If you’ve read our previous article on the brief history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans you may recall that we were extolling the virtues of spending the entire weekend at the event, making an occasion of the whole thing. Well, that was indeed supposed to be the case this year, with the race officially beginning at 4pm on Saturday. Unfortunately a Volvo 940 turbo oil return pipe had other ideas, scuppering said plans, and so we were only able to visit on Sunday. Despite this rather annoying set back it was still a great day of atmospheric racing at one of the most famous and prestigious events in the motorsport calendar.
We decided to forgo the private helicopter charter and park the car in Le Mans itself, rather than at the track, and catch the tram in. It stops just outside the main entrance and for a few Euros it’s a cheap and convenient way to get there for those relying on public transport. On the ride in there are no real clues as to the historic event unfolding nearby, however, it’s only when you disembark at the final stop at Antarès that the tension really starts to build. As soon as the doors open you hear it – that unmistakable sound of top-flight racing cars going hell for leather. It’s intoxicating to any petrol head and the aforementioned Volvo woes were suddenly a distant memory.
During our brief stroll from the tram stop we can already tell that numbers are way down from previous years due to the pandemic. There are no queues to get in to the event, no throngs of people or bustle of activity outside the gates and we breeze through, stopping only to have our Covid vaccination apps scanned along with our tickets. And then we’re in – admitted to the belly of the beast that is the Circuit de la Sarthe. Bearing in mind we are yet to see a single race car and there’s still a five minute walk up to the famous Dunlop Curve, which is typically where we’ve kicked off proceedings in the past. As we traverse the tunnels that dip under the track and then climb the steps towards the north end of the Bugatti Circuit the cacophony of sound continues to intensify and the excitement builds with every step.
We reach the Dunlop bridge and cross over the track but we still can’t see anything as the walkway is enclosed with no windows in a bid to stop the inevitable hordes of fans blocking the way, vying to catch a glimpse of the action. Even when we exit the other side there’s not much to see aside from a bar, which we promptly head to for refreshments before doubling back and walking up the hill to get our very first look at the track. As soon as we crest the hill we are treated to the spectacle of a top level Glickenhaus 007 Hypercar blasting past one of the LMGTE Porsche 911 RSRs on the inside line heading down towards La Chappelle, and its quite the pay-off.
We spend some time here acclimatising to the race and getting our bearings with regards to running order, spotting and calling out to each other the different classes, cars and manufacturers speeding past and then we head further down the track towards the start line. The grandstands appear closed but it’s of no real consequence because of the distinct lack of people. There’s no standing on tip toes or craning your neck to see through the crowds as would habitually be the case. Wherever we decide to observe the action we get a superb view of the track and one of the great things about this section of the Bugatti Circuit is its proximity to the spectator areas.
This is what it’s all about: the sheer level of noise, the smell even, as cars roar past a stone’s throw away, with only an Armco and a chain-link fence separating us from the racing. We’re opposite the pit lane and we can hear the air guns whirring and the clatter of tools as we watch the team mechanics who are running their own race to be the quickest to get their respective cars and drivers back onto the track as soon as humanly possible. All of this with the television helicopters buzzing low overhead, a constant companion and only adding to the overall electric atmosphere.
Next we decide to head into the ‘village’ for a mooch around the bars, restaurants, shops and displays – it’s all part of the experience after all. The first of the cars on display that we come across is one of Porsche’s 911 RSR GT cars that competed last year and it’s a great opportunity to get up close and personal with one of the LMGTE machines, complete with dead bugs and pieces of shredded tyre still plastered all over it.
Next up we get a glimpse of the possible future of racing at Le Mans with the Mission H24 hydrogen-powered prototype LMP2 car. According to the Mission H24 web site it is “a project developed jointly by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, organiser of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and GreenGT, specialist in high density electric-hydrogen power in particular for the propulsion of vehicles.” The team is preparing for the introduction of a new category for electric-hydrogen vehicles at Le Mans in 2024.
It’s not just the future that is represented here though and a look back to the past is also a large part of the exhibitions presented. This Venturi 600 SLM was entered into the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1995 by boss Hubert O’Neil to compete with the new McLaren F1 GT cars at the time and to help promote the Venturi brand.
Hi-tech racers are not the only metal in the spotlight either, sharing the stage as they do with more classic, road-going fare and French manufacturers Renault and Alpine were unsurprisingly featured heavily with a display of their various, respective legends of the automotive world, including Renault 8 Gordinis and Alpine A110s and GTAs.
A little further along and there was a great collection of American muscle with numerous corvettes, mustangs and this rather imposing Mercury Cyclone GT being a particular highlight. Chevrolet were represented in the actual race too by two teams driving the Chevrolet Corvette C8.R LMGTE car in the pro class with one of last year’s cars proudly on display in the village as well.
Porsche have a rich history at Le Mans and they remain to this day the most successful manufacturer ever in terms of race wins so it was only natural to find the Porsche Club stand, chock full of classic 911s.
One is constantly reminded that this is a commercial venture after all and the amount of shops and ’boutiques’ dotted about the place can be a little overwhelming. From toy cars to hats and everything in between everyone can get their fix of branded merchandise – for a vastly inflated price of course. Did we mention a beer was 8 Euros. 9 if you want a plastic cup.
But with rampant mass consumerism aside it’s still a great way to spend a few hours, milling about and soaking up the atmosphere and with myriad big screens scattered throughout the village you can still keep your eye on the main event.
Speaking of which, we were ready for more at this juncture so we made our way up to another vantage point for one more look at the action and to get a different perspective on the racing from the opposite side of the Dunlop chicane. With time against us we didn’t get a chance to venture further down the track but there are plenty of decent spots to camp out and watch the race – the Porsche Curves just before the start/finish line and Tertre Rouge exiting onto the Mulsanne Straight being two particularly good locations. Once we’d had our fill we made our way past the museum (which we highly recommend and is definitely worth a look inside if you’re at the track for the entire weekend) and back down to the tram to head home with the roar of engines still ringing in our ears.
As for the results this year Toyota Gazoo racing took the trophy in the Hypercar class at the hands of drivers Kamui Kobayashi, Brit Mike Conway and Jose Maria lopez. Team WRT won the LMP2 race and Italian race team AF Corse finished at the top of the pile of both the LMGTE pro and amateur classes with their Ferrari 488 GTE EVOs.