It has been two weeks since I made the annual pilgrimage of endurance motorsport to the Circuit de la Sarthe, also known as the Circuit of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Being a fan of all motorsport the 24 Hours of Le Mans has been on my bucket list for many years, so when a colleague at work asked if I would like to join his annual trip there, I jumped at it.
We set off on Thursday at 6am in a two car convoy of Phil's Mazda MX5 (Mk4, tuned by BBR GTi) and my Mercedes A250 AMG Sport with friends Matjaz, Jillian and Alastair - all of whom had been to at least one Le Mans previously - I was the rookie. EuroTunnel delays aside, the drive down to Le Mans was a battle of rain showers and trying to work out which car had the better satnav system. In the end it was an iPhone running Google Maps that won through.
We arrived at the camp site at around 7pm local time and thought the best way to signify this with a pint of Stella Artois in the beer tent. That completed, the tent was put up under a beautiful red sky, but just in time before the heavens opened for the first of quite a few rain showers that we would have over the coming days.
Red sky at night...
Friday at Le Mans is a preview day for the weekend - there is a driver's parade in the town of Le Mans and the pit lane at the circuit is opened to all visitors to mingle and look into all the garages. It all came across as very accessible and a great insight into the complexities of endurance racing - a very different feel to the far more greater restrictions imposed in Formula 1 Grand Prix racing. Other than that, Friday was a great day to eat, drink, and drink some more.
A busy Friday pitlane
Up to now I was very much keeping an open mind to what being at Le Mans means compared to F1, where my main motorsport passion lies. But when you walk up the track away from the start grid as it bends to the right and sweeps to the left through the Dunlop Curves and remember the racing talent to have driven here countless times you can't help but be astounded: Tom Kristensen, Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell, Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro, Olivier Gendebien, Henri Pescarolo and Yannick Dalmas. The history and prestige of the event of which this would be the 84th running hangs around the place in abundance. At this point, little did we know that the events of the race come Sunday afternoon would become a talking point for many years to come.
So, waking up on Saturday, there was that wonderful electric environment hanging in the air - or it might have been the clap of thunder at 4am in the morning. Whatever it was, race day was here. Breakfast sorted, we headed to the track late morning to see the Ferrari Challenge support race. That in its own was an epic sight with a 40+ car grid of Ferrari's charge past our grandstand view at the Ford Chicane (essentially the last corner on the track).
Soon it was nearing 3pm and the start of the race of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Moments before the starting procedure the heavens opened. One key difference between endurance racing and most other forms of racing is that rain does not stop play - at 3pm, the cars were lead away under the safety car, but the 24 hours started counting down. The safety car did stay out for far too long, but after about 45 minutes of pootling around and a fair few jeers from the crowd, the rain had stopped and the safety car was in - we were racing at Le Mans.
Without sounding too obvious, the main difference between say an F1 race and Endurance Racing is the length of it. An F1 Grand Prix will last around 90-120 minutes. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is up to 12 times that length. No one can expect to stay awake to see the whole race so you find yourself in a balance of watching the race, eating and drinking back at camp, and sleeping whenever you feel tired.
What transpired over the next day was a demonstration of dominance by Toyota. This was their fifth attempt at winning this race with 2nd place being their best result in 2013. Their two team entries in 2016 traded 1st place until the clock ticked past 23 hours and 57 minutes. Driver Kazuki Nakajima was leading by nearly a lap from the Porsche when he came up to start what would be the final lap. Unbelievably he turned right on the start line and pulled up in front of the grandstand and his team on the pitwall. No one could quite contemplate what was happening, as the Porsche in 2nd place came past to take the win from Toyota who had been destined for victory.
What followed next was something which I will forever remember. Despite allegiances, despite the shit that is going on in the world I found myself surrounded by people of all races, ages, religion and fans of different teams and drivers - everyone stood up and applauded the winner of the race - respect has no bounds and it was marvellous to witness.
That done, there was nothing else to do than drink (!) and get ready for the drive home on Monday. Le Mans is a petrolhead festival - I asked those with me why it has so much appeal and I concluded that everyone, whatever your background shared one thing in common - the glory of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Despite the heart breaking result for Toyota, they will be back - as will I, to take the win and repeat the experience of the greatest race on Earth.
A weekend of beer