moments later, the clock struck three p.m. and he waved the flag three times.
The drivers never saw more than the first wave, because as soon as the flag moved, they all stepped on the throttle. Within moments, the ear-splitting sound of more than thirty one thousand horsepower unleashed at once ripped through the air; the howl of the V12s mixed with the rumble from the big V8s, the growling Flat-6s and the whistling turbos to create a wall of sound that sent deep vibrations through the grandstands, the pits and the people in them.
Inside the pits, Kathleen clenched her teeth and tried to telepathically transmit all the positive vibes she could to Francesca. The people around her all cheered, but she fell quiet, just staring at the screen.
'And they're off! The fifty-five cars stream down towards the Dunlop Chicane, some of them ducking and diving for position already!' the Eurosport commentator screamed from the television.
The cars streamed through the Dunlop Chicane and down the Forest Esses without any incidents. Francesca had been able to keep her fourth place behind the two factory Nissans and the #7 Toyota, and even though she was hard at work, she felt comfortable and quite confident.
Right behind her, she could see the headlights of Luca's Maserati, closely followed by the second Toyota and the first of the privateer GT1s. As she went through Tertre Rouge and onto the first part of the Mulsanne Straight for the first time, she positioned the car closer to the right hand lane than she normally would to keep Luca from getting any funny ideas.
Ahead, the blue-and-red factory Nissans were jostling for position, with #22 suddenly pulling out to drive alongside #23 as they approached the first chicane, appropriately named the Nissan chicane.
The Toyota soon tried to take advantage of the situation by pulling up very close to the rear end of #22, hoping to shut out the other Nissan in the process.
Francesca decided to hold back slightly so she wouldn't get caught up in an accident on the opening lap. Staring intently at the three cars ahead of her so she was ready to avoid any potential trouble, she almost missed Luca making a move down her inside.
Just catching a glimpse of the headlights in the wing mirror, Francesca edged her MC12 even further right to effectively shut the door. Luca ducked back into her slipstream and at once tried on her left side, but there wasn't any room there, either.
As predicted, the three cars ahead of Francesca ended up trying to out-brake each other, sending off streams of smoke from their tyres. Somehow, #23 kept the lead, but #22 was shuffled back behind Toyota #7 in an opportunist manoeuvre.
As the three cars scrabbled through the Nissan Chicane, Francesca was right on top of them, ducking to the inside of the #22 that had lost a lot of momentum when it had been passed going into the chicane.
They raced side by side up to the second chicane, Playstation, but since the Nissan had the better line for the left-right-left sequence of corners, Francesca chose to forfeit the fight and let her Maserati slip back behind the other car.
Blasting over the hump, Francesca once again went to the inside so Luca wouldn't have any room there. Without further incidents, the front running cars drove through Mulsanne Corner in line-astern and began the climb up through the forest on their way to Indianapolis.
'Nissan, Toyota, Nissan, Maserati, Maserati... it's that close. Nichigawa leads from Kaneichi, LeMarie, Carrara and DiLorenzi. No problems coming into Indianapolis, all the cars treat the difficult corner with respect on the opening lap. Here's Arnage... oh, and DiLorenzi! DiLorenzi tries an impossibly late manoeuvre on Carrara! ... And he's through. Luca DiLorenzi takes fourth place from his team-mate,' the Eurosport commentator howled, sending Kathleen into a state of near-frenzy.
Suddenly finding herself under threat from the second of the two works Toyotas, Francesca placed her car in the centre of the circuit, keeping a close eye on both mirrors. She accelerated smoothly, going up through the gears in a very restrained fashion so she wouldn't put unnecessary stress on the drivetrain.
'Fran, position five. Luca is on a more aggressive strategy. We'll get him later,' Enrico Finotto, Francesca's race engineer, said over the radio.
The field of cars filed through the Porsche Turns, going through the fast sweepers at blinding speeds. Francesca was able to pull back some of the gap between herself and Luca, and by the time they reached the Ford Chicane at the end of the first lap, she was right up his tailpipes.
'And that's the first lap of Le Mans! Across the line they go, Nissan, Toyota, Nissan, Maserati, Maserati, Toyota. So, Derek, Nissan leads Le Mans,' the Eurosport commentator said.
'Yes, marvellous stuff. So far, it's been smooth sailing up front, but we've already seen a bit of argy-bargy down the field. Well, that won't be the last time in this race,' Derek Harrison said.
'It most certainly won't be. And there we have the GT2 cars across the line. The GT2 leader is the car that started from the class pole position. In thirty-sixth position, the...'
Kathleen wiped a few drops of sweat off her brow and put a finger down the hem of her T-shirt to get some fresh air down her front.
'If Francesca continues to be involved in so much drama, I'm going to need a towel pretty soon...' Kathleen thought, shaking her head quietly.
'Oh...! And... oh! We have an accident coming down the Forest Esses! A GT2 Ferrari has lost it coming down the hill... and... it skips across the gravel trap and slams head-on into the tyres, sending a truck load of gravel flying onto the circuit. Will this bring out the safety car...? It's on stand-by... yes, all three safety cars have been deployed. Goodness me... on lap four!' Patrick Murphy said on Eurosport, making Kathleen jump up from the lawn chair she had only just sat down on.
'Safety car, safety car!' Giampaolo said on the radio.
"Copy, pits," Francesca said into her microphone as she was going through the soft kink right before Indianapolis. The track marshals already had the yellow flags and the white 'SC' boards out all around the circuit, slowing down the race cars.
Exiting Arnage, she began to weave left and right to distribute the heat evenly across the contact patches of the tyres.
'Fran, there's a ton of gravel on the track just after the Dunlop bridge. Careful with your tyres. It's a single-car accident so it shouldn't take too long to clean up,' Enrico Finotto said.
"Roger, Enrico. Careful after the bridge. Jeez, on lap four..." Francesca said, rolling her eyes underneath the closed visor.
Five minutes past eight, Kathleen stepped into the Maserati hospitality tent with a hand pressed firmly against her growling stomach. The mere smell of the food and spices used made it complain even louder and she almost felt light-headed.
She made a beeline for the counter to get a menu - and was nearly bowled over when she saw that it contained no less than a dozen different types of pasta. After analysing every item on the menu several times, she finally decided on a relatively simple dish that wouldn't overstress her delicate English tastebuds.
"Hello, Miss O'Malley. Is Francesca driving?" Patrizia said, coming into the tent from another direction, holding a stack of menus similar to the one Kathleen was reading from.
"Hi, Patrizia. Yes, she's just got in for her second turn. I'm really hungry, so I hope I can eat here...?"
"You need a... a..." Patrizia said, trying to find the right words. When she couldn't, she furrowed her brow and started pointing at the various key chains Kathleen was wearing around her neck.
"Oh, the credentials. Uh, I guess it's this one," Kathleen said and held out a turquoise key chain with a plastic card attached to it. Patrizia looked at it and then nodded, wearing a broad smile.
Behind Patrizia, one of the waiters came in and picked up a notepad.
"Good evening, Miss. Can I help you?" he said, holding a pencil ready.
"Good evening. I'd like the Spaghetti Quattro Formaggi, please. And a Club Soda with a lemon twist, please."
"We have an excellent red wine that goes fantastically well with your order, Miss."
"Uh... no, thank you."
"Quattro Formaggi and a Club, noted. Will there be anything else?" the waiter said with a smile.
"Not right now, thank you. Can I sit anywhere?" Kathleen said, having eyed a large television set standing near a cluster of tables in one of the corners of the large tent.
"I'm over by the telly," Kathleen said and pointed at the flatscreen TV.
"We'll bring your food there when it's ready, Miss."
"Thank you," Kathleen said and hurried over to the TV so she wouldn't miss anything.
'Welcome back to Le Mans. It's eight minutes past eight, and the leader, the #23 Nissan currently driven by Hideo Fujiyama, has just gone onto lap 84. Here's a quick recap of the race so far. The start was without major drama for the front runners, but on lap four, the Scuderia Geneva Ferrari F430 GT2 crashed at the Forest Esses, causing our first safety car period. The restart followed on lap eight, and the first of the regular pitstops began on lap seventeen,' the Eurosport commentator said.
Kathleen unfolded a napkin and put it down on her lap. If there was one thing she had learned from living with a pasta-loving half-Italian, it was that the sauce would inevitably end up on her shirt.
'The next thirty laps went by without drama, but then we had the #36 Yamashi Galleries Toyota GT-One stopping and retiring on the Mulsanne Straight with a suspected broken fuel pump. Three laps later, the #8 factory Toyota went into the pits to change a punctured tyre, having dragged itself halfway around the circuit on three wheels and a rim.'
The waiter arrived surprisingly fast and Kathleen's mouth watered instantly at the sight of the spaghetti.
"Here you go, Miss. Club Soda and Spaghetti Quattro Formaggi. Not so spicy, just for you," the waiter said and put down a glass of mineral water and a plate of steaming hot pasta on Kathleen's table.
"Ohhh, it smells great. Thank you very much."
"Anytime, Miss. Buon apetito," the waiter said and made his way back to the kitchen.
"Oh, you can count on it," Kathleen said and picked up a spoon and a fork.
'On lap 52, we had our second safety car period when the #79 Franz Lausch Motorsport Porsche 911 GT2 stopped at Mulsanne corner with a blown engine that had given the track a Castrol coating all the way back from the hump. The safety car came back in on lap 57 and since then, we haven't had any major issues,' the Eurosport commentator said.
