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The Le Mans Experience

Le Mans Campsite
Home Sweet Home - well for a few days at least

They say it’s the greatest race on Earth - Le Mans. Having not travelled to the four corners of the earth I don’t think I am in a position to confirm that claim, all I know is that it’s the greatest spectacle I’ve ever attended. It’s theatre, pure and simple.

The event is one of the oldest motor racing events still run today and despite the changes to the layout over the years it is still a real struggle for man and machine to complete. I’ve been twice and if the truth be told I would go every year and I would go to the practice and I would go the classic and I would go to the grandstands when no racing was on to revel in the silence, to absorb the spirits of the cars, drivers, crews and fans that this cathedral of the great religion of motor racing has witnessed. And yes, oh yes, I would love to do a Steve McQueen or Paul Newman and race there. To be part of that circus, to be part of that danger, that glamour. Racing for 24hrs in foreign climbs must be intoxicating - could it get any better than racing at this place? Can you tell I am addicted? Like all the best vices it mixes pleasure and pain. Excitement at 3:59pm on Saturday afternoon, as the cars round Ford Curve and enter the pit straight for the start, mirrored by anguish at 3:59am on Sunday morning when you’re shattered, your head hurts and your searches for a usable loo prove futile.

I remember the stories I heard whilst a kid about the Bentley Boys, the grace and pace of the C and D type Jaguars, David Brown’s desire to win with Aston Martin what ever the cost, the struggle between Ford and Ferrari in the 60’s. As I grew older Porsche made Le Mans their own, first with the legendary 917 and then with the dominance of the majestic 956. The constant to these stories was how it really was a race against fate and no matter what you did, winning was in the lap of the gods.

Sevens ready to go
Sevens Ready To Go

I needed to go one day and see for myself so in 1999, along with some other Seven owners, I fulfilled the ambition. Nothing prepared me for how magical it was. If I close my eyes I can transport myself back to the first magical moment standing on the broken concrete steps at the start of Dunlop Curves on that chilly Wednesday night. I can see the cars streak past, lights blazing, engine notes flaring, flames spitting from exhausts and the cherry red glow of hard worked brake discs. All the time there was the back beat of a French commentary, overlay that with the noise of the fair and add in the chatter of 1000’s of over excited Brits. It’s not just sights and sounds that saturate you, your olfactory senses are assailed with a blend of pine forests, burnt hydro-carbons, food cooking on BBQs, the smoke from a 1000 Gauloises rising into the starry night sky. Oh it’s a heady cocktail that makes you feel like a kid again with no responsibilities, no one to please but yourself. The facilities are poor by Silverstone standards but you don’t care (not yet anyway), you are at Le Mans, with your mates, in your sports car.

We camped at one of the many camp-sites dotted around the circuit and these are one of the most amazing features of the event. There is no layout, you pitch where you can, squeezing in between humble one man tents and £250k motor homes; it doesn’t matter and as long as you don’t take someone’s car parking space the atmosphere is friendly. The ingenuity of the campers is legendary - sparkies tap into the electrics to ensure supply to all who need it, plumbers rig up complicated pipe networks to distribute water supplies (it did turn ugly when two German motor homes cut the pipes so they could connect their hose pipes, a small multi-national delegation made them see the error of their ways and they moved on). Pick-up trucks are turned into mobile swimming pools with the application of a tarpaulin and a few 1000 litres of water. Some guys built a whole pub with a proper bar serving keg beer, it had its own big telly and PA system. It was open by invitation only but it was a great place to go if you were lucky to get the nod.

We stopped at Mason Blanc which sits inside the perimeter fence but on the outside of the actual circuit. The loo block was a mobile unit with French style conveniences and showers. This block became renowned as the couple who looked after it slept in it as well - yes Monsieur Toilette lay down in his sleeping bag in front of the urinals! It led to many a comical exchange in the wee hours of the night. The showers were only warm from 2-4am so that’s when we washed. The flush on the loos was akin to a tsunami so you made sure you had the door open before you pulled the chain so you could leap clear.

One of the great lures of Le Mans is that the circuit uses public roads and this gives you a connection with the drivers that pure racing circuits can’t. You can drive the roads a few hours before the racers pass along the same piece of tarmac and you know that tomorrow it will be come a T-Junction or a roundabout again.

On The Wall
Bribe the cops, climb the wall, enjoy...

