As someone whose calendar year runs from Le Mans to Le Mans, I often get asked what it is about it that keeps me going back year after year.
Even after six trips to the hallowed La Sarthe circuit, I didn’t really have a true answer. Much to my surprise, It was the 2013 edition of the race (my seventh time) – when the tragic passing of Allan Simonsen during the race cast a dark cloud over the event – that I finally have the answer to the countless people who ask me that question.
The Le Mans 24 Hours, to the people who make the annual pilgrimage, who wouldn’t miss it for the world and who spend all year planning it – is more than just a race, it’s a lifestyle. Why? Because it has a unique aura which most events, let alone motorsport events seem to be capable of capturing, and that’s what makes it near impossible to put into words. People come from all over the world to visit the small sleepy village of Le Mans – which for only one week a year has a thronging party atmosphere – to spend a week or weekend with friends, family and often a case of beer or two and soak it all up.
Seasoned fans of the famous French endurance race tend to do things differently, covering their car with event stickers, sometimes full vinyl liveries and travel to the circuit with the other 250 or so thousand like-minded folk. To some people the journey is the best bit, not just because of the constant roar of super cars flying past on the motorway, but because you have the whole event still to look forward to. Those same people tend to despise the start of the race – viewing it as a depressing 24 hour long countdown till the big event is over and planning the logistics of next year starts.
Once at the event, the buzz carries you away, as the sound of 56 uber-expensive, state of the art cars lapping the eight and a half mile circuit fills your ears, for that is the special ambiance present for much of the weekend.
Everyone at the event has their favorite car; be it the rumbling Corvettes or the quiet but graceful Audis. But we all share one opinion however, that the combination prototypes and GT’s which enter the race each year is the true allure.
When qualifying finishes on Thursday evening, the short wait until the annual “mad friday” antics begin. The surrounding area turns into a parade of high priced automobiles burning rubber around the campsites during the day. The constant sound of cheering and engines caning the rev limiter is a unique trait which the perfectly sums up the joys of being a petrol head. It may be a rest day for the teams and drivers, it’s most certainly always the opposite for the spectators.[portfolio_slideshow exclude=”24980″]
From the moment the flag flies on the Saturday afternoon, the 24 Hour sprint to win arguably motorsport’s most coveted prize begins. Fans pack the outside of the circuit and watch in awe as the teams do battle through day and night and dry and wet conditions to have their names carved in history. Being there to see each race is truly something special because of this, as being able to say “I was there the when…” is so satisfying when discussing the race with other Le Mans fans.
This year however, will be remembered for incident on the fourth lap of the race, which ended the life of one of GT racing’s greatest talents. But as I looked out of the press room and over to the podium, which later had a Danish flag hung at half mast over it before the the sea of fans crowded round it after the race, it dawned on me why Le Mans is so special. It’s not the journey, the cars, the madness of Friday afternoon, the lively campsite atmosphere, the thrill of watching night racing or going on the big wheel at dawn – it’s because we are a 250,000 strong family who all understand that unless you attend the Le Mans – you will never fully understand why we all go.
RIP Allan Simonsen