Sound at Le Mans



[The article “Sound and Speed in Motor-Racing” in the July issue was so favourably received by so many people that a reader, who insists on remaining anonymous, offers some observations on sound at Le Mans. Apart from being an excellent study of sound effects, this article gives a very vivid impression of how the Le Mans circuit presents itself to the driver of a medium-fast sports racing-car, and as there will, alas, be no “Les 24 Heures du Mans” this summer, we think the account will be welcome.—Ed.]

MAY I take you round Le Mans, in sound? I know almost every inch of that lovely circuit by the noise which happens there.

First, an engulfing silence at ten-to-four, as one stands incredibly lonely in that little white circle—a silence broken only, so it seems, by a spasmodic tick from an S.U. pump left on to avoid forgetting it when the flag falls. There is no sound when the flag does fall; you just run when you see the fellows doing so higher up. One at a time, at first, the engines burst into life—then all at once, with that great surge of sound you all know so well. You do not hear your own engine start, it is drowned by the thunder of the man next door; but you feel it and thank merciful heaven, hoping only that all the pots are there.

She is away, pinking rather a lot up a slope which is far steeper than it looks, as those who have tried to push a dead car home will agree. For an hour or more things are too hectic for you to appreciate sounds properly; too many cars to pass and passing, for the field has not yet really strung out.

Then, since all is apparently going well, you begin to settle down and the tension is relaxed. Funny little snatches of sound or song from the loudspeakers as you flash past the pits, and then immediately the clatter of stones and brickbats on wings and panelling where the road always gets broken up at the fork . . . You must keep close in on the rough stuff in a modestly fast car, for the big ones have to take this corner to the right of the central white line, Or else they get very involved with an adverse camber.

Over the top, revs, dropping a little against the gradient and down towards the esses. On with the anchors and down to third, ditto and down to second: you know those noises all too well, but imagine also the comforting surge of extra braking as each gear snicks safely home. Incidentally, you can recognise many of the cars at night by their sound-behaviour on the over-run. The Delahayes and Talbot-Darracqs with their soft, lambent bluish flames which trail lazily from the pipe with a noise like silk flags crackling in the wind; Gordini’s Simcas with their raspberry overtone; the V12 Lagondas like all the raspberries in the universe, the best over-run noise ever; the H.R.G., with little staccato, regular stabs of orange flame, and a noise like hitting the undershield with a copper clouter . . .

Into the esses now, being careful to give her all she can take and no blipping. Acute displeasure registered at certain lady driver who is the Blipper-in-chief. Shall kill myself one day trying to pass that dame too near a corner, so as not to have to follow her through it !

Not much reaction to sound between the esses and Tetre Rouge, the delightful corner on to the long, long straight. Too busy watching the revs. in second, up to third, see if there is time to let that Alfa pass, down to second and get position for the corner . . .

You can just hear stones whipping against the palisade as you open up in the corner—if you start well over on the left. Which you must do, if you are to cut over to the inside at the crucial moment and avoid arguments with another adverse camber on the main Le Mans-Tours road.

Paeans of glorious sound now, as you take her up to “5,000” in second. Into third exactly under the bridge, same spot every lap, “5,000” again and top just by a cottage on the left which says “Quinquina—Vin tonique.” Swing gently right now, through the trees (which Belle-Croix swiped in 1939, ending up in a Woodman’s living room), and out into open country approaching the Cafe de l’Hippodrome.

With no sound from behind, but with a terrifying whistle from that curious air-intake atop the bonnet, one of the V12 Delahayes sweeps past at 130 odd. Scarcely any exhaust note either, but a whipping from the tyres you seem to hear for miles. Here comes Sommer in pursuit, with the blown Alfa saloon, a suspicion of blower noise forewarning you. He doffs his straw hat as you pull over, and immediately the air is vibrant with sound, and stinging dust, and the dry stench of benzole.

Relax now, and make yourself comfortable in the seat, until that gentle, well-banked right-hand curve with white railings on the left warns you that the straight is nearly over. Plenty of time to pass that little Simca “Mouse” which buzzes like a bee in search of flowers, as the driver eases his foot from time to time to spare the engine. Ahead, Maestro Gordini himself makes an angry and incredibly penetrating high-pitched drone with the 1,100 c.c. model. It is, perhaps, the noisiest vehicle on the course except for the D’arl’mat Peugeots with their pretty cluster of straight-through pipes. The Lagondas are dead silent until they get really cracking, and then the heavens are split open: the Peugeots do this all the time.

Mulsanne hairpin now, and gently with those anchors because the road surface is melting badly. You get good warning of this, for the tyres are making a funny sniffling noise on braking, but heed it well. It is absurdly easy to lock all four wheels and carry the road with you; criss-crossing black streaks speak eloquently of those who have “motored on to Tours.”

After the corner, the high fencing to left and trees to the right produce a queer resonance which puts a pulsation into your own exhaust note. “Wong-eee, wong-eee, wong-eee” it goes, slowly at first, about one cycle per second, but quickening as the revs. increase, and then, just as you get into top, you are in open country, and the comparative stillness is extraordinary. You feel you can hear the very valve-springs squeaking.

A fast right-hand bend, which seems perilously fast because the trees close in just at that point and suddenly magnify the sound, then brake and down to third for the slower right-hand bend which precedes the brick surfaced left-hander called Indianapolis. Your chief Memory of this section of the circuit is being passed., between this bend and Indianapolis, by Armand Hug (or his co-driver), in one of the Watney Delages, and thinking “young man, thou’rt going too fast,” while waiting for the inevitable thud, bonk, bang, tinkle-tinkle, hiss . . . . The Delage is off the road, or nearly so, and the road itself full of broken glass and earth and oaths.

Leaving the right-handed, right-angled .Arnage corner, you come to that fast, winding and very narrow stretch which continues until after White House. Sounds rise and fall as the country is more open or more closely wooded here or there, and there is a sharpish hump which plays funny tricks with the tail when it is wet, but you are chiefly occupied with not bouncing into the way of the big stuff. Some of them, like Wimille in that vast and very silent Bugatti, sail quickly past with no trouble at all. Others there be that hum and ha, and then nearly shave your whiskers off.

White House is dangerous, but not “phonetically interesting.” Beyond it, you have a moment’s brief respite before the pits and the great effort to distinguish the rude message hung out, and to remember to work the lap counter.

Then it all starts over again, until suddenly they say “one lap to go” and you put in an extra good one to counter act the pit stop just a little. Switch engine off before the pits—it probably pre-ignites and runs backwards with a whiff of chuffing sound from the carburetters—then put the switches on again in case the other man forgets. Into your pit, and mechanically you go through those so carefully rehearsed routines. You are stone deaf, and hear almost nothing until the other man climbs -aboard and your coma is banished by the welcome blast of your own car’s exhaust.

He is gone, and over the loudspeakers come the first words you have heard for three hours or more—”La ‘voiture . . . , numero . . . a quitte son stand de ravitaillement . . .” A wash, a meal perhaps, then a deep peaceful sleep, lulled by the music of Herr Doppler’s phenomenon.