During racing the legendary Mulsane straight is now closed to spectators for safety reasons following the flying Mercedes but we found a great loophole, the Chinese restaurant which sits on the said straight can be reached via a series of smaller roads and farm tracks. Book a meal for Thursday night practice or the Saturday race. Your very average food is served with the most incredible soundtrack of a racing car screaming past just a few feet away at over 200mph. Although the windows are covered you can get to see the spectacle - once you have finished your meal, nip round the back and climb onto the six foot wall, offer the Gendarme a warming brandy to turn a blind eye, then wait for a truly life changing experience. It starts in the belly - the low rumble seems to amplify the already hyperactive papillion in your stomach. The warm summer night breeze brings the first bark of a race engine on full song as it exits Tertre Rouge; you lean as far forward as you dare to get the first glimpse of the yellowy-eyed gods you have come to worship. BANG! - they explode into your space, your senses are rocked as you try to comprehend a car travelling at 220mph. The pressure wave nearly knocks you off your vantage point; your ear drums are hammered by the tortured wail of a V12 at flat chat and your nose tingles as the smell of hot oil forces its way into your airways. It takes a few laps for your tattered senses to recalibrate and your understanding of fast warps to a new level. We stood there and whooped with delight as those cars blasted past, all striving to find those few 100ths of a second that mean so much in practice but will be forgotten in the long dark hours of Saturday and Sunday morning.

Friday has developed its own special status as there is no practice but that doesn’t stop activity on the race track. Gaggles of cars from the humblest hatchback to the truly exotic gather at Indianapolis corner. The drivers milling about talking cars, looking under bonnets or just gazing at the equally eclectic mix of cars driving by. If you leave here and head up to the T-Junction which is Arnage Corner, turn right towards Mason Blanc (no prizes for guessing how it got its name) to either take part in or spectate in the "burn-out". No one knows how it starts but someone stops the passing traffic and encourages them to do dump clutch starts and wheel spin up the road. It doesn’t seem to matter what the vehicle is; I witnessed a Municipal Dustbin lorry, a police motor cycle, a £1m Ferrari and a moped all cheered on by a raucous, beer fuelled but good natured crowd. Then there are the Bentley Boys down at the village of Arnage sitting at the cafés singing songs from the war. At a signal, all get up and to the strain of the Dambusters / 633 Squadron move round to the next café - sounds odd but is a great thing to witness. You can of course go and visit the official drivers parade outside the over-the-top Gothic Cathedral in Le Mans itself but I preferred the more spontaneous activities - more in keeping with the event.

Le Mans Crowd

Saturday crackles with electric excitement. From the early support races the tension and anticipation continues to build. The crowds grow and the officials try to stop the gangways filling with spectators vying to get a good view. By 1pm it’s packed but still they pile in; tempers flare as hard won vantage points are threatened by Johnny come lately’s. There are the driver parades, where the drivers, who would probably rather be anywhere else, are driven along the pit straight in classic cars waving limply at the crowd. Then it’s the turn of the Hawaiian Tropic Girls, a troupe of orange tanned young ladies in Red Bikinis who pose with the drivers (who seem to be a bit happier at this point) and wave at the baying crowds. As part of the build up to the start the anthems of the participating teams are sung - now I don’t normally sing my national anthem but this is foreign soil and a sporting event - "God Save the Queen" is always the penultimate tune and 75,000 Brits singing at volume 11 is a sound to stir the soul and despite the best efforts of the tannoy operator the Marseillaise is an anticlimax.

At last an end to the waiting is marked by the sounds of the cars as they form up on the grid and at around 3.50pm they set off behind the course car for the start of this great race. By now the crowd are at fever pitch and the atmosphere is heavy with anticipation, radios are tuned to Radio Le Mans (which gives a progress report on the racers) the cars hove into view exiting the Porsche Curves. It can’t be possible but the tension goes up another notch as the crowd rise in unison craning their necks to see the multi-coloured gaggle of cars moving towards the start. As the course car peels off into the pits and the pole man leads them through Ford Curve, the timing is perfect and as the hand on the giant Rolex Clock hanging from the ACO building moves to the hour the noise of the crowd is drowned out by the wail of the cars as they burst across the line. I defy anybody not to be awed by the sound as it reverberates around the track. Trapped between the grandstands your whole body vibrates like a tuning fork, you are as one with the place, with the cars, with the drivers, for that split second you become Le Mans.

Nick.

Don’t forget to check out our photo galleries from one of the 2007 Practice Sessions and the Le Mans Museum.

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