The Le Mans 24 Hours is about so much more than the 56 cars on track. 24 hours applies to the racecars, but for a lot of the 240,000 spectators the events is more like a week-long auto carnival. The sprawling interior of the Circuit De La Sarthe – for 358 days of the year a sleepy light-industrial area – is subdivided into lots and inundated with private and public camping areas. With the tens of thousands of tents come tens of thousands of sportscars, and the sheer number and variety on show is always amazing. One of my favourite things to do over the weekend is to stroll around the campsites and manufacturers' stands to take in the insane amount on show. It's a car connoisseurs dream!
The camping grounds are like small countries – though, come the night it's more like the Wild West. Noise, fireworks, crowds and burn-outs, lots of burn-outs.
Manufacturers are drawn to Le Mans like moths: it's still the ultimate test-ground for proving technology that often really does have an impact on their roadcars. One of the big draws this year was the demonstration of the 1991 Le Mans winner: the rotary-engined Mazda 787B. If there's one thing that annoys the other Japanese manufacturers it's that minnows Mazda are the only Japanese company to have won the 24 Hours… Hence the cyclical nature of Nissan, Toyota and Honda coming back to tackle the race: mostly exploratory exercises this year, but expect to see bigger programmes in 2012.
Audi are now as synonymous with Le Mans as Porsche, Ford and Ferrari. A whole row of Audis were lined up as course cars before the start, ready to be despatched around the track.
The immense Audi hospitality area – matched only by the adjacent warehouse-size double-decker marquee of Peugeot– on the inside of the the run down to the final corner of the Ford Chicane had a half-dozen models on show outside. My pick was the low-line Audi R8C Coupé from 1999 – my first year at Le Mans. The R8C was a strange choice to display, perhaps, as they were less than successful in the race compared to their sister R8R roadsters, but I love the lines of the Audi Sport UK-run coupé.
I have to say that having seen it in the flesh I was much more impressed with the A1 Clubsport Quattro than I was expecting – it's quite the pocket rocket!
Continuing the Quattro theme was this Group B S1. Four-wheel-drive heaven.
Out in the Village area where the majority of show stands were located, just up from the pits, was another Audi display, this time with a pair of R8s: a GT3 weapon and a 5.2-litre V10 Spyder.
Peugeot's regular road-pounders were flanking something rather more special: the 908 HYbrid4: their hybrid-electric, KERS-equipped variant of the diesel LMP1. It still hasn't raced, but manufacturers seem more and more likely to be employing this kind of power in future. Bad news for exhaust-note enthusiasts… The colour-scheme is nice though!
Taking centre stage in the Village mounted on a BMW-flagged podium was this be-winged M3 in striking orange. Mean.
Lotus returned to Le Mans this year with a pair of Evoras in GTE-PRO: despite being very young in development terms, they put in a respectable performance and one car made it to the finish. In GTE-form, with full-width bodykit and the big aero package, the Evora was a match in looks for the other cars in the class – and it had a surprisingly throaty sound. I've grown to like the road-going version; but it's another car where the wrong colour can make it look pedestrian. White suits it though, I think.
Nissan were one of two Japanese manufacturers coming back to Le Mans after a break (Toyota powered the great-looking Rebellion Lolas in LMP1) – they had supplied engines to three LMP2 teams and had a none-more-black stand showing off one of the Signatech Oreca 03s along with a GT-R and 370.
The ESFLOW zero-emission concept was wrapped up tight in a glass box on their stand, unfortunately protected by over-zealous security who were pushing back anyone daring to touch the barrier around the stand… poor show, security. Maybe environmental, but definitely not friendly.
Corvette have a surprisingly big following in Europe and the team are massively popular at Le Mans: C6 owners were out in force, and this electric-blue 'Vette was drawing plenty of admiring looks.
I'm always amazed by just what turns up on the camp-sites – not just the variety, but more the fact that people are willing to drive their precious cars through rutted roads to get to their pitches! The question is always how did they actually fit anything in? Of these four, only the Merc has any semblance of luggage space (though the Morgan could fit a classy luggage rack to the rear).
They must have air-lifted this Diablo in. Of course, the usual tactic is to have a gang of supercars accompanied by the one friend who's willing to take a normal car down – who gets lumbered with packing all the tents…
The more I see beefed-up Mustangs, the more I want one…
Vinyl stickers are especially prevalent on British cars, and range from bumper stickers to full Le Mans style liveries.
There were a couple of Nobles dotted around: seeing more than one is a shock! I shadowed one down a motorway for a while (at increasing distance of course), and from the rear they just look like GT racecars. The wing they sport is obscenely wide.
An even rarer car was this MG XPower SV: the car that helped kill (if temporarily it now seems) the classic English brand. When MG raced in the British Touring Car Championship one would occasionally be rolled out on show, but seeing one in the wild was a surprise – less than a hundred were built before MG collapsed in 2008.
Another rare sighting in Europe: an '80s Mustang Cobra.
Next to it was what I consider the only real Impreza. I'm sorry, the new shape? You've got to be kidding.
On the Saturday afternoon I faced a long trek back to the pits from the chicanes on the Mulsanne/Hunaudieres straight. Amongst the dozens of Peugeots (tedious 508 MPVs rather than growling 908 LMPs, used as ferries for team guests) I just caught this – I must admit I have no idea what it was, but I liked it. Any ideas?
Over the echoing sounds of the racecars going round the track, you could still hear certain roadcars coming. This was another rarity: a Marcos Mantis. These used to fill lower-tier GT race grids in the late-'90s with the wide-bodied LM600 as the ultimate development. With the long, high nose (and the supercharged V8 it contained), I always wondered how on earth you could see where you were going…
There were a fair number of classics around (and plenty of racing classics in the Le Mans Legends paddock), and this burbling Mustang was another car that was easy to pick out over the racing engines.
Seeing a Porsche hardly caused comment, such was the number at Le Mans – but the rear of the GT2RS is still worth stopping for. The old GT2 RSR with its enormous double-deck tea-tray wing is one of my favourite cars, so anything that approaches that look is good to me.
Another lime green Focus RS: not the same one Rod and I tracked at Silverstone! If only they could make it rear or four-wheel drive…
The Friday evening before the race is when the majority of fans have got settled in – and the whole area descends into noisy but good-natured chaos. This was when I was making my back to the track after the drivers' parade in town: after getting off the tram, there was a big crowd gathered, almost blocking the road. Cheers were going up, clapping and shouting: it quickly became clear what was going on.
Every car that passed was being stopped at an impromptu burn-out line: get into the spirit and you'd be greeted with wild cheers; go through without lighting your tyres up at least a bit and you'd be hearing the booing all the way to your tent…
It didn't matter on the expense or make of your car – or even if it only had two wheels!
And neither did size matter… Spirit and effort was everything!
Cars coming in the other direction waited patiently – if nervously at first before they realised what was going on.
Strangely the burn-outs seemed to be uni-directional; every so often some of the the increasing queue of cars was let through, with bemused drivers and passengers emerging unscathed – as long as they were leaving the circuit and not coming back in! All this time, the fireworks increased in intensity, the smoke drifted across the campsite and the cheering reverberated around the campsites. And the race hadn't even started!