I’m sure you’ve done the same…. That journey, trip or weekend that you talk about for years but never go through with, never quite get round to organising. The Le Mans 24 Hours was that trip for me until this year!
My Uncle and Cousin (his son) make a bi annual pilgrimage to one of the oldest and most legendary motor races of all time that is Le Mans 24 Hours and this year my Dad and I were invited to join them. I was informed via a very excited phone call from my Dad which essentially stated that he had two tickets for Le Mans courtesy of my Uncle and that there was an empty passenger seat with my name on.
”A spare seat”?
”Yes, I’m taking the 3 litre”.
So it’s off to the boss with a pack of chocolate hobnobs and my best groveling face to tell him I don’t want to come to work, I want to ride shotgun to Le Mans in a vintage Bentley for the weekend and the ferry leaves on Thursday night so can I have the Friday off? After breaking the very bad news that he can’t join us as there won’t be room for him as well as the tent he eyes the biscuits and mutters his approval. Success!
Thursday evening sees the two of us making for the ferry in Portsmouth amongst the intermittent drizzle. The first point of call is an errand of nostalgia. Earlier in the car’s life it was owned by a young gent who lived in Southsea, he sought out the car and Dad at a classic show and related his fond memories of driving the seafront in the car as a younger man. He also produced a photograph of the car outside his Mother’s home in Southsea back in the 50’s. What an opportunity to re-stage the picture in 2016. Second point of call is a little local steakhouse which also happens to serve cold beer…. This weekend is going to be awful!
Overnight to Caens passes quickly and soon we’re burbling south in the french sunshine. It’s such a joy to be able to travel in an open car wearing one layer of clothing let alone it be warm enough for shorts. It’s been such a while since the car has been abroad that I’d forgotten how much more enthusiastic the people are about older cars, blowing their horns and hanging out of the windows to wave and take photos.
Traffic is surprisingly light around Le Mans and we reach our secondary campsite (the first choice was flooded the night before) with most of the day left for exploring. Tent up in record time and it’s off to find a bite to eat, wander through the stalls and end up in the pits…. what an atmosphere. Throngs of people hold cameras and phones above the heads of the row in front stretching their arms to get a picture of the team garages, mechanics crawling under and over the cars, tweaking and adjusting to the sound of air driven tools. A ‘hive’ really is the only way to describe the precision bustle before us and it is mesmerizing to watch the worker bees fuss around their Ferrari, Porsche and Corvette queens. We then walk out onto the circuit at the end of the start finish straight and up towards the Dunlop bridge which produces a childish smile on everyone’s face. There’s so much motor racing history here, legendary drivers and cars have graced this circuit for years and you can’t help but feel the tingle.
With the knowledge that the following day will be a long one we head back to the tent to settle into the camping chairs and have a glass of wine, however turning in early is not on Le Mans 24 Hours’ agenda. The early evening atmosphere is gearing up as people gather to watch various exotic classics, kit-cars, drift cars and super-cars streaming in. Engines are revved to the cheers and applause of the growing crowds and some choose to put on a small display, adding tyre smoke to the night air. Music and excited shouts are overpowered only by the cacophony of engines and the mixture of barbecues and tyre smoke creating a surreal scene more akin to a street party. All the senses are abused at once and the overall experience is unbelievable if a little anarchistic! It’s a long weekend and we make the decision to save ourselves for race night so it’s back to the tent to grab some shut eye to the distant sounds of the disco/barbecue/burnout contest.
Race day morning dawns bright and hot, the trusty Trangia is fired up to provide us with some hot water for coffee and does so with the same reliability it’s shown for longer than I’ve been alive (this thing has seen so much action it’s got medals)! Suitably caffeined up we head for the sound of racing at Tetre Rouge and I catch my first glimpse of action at Le Mans. The precursor to the main event is the Ferrari challenge and the selection of 458s ripping around the circuit is a great celebration of the marque and makes a fantastic support act for the race in the afternoon. Having built up an appetite for the racing we search for some lunch and head over to the grandstand to find seats for the start. And then the rain comes down, not for long, but enough to cause minor flooding on some parts of the track. The rolling start becomes 6 laps behind the pace car as the track steams and the racing line drys out. And suddenly they’re off with a crescendo of engines as the jostling mass of cars shoot past, up under the Dunlop bridge and out of sight. From there we move to Tetre Rouge corner which provides great entertainment watching the cars tackle the fast curves before accelerating away down the beginning of the Mulsanne straight. A swift glimpse of a Porsche 911RSR as it howls past, closely followed by a Corvette C7 R its V8 vibrating the very pit of the stomach. Then the LMP cars of Toyota and Porsche at such incredible speed it seems impossible, then Ford’s new GT chased by a gaggle of screaming Ferrari 458’s…. The sight, sound and smell is fantastic.
It’s surprising how quickly the time passes as we drag ourselves away from the racing to a little pizzeria. For someone who’s never been to Le Mans before it takes a long time for it to sink in that it’s 24hours long. That sounds obvious if you’ve ever heard of the Le Mans 24hrs (emphasis on the last part) but it took a while to realise that I’d had two meals, they’re still going round and when I get up in the morning they’ll still be going round with over six hours left! Pizza demolished we make for Arnage with night falling.
If it wasn’t impressive enough already, the night racing is something else. Headlights carving through the darkness accompanied by the red, green and blue class identification lamps, such a sight could only be enhanced by being about ten feet from the side of the track and the earsplitting sound of engines at full throttle. Brake discs glow on the approach as the cars brake late for the corner and then howl away between the trees followed by their tail lights. Most noticeable were the Porsche LMP cars which had such acceleration out of Arnage corner that they boggled the mind, and they’re hybrids! So mesmerizing was this scene that the next time I looked at my watch it was nearly 3 in the morning. Eyes wide, we retired to our campsite and turned in to listen to the now familiar sound of engines.
The following morning was bright and warm again, and guess what? They were still going! Of course they are, they’ve got until 3 o clock….. but it’s still amazing! With coffee drunk and the tent packed up we spend the morning at Tetre Rouge where the pace has in no way slackened. Surprisingly no one seems to be having to take it easy or preserve the car, the speeds are still incredible as an Aston Martin proves by using a bit more road than there is on the exit before galloping off down the Mulsanne straight. Drama on the big screen as the privately entered corvette we’ve been cheering for is centre stage with it’s nose in the tyres. We know of one of the drivers, Olly Bryant, who is a very accomplished driver in classic sports car racing amongst other genres so it’s a shame to see the team out this close to the end. 10 minutes later though, the same car roars past with just as much pace as it had before and a new matt black pattern covering the front end. Sometimes you just can’t beat tank tape!
Unfortunately our ferry times meant we had to leave before the end, though that did mean that we missed the traffic, but after another cracking vintage drive through France we watched the finish from the bar at the ferry terminal. Porsche did well out of this year with first overall, overtaking Toyota on the last lap when they got into mechanical difficulties which must have been devastating. However, Toyota came second with their sister car and Audi third. Ford made a very impressive effort with the new Ford GT finishing 1st, 3rd and 4th, but they couldn’t keep a Ferrari 488 from sneaking in to take 2nd for the Risi Competizione team in the GTE pro class.
As the ferry starts out of Caens we relive all that we’ve seen, chattering excitedly over each other and hardly touching our drinks. It was a fantastic experience for me and definitely one that I want to repeat, the sights and sounds, the Le Mans party atmosphere, all was fantastic.