Britain’s third-biggest spectator event takes place in another country. Why do enthusiasts cross the Channel in droves for it?
What is it about Le Mans – that most French of races – that obsesses us Brits? You could pin it on a certain Walter Owen Bentley, who annexed La Sarthe with his Union Jacked British Racing Green machines and their five wins during the 1920s. Alfa Romeo was the dominant force in the 1930s, but after the hiatus for World War II the Brits returned with the combined might of Jaguar and Aston to take six wins during the 1950s. If possession really is nine-tenths of the law, then Le Mans was ours.
Since then apart from the odd moment of glory it’s been comparatively slim pickings for the British marques, but our love for Le Mans endured. Jaguar’s triumphant pair of Group C wins in 1988 and 1990 proved to be a source of national pride, while McLaren’s historic win in 1995 remains one of the greatest fairy tales of them all.
Since then it’s been Deutschland über alles, save for 2003 with the (Audi-flavoured) Bentley Speed 8 and 2009 when Peugeot derailed the Audi freight train with the mighty 908 HDI FAP, an example of which is tested elsewhere in this issue. Such periods of dominance are often said to be bad for motor sport. In F1 and rallying I would tend to agree, but there’s something about Le Mans – its propensity for breathless drama and brutal heartbreak – that makes every victory an achievement so incredible it’s impossible to begrudge the victor their spoils, however many years they manage to beat the odds.
It’s apt that the French have enjoyed the most sustained success at Le Mans, with outright victories in all but one of La Ronde Infernale’s 10 decades. From long defunct marques such as Chenard & Walcker (winner of the first 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1923), Lorraine-Dietrich, Delahaye and Talbot-Lago, to Bugatti, Matra, Renault-Alpine and Peugeot, the Le Mans roll of honour is peppered with uniquely characterful and hugely patriotic efforts.
The lasting significance of those home wins – in particular those scored in the modern era by Matra, Renault, Rondeau and Peugeot – and the aura that surrounds those cars to this day is one of Le Mans’ uniquely beguiling qualities. There must have been a time in my life when I wasn’t aware of Le Mans, but it must have been a helluva long time ago because I genuinely can’t remember it. Whether looking through books and reading race reports, making models or racing slot cars, Le Mans assumed an almost mythical status in my mind.
I remember the sense of wonder the first time I watched Steve McQueen’s iconic movie. I also remember writing a letter to the Rothmans head office in London requesting promotional material relating to their sponsorship of Porsche’s 956s in the World Sportscar Championship. Realising I was under-age, they sent a letter addressed to my parents thanking me for my interest and expressed pleasure in enclosing a selection of Porsche race posters, but leaving it to my parents to decide whether I should receive promotional material from a tobacco company. Suffice to say I got the posters (wish I still had them now) and though I never did become a smoker, I vowed from that day that were I ever to do so my coffin nails of choice would be Rothmans King Size. But I digress.
My first trip to Le Mans remains a cherished and indelible memory. It was 1991. A historic year for a number of reasons – the new pit complex, wild 3.5-litre F1-engined prototypes and Mazda’s heroic win being the most significant. The whole experience was epic. From the sense of being on a shared mission with my friends and the rag-tag caravan of UK-registered sports cars that disgorged from the bellies of countless cross-channel ferries to the ordeal of camping, the sensory trauma of the toilet blocks and the ever-growing beer bottle walls.
Above all it was the extraordinary scale of the race that blew my mind. Exhaustion and exhilaration are close bedfellows, but never more so than when you’re completely lost in the kaleidoscopic whirl of noise and colour that is the Le Mans 24 Hours. The boom of the Saubers, the brittle yowl of the V12 Jags, the boosty hum of the Porsches and, of course, the tortured shriek of the Mazdas. The sense of relentlessness was almost overwhelming.
Having elected to crash out in my tent (positioned on the Bugatti Circuit near to the Dunlop Bridge) in the early hours of the morning, I can still remember the blissful feeling of almost drifting off to sleep. Then, as though plugged into the mains I’d jolt awake as the Mazda braked hard and woop-woop-wooped its way down the gears into the Dunlop Chicane, then wooop-woooop-woooooped its way up the gears as it crested the brow and tore down the hill. And so it went on, me never quite getting to sleep and the wailing Mazdas refusing to break, despite my increasingly dark incantations in the quest for some shut-eye.
I’ve been back many times since for the 24 Hours. In 1995 I drove out with a mate in a Caterham Seven, tent and belongings strapped to the roll hoop, and had my mind blown by JJ Lehto’s legendary night stint in the Ueno Clinic McLaren F1 GTR. I was there the following year to see the place go wild as the breathtakingly beautiful Peugeot 905 finally won. Thinking back to 1999 I still go cold at the memory of watching on the big screen as Peter Dumbreck launched into the trees in his CLK-GTR and the whole place went deathly quiet. Such are the highs and lows at Le Mans.
While the nature of the racing has evolved and the place has lost some of its scruffy charm, the feeling I get from just being there never changes. Perhaps that’s the answer to my original question. Wherever you’re from, if you have a love for the drama and romance of endurance racing then being at Le Mans somehow feels like coming home.
Dickie Meaden has been writing about cars for 25 years – and racing them for almost as long. He is a regular winner at historic meetings