While the recap was running, they had been showing highlights of the race, but now it went back to showing live pictures. The first car they picked up was Francesca's Maserati, and Kathleen froze in place, her fork suspended comically halfway between the plate and her mouth.
Francesca didn't look like she had any problems; she was braking normally into the Nissan Chicane and powering out of it a few seconds later. A dark blue Ford GT drove roughly three hundred yards ahead of her, and Kathleen's mind instantly knew that it was Sally.
'Francesca Carrara in fourth place, catching Sally Sharpe's Ford GT hand over fist. I'm afraid this has been a tough baptism of fire for the likeable American lady racer. She's in nineteenth place and she's already been hit with a penalty for speeding in the pitlane. Now she's about to receive a lesson from one of the masters of the sport.'
"One of the masters!" Kathleen said around a mouthful of spaghetti, trying to swallow it so she wouldn't choke on it. As soon as she had, she punched the air, feeling very proud.
At the end of the Mulsanne Straight, Francesca had caught Sally and the two cars drove line-astern up towards the forest.
'Oh, looks like we'll have a battle of the Valkyries now,' the Eurosport commentator said.
'Not much of a battle, I'm afraid. Sally is already two laps down so she'll have to make way pretty quickly,' Derek Harrison said.
The camera stayed with the two cars and Kathleen began to relax a little. She took the Club Soda and brought it up to her lips.
'Ohhhhhh! Sally Sharpe tries to make room but runs wide... loses the rear end... goes off the track... and thump! Backwards into the tyres at Indianapolis! Right in front of Francesca Carrara who had to slam on the brakes to avoid getting caught up in the accident.'
Kathleen nearly spewed out the mouthful of mineral water she had just taken and stared wide-eyed at the television. On it, Francesca's black-and-turquoise Maserati resumed the race, having almost come to a stop at the outside of Indianapolis.
'That won't have done Francesca Carrara's tyres any good. If she's unlucky, she'll have a huge flatspot on that right front. We better keep an eye on her to see if she has to make an unscheduled pitstop. This could really hurt that car in the short run. As we all know, Le Mans is typically won by the car that isn't afflicted by unscheduled stops.'
The camera stayed with the accident so Francesca's Maserati soon drove out of the picture. Sally got out of the car and walked around it, obviously trying to ascertain the damage. A few moments later, she got back in and started the engine.
"Oh, Sally!" Kathleen groaned as she looked at the pictures of the car that was quite literally sitting on its floor in the gravel trap. All Sally was able to do was to make the tyres spin furiously - the car had dug itself in so deep that she needed a snatch vehicle to get out.
Kathleen shook her head and took another spoonful of the spaghetti. She could well imagine the language Francesca had used in that near-miss.
A few minutes after half past eleven, p.m., Francesca peeled off the track and entered the pit lane entrance. She navigated through the narrow chicane and then drove onto the pit lane itself, remembering to put her thumb on the limiter.
'Fran, handover to Fabio,' Enrico Finotto said over the radio.
"Copy, Enrico. Getting ready," Francesca replied and started unlocking her seatbelts.
A few hundred yards further on, she came to a halt in front of the Maserati pit, stopping exactly at the feet of the mechanic holding the 'STOP' sign.
As the mechanics came running out into the pitlane carrying the new tyres, she switched off the engine and climbed out of the car. Moments later, a mechanic attached the air line for the pneumatic jacks, and two other mechanics attached the fuel hose and the breather bottle and went to work on the refuelling.
Jumping away from the car, Francesca spun around and helped Fabio get strapped in. She did the lower belts and then reached up to hold the centre belts ready. Once Fabio had locked the centres, she patted him on the thigh and stepped back from the car.
Francesca walked behind the pit line and waited for the various mechanics to complete their assignments. The new tyres were on before the fuel was ready, and the car was dropped down onto the ground after the air line was removed.
A few seconds later, the fuel reached the breather bottle, and the mechanic holding it gave off a shout. The fuel hose was detached and Giampaolo gave Fabio the command to start the engine - three seconds later, first gear was selected and the car went back into the race.
Once the car had left, Francesca took off her gloves, her helmet and the HANS-device. Walking back to the back wall of the pits, she put the items on the small shelf and then wiped her sweaty face with the sleeve of the driving suit.
She sat down with a bump on a lawn chair and took the towel that had been prepared for her. After wiping her neck and her arms thoroughly, she let the towel hang over her head to create just the tiniest amount of personal space in the middle of all the hectic activity.
Out in the pitlane, Luca brought the #2 Maserati in to swap over to Carlo del Bello, that car's third driver. A minute later, Luca walked through the pit, disappearing out the back without even acknowledging Francesca's presence.
"I can't stand him," someone suddenly said, prompting Francesca to raise the towel.
"Hi, darling. Luca?"
"Yes. He annoys me greatly. How did it go?" Kathleen said and reached out for Francesca's shoulder.
"Up and down."
"Oh, you and Sally were on TV! We saw everything."
"Sheesh, I thought she was going to take me out. That would've been something. The spectators would've witnessed a bout of Amazonic gravel wrestling if she had."
Kathleen chuckled and tried to massage Francesca's shoulder but the fireproof driving suit was too thick.
"You're on a break now, right?"
"Yeah. I'm not due back in the car until one a.m. or so. Fabio is doing a triple of, oh, thirty-nine laps. Hopefully. Of course, if he has a problem, he'll be back sooner."
"Do you have time to come over to the hospitality tent?"
"Sure. I just need to talk to my race engineer first. How about I meet you at the tent in ten minutes?" Francesca said and got up.
"We have a date."
twelve minutes later, Francesca entered the hospitality tent and started to look around for Kathleen - quickly spotting the familiar mop of white-blonde hair sitting on a bench by the television, she began to make her way over there but was intercepted by Patrizia.
"Ciao, Francesca. Oggi stai guidando alla grande," the young girl said with a shy smile.
"Hi, Patrizia. Yep, everything's been going pretty good so far. Let's hope it stays that way," Francesca said and mussed the young girl's hair.
"When I saw you come in, I made you a Club Soda," Patrizia said in her charming, slightly faltering accent. She held up a glass of mineral water and smiled broadly.
"Oh, thank you very much. That's very kind of you," Francesca said, adding a wink that made Patrizia blush and then run away, giggling.
On the television, the picture showed a forlorn Sally Sharpe - already wearing street clothes - standing behind the pits, waiting to be interviewed by Josephine, the Eurosport pit reporter.
Francesca took a sip of the Club Soda and walked over to stand behind Kathleen.
"Hi again. Sally doesn't look good, does she?" Kathleen said.
"No. I've been there. Having to explain yourself to the world is just awful."
'... lly Sharpe, this wasn't the best Le Mans debut for you. You're out of the race. Tell us what happened,' Josephine said, sticking a microphone up Sally's nose.
'Well, I... I fuc... uh, I fouled up. I tried to get out of the way of the faster car, but I guess I... uh, I guess I got too far out onto the dirt, and, uh, I just lost it,' Sally said, visibly upset by her less than stellar race performance.
'You were able to bring the car back, but it couldn't be fixed. What was the problem that eventually sidelined you?'
'Basically, the rearwards impact cracked the gearbox casing. Under the new rules, we can change the internals, but not the casing itself. So...' Sally said and shrugged.
'All right. Thank you, Sally Sharpe. Back upstairs,' Josephine said and turned away from Sally.
A few minutes later, Sally walked into the Maserati hospitality tent. She kept standing in the entrance, almost like she was trying to find someone.
"Hey, look who's here," Kathleen said, tapping Francesca on the elbow.
"Sally, we're over here," Francesca said with a wave.
Shuffling along in a very dejected fashion, Sally crossed the floor and sat down at the table Kathleen and Francesca shared.
"Hi," Kathleen said, not at all surprised to see the despondent look on the young blonde's face.
"Hi. Look, Francesca, I'm really sorry for screwing up. I nearly had you off."
"Ah, it happens. Don't worry about it. I did kinda yell at you inside my helmet," Francesca said, trying to coax a smile out of Sally.
"I bet you did. Well, it's all over now," Sally said and leaned back in the seat. She crossed her arms over her chest and let out a long sigh.
"Wait a minute... 'all over'... for good?" Kathleen said and put a hand on Sally's arm.
"Yeah. This was my last chance."
"Oh... Jesus, I'm sorry to hear that, Sally," Kathleen said.
Sally just shrugged. A few moments later, she reached into her back pocket and took out her wallet. Opening it, she found a small photo and began to stare at it.
Kathleen tried to crane her neck to see who was on the photo, but she wasn't able to see it. Even though she wasn't proud of it, her curiosity soon got the better of her and she cleared her throat as politely as she could - but before she had time to make an inquiry on the photo, Sally put it back in her wallet.
"Damn, this won't be the homecoming I was hoping for," Sally said, putting her wallet back into her pocket.
"Sally, wait a minute. Who's that on the photo? Your girlfriend?" Kathleen said, prompting Francesca to scrunch up her face and groan under her breath.
"My *girl*-friend...? No, my husband and our kid," Sally said, her face one, large question mark.
"Your h... husband...? And your kid?"
"Yes, I'm married. I have been for several years now. I thought you knew that?"
Ten thousand thoughts rushed through Kathleen's mind all at once. At first, she thought about all the angst she had been through, all the insecurities and the drinking, but then she felt a large weight fall off her shoulders and she let out a quiet sigh of relief.
"Oh, uh, no... uh. No, I didn't. May I see the photo?" Kathleen said. Her cheeks were beginning to blush crimson red and she had to fan herself to stop the blush from getting any worse.
