One race, 24 hours: that’s a whole lot of endurance. Modern Traveller experienced the exhilaration and exhaustion of the 24 Heures du Mans.
It’s an event known within the motorsport community simply as “The Big One”. It lasts for an entire 24 hours, with 60 teams of three drivers (who take turns hurtling around the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe) competing against each other, the clock and, ultimately, the race itself.
There’s no question that going the distance at Le Mans is a slog – for fans and teams alike. Yet, despite the exhaustion, teams turn up year after year to run their cars ragged around the part-street course, just as fans – in their hundreds of thousands – return, pilgrimage-like, to the campsites, banks and grandstands of this hallowed place.
Why? Because, as we found out, it possesses a drama, all-encompassing, unlike any other form of motor-racing – or, indeed, sport. Since its outset, well before the days of the World Endurance Championship of which it now forms a part, the 24 Heures du Mans has been the ultimate test of man and machine – and that remains very much the case today.
Sitting on the terraces of the pit straight, opposite the garages in which teams anxiously await the 3pm start of the race, there is in the air a tangible excitement which sends shivers down the spine. Cars line up in traditional Le Mans fashion – diagonally slanted on the far side of the grid – ahead of the formation lap, as mechanics and celebrities alike descend upon the crowded straight.
With high stands on both sides, the scale of sound is epic, as grid girls with t-shirt guns fire up the crowd further, before the French Air Force arrive in a Eurocopter to deliver the Tricolor that Brad Pitt will use to start the race, its rotors sending a thunderous downdraft which acts as a bass drum to the capacity crowd’s cheers of awe and anticipation.
As the famous Rolex clock ticks ever closer to the green flag moment, umbrellas begin to appear: we experience our first Le Mans moment. With mere minutes to go until the off, the heavens open, sending teams into a flurry of action, deciding which tires to fit, as dignitaries and public figures dash for the dry refuge of the pit building. The fans? They’re revelling in it.
A stirring rendition of La Marseillaise leaves no doubt: the French are out in force, and no downpour will dampen their spirits. Even as it’s announced that the race will begin behind the safety car – essentially a lead vehicle which limits the pace of the pack – there’s no fall in the fervour of the fans. They’ve come to see a spectacle, and they’re staying until they get it.
Lap after lap goes by until, finally, with the sun out and clothes damp, 3.48pm sees the safety car pull in and the field of 60 roaring machines – a mixture of tuned road-going cars and specifically designed prototype vehicles – unleashed. Deafening doesn’t quite cut it: the noise is one that you feel, vibrating through your body as engines whine, roar and bellow between the stands towards the first corner.
Just an hour later, it’s clear why fans love this event so much: aside from the ragged-edge driving, the top speeds of more than 200mph down the infamous Mulsanne Straight and the excitement of driver changes, there have been five leaders (out of six in the leading group) in just 60 minutes of green-flag racing. Gone are the days of the long-haul outlook: strategy is, of course, key, but this is very much a sprint from start to finish.
Feeling fatigued by the near-endless excitement, as up and down the field positions change, cars struggle on the still-drying track and pit stops occur at breathtaking pace, we take a hike along to our Maison Blanche campsite, to re-fill our flasks and take stock. Atmosphere, though, pervades: all around, engines rumble and fans – whether trackside or taking a break – seem to bask in the glow of this most glorious show.
Hopping up onto the bank at the exit of the Porsche Curves, a set of sweeping bends which undulate and slingshot cars at stunning speed into the Ford Chicane, there’s no video screen – but that doesn’t matter. Some are tuned into the radio commentary, others are not; but everyone standing here is happy simply to observe and absorb. A Corvette thunders past, followed by a front-running Porsche in a different class which whines and weaves along the tarmac, overtaking at terrifying speed.
It’s a breathtaking sight – and the keen attention is telling of an attitude shared by fans of this form of racing: it’s all about being here, witnessing brake discs glowing as the sun sets and an Aston Martin sending it sideways at 120mph. Sure, the strategies and politics amplify the excitement – from Fords attempting to avoid speed restrictions to Audis seemingly set to loose their podium streak – but the power in person is unparalleled.
Taking the free shuttle bus down to the Indianapolis and Arnage corners, to watch the on-track action from the newly remodelled spectator zone, the forest setting of this portion of the track creates an almost ethereal sense of speed, as vehicles seem to glide between the bends, the crowds’ heads turning in unison to follow their progress. It’s a place of near-silent adoration, where the shared religion is the pursuit of pace, and the glorious god seems to run on rails between barriers and gravel traps.
To the uninitiated, this is round-and-round repetition of the most laborious kind; to those who stay up all night, from the setting of the orange sun to its rise again (signalling the start of “happy hour”), to revel in this spectacle, it’s ecstacy. Watching trackside at the Dunlop Esses, as the mighty machines and their eyes-on-stalks steerers thread through the turns to Tertre Rouge, a scarily speedy right-hand sweep, the headlight trails dance and drift in a way you’ll see nowhere else.
These aren’t the safely lit streets of the Singapore Grand Prix: this is a through-the-night trial of the highest order, and it’s utterly astounding. Spins, shunts and oil spillages attest to the strain it places upon drivers and rides alike, this treacherous test of nocturnal concentration.
With the weather clear and no more rain on the horizon, it’s a surprise just how packed the banks remain through the darkness and into the light. Some snooze in sleeping bags, others stroll – like us – running on caffeine and adrenaline, four-wheeled wonders whizzing past just feet from the fence behind which they stand.
Eventually, most take at least a nap. We retire to the air-bed comfort of our tent to grab 5 hours of fitful sleep, finding the land of nod a difficult place to journey to. Sleeping at Le Mans, knowing that the action continues just metres away, is like trying to doze off on Christmas Eve – but one must take a break, to fuel up for the finale.
And what a finale it is: building through the morning, on a day hot, dry and perfect for racing, the twists and turns of the race continue to the last, through every class, with time tight and limits near. Come midday, there’s still all to play for, particularly in the overall standings. After 21 hours, a mere minute separates the first two runners, as the fans begin to crowd onto the banks once again, and a general surge towards the finishing straight ensues.
Into the last hour and something of a hush descends: a Toyota is leading, closely followed by a Porsche, and they continue to rumble up the straights and through the corners. The remaining runners – and there are a remarkable number of them – fly past the chain-link fencing in front of fans who are still as enthralled as 23 hours previously.
Then, as it’s all looking cut and dried, a final Le Mans moment of drastic consequence: on the penultimate lap, the front-running Toyota develops a terminal issue. It pulls up to a halt on the finish line, a lap away from glory and no way of moving. Eventually, it creeps onwards, but not before it’s overtaken by the second-place Porsche, destroying dreams of a maiden victory and – cruelly – emphasising what this race is all about: endurance.
A lap or two of parading leads the machines back to the pits and parc fermé, before the crowd are – in classic fashion – permitted access to the track, with many sprinting for a spot under the podium, as others pose for photographs or ride their bicycles around the miles of the circuit.
For as long as it has run, the race concludes with surprising rapidity: stopped are the sonorous thunderings of the last 24 hours, replaced with an eery emptiness, filled only with the chatter of captivated attendees who are left wondering whether the spectacle so suddenly ceased was of this earth.
Was it? We’re still not sure – but our chests are pounding, our ears buzzing and our hearts aflutter. Le Mans? We loved it – and, sitting on a ferry home that’s carrying a hold full of exotic fan vehicles, all stickered-up in honour of the race, it seems we’re not alone.
WORDS & IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS
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