How does the idea of going to Le Mans take hold? It starts with a spark. Maybe it was a car you once saw that’s evocative of the place. Or a contemporary GT race? It’s likely that’s it’s a story told by someone else about from their first trip – something usually istold wide-eyed, almost unbelieving of the enormity of the event. Le Mans is so much more than a race. For me, as mentioned in our Things To Do Before You Die piece, it was the Silk Cut Jaguars of the late ’80s. So it seemed appropriate for my trip this year to start with that car – if only a model…
My family always used to holiday in the south of France when I was young, and my father used to ‘accidentally’ stop at an auberge on the Mulsanne (technically the Hunaudieres) straight – rather like we ‘accidentally’ detoured once into Belgium to see the Waterloo battlefield. So the track’s iconic logo was etched into my mind at a young age – though it took until 1999 for me to return to watch the actual race live.
This year Le Mans started in France: rather than driving down on my own from London, I flew down to Toulouse in south of France: there I’d meet my father for the drive back up France towards the prize. Reluctantly, I left his Jag behind…
Needs are simple for Le Mans. Somewhere to sleep; something to drink.
The journey up from the south takes a little less time than from England, though I knew I’d miss the Brit convoys that stream over from the UK.
Things didn’t look good to begin with, weather-wise. I’d been nervously studying the forecasts , which had rain clouds gathering over La Sarthe throughout the week… Leaving the Lot department and heading north, the rain was streaming down.
Brand association is an important thing at Le Mans: just like other classic races, it attracts fierce loyalty – particularly when there are niche sportscars taking on the big guns. This year it’s the turn/return of Lotus and the Evora in GTE, so we carried a bit of Lotus mercy to counteract the Bavarian car. Another tradition is listening to the Radio Le Mans preview podcasts: a great way to while away the hours on the road.
You know you’re close when the brown cultural points-of-interest signs show a change from the string of chateaux you’ve been driving past.
Like Spa, less and less of the track is publicly accessible, and the concrete wall has now extended further and further round the circuit. However, the positive side is the amount of art that’s been painted on the wall.
We’d be camping right in the heart of the circuit, which meant navigating down through Arnage town. Arnage is always awash with people before and during the race and the usual Renaults and Peugeots supplemented by rather eclectic fare. I have no idea why I still have a soft spot for the Triumph TR7. They were rubbish. There was the MKIV Supra to make up for it though.
The classics come rolling out come Le Mans: rear-engined 911s might be threatened but I don’t think you can beat the purity of this shape.
And where there’s a Porsche at Le Mans, of course there’s a Ferrari. As with a lot of cars that make the pilgrimage here, this 328 GTS was sporting additional vinyl decoration in celebration of the event.
God forbid you had a dirty car: the cars on track might be looking second-hand by the end of the weekend, but every car-wash we passed had a line of cars waiting to go through.
Is it wrong that Gulf stripes can make even a Mondeo look okay? I’m sitting next to Gulf International’s press office in the media centre – he mentioned something about litigation over unauthorised brand exploitation…
Through Arnage village and off the the left, and you pass under the infamous Porsche Curves section of Le Mans. Once on the interior of the track, you’re in a self-contained motor racing country: the United State Of Le Mans.
Navigating through the crowds to the campsite, we had our first sight of another united state: the ever-passionate, ever-orange-clad Dutch fans. Always recognisable, always singing!
Campsite located, the first thing to do was get the tent up. I want to point out that I did help, not just take photos…
A forest idyll. During the day at least. Come the night, this place will make Apocalypse Now seem tame.
A final touch for the tent!
Just across the track from us (the campsite and parking are positioned across the Bugatti track at Le Mans, the shorter track used for national racing during the year) were the drivers’ RVs: a relative haven of calm for them during the weekend. However, ear-plus are sometimes not enough with what’s going on around them.