"Sure," Sally said and found her wallet again. She handed the photo to Kathleen who turned around and showed it to Francesca as well. Two people were on the photo, a man in his late twenties and a five year old girl, dressed in a miniature driving suit.
"Oh, God, Sally, she's so cute! What's her name?"
"You won't believe it."
"Sally, I'm dying here..."
"Her name is Kathleen," Sally said with a chuckle.
"Oh! Imagine that. Huh?" Kathleen said and thumped Francesca's shoulder.
"Imagine that," Francesca echoed and drained the last drops from her glass.
'The clock has just struck one thirty, a.m., and, as you may have noticed, we're well into the darkness hours. When the team managers read the weather report that has just been handed to me, I have a feeling that their faces will match that particular colour. According to the weather radar at the nearby airfield, rain will arrive within the hour. It looks like showers, but it could get heavier.'
Kathleen was sitting on the couch in the motorhome, watching the race on their flatscreen television. Despite her best intentions - and plenty of coffee - she had trouble keeping her eyes open. Before long, her head slipped back onto the backrest and she fell asleep.
'Lap 164, Fran. P4, one lap off the lead. 36 seconds behind third place. Plus one minute to fifth.'
"Copy, Enrico," Francesca said as she went up through the gearbox on the start-finish straight. She was soon in sixth, letting the twelve stretch its legs along the all too short straight.
She braked into the Dunlop Chicane and went through it without any problems; then under the Dunlop Bridge and down the Chapelle and the Forest Esses. She caught a slower privateer GT1 on the entry to Tertre Rouge, so she had to play the waiting game until she reached the Mulsanne Straight.
Streaking along the first part of the straight, she could see the characteristic yellow reflective boards being waved at the first chicane, and when she got there, she noticed that they were joined by the red-and-yellow-striped Reduced Friction flag.
Just after the first chicane, a car was parked by the side of the road with a tell-tale orange light flickering from the right hand side exhaust.
As Francesca drove past the car at reduced speed, her headlights briefly illuminated the race number on its side - it was the Calsonic Nissan #23.
Once she was clear of the yellow flag zone, she put her foot hard down on the throttle and went up the gearbox - soon, she was back to flying along in top gear.
When she came out of Mulsanne Corner, she could see a few sprinkles of water begin to form on the windshield. The prospect of driving on slicks in the rain at night wasn't an attractive one and she groaned inwardly. She knew better than to turn on the wipers, but she also knew that if it really started to rain, all the muck on the windshield would cause the raindrops to reflect the lights around the circuit, creating a million little sparkling suns she would have to look through.
"Pits, spots of rain at Mulsanne Corner," she said on the radio.
'Copy, Fran. It'll get stronger,' Giampaolo's easily recognisable voice replied.
Flat out in sixth, she rushed over the first brow and then the second. She could feel the car begin to get skittish, but the foremost thing on her mind was to keep up the pace for as long as possible. If it turned out to be only a shower, she would end up looking bad if she decided to ease off too soon.
'Oh! And we have a drama! There's drama for the leader!' the Eurosport commentator said, causing Kathleen to wake up with a jerk. The odd angle she'd had her head in caused her to moan loudly, and she clamped a hand down onto her neck as she leaned forward on the couch.
'We saw a car stopped on the Mulsanne a few minutes ago, but we didn't get confirmation on who it was. Now we know! It's the leader, the #23 Calsonic Nissan GTR, currently driven by Kazuyoshi Hoshino. We haven't seen a replay, but from the brief shots we did see, it definitely looked like it had lost the right-hand side turbo.'
'Judging by the pictures, it's game over, I'm afraid. This is a major turning point in the race. The #23 car led from the start with nary a hitch, but now it's all been turned upside down. This means that the first of the factory Toyotas will assume the lead. Uh, let me see... the #7 car, driven by... who's in it...? It's Ukyo Kaneichi again. He's going to...' Derek Harrison said.
'He must've passed it already. The timing and scoring has just updated itself.'
'Yes, he's already in the lead. This will promote the #22 Nissan into second place and Francesca Carrara's #1 Maserati into third, still one lap down. The cars behind her are on the same lap as her, or even further back.'
'If this really is a mechanical failure for the #23, do you think it could hit the #22 as well?'
'Oh, I wouldn't want to guess, I really wouldn't. But it's possible.'
Kathleen was suddenly wide awake. She hitched forward to sit at the edge of the couch and stared wide-eyed at the television, hoping to catch a glimpse of Francesca's car or at the very least, a shot from the pits.
Coming into the Porsche Turns, Francesca could feel the track get more and more slippery. She briefly considered ducking into the pits to change tyres, but she knew that since they weren't ready for her, they'd only end up losing valuable time in the mad scramble.
As she braked into the Ford Chicane, the car suddenly locked the fronts and ran wide onto the curbs. She did her best to stay off the biggest ones, but she couldn't stop the car from running over a few of the smaller curbs. It rocked and rattled for a few seconds but then she was back on the track.
"Pits, I need Inters. It's getting too slippery out here," she said over the radio.
'Copy, Fran. Lap 165. Position three, position three, one lap off the lead. One minute ten seconds behind second place. Plus one minute to fifth. Intermediate rain tyres on standby. Pit, pit, pit,' Enrico Finotto said.
"Copy, Enrico. Pitting."
After she had driven for another few hundred yards, she realised that the pits had told her she was in third place. Scrunching up her face underneath the helmet and the fireproof balaclava, she gripped the steering wheel even firmer and concentrated hard on staying on the track.
By the time she reached the yellow flag zone just beyond the first chicane on the Mulsanne Straight, the rain had started coming down harder. Soon, streaks of water began to run up the windshield, forced there by the car's advanced aerodynamics.
Track marshals had begun to push the stranded Nissan to a place of safety, and Francesca noted that they were partially obscured by a light mist that hadn't been there when she had passed them a lap earlier.
Once she reached the green flag, she stepped on the gas and went back up the gearbox. Her many years of experience kicked in and she started driving in a much rounder fashion, treating the steering wheel and the pedals with kid gloves.
The rest of the lap only saw the rain increasing, and by the time she reached Arnage, it had turned into a steady drizzle that made the already oily and greasy track treacherous to drive on.
She turned into Arnage as usual, but she suddenly felt the rear end wanting to swap places with the front. She quickly applied an armful of opposite lock but it wasn't enough to stop the rear end from coming around. As a last resort, she slammed on the brakes, but the car skidded off the track and bumped fairly softly into the tyre wall at the outside of the corner.
"Oh, maledizione! Questa stupida macchina del cazzo..." Francesca growled, shaking her head angrily. She selected first gear, blipping the throttle constantly while she waited for the track to clear so she could get back in the race.
Back in the motorhome, Kathleen figured the excitement was over for the time being, so she turned down the volume and got comfortable on the couch. Yawning widely, she reached for a pillow so her neck wouldn't get a crimp in it again.
'Oh, and there's another car in trouble... It's Maserati #1...'
"Ohhhhhhh!" Kathleen said and jumped up so fast that her knee hit the table, sending a bowl of salty crackers flying all over the carpet. Clutching her throbbing knee, she stared at the television and prayed to all the racing Gods she could think of.
'... a half-spin at Arnage. That's... uh, that's Francesca Carrara, waiting for a gap in the traffic... and she's off. Now, let's see if there's any damage at the back of that Mase... no, it looks good. That's four cars off on this lap alone. The conditions must be horrendous...'
When Francesca seemed to have escaped the spin unscathed, Kathleen let out a sigh of relief - and then she threw her hands in the air when she realised that she needed to pick up thirty salty crackers so she wouldn't grind them into the motorhome's carpet.
"Pits, I've been off at Arnage. Rearwards. Not too bad. Check the bodywork and the left-hand exhaust. Clear the screen. Need Inters pronto!" Francesca said on her way up to the Porsche Turns.
'Copy, Fran. Still position three. Check bodywork and exhaust. Inters are ready. Pit, pit, pit,' Enrico said.
"Copy, Enrico, still pitting."
Two minutes later, Francesca dove into the pitlane, driving right behind another car that she couldn't identify.
As she slotted into her pit, she could see that the car ahead did the same - when it came into the cone of light from a lamp on a gantry above the pitlane, she was able to recognise it - it was the red-and-blue #22 Nissan GTR.
Francesca's mechanics ran out of the pits and swarmed around the Maserati, attaching various hoses and checking the bodywork. Within moments of its arrival, the car was briskly lifted up in the air on the pneumatic jacks so the slicks could be taken off and the Inters be put on.
While the wheel guns were clattering away, Francesca could hear someone shouting from the rear of the car. She checked the left hand wing mirror and saw to her great relief that Giampaolo was giving the mechanics a thumbs-up.
When she looked ahead, she could see the Nissan mechanics remove the rear bodywork of #22 and a small spark of hope ignited deep inside her.
'Get ready, Fran. 5... 4... 3... 2... 1...'
The #1 MC12 dropped off the jacks and Francesca put her index finger on the starter button. The next thing she heard was the fuel hose being pulled off the car and the valve closing automatically.
'GO!' Giampaolo shouted, but before he had even finished speaking, Francesca had started the Maserati and was on her way up the pitlane on a fresh set of Intermediates.
Ten to four a.m., Francesca locked herself into the Knaus Sunliner motorhome, trying to be as quiet as she possibly could.
She tip-toed through the living room, but she only made it as far as the kitchenette when the sliding door to the bedroom was opened and Kathleen came running towards her, only wearing an oversized T-shirt and a pair of panties.
