People, unless presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, will believe what they wish, and those who stood by a track in France for 24 hours in the middle of June wished they had seen a great motor race and therefore did. The simple truth, available to those who wanted to find it, was that this year, Le Mans did not host a great or even a particularly good motor race.
The remarkable thing about this is that it simply didn’t matter. Yes, as fans, we would have liked an Ickx-Hermann last-lap drama but not one of us expected it. At Le Mans, on all bar the most freakish occasions, it just doesn’t happen. There are, of course, excitements and surprises along the way, you couldn’t possibly attempt to pack over 1100 race car hours into a single day without them, but the history books will remember that Porsche won Le Mans. Again.
I’m all in favour of this. Last year Porsche was lambasted for creating the GT1, a car that was race car first, mad car second and one which therefore flouted the spirit of, but did not actually break, the regulations. Porsche, in fact, was not in the least bit to blame any more than you or I would be for driving up the M1 at 120mph on the day the government says people should try jolly hard to stick to 70mph.
As is so often the case, the fault lay with those who engineered the loophole in the first place. And the fact that Porsche’s GT1 won neither this year nor last is scarcely the point, any more than the fact that the design of Reinhold Joest’s winner was originated from the Jaguar XJR-14. It will rightly be remembered as Porsche’s 15th win where no other marque has made double figures.
So what is it about Le Mans? Why did more Britons than attend any other event abroad, return from this largely lacklustre motor race talking of nothing but anticipation for next year’s race? And why did they do so with the knowledge that, once more, the overwhelming likelihood is that Porsche will, once more, win. I found such feelings odd and was not helped by knowing that I harboured them myself.
I do not believe the race’s location is the key. Through day and night and day I heard spectators, drivers and the imported Le Mans radio station bleat about how this race could only happen in France. And only once did I hear a single enlightened soul ask why. If geography has any role to play in the success of this race it is not because the race is held in France, it is, more simply, because it is not held in Britain.
There are two groups of people who go to Le Mans and neither goes for any of the traditional reasons for attending a motor-race: To see a grid °fears being driven as fast as they will go until one, the fastest, wins.
Group One represents those to whom the racing is entirely incidental. The real reason for the success of this race has nothing whatever to do with motor racing and absolutely everything with the naughty delights of staying up all night and drinking too much in an environment where such behaviour, far from being scorned, is actively encouraged. You have all the fun yet suffer none of the guilt.
Group Two and there is considerable overlap are the true fans, not simply of motor racing, but of human endeavour. For this is the true appeal of the race, and is a thousand times more important than anything so trite as its result. By endeavour, I do not mean endurance alone, for the greatest stories came not just from the cars on the grid, but how they arrived there.
We all know how the works Porsches did it. But how did, for instance, the privately-entered Lark McLaren manage to qualify as the second fastest F1 GTR, ahead of all the Gulf-McLarens and one of the works Schnitzer cars? The scale of this achievement would scarcely be bettered by a Minardi making it onto the front row of a Grand Prix grid. Parabolica Motorsport, the team behind the car, is a microscopic outfit compared to BMW-backed Schnitzer yet, at Le Mans, they did their sums right, chose their moment and made their indelible mark.
The thing about Le Mans is the magic lives on in teams like Parabolica, and the two London stockbrokers who realised their two-year dream to take part at Le Mans, driving a GT2 Porsche 911. In Formula One, World Rallying and Touring Cars alike, such magic is denied.
And then there was the Ferrari’s last lap. The sole surviving 333SP, which had flown, softly screaming, through the night, was coming into land. In the cockpit was Giampiero Moretti, 57 years old and back at Le Mans in a Ferrari for the first time since he raced a 512S here in 1970. On that last lap, we did not need to see him spin not once but twice, to know that the man and his Ferrari had given their all. And when he finished, they stood and cheered, and cheered and stood as if he had won. The history book will record, in fact, that he finished sixth but the history book was not there at 4:00pm that Sunday afternoon.
And it is that, so much more than the fact that yet another Porsche, peopled by Formula One drivers, started from pole and went on to win, which explains the magic of Le Mans. Like I said, as motor races go it was neither great nor particularly good but, as an event in its own right, which neither asks nor needs no further justification, I doubt another will come close until we all unthinkingly, religiously and joyously return once more to France next June. AF