Skip to main content

June is here and that means one thing….Get ready for the 24 Heures du Mans!!  A look back at muses from last year’s race…

Story by Steve Wheeler of  Photo by James Edmonds

16th June 2014.
Le Mans…Only Tens Days Away!!  For some, Le Mans is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For others it’s an annual pilgrimage to the holy-land of speed.  Whatever your motive,  it is an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.   For me it always starts the same way:  waking up at a ludicrous hour to black coffee and an even blacker sky.  My friend Aleks and I drive to Victoria Station to board the coach that will take us to Dover,  across the channel and into Le Mans.  After a few hours sleep and a breakfast of coffee and croissants we head to the track for the pit walk.  And there they are…the machines that are the focus of this little excursion.  The wonderful,  shiny,  smooth race cars, immaculate in the early morning sun.  Aleks likes to linger and capture them from every conceivable angle with his camera.  I prefer to take a walk up Dunlop Curve towards Dunlop Bridge,  trying to imagine what must be going through the drivers’ minds as they hurtle towards that most iconic of track features.

Later that day,  we get our first look at the cars in action:  Qualifying.  The whoosh of the hybrids;  the angry V8-gargle of the Corvettes as the noise resonates in your chest.  I can’t help but grin from ear-to-ear like a lunatic.  It’s beyond joy:  it’s a heightened state of the senses, whether you’re standing at Arnage Corner,  or up in the stands above the pits,  you can smell the spent fuel,  cooked brake-discs and tortured rubber.  The following day is the drivers’ parade,  in the beautiful Le Mans town centre under the imposing shadow of Le Cathédrale St-Julien du Mans.  There are plenty of places to take up position and see legendary racers like Marc Gené,  Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish.  If the sun gets too much for you,  there are alleyways and s i d e – s t r e e t s  s e r v i n g incredible local food and cold beer.  There are racing enthusiasts from all over the world,  talking about the race,  how far they’ve traveled,  and who they are most eager to see.  It’s a friendly atmosphere to say the least.  A fraternity united in speed and noise (and sleep deprivation). Saturday arrives all too quick.  You may have waited a year or possibly your entire life for the race start,  but suddenly it’s upon you.

The wailing,  roaring engines.  The acceleration.  The jockeying for position.  Around fifty cars roaring off the start like angry hornets whose hive has just been shaken.  This year, 2014 sees the clash of the titans with Audi vs Toyota vs Porsche.  Porsche are back into LMP1 racing with their new challenger the 919 and an all new driver line up,  including ex-F1 driver Mark Webber at the helm.  24 hours of racing has begun,  and now your options are vast.  Do you stake claim on the grass at the Mulsanne straight? Or standing at the rail at Porsche Curves?  Personally,  I like to hit as many different locations as possible to really appreciate the straight-line speed, the ferocious braking and the unbelievable physics-defying cornering ability.  Of course, this is an endurance event not just for the driver, but for the spectator too.  After a few hours of watching the race with a tiny radio glued to your ear,  it’s good to stretch your legs and see what the circuit has to offer.  There is an abundance of places to eat and drink,  endless merchandise stands and the fairground rides.  One year I was lucky enough to be hoisted up a crane,  strapped into the Nissan Sky-Bar.  All it took was for me to produce the tatty-key of a ’99 Nissan 200SX.  Of course if you don’t own a Nissan there’s always the Ferris Wheel to offer incredible views from Ford Chicane all the way down to Dunlop Curves.

As night falls, some leave the track to get a few hours sleep,  while some push through to watch the glowing brake discs and to see which teams have the stamina and resilience to make it  through the race.  This is an incredible time where in regular life you would expect quiet and tranquility,  but not here.  Here the teams battle on to overcome fatigue and reliability issues.  The night sees the majority of retirements and as the sun rises over ‘happy hour’ the field has been significantly reduced.c In the morning, cbleary eyed a little giddy from the sleep deprivation,  you have an idea of who is in contention,  who has clocked up the most laps and who is looking strong.  There are hours to go and it only takes a split second error of judgement in a corner,  or a pit stop for all of this effort to be in vain.  More than likely,  you’ll see Audi in a strong position.  After all,  as I write this they have 13 wins under their belt but nothing is guaranteed.  There are no foregone conclusions.

As the seconds wind-down,  spectators start to take up position at the gates,  ready to rush to the track and get near the winners podium.  When the gates are finally opened and you run up the track,  you will see underfoot the terrible toll this race has taken on the vehicles:  Shards of carbon fibre and tyre-fragments – or ‘marbles’ – litter the ground. When the winners take the podium and the Champagne is sprayed,  the cheers from the crowd rival the engine noise from the previous 24 hours. It’s a wonderful atmosphere with a tremendous amount of energy from thousands of people that have had little sleep and more than likely walked several miles over the course of the race.  The 24 Hours of Le Mans is far more than a race.  It’ s an experience,  a release,  a coming together of like-minded people from a vast array of backgrounds,  countrie and cultures.  It’s testament to endurance and commitment.  It’s fulfilling to watch,  satisfying to be a part of,  and exhausting to attend.  Every year I say it’ll be my last when I’m on the coach heading back to the UK and yet before long, I start to feel the pull of the track as Le Mans beckons again…