"Oh, Francesca," she said and pulled the driver into a strong embrace.
"How are things going?"
"Pretty well, knock on wood. Mario Balzani is in now. He's a veteran, he knows what to do," Francesca said and stifled a yawn.
"Where are you? I had to turn off the telly... the commentators gave me a headache."
"The race is on lap 204 and Toyota #7 is still in the lead. We're in seco..."
"Oh, really! God, I'm so glad to hear that," Kathleen said and hugged Francesca again.
"Well, thanks, but it's not over yet. There's a long way to go still."
"I know, but second is better than third. That's where you were when I went to bed. What happened?"
"Mercifully, the rain was short-lived, but it was hairy enough when it was here. Nissan #22 has been struck with the same problem as its sister car. They're still in third, though, one lap back from us. Listen, darling, I really, *really* need a shower..."
"Uh, of course. When are you due back in?"
"Not in a wee while. Mario will drive until six and then Fabio will do a triple. I need to back in the pits at eight."
"Great! Then we can cuddle," Kathleen said and crinkled her nose.
"Yeah... but I need the shower first," Francesca said and began to unzip her sticky driving suit.
At seven-thirty, a.m., Francesca sat on a chair, using a spoon to stir her cup of instant coffee. She had one eye on an official Maserati race update bulletin that Patrizia had just delivered to them, and one on the television that was droning on in the background as usual.
"Damn..." she muttered under her breath.
"Something wrong, dear?"
"Mario had a right rear go down on him during his second stint. Lap 231. He lost a lap and a half getting back and getting it fixed. Damn... We're back down to third place behind Toyota #7 and Nissan #22. Three laps off the lead now."
"Oh... but can't you catch the Nissan?" Kathleen said, wiping her hands on a towel.
"Well... we're sort of equally fast, so it'll be difficult."
Francesca went back to studying the bulletin, but the rest of the text didn't bring further unwanted drama.
"Fabio is driving now, and so far, he hasn't reported any knock-on effects from the puncture. It sounds like it was a biggie, though. They had to change the rear bodywork because the flailing rubber had torn it to shreds," Francesca said and put the piece of paper on the coffee table.
Out of the corner of her eye, Francesca noticed that Eurosport had begun to go through the top ten positions, so she quickly turned up the volume on the television so she could see for herself what was going on.
'...eader, the #7 Nippondenso Toyota GT-One, currently driven by Masanori Sekiya, has completed 262 laps and is one and a bit laps ahead of the delayed #22 Calsonic Nissan GTR of Richard LeMarie. In third place, we have Fabio Dellassandro in the #1 Mediterraneo Maserati; he's three laps down after the puncture that hampered Mario Balzani's progress in the very early hours of the morning,' Patrick Murphy, the Eurosport commentator, said.
Francesca commented on the bad news with a groan.
'In fourth place, which is quite sensational in my humble opinion, is the #5 Ford GT of Baker/Gomez/Wilds. Jonathan Baker is at the wheel. He's six, nearly seven laps down, but nobody had expected to see the Fords doing so well in their comeback race. After all, it's been nearly forty years since they were here last.'
'Or even still running at this time, frankly,' Derek Harrison said.
'Indeed. In fifth, we have...'
"All right, Jonno," Francesca said and gave the television a thumbs-up.
"Is Jonno still running?" Kathleen said and sat down on the couch.
"They're in fourth."
"Yep," Francesca said and took a long swig from the coffee. Furrowing her brow, she looked down at something that had been ground into the carpet just next to one of the legs of the table.
"Honey, did you throw a party in here last night before I came back?"
"We've got salt crackers all over the place..."
"Oh bother, I thought I'd got them all," Kathleen said and got up. "Hey, that was your fault, actually," she said, putting her hands on her hips.
"Yeah! If you hadn't slid off at Arnage, I wouldn't have bumped my knee on the bloomin' table and the crackers would have stayed in the bowl."
"Oh... well, in that case, I better help you vacuum them up," Francesca said with a chuckle and put the cup down on the table.
"Francesca! Francesca! Come quick!" Kathleen said, jumping up and down in front of the television.
"Whut? Where's the fire?" Francesca said as she hurried through the kitchenette with only one leg down the longjohns and the fireproof undershirt suspended around her neck.
"Right there! Look!"
The picture on the television clearly showed the #22 Nissan slowing on the Mulsanne with white smoke billowing out of the right hand side exhaust pipe.
"Ohhhh...!" Kathleen said, wrapping both her arms around Francesca and giving her a strong hug.
"But doesn't this mean you're in second place?"
"Yes. But I would've preferred to do it in a straight fight on the circuit," Francesca said and finished getting dressed.
"Does that really matter that much? Second is second."
"Yeah, well... but anyway, it's only ten to eight. Seven hours to go and absolutely anything can happen in that time."
"True... Francesca, why do you sound a little down? I thought everything was going fairly well?" Kathleen said, giving Francesca a little squeeze.
"Well, the truth is that we haven't been quick enough to consistently challenge for the lead. I think we got blindsided a bit by the Toyotas. We focused too much on the Nissans and we failed to see that the red-and-white cars were actually quicker. And more reliable."
"But you're in second? Oh, I'll never understand this game..."
Francesca chuckled and reached up to muss Kathleen's hair.
"We're three laps off the lead. There's no way we can catch that on our own. That's when it gets frustrating... when we have to rely on the misfortunes of others to improve our own position."
"But you can still win, can't you?"
"We can still win, and we're still going for the win, but at this point, I'd say our chances are less than, uh... less than they were before."
They turned around and watched the #22 Nissan being pushed off to the side of the road, its race over.
"I know exactly how that feels. Four years ago, I stopped just before the kink on the Mulsanne. That was my first year for Mercedes. I was at the wheel in seventh place when the gearbox shattered at nine in the morning," Francesca said and sat down on the chair so she could put on her racing boots.
"Le Mans can be a cruel mistress."
"I discovered that last year," Kathleen said, nodding to herself.
"Of course, Le Mans can also be a soothing lover if everything goes right," Francesca said and got up. She pulled Kathleen into an embrace and placed her hands directly on the author's perfectly sculpted derriere, earning herself a cute little yelp.
With a wink, Francesca gave Kathleen's backside a little squeeze and then she leaned down to place a loving kiss on her enticing lips.
'Fran, lap 297. Position two. Three laps to leader. Plus seven laps to third, #5 Ford,' Enrico Finotto said over the radio.
"Copy, Enrico," Francesca said, flashing the headlights as she went past the pits to signal that she had understood the message.
Entering the Dunlop Chicane, she braked sooner than she had done earlier in the race, and she generally took it easy on the gearbox and the rest of the drivetrain so she wouldn't overstress any vital components so late in the proceedings.
Driving down the Chapelle and through the Forest Esses, she suddenly thought she could smell hot oil and she cast a worried glance at the gauges connected to the engine. When they all appeared to be in the green, she furrowed her brow and quickly checked the mirrors to see if she was trailing any smoke.
The second she entered Tertre Rouge, feathering the throttle in sixth and pulling 145 m.p.h., she discovered where the smell of oil had come from. As she was looking ahead, a yellow-and-red GT2 Porsche with plumes of pale blue smoke rising from the twin exhaust pipes came into view, pulling over to the right side of the track and parking up against the Armco barrier.
A split second later, two marshals furiously began to wave yellow flags to warn Francesca of what she had already seen and was trying desperately to avoid - the Porsche had deposited a large puddle of oil right in the middle of the corner.
Another split second further on, she knew she wouldn't be able to miss the oil.
When she hit the puddle, the #1 Maserati snapped sideways and she instantly depressed the clutch and grabbed an armful of opposite lock to keep the car from going into the guard-rail lining the track. Once it had cleared the puddle, it snapped back just as hard and Francesca quickly turned the steering wheel back the other direction to try to keep up with the fishtailing car.
Thirty yards further down the track, the car finally settled down and Francesca selected third gear and drove on. Checking the mirrors thoroughly, she could see another car hit the guard-rail hard behind her, and she knew that the safety car would be deployed.
'Fran, safety car, safety car! Caution, oil at Tertre Rouge,' Giampaolo said over the radio only a few moments later.
"Thanks, pits. I've noticed."
'It looks like it could be a long one. Pit, pit, pit.'
"Copy. Pitting," Francesca said and eased off the throttle as she came up to the first marshal holding a yellow flag and the 'SC' sign.
At much the same time, Kathleen walked through the back door to the Maserati pits and entered the spectator enclosure. She claimed her favourite lawn chair by putting down a plastic bag on it, and then went searching for a hankie so she could wipe her hands of the residue of the sticky croissant she had just eaten.
Out on the track, two cars went by the pits at a much lower speed than usual - and then the main grandstand suddenly fell silent.
The eerie silence sent an ice cold shiver running down Kathleen's spine as she experienced a deja vu of Francesca's accident from the year before. Forgetting all about the hankie, she spun around and stared at the flatscreen television suspended on the wall.
The camera at Tertre Rouge showed a yellow car buried deep into the guard-rail on the left side of the circuit, and Kathleen breathed a sigh of relief. At the same time, she could see that it was a serious accident, and she covered her mouth with her hand.
Marshals came running towards the yellow car, all carrying fire extinguishers even though the car wasn't actually on fire. The camera turned around and followed a medical car and an ambulance entering the circuit through a gate on the outside of Tertre Rouge.
