Clock watching

Few motorsport events polarise opinion among drivers quite like the Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans. To some it’s an interminable bore, for others it’s worth missing a grand prix for. Possibly…

In my experience, people either adore Le Mans or they loathe it. And that goes for fans as well as drivers.

Many times Le Mans is the same weekend as the Canadian GP, and time was when we rarely saw Jabby Crombac, doyen of racing journalists, in Montreal. “Oh no, it’s out of the question for me to miss Le Mans,” he would say. And he continued with that philosophy until the late ’90s, when suddenly Le Mans disappeared from his radar.

“Why would I want to go there any more?” he sniffed. “It’s just a Volkswagen parade…” And for the rest of his life Le Mans was just a memory.

There were always drivers who loved the race and competed whenever possible, and those like Stirling Moss who found it a bore. “Le Mans was always a great occasion,” said Stirling. “But let’s face it, it was a dead loss of a race, wasn’t it? A mean, a race – for 24 hours? Bit of a contradiction. That’s why I was always happy to act as ‘the hare’ – you might not last very long, but at least you could have a go…”

As Moss suggests, he very rarely finished Le Mans. Probably the only year in which he would have won was 1955, when his leading Mercedes 300SLR (shared with Fangio) was withdrawn, along with the other surviving car, following the appalling accident involving Pierre Levegh’s 300SLR which cost as many as 100 lives.

Still, Stirling was a trouper who turned out if asked. In 1961, his final full season, he shared Rob Walker’s Ferrari 250GT with Graham Hill, but the water hose failed.

Chris Amon, by contrast, quite enjoyed Le Mans, and won there in 1966, sharing a 7-litre Ford MkII with Bruce McLaren. “It was a truck to drive but it certainly got going, and winning Le Mans is always going to be a milestone in your career. Henry Ford was there at the race and afterwards he promised Bruce and me all kinds of things – including a Mustang each. We never got them…

“Not long afterwards I joined Ferrari. At Daytona the following year, Lorenzo [Bandini] and I won, followed by two other Ferraris. We completely trounced the Fords, and on American soil, which didn’t go down too well in Detroit.”

Amon last ran at Le Mans in 1973, sharing a factory BMW CSL with Hans-Joachim Stuck. For the first time Chris found himself in a ‘midfield’ car, and he didn’t relish it at all. “We’d no chance of winning outright, but that was OK: we were going for the class win. When I’d driven at Le Mans before, I’d been in something quick and you went down Mulsanne threading your way between slower cars. In ’73 I was in their position, and in the night it was terrifying: you spent all your time looking in the mirrors, trying to keep out of the way…”

Throughout his F1 career, Keke Rosberg vowed he was never going to race at Le Mans. Absurdly dangerous, he said, with too great a discrepancy in car performance and too many ‘once a year’ racers. After retiring from F1, though, Rosberg joined the Peugeot sports car squad, “On the understanding that I wouldn’t do Le Mans”. After a little cajoling from Jean Todt, however, Keke changed his mind, and once there admitted that he enjoyed it: “Jesus, that place is quick!”

One man who simply loves Le Mans and everything about it is Martin Brundle. He won it for Jaguar in 1990 and has competed there endless times.

“When I had that puncture on Mulsanne in the middle of the night in ’99 it was probably the most disappointed I’ve ever been in my life. I put my heart and soul into that Toyota project so I’d had enough of Le Mans for a little while. It was a car that should have won the race, and didn’t.”

There are chicanes on Mulsanne these days, but even so every time you go down racing’s most fabled straight you are going very fast for a very long time. A tyre failure? Brundle said you simply couldn’t afford to think about that.

“Le Mans frightens me but it’s a nice fear; not a gut-wrenching fear. You’re flat out for a long time, and if you’re the best driver in the world or the worst, there’s nothing at that moment you can do: you’re in the lap of the gods as far as a tyre failure is concerned – or somebody having a problem in front of you. Yes of course it’s scary…

“But there’s an ambience at Le Mans you don’t find anywhere else. Inside the cockpit at night it’s just you and your car on the Mulsanne: you’re doing well over 200mph… It’s an amazing feeling. Sometimes you can go faster at night than during the day, and to pick up a 200-metre board at 205mph, sail past it before you hit the brakes, and then start looking for a little Mickey Mouse chicane or into the Porsche curves… It’s just mind-blowingly exciting.

“What is scary is when you get something like what happened to me in ’98. I was in the Toyota, and I happened to be the first car along as it started to rain on just one corner of the track. Jesus, I went off so hard. I thought I’d hit oil – it wasn’t until I got out of the car that I even knew it was raining. It was pouring – but only at that corner.

“What worries you a bit, of course, is that there could be some debris or whatever on the track, especially at night. And of course you are a bit of a passenger from time to time. If you can’t cope with that then don’t go to Le Mans.”

It’s five years since Brundle last drove there, in the Bentley. Will he ever go back again? “I’m not sure it would be too easy to sell the idea to my wife, but I’m still tempted, yes. Every year I’m over in Canada commentating on the grand prix for ITV, and every year I wish I was blasting round Le Mans. I think it’s a fantastic circuit in its own right, let alone the ambience. Just love everything about it…”