Points of view
If you do not have a car try some of the following areas, all of which are accessible on foot from the village and administrative centre.
Pits and Start/Finish Area
Even without a tribune ticket, the banked and terraced enclosures immediately in front of the stands offer a fine view of the action throughout the race, particularly if you like watching the pit-crews doing their stuff. Highly recommended after dark, when the pits become a vast illuminated stage with the public auditorium opposite.
Dunlop Chicane &Bridge
Formerly known as the Dunlop Curve, the chicane was built in 1988 to slow the cars as they crest the rise under the bridge. It is unpopular with the drivers, but an excellent photographers’ gallery and, with lots of sand-traps in all directions, a safe place for incidents to occur.
The Esses and Terte Rouge
This is really a complex of three corners, through the pine woods to the start of the Mulsanne straight. From the bridge the cars plummet downhill past the funfair on the left, to the tricky left-right of the Esses, clipping the outside apron of the track and swinging gradually into the sweeping right of Terte Rouge (red hillock) and out onto the straight. There are lots of viewing and photographic opportunities here, but look out — the woods are a favourite place for the temporarily homeless to crash out at night, so watch where you are treading!
The “Technical Section” towards White House>/em>
White House exists on the circuit only in name now (though the original track and the building after which it was named can be found a few hundred yards to the west and are worth a look if you have your own transport), and the whole section from there down to the pits is lined with high fencing a la Silverstone. Pretty boring from the punter’s point of view and not really recommended, it is however taxing for the drivers and taken at very high speed, and is a good spot from which to watch the faster men jinking in and out of the traffic. A better place to watch this though is …
The Ford Chicane
As the cars brake for this complex things can get a bit hairy, particularly if the slower drivers fail to keep an eye on their mirrors. With a clear track though, you will see who is really trying, as witnessed by Stuck’s awesome performance in practice last year – eyeballs out and both rumble-strips at the same time The approaches are lined with the same high fencing, but a good place to take photographs is the exit, where there is no fencing and the cars are still moving fairly slowly under acceleration up the finish straight.
Naturally enough it is somewhere in this area or along the pits-straight that you will want to witness the last rites of the race being performed, as the leaders pay their final visits to the pits for fuel and tyres, the walking wounded stagger in and out for repairs, and the other casualties wait in the pit-lane before wheezing out for the final lap to qualify as finishers.
If you have transport of your own, you might wish to explore some of the more distant parts of the circuit. A word of advice is that it is hopeless to try to “map-read” a short route to most of the following locations — during all activities on the track, a strict traffic control system is in operation which seems to take you in circuitous routes over the Sarthe landscape to travel the shortest distances! Don’t try to beat the system, or you will be stopped by a grumpy looking policeman and sent back.
Sign-posted Virage Mulsanne, this is one of the classic corners in motor racing, or it was until it was emasculated in 1987 to make way for a roundabout scheme to ease access into a local shopping complex. Nevertheless it is still a real test of a driver’s nerve and his car’s braking, and the spectator embankments opposite the signalling pits in the infield are an interesting place to spend a couple of hours, especially at night. It is difficult to pick up Radio Le Mans here though, so you may lose track of what is going on for a while. There is plenty of free official parking about 800 metres from viewing areas; expect a ten-minute walk.
Indianapolis & Arnage
These two corners, signposted Virage Arnage, are now the only ones which remain from the original 1923 circuit in more-or-less their original form. Indianapolis is a fast sweeping right-hander followed by a slow second-gear left, with a quick spurt up to the slowest corner on the circuit, Arnage. Anywhere here is a good place to watch the fast and slow cars jostling for track space and, being remote from the frenetic activity of the pits area, the atmosphere in these pine woods seems more relaxed than elsewhere. It is a very pleasant place to be as the sunny Saturday evening shadows lengthen, and plenty of free parking is available immediately adjacent to this enclosure.
Of course everybody dreams of visiting the Restaurant des 24 Heures during the race, to sit and nonchalantly sip an aperitif as the cars blast past at 235 mph and elegant waiters waft noiselessly from table to table. My advice is to forget it: it is expensive, packed with inebriated British race fans, and you can’t see a damned thing!
Better to try and book a table at Le Ferme de Mulsanne restaurant on the outside of the kink, further down the straight. Reached by a signposted track from the D140 Raudin-Mulsanne road, this establishment is set back from the track a little, but once you have finished your meal you can stand in the garden at the front and watch one of the awe-inspiring sights in the sport. Try to be there at dusk as the sun is cutting through the pines and the headlights of the cars approaching the rise just before the kink light up the sky to the north, heralding their brief but raucous passage. Watch the brake lights here: the bravest will take the kink flat in fifth.
To get to either of these restaurants during race or practice, you have to be able to prove that you have an advance booking for a meal there. Otherwise all access to the Mulsanne Straight is closed.