Kathleen realised that the sound had been muted on the television, and she started looking around everywhere to find the remote. Finally finding it on the small shelf at the back wall of the pits, she hurried back to the TV and turned on the sound.
'... serati #33, driven by Olivar, Capillino and Guerrero, formerly in ninth place, fourteen laps down. We believe it's Benito Guerrero in the car. It was a very bad hit, almost head-on into the guard-rail on driver's left of the circuit. Two cars had been off before Guerrero arrived, the second-placed #1 Maserati and the #96 Ferrari F430, but they were both able to continue,' the Eurosport commentator said in a sombre voice.
Kathleen got the shivers when she heard that Francesca had been off as well and she turned around to see what was going on outside the pits. Both crews appeared to be standing by, ready for the #1 and #2 cars to come in.
Eurosport cut to a commercial, so Kathleen picked up the headset instead, only holding it to her ear so she'd still be able to follow Eurosport when they returned.
'Pits, four new rubbers. I flatspotted all of them,' Francesca's voice said from the headset, prompting Kathleen to put it on fully.
'Copy, Fran. Still position two. Three laps to leader.'
A few moments later, Francesca slid the car to a halt right in front of the Maserati pit. Kathleen craned her neck to try to follow as much of the pitstop as she could, but she was too far back to see any details.
As soon as the car went up in the air, the mechanics attached the fuel hose and began to change tyres. One man sprayed a cleaning foam onto the windshield and began to wipe it down, wildly moving his arm back and forth to clear off all the crushed French bugs.
'Get ready, Fran. 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... GO!' Kathleen heard Giampaolo say; as soon as the car was back on the ground, Francesca started it and left the pits, seemingly without drama.
Licking her suddenly dry lips, Kathleen turned back to the television with a worried look on her face. Eurosport still wasn't showing pictures from the accident, something she knew was a bad sign.
The producer cut to show Francesca drive out of the pits and blend in with the train of cars that followed one of the three pace cars. The black-and-turquoise car began to weave back and forth to keep some heat in the tyres, and Kathleen found herself wishing that the race would soon be over. She checked her watch - twenty past nine, a.m..
'Still more than five and a half hours to go...' she thought and sighed deeply.
A few minutes later, Giampaolo walked into the pits, holding a clipboard and his two indispensable stopwatches. When he spotted Kathleen, he waved briefly but then concentrated on talking to one of the computer engineers.
'... octors are helping Guerrero out of the car now. Like always, they're treating it very seriously by putting him on a stretcher and fitting a neckbrace. Dear viewers, please don't jump to conclusions based on these pictures. These days, when a driver is extricated from a wrecked car, the medical personnel always follow the universal procedure known as 'better safe than sorry', and in my opinion, that's a very good development,' the Eurosport commentator said.
'I agree. When I started racing, it was completely different. A lot of injuries and even fatalities could've been prevented had we had something similar to what's on offer today,' Derek Harrison said, making Kathleen shiver yet again.
Patrizia walked into the pits, apparently blissfully unaware of the accident on the track. In her hand, she was holding a pencil and a small notepad that she used to take orders from the engineers and technicians.
"Salve, signorina O'Malley. You want some coffee? English coffee?" she said when she arrived at the spectator enclosure.
"Uh, hi, Patrizia. Yes, a cup of coffee sounds good. Thank you. I could use a strong one, actually," Kathleen said with a smile.
"A strong one? Espresso?"
"Uh, no... never mind. I'd like a regular coffee, please."
"Okay. Two minutes," Patrizia said and darted off out of the pits.
"No need to rush, Patrizia. I'll be here for the rest of the race," Kathleen said loudly, but the young girl was already long gone.
'Fran, safety car in this lap, safety car in this lap,' Giampaolo said.
"Copy, pits. Where am I?"
'Ninth in the queue. Leader of the race is at the head of the queue you're in. Four GT2s, three GT1s between him and you.'
'That's something at least. Maybe I can unlap myself,' Francesca thought and got herself prepared for the restart. Driving through the Playstation chicane on the Mulsanne, she was still weaving left and right and checking the gauges from time to time.
'Fran, your safety car will stop at the end of the Mulsanne. Repeat, your safety car will stop at the end of the Mulsanne. You'll get the green flag at the end of the Mulsanne.'
"I understand, pits. I'm ready. I can't see the safety car from here. Let me know when it leaves."
'Will do, Fran. Stand by.'
The train of cars drove through the kink at greatly reduced speed, almost like everyone was waiting for the safety car to pull off the track so they could resume the race - just when Francesca thought that the plans had changed, the lights went out on top of the safety car and it peeled off to the right, out of the way of the cars behind it.
'Green, green, green!'
Everybody accelerated at once, feeding in the power and going up through the gears. Even before she reached Mulsanne Corner, Francesca disposed of two of the GT2 cars between herself and the #7 Toyota, and then she lined up the first of the privateer GT1s going up through the forest.
After sweeping over the first and the second brows, she ducked out from behind a privateer Nissan and drove side by side with the white-and-blue Nichi-Ra GTR for nearly six hundred yards. The other driver was apparently reluctant to let her pass, because he didn't back off until they reached the braking point at Indianapolis.
Francesca growled under her breath as the botched overtaking manoeuvre forced her to brake on the unfavoured side of the track, but she soon calmed down and concentrated on catching the red-and-white Nippondenso Toyota ahead of her so she could unlap herself.
By the time she reached the entry to the Porsche Turns, she only had one GT1 car between her MC12 and the leader - but that was one of the other Toyotas, the #37 Yamashi Galleries car.
She was right up its tailpipes as she went into the first of the fast sweepers, balancing the throttle carefully so she wouldn't lose any downforce by getting too close to the car in front. By the third of the Porsche Turns, she realised that the privateer Toyota wasn't driving to its full potential and was acting as a very effective cork in a bottle.
Francesca decided to play it coolly and not get flustered by the obvious stalling tactics. She let herself fall back slightly so her aerodynamics would work better and to get fresher air into the radiators.
Coming into the Ford Chicane, she tried an opportunist manoeuvre down the inside of the Yamashi Galleries Toyota that took the other driver completely by surprise. Even as the Toyota was getting blue flags, telling it to move over, Francesca was blasting past on the inside.
After successfully negotiating the chicane, she drove onto the front straight and went up through the gearbox, letting the twelve stretch its legs more than she had allowed it to before the safety car had gone out. In the distance, she could see the race-leading Toyota drive into the soft kink that would take it up to the Dunlop Chicane.
'Fran, lap 302. Position two. Three laps and six seconds to leader. Plus eight laps to third, #5 Ford,' Enrico Finotto said.
'A bit of gamesmanship from the #37 Yamashi Galleries Toyota there. Not really necessary at this point of the race, I would've thought, especially not from a car that's in seventh place. Who's driving it at the moment...? Oh, how piquant, it's Tomiko Kageyama, the Japanese lady racer. I doubt Francesca Carrara will add her to her Christmas card list. Further down the field, we have...'
In the pits, Kathleen had finally sat down on her lawn chair, thinking that she had better preserve her energy until the final hours. Crossing her legs at the knee, she leaned back on the chair and put her arms behind her head.
Around her, some of the other guests had begun to drop in. They were talking excitedly amongst themselves but only a few of them dared go anywhere near Kathleen, no doubt scared off by her hard stare and the no-nonsense expression she was wearing.
Fabio came into the pits from the other side holding two Styrofoam cups of coffee. When he saw Kathleen sitting by the television, he walked over to her and stepped over the strings of plastic forming the spectator enclosure.
"Ciao, bella Kathleen," Fabio said and kissed her on both cheeks like he always did.
"Hello, Fabio. Is that my coffee?"
"Yes, Patrizia suddenly had a lot to do over in the tent so she asked if I would mind," Fabio said and gave Kathleen one of the cups. Once he had a free hand, he pulled up a lawn chair and sat down next to Kathleen.
"We've hardly spoken this weekend," Kathleen said with a smile. She took a little sip of the coffee, finding it to be pretty good.
"Well, I've been busy, you know."
"Oh, I know. Second place isn't bad at all, in my opinion."
"It isn't, but... I was second last year. I'd like to go one better this year."
"I understand. At least you're, uh..." Kathleen lowered her voice and leaned in towards Fabio, glancing left and right to make sure no one was close enough to hear them. "At least you're beating Luca."
Fabio nodded, grinning cheekily.
"When are you going back in?"
"On lap 311 if everything goes to plan. Plenty of time to talk to the most beautiful donna here," Fabio said with another grin.
"Careful, Fabio. I'm going to tell Francesca you said that," Kathleen said and thumped Fabio's shoulder.
"Go ahead. She'll agree!"
When Eurosport returned from an ad break, the camera caught several Nippondenso Toyota mechanics lining up in the pitlane, seemingly preparing for a pitstop.
'That's strange... are we expecting a Toyota #7 pitstop? Didn't we just have one? Let me see... yes, they were in only six laps ago. Derek, do you suppose they're trying to trick the opposition?' the Eurosport commentator said.
Both Kathleen and Fabio lost their smiles and sat up straight in their chairs, staring hard at the television.
'No, I don't, frankly. With three laps in hand, what would be the point?'
'You're right. This could be an important development in the race which is on... uh, lap 307. Let's hope the camera picks up the Toyota before it returns to the pits. Perhaps the driver has reported a vibration or a slow puncture.'
Kathleen began to lick her lips, suddenly realising what could happen if the cards fell right. On the TV, the camera found the #7 Toyota driving up through the forest from Mulsanne Corner. Several hundred yards behind it, Francesca's black-and-turquoise Maserati could be seen in some of the long shots.
