Sarthe circular road

Once a year, over a long weekend in June, a north-western French city is transformed into a British suburb. It’s a tradition that stretches back several generations… and with good reason

It was a tiny classified advertisement tucked away in a copy of Motoring News. The key points? Coach trip, Manchester, £17.50 and Le Mans 24 Hours. Hard to believe 40 years have passed since I booked my place.

At the time it felt like the most exciting thing in the history of the world, probably because I still had a great deal to learn about the world: a trip abroad with school-mate Phil, parental involvement limited to the preparation of sandwiches and provision of a few francs… and one of the world’s most famous races at the far end. In truth, we were simply signing up to a tradition that had spanned the ages – and has continued in that vein ever since.

We doubted anyone else in the Manchester area could possibly have been as interested as we were in Le Mans, but our coach – organised by Seemore Travel, a long-defunct business based in Sale, Cheshire – was full.

Of the 250,000-plus spectators that attend the 24 Hours nowadays, how many are British? I’ve seen quoted claims of 50,000 to 80,000, but who counts? The number is well into five figures, as was very likely the case back then. Where else in the world is it possible to find a traffic jam comprising only Caterham Sevens?

IN 1978 WE watched from the area around The Esses, then very different from the way it is now: the track passed beneath the Dunlop Bridge, then continued straight before dipping into a flowing left-right preceding the short run to Tertre Rouge. At the turn’s exit, it was more or less possible to lean on the earth bank that lined the circuit, the run-off area could be measured in millimetres and there was no debris fencing. Across the track there was a British enclave on an earth bank that faced oncoming cars – and a few hours into the race we made that our base. There were pockets of UK interest on the entry list, principally the de Cadenet-Lola T380S of Alain de Cadenet/Chris Craft, which had finished fifth overall the previous season. Every time the car appeared over the crest beneath the Dunlop Bridge, the Union Flags around us would go into overdrive. And every lap, almost without fail, a fire-resistant glove would rise from the steering wheel in acknowledgement.

Hampered by a succession of problems, the de Cadenet trailed home 15th. The highest-placed British entry was Charles Ivey Racing’s Porsche 911 RSR, 14th overall and second in class in the hands of Gordon Spice, Larry Perkins and American John Rulon-Miller. Perkins commuted to the race on a large trail bike, something I know only because he was in the queue alongside our coach, waiting to board the return ferry. If memory serves, he was wearing the same crash helmet – distinctive in the green and gold of his native Australia, plus smattering of battle scars and deceased flies – that he’d used in the race. It was a pleasing footnote at the end of a marvellous adventure during which we’d remained trackside throughout.

Seemore had offered the use of its coach as a dormitory, but that would have been against the spirit of the whole enterprise. Neither of us had properly warm clothing – and it was extremely cold beyond sunset – but we drew comfort from the atmosphere, the constant, varied sound of internal combustion passing but a few metres away, and occasional cups of coffee we could just about afford. And I also learned a valuable lesson: I’d been looking forward to some night-time photography with my dad’s hand-me-down Pentax Spotmatic. It hadn’t occurred, however, that light-trail shots would require long exposures that relied on something rather steadier than my hands… That apart the weekend was everything for which we’d hoped – and then some. Little could I have imagined that I’d be back five years later, this time to report the race for the newspaper in which I’d originally seen the advert. I have returned many more times since.

BRITAIN’S LOVE AFFAIR with Le Mans dates back to the race’s dawn, as the Grand Prix d’Endurance de 24 Heures in 1923. The works Bentley 3-litre Sport of Frank Clement and Canadian John Duff finished fourth in a field of 33 – a hint of things to come. The pair won outright the following year – and Bentley then took four straight wins from 1927-1930. During this period, Woolf Barnato became the first driver to score three consecutive victories – a feat several drivers have since matched, though only Tom Kristensen has beaten it (they were Barnato’s only Le Mans starts, so he had a 100 per cent strike rate).

As a petrol-headed schoolboy, I’d endeavoured to find out more about the Bentley story – but my own perceptions perhaps differed from the norm. Were we looking at history through British Racing Green-tinted spectacles? The company’s bygone successes seemed equal parts endeavour and heroism, yet also seemed somewhat elitist. Its exploits might have enhanced Britain’s reputation as a racing nation, but could they have been more effective still if they had drawn from a broader talent pool? We’ll never know.

UK drivers won again in 1931 following the withdrawal of the works Bentleys, Earl Howe and Henry Birkin giving the Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 the first of four straight victories, but the race wouldn’t rediscover its full British flavour until the 1950s, courtesy of Jaguar and, the win that’s most often overlooked due to its singularity, Aston Martin in 1959 (the last outright success for a British car in traditional racing green).

JW Automotive’s future victories would be achieved in Gulf’s two-tone, while Jaguar’s full-scale return in 1986 was cloaked behind a commercial smokescreen – a purple haze, if you like. The Cat’s return intensified interest north of Calais, particularly when the marque won again in 1988 and 1990, but in truth the event’s pilgrimage status was already established – not so much a motor race as a festival with a competitive core.

It’s the periphery, the stuff you see en route to and from (or at) the circuit that gives Le Mans its distinctive flavour. An edgy cocktail of tension and exuberance, the pre-start parades are like nothing else to the east of the Atlantic – though the Indy 500 has parallel ambience. And while you can take spectators out of Britain, the reverse isn’t necessarily true. One year, when a familiar face was strolling along the grid, most of the pit straight grandstand launched into a chorus of, “One Derek Bell, there’s only one Derek Bell…” It didn’t matter whether they’d have supported Liverpool or Everton, Arsenal or Spurs on other sporting weekends; here they were unified by respect.

THINGS AREN’T ALWAYS so harmonious. ‘Mad Friday’, when fans gather alongside the Hunaudières Straight, is an acquired taste. For the most part it is good natured, but I’m also aware of drivers who have felt seriously intimidated because they didn’t fancy playing wheelspin games to amuse the mob. If you want to tour most of the track peacefully on a Friday, your best bet is a pushbike. Even on one of those, the section from Mulsanne Corner to Arnage feels incredibly narrow: if that’s the sensation at 20mph, imagine how it must be at the best part of 200.

A few years ago I was strolling during the early hours through the Race Village – home to many a bar and frîterie – when I spotted a silver-haired gent weaving his way past amiably drunken Danes on a clapped-out bike. He was pausing from time to time to take in the atmosphere and savouring every second – the kind of thing that comes naturally to all visitors. As I got closer, I realised it was former Grand Prix driver Philippe Alliot, pole-sitter for Peugeot at Le Mans in 1993, three times a podium finisher and now just an anonymous bystander.

You don’t see that kind of thing anywhere else in our sport. There really isn’t another race quite like this.