"Fabio, can you see anything wrong with the Toyota?"
"Mmmmmm, no. It's got four good tyres. Headlights are strong... no smoke or steam. Maybe the driver has got a cramp. That can happen so easily."
"Really? But I thought you were all top fit?" Kathleen said without taking her eyes off the television.
"I remember last year in Mosport... Gio and I were leading, but I hadn't been drinking enough so I got a cramp in my left calf. Hurt like a sonovabitch. I had to come in out of sequence, and in the end, it cost us the race."
On the TV, the Toyota went through the Porsche Turns, seemingly going at its usual speed. Kathleen scrunched up her face and scratched her hair. A few moments later, the #7 peeled off into the pitlane.
'And there we have the Toyota, the leader of the race, getting onto lap 308 as it crosses the line in the pitlane. Oh, this could be a crucial moment in the race if they're having some sort of problem. The #1 Maserati of Carrara, Dellassandro and Balzani is three laps down, but that's only slightly more than 10 minutes on the track. Let's see what they do... the refuellers are ready, but that's standard. They're changing the tyres... Oh! They're taking off the rear bodywork! They do have a problem!'
The massive crowd in the main grandstand all responded by oooh'ing loudly and rising to their feet, a gesture that was mirrored in the pits by both Kathleen and Fabio.
'What are they doing? Are they... yes, it looks like they're dumping water down the radiators, trying to flush them or cool them off. It looks like they have some sort of overheating issue. Where is the second placed car...? Okay , Carrara has just gone past, but that was to unlap herself once. They still have some distance to go.'
"Ohhh... come on, come on, Francesca," Kathleen said, crossing her fingers and staring wide-eyed at the TV.
'Yes, but the leader is stationary and the Maserati is still going round. Like you said, Patrick, this is a crucial moment in the race,' Derek Harrison said.
'Lap 305. Position two. Three laps off the leader. Plus eight laps to third, #5 Ford,' Enrico said when Francesca went past the pits to commence yet another lap.
"I copy, Enrico. When am I pitting?"
'In six laps, Fran. Pitstop in six laps.'
'The bodywork is going back on... the mechanics are clipping it on as I speak. Right, that unscheduled stop took roughly three minutes. The #1 Maserati has gained nearly a full lap of the three it was behind, but if the Toyota can get back to the sort of lap times it did prior to this problem, it should still be more than enough to maintain the lead. Shigeaki Hattori brought the car in and they haven't swapped drivers.'
"Mmmm..." Kathleen said, feeling slightly disappointed over the fact that after all that excitement, the problem was apparently only a minor one.
'And he's off down the pitlane. Shigeaki Hattori takes the #7 Nippondenso Toyota GT-One back into the race, still in first place.'
"Perhaps he'll be flustered enough to forget to use the pit speed limiter... nah," Fabio said, studying the television intently.
Kathleen sat down with a sigh and folded her arms over her chest. Sighing, she wished she had a bottle of chilled white wine to calm her frazzled nerves.
"Well, Kathleen, the company has been charming as always but I'm afraid I have to leave you now. I'm going into the car in a few laps," Fabio said and patted Kathleen on her shoulder.
"Ciao, Fabio. It was nice talking to you. Drive carefully," Kathleen said and put out her hand.
"Thanks. I will. Ciao," Fabio said and leaned in so he could kiss both Kathleen's cheeks. With a wave, he left the spectator enclosure and walked out to the perch on the wall between the pitlane and the track.
'We have the first sector time for the #7 Toyota and it looks okay... but of course, they weren't slowing down before they came into the pits with that overheating issue, so the figures could be inconclusive. All we can do up here in the tribunes is to keep an eye on the red and white car. So... what else is going on...?'
Kathleen tried to pick up the headset to listen in on Francesca, but even though the race engineer was often feeding Francesca titbits of information, she typically only replied with 'okay' or 'copy', and after a few minutes, Kathleen got bored by it and put down the headset on the small shelf.
On lap 310, Francesca drove into the pitlane entrance and navigated the tight chicane that mirrored the track. As she put her thumb on the pit lane limiter, she began to loosen her seatbelts so the swap would be quicker.
It didn't take her long to drive down the pitlane and she was soon slotting into the space in front of the Maserati pit. Removing the seatbelts, she jumped out of the #1 car and helped Fabio get in - a scant minute and a half later, the reigning world champion left the pits with a glorious howl from the twelve.
Even before she had taken off her helmet, Francesca ran across the pitlane, headed for the personnel perch on the pitwall.
"Giampaolo, you wanted to speak to me...?"
Giampaolo partially took off his headset and turned around so he was facing Francesca.
"Yes, it looks like the leader is in trouble. They had an unscheduled pitstop to clean the radiators. After that, they've been running five, sometimes ten seconds off the pace to preserve the car. It's still not enough for us to catch them on the track, but I've told Fabio to press on. We might be able to stress them," he said, gesturing with his hands.
"All right. Is Fabio going for a triple?"
"Yes, he'll be in the car until lap 350 or so."
"Okay. Excellent. I'll remain in the pits so I'll be ready in case you need me."
Giampaolo nodded and then turned his attention back to the computer monitors on the perch. Francesca stepped down onto the pitlane, waiting patiently for one of the GT2 cars to pass her. As soon as it was gone, she crossed the pitlane and ducked into the Maserati pits.
She went straight down to the back wall and grabbed a towel. As she was wiping her neck and her arms, she started to wonder why Kathleen wasn't there. She looked around and spotted the headset on the small shelf and then the plastic bag on the lawn chair. Shrugging, she went over to stand behind some of the computer technicians.
Five minutes later, Kathleen came back holding a half-full glass of white wine. When she noticed that Francesca had returned, she smiled sheepishly and drained the glass of its last contents.
"Hi," Kathleen said, discreetly dabbing a few drops of white wine off her lips.
"Hi, darling. Thirsty?" Francesca said and walked over to stand next to the spectator enclosure.
"Ah, yes. I needed a... well, I needed a glass of wine," Kathleen said and looked down, unable to hold Francesca's gaze - what she didn't see was that Francesca actually had a look of love in her eyes.
"It's all right, darling. I didn't expect you to turn into a teetotaller. It's perfectly all right for you to enjoy some wine when you want to. I know how much you like it."
"Thanks. For a minute there, I was afraid you might be angry. It was all that excitement with the Toyota... oh, did you hear about that?"
"Yes, Giampaolo told me. And darling, I wouldn't get angry with you over something like this. We're adults. And besides, I don't have you on a leash, do I?"
"A leash...? Hmmm...?" Kathleen said, adding a little wink.
"Well, that's for later. Much later. *Much*, much later."
"Indeed. Anyway, for the briefest of moments, I thought everything was going your way, but then the Toyota mechanics managed to get the car back into the race. Unfortunately."
"Well, yes, but you have to remember that they've worked just as hard for it as we have. Perhaps even more so after coming so close to winning it last year."
"I guess that's true. I didn't think of that," Kathleen said and put her hand on Francesca's elbow.
"One thing's for certain... down in the Toyota pit, there'll be a lot of people crossing their fingers right now," Francesca said and reached up so she could caress Kathleen's cheek.
'Oh... what's that? That's THE LEADER! DRAMA FOR THE LEADER ON LAP 347! I can't believe it... I can't believe that it's happened again... this is almost a mirror image of what we saw last year. The #7 Nippondenso Toyota GT-One has parked on the inside of the circuit just after Arnage!' the Eurosport commentator screamed.
In the pits, all the Maserati guests went silent at the same time - and then erupted into a cheer loud enough to make the rafters shake. Kathleen jumped up from the lawn chair and ran over to the television so she'd be able to watch without getting her view blocked by all the people dancing around and waving their arms in the air.
She started sucking on her lips, suddenly feeling a lot more nervous than she had anticipated she'd be. She tried to crane her neck to see where Francesca had gone off to, but she was nowhere to be found.
'The driver is out of the car, trying to get the bodywork off, but judging by the amount of steam escaping from underneath and behind the car, it's a waste of time. Now, don't forget, it's technically still in the lead, so if... who is driving it...?'
'It's Kaneichi,' Derek Harrison said.
'If Toshihiro Kaneichi can fix the malady himself and is able to continue, they still have a shot at winning the race... but... no, I don't think it's possible. His body language says that it's all over... Oh dear, that's the second year in a row they've lost Le Mans in the final hours, although for different reasons. Last year, it was the gearbox. This year, it appears to be related to the problem they had a few hours ago where the car began to overheat.'
'Quite tragic. They definitely didn't deserve this.'
The television pictures showed Kaneichi climb back into the cockpit, no doubt to radio back to the pits.
Kathleen began to chew on her fingernails, getting more and more nervous by the second. When she felt Francesca's calming hand on her shoulder, she turned around and wrapped her arm around the driver's waist.
"Don't say it. Now the worst part begins," Francesca said, leaning down towards Kathleen's ear so that she could heard over the din of the excited guests.
"The worst part...?"
"The anxious wait. The waiting is the real killer here at Le Mans."
"I'm going into the car in three laps' time. If everything goes well, I'll get to drive to the flag."
"Don't say it!" Francesca said and kissed Kathleen's forehead.
"I won't, love. I won't even think it," Kathleen said, nodding solemnly.
Out on the circuit, Kaneichi had been joined by a group of Toyota mechanics who were standing behind the guard-rail, trying to help him by telling him what to do in his attempts at fixing the car.
"Hey, wait a minute...? Are they allowed to do that?" Kathleen said, pointing at the screen.
"Yes, they can stand behind the Armco and shout at him, but they can't touch the car. That would be outside assistance and that would earn them an automatic disqualification."
"Oh... weird rules."
'Fabio Dellassandro in Maserati #1 has just gone by onto lap 347 and that means that when he passes the stranded Toyota in roughly three minutes' time, he'll take the lead,' the Eurosport commentator said, making Francesca take a deep breath.
"On a related note... Isn't it fun to see Jonno doing so well?" Kathleen said to take Francesca's mind off the obvious.
"Yes, it definitely is. I'm happy for them... although they won't be satisfied with being nine laps off the lead."
"Ohhhh! You're always so... so..."
"Something like that," Kathleen said and poked Francesca in the side.
"Well, they're a factory team, they're here to win. That's what we're all here for. They still have a long way to go. And next year, they won't even be able to use much of the information they've gathered this year once they drop down into GT2."
"I still think it was a very harsh decision to let Sally Sharpe go just like that."
"Darling, are you defending Sally? Not too long ago, you were ready to push her off a cliff...?"
"Well, yes, but once we got to know her, she turned out to be a nice woman."
"Who wasn't your rival."
"That, too," Kathleen said and leaned against Francesca's broad shoulder.
On the television, the camera picked up Fabio's Maserati as he turned right through Mulsanne Corner and began the trek up through the forest. The camera stayed with him as he drove through Indianapolis and the short straight leading up to Arnage.
Francesca took another deep breath and thrust her hands deep into her pockets.
As Fabio went through Arnage, the camera zeroed in on the Toyota and the people standing there. The despondency in their faces was clear to see as the black-and-turquoise Maserati MC12 blasted past them and up the curved straight that would take it to the first of the Porsche Turns - now in the lead of Le Mans.
Inside the Maserati pit, the guests erupted again, dancing around and chanting all sorts of things, but Kathleen and Francesca weren't among them.
Francesca's face gradually turned into a stoic mask that Kathleen knew acted as a defence mechanism for the anxiety brewing inside. Reaching down, she took the driver's cold hands and began to rub them to show her support.
Francesca gave Kathleen a wistful little smile and then leaned down to whisper a few words in her ear.
"Now the worst part begins..."
'Fran, take it easy. We're leading by nine laps. No heroics, no dramas, no rush. Get ready. 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... GO!'
Moments later, Francesca depressed the starter button and went off down the pitlane on a fresh set of tyres. When she reached the end of the pits, the blue light was flashing, giving her a warning that a car was close to overtaking her out on the track.
The GT2 Ferrari blew by her before she was up to speed but she caught up with it even before they reached the Dunlop Chicane. Not wanting to risk anything at such a late stage of the race, she decided to stay behind it all the way down the Forest Esses.
Once she reached the short straight leading up to Tertre Rouge, she ducked down the inside and overtook the GT2 car on the approach to the fast corner. Feeding the power in gently, she short-shifted in all the gears like she had been told, trying her best to save the car.
A short while later, she braked sooner than usual for the Nissan Chicane, moving cautiously into the bumpy right-left-right sequence. Upon leaving it, she checked the mirrors to see if she had anyone behind her who wanted to unlap themself, but found that the track was clear.
Short-shifting back up to sixth, she let the car slide over to the right hand lane to have the best line for the Playstation Chicane.
'And there's the new leader, Francesca Carrara in the #1 Mediterraneo Maserati MC12. I won't say that she's cruising, but she's definitely not going to her full potential. More like 85%, actually,' the Eurosport commentator said.
'Yes, a wise choice now. Nine laps ahead of the nearest competitor, ten laps ahead of the team car... rushing things now would be sublimely idiotic and none of those people are idiots,' Derek Harrison said.
"You better believe it!" Kathleen said loudly, still staring at the television. She had decided to keep standing right in front of the screen for the remainder of the race so she wouldn't lose a second in case someone blocked her view.
Around her, the other guests had settled down a bit, sensing that the race could still throw a spanner in the works. Thankful for the respite, Kathleen sighed and checked her watch - twenty to two.
'God, an hour and twenty minutes to go... I'm going to get a heart attack before this thing is over...' she thought and wiped her damp brow.
'I know it's much too soon to call the race, but if Francesca Carrara were to win, she'd be the first woman ever to stand on the top step of the podium here at Le Mans. And apart from the war years, the race has been going on since, uh... 1923.'
'Well, I got to know Francesca quite well last year, and let me tell you something, Patrick... right now, she couldn't care less about that. She just wants to be the first Francesca Carrara on the top step of the podium.'
'Welcome back to Le Mans. It's a quarter to three and we're on lap 380. We have good news and bad news. The good news is that we've received official word from the hospital that Benito Guerrero, the driver who crashed so terribly just after Tertre Rouge, is basically all right. He's battered and bruised and he'll spend the night at the hospital for observation, but he doesn't have any injuries beyond that,' the Eurosport commentator said.
'That's not good news, that's great news, Patrick,' Derek Harrison said.
'Indeed. The bad news is that, unfortunately, we won't have a new distance record this year. Francesca Carrara will need to do another eighteen laps to reach that, but that's out of the question now. My prediction is that we'll get to lap 383, possibly 384 if the timing isn't quite right.'
'Last year, the Maseratis only made 377 laps so the pace has quite obviously been even hotter this year. We've had a couple of safety cars and that brief spell of rain during the night, but that wasn't enough to hinder their progress.'
'That's right, although on one lap during the night, no less than four cars went off the circuit, including the current leader. Fortunately they were all able to continue. Right, we have time for one more ad break so we'll take that now. Don't go anywhere, we'll be right back.'
Kathleen folded her arms across her chest to stop herself from chewing on her fingernails. She was bopping up and down on her feet, trying to think of something else other than the race - like breathing - but failing miserably.
Her lips were reduced to two narrow lines in her face and she could feel that she had turned quite pale from standing up for such a long time, but she didn't care a bit about any of those things.
She checked her wristwatch for the umpteenth time in the last five minutes and sighed deeply when she realised that time wasn't going any faster just because she wanted it to.
'And there we have Francesca Carrara, about to go into the record books. She's going through the Porsche Turns now on lap 383, but it's still only a few minutes to three... Derek, do you think she'll slow right down now?'
'No, she won't. Don't forget that the rules clearly say that the last lap can't be more than seven minutes in total. If she slows down now, she'll exceed that.'
'Good point, Derek, I didn't think of that. All right, that means that we'll go to 384 laps in this race.'
As the leading Maserati went past the main grandstand to start the final lap, the crowd saluted it by waving large flags and by clapping and cheering wildly.
'Lap 384, Fran. Position one. Final lap. Easy does it. Plus nine laps to second place, plus ten laps to third,' Enrico Finotto said.
'Fran, enjoy the flag parade. Well done,' Giampaolo said.
"Thank you, but we're not quite there yet," Francesca replied as she braked into the Dunlop Chicane. Checking the mirrors, she noticed that Luca DiLorenzi had navigated his way through the field to slot in behind her - Giampaolo had no doubt been busy orchestrating a formation finish.
Behind the two black-and-turquoise Maseratis, a handful of other cars, both GT1s and GT2s, had latched onto the train of cars that circulated around on the final lap.
As Francesca came through Tertre Rouge and went onto the Mulsanne Straight, all the corner workers came out to stand at the edge of the circuit, waving all the flags they had - yellow, blue, green, white and red.
It finally dawned on Francesca that she was on the verge of fulfilling the dream she'd had since she was a teenager - she was really there, leading Le Mans on the final lap. The mental fatigue, the physical strain and the emotions she had bottled up inside her caught up with her and she began to cry. Soon, tears started to run down her cheeks and into the balaclava.
Knowing that a veil of tears and driving at 100 m.p.h. wasn't a good cocktail, she flipped open her visor and dried her eyes with her gloved hand. Sniffing a few times, she responded to the flag parade in the time-honoured fashion of flashing the headlights repeatedly as she passed by the groups of marshals.
'And that's it, it's three o'clock and the Le Mans 24 Hours is over! The clerk of the course is waving the chequered flag... the first car to take it is one of the GT2 Porsches. Congratulations to the Mediterraneo Maserati team and to Francesca Carrara and Fabio Dellassandro, both first-time winners, and to Mario Balzani who scores his second Le Mans victory,' the Eurosport commentator said.
'All Francesca has to do now is to get back to the line. But believe me, she's going through all kinds of emotions right now. She's normally so stoic and cool, but I know another side of her, a far more emotional side that doesn't often come out. But I guarantee that it's out now,' Derek Harrison said.
At the old signalling pits down at Mulsanne Corner, some fans had found their way through the fence and into the restricted area, and they proudly waved Italian and Mediterraneo flags to show their support when the two Maseratis came past them. Francesca answered them by flashing her headlights and by putting her hand through the small porthole in the Plexiglas window.
Going up through the gears, she was soon cruising along at 125 m.p.h. on the section of the track where her race had ended the year before. As she passed the fateful second brow, she briefly looked to her left at the field where her car had landed, feeling thankful for the time she had been given with Kathleen.
Turning through Indianapolis and Arnage, she looked at the forlorn sight of the abandoned #7 Toyota, once again she thanking her lucky stars that nothing major had gone wrong this time.
In the pits, a man Kathleen didn't know pushed a bottle of champagne into her hands, but she refused to take it.
"Forza, prendi la bottiglia di champagne!" the man shouted at her. She couldn't understand exactly what he said, but she got the gist and just shook her head.
"No. Not yet. Not until she's back at the line. Keep it," she said and handed the bottle back to the unknown man.
When Fabio and Mario Balzani came into the pits, the guests roared and practically threw themselves at them, but Kathleen just scrunched up her face and turned her attention back to the television.
'... rsche Turns, not long to go now. She just has to go through the remainder of the sweepers and the Ford Chicane and then she'll see the flag. Oh, this is history in the making. Quite extraordinary stuff. In fifty years, people will be talking about this event that saw a woman being crowned the winner for the first time.'
'Yes, but like I told you before, that doesn't matter one iota to her now. All she's looking for is that black and white tablecloth the clerk of the course is waving.'
"Come on, Francesca, come on..." Kathleen said, constantly shuffling left and right and holding her hands close to her heart.
After what seemed like ages, the #1 Maserati finally came through the Ford Chicane and went onto the pit straight. The main grandstand erupted with klaxons blaring all over the place and thousands of flags being waved, and the guests in the Maserati pit became more and more unruly by the second.
By the time the black-and-turquoise car finally crossed the finish line, Kathleen was so spent that she didn't even have enough energy left to let out a cheer - all she could do was to sit down with a bump on the lawn chair and cry into her hands.
Someone close to her pulled the cork out of the bottle of Champagne and began to spray it everywhere. The sticky liquid rained down on her, getting into her hair and soaking her Maserati team shirt, but she didn't even notice.
The flag marshals formed a line across the track and waved the cars into the pits, making them go into what had just been the pit exit.
Francesca slowed right down and opened the driver's side door so she could wave to the crowd in the main grandstand - the mob all responded by cheering and chanting her name and by waving all sorts of flags even more frantically.
When she reached the line of flag marshals, she turned the steering wheel as far right as it would go, trying to make it through the 180-degree turn without getting stuck on the inside wall of the pitlane.
Even as she entered the turn, she knew the steering wheel didn't have enough lock for the car to complete the manoeuvre, so she waved at the marshals to come and give her a helping hand.
With their help, she was able to complete the turn and drive into the pitlane. Once inside the pits, she was led into Parc Ferme by a marshal who was running ahead of the car to show her where she should park.
After she had parked in the slot marked #1, the marshal gave her a thumbs-up and ran back out to help the other cars. As the incredible heat from the engine came forward, Francesca quickly unbuckled her seatbelts and stepped out of the car, suddenly feeling an irresistible urge to find Kathleen and give her the kiss of a lifetime - unfortunately, she knew it would be a while before they'd have some privacy.
Taking off her gloves, her helmet and the HANS-device, she put them on top of the car. After zipping down her race suit, she put her index finger inside the balaclava and whipped it off, making her short hair shoot out in a dozen different directions.
"Eccellente lavoro, Francesca. Congratulazioni," Giampaolo said and put out his hand.
"Thank you, Mr. Razotti. Likewise. This was a team effort."
"It certainly was. Wait here, the shuttle will soon take you down to the podium. Errr, you might want to comb your hair first," the team manager said, adding a sly little wink.
"I know, I know," Francesca said, trying to smooth down her damp hair.
"Ben fatto, Carrara. Well done. I'll beat you next time," Luca DiLorenzi said, patting Francesca on her back.
"I doubt it, Luca. I've won three times in a row now. I don't think you've won at all this year... have you?"
"Oh, ha, ha, very funny. This championship isn't over yet and we have some of my favourite races coming up. I'll beat you, don't worry," Luca said, whistling.
Seven minutes later, the shuttle bus drove very slowly through the massive crowd that had assembled in the pitlane. Even though the driver had the hazard lights on and was honking constantly, the speed never rose above walking pace.
Francesca chuckled and used the sleeve of her driving suit to wipe off her sweaty neck. She felt unusually drained, but a quick look at the other two drivers that were sharing the bus with her - Luca, who was busy waving to the crowd, and Miguel Gomez, the driver of Jonno's Ford GT #5 - confirmed that they were all wearing the same, dead-tired expression on their faces. The young American in particular appeared to be almost shell-shocked as he was sitting like a statue, practising his 1000-mile stare.
A strong scent of sweat soon filled the small shuttle bus, and Francesca chuckled again and waved her sleeve in front of her nose.
"Oi, guv'nor, would you mind if I rolled down the window a little bit?" she said to the driver, but his only response was a Galic shrug and a shake of the head.
"Right. Never mind," Francesca said and decided to go for it anyway - but when she tried to turn the lever, she discovered that the window couldn't be opened.
"Aw, terrific. We've survived twenty-four hours but now we'll choke on our own exhaust fumes."
"Maybe we should just get out and run. I'm sure it'd be quicker," Miguel Gomez said, breaking his silence.
When the bus finally arrived at the bottom of the staircase leading up to the podium, the driver pressed a small button on the dashboard that made the door slide open.
Luca, Miguel and Francesca bounded from the shuttle bus, eager to get out into the fresh air. Francesca looked everywhere she could, but she was unable to see Kathleen's white-blonde mop of hair anywhere. With a grunt, she followed the other two up the stairs.
A split second after she had set foot in the ceremony room on top of the pit complex, she was tackled by Kathleen who came flying at her like a blonde Banshee.
"Oh, God!" was the only thing Francesca managed to pick up of the many, many things the sobbing Kathleen howled into the side of her neck.
"Shhhh, I've got you... I've got you," Francesca whispered into Kathleen's ear, lifting her off her feet and returning the crushing hug. She swayed back and forth, hoping to get Kathleen calmed down before the official ceremony started.
The clerk of the course, a distinguished gentleman in his late sixties, entered the ceremony room and began to shake hands with the drivers.
"If you're ready...?" he said, looking at the emotional scene just inside the door.
"I'm ready, Sir," Francesca said and lowered Kathleen down onto the carpet.
"I love you, Francesca," Kathleen said, wiping her nose on a completely soaked hankie.
"I love you, too, darling. Please sit down before you fall down. You're so pale..."
Outside, an emcee turned on his microphone and began to introduce the drivers from the third placed team. Luca, Donny Zorzi and Carlo del Bello all walked out onto the podium and began to wave to the crowd.
"I have to go, Kathleen. Please sit down..."
"I'm all right. I just got so... God, so emotional."
"I'll say!" Francesca said, kissing Kathleen's forehead.
"I'm all right... just go. I'll be waiting for you in here," Kathleen said, sniffing.
Someone whistled at Francesca and she looked up - it was Jonno, giving her a big thumbs-up just before he went onto the podium with Miguel Gomez and Franklyn Wilds, their third driver. She winked at him and then placed Kathleen in a chair that one of the officials had provided for her.
"And in first place... Mario Balzani... Fabio Dellassandro... and... Francesca Carrara!" the emcee said, holding out his arm to let the three drivers know that they should step outside.
Francesca came out last and was met by a massive cheer from the tens of thousands of people that had gathered down in the pitlane. The podium, built on top of a metal gantry that spanned the pitlane, was already quite full, and when several photographers came out after Francesca had taken her place on the top step, she suddenly got worried that it might collapse under the weight.
Behind the nine drivers, three large flags were hoisted up on tall flagpoles; Italian flags for the winners and the third placed crew and the Stars & Stripes for the second placed car. Moments later, the Italian national anthem began to play over the loudspeakers.
The grandiose fanfare at the start of the anthem was enough in itself to make Francesca choke up, but when the tune segued into the main part, she could feel the dam threatening to burst for real. Trying very hard to take her mind off the tears and to keep up appearances, she clenched her teeth and grunted along to the lyrics, but the words that escaped her lips never made much sense and certainly didn't follow the anthem.
Once the anthem ended, she raised her arms in the air and waved to the cheering crowd. After throwing her Maserati cap down into the pitlane, she leaned forward and rested her hands on her knees so the crowd below wouldn't see the tears - but then she realised that all the other drivers were tearful as well.
Looking towards the windows of the ceremony room, she quickly spotted Kathleen who was still bawling like a little child. Francesca chuckled and blew her partner a kiss that Kathleen seemed to intercept with her lips.
Five minutes later, all the drivers were running out of adrenaline and wanted nothing more than to sit down in the ceremony room. When they were finally released from the podium, Francesca hoisted up in her laurel wreath, her huge, golden trophy and the nearly empty bottle of champagne and walked on leaden legs towards the door that would take her back to Kathleen.
Once she had returned to where Kathleen was waiting, she put the laurel wreath and the heavy trophy down on the carpet and then sat down with a bump in one of the leather chairs. Resting her head on the chair's backrest, she let out a long, slow, dead-tired sigh.
Kathleen tried to smile, but all the crying had made her cheeks ache so much that it only turned into a faint crease. She got up from her own chair and almost fell into Francesca's arms, despite the driving suit being soaked with champagne and sweat.
"I love you, Francesca. I'm so proud of you. Congratulations..." Kathleen whispered.
"Thanks, darling. I love you, too. We finally did it."
"You did it..."
"No. We did it. I couldn't have done it without you. You've been my rock-solid foundation over the last year, and... and... I owe you so much."
"God, Francesca... I didn't do anything..."
"You were there and you loved me. That was enough."
"Shhh... no more words. Let's just enjoy the moment," Francesca said and gave Kathleen a little squeeze.
After pausing for a few heartbeats, Kathleen nodded. Closing her eyes, she leaned into Francesca's firm embrace, just enjoying the feel of the driver's strong arms around her body. Snuggling down, a contended smile spread out over her features and she let out a slight purr - she was exhausted, but very, very happy.
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