Secret Le Mans
There are 250,000 completely different experiences at Le Mans every year: the world’s greatest race can be one man’s festival on wheels and another’s corporate entertainment platform. You can do it on a budget or with no expense spared. But for each of the quarter of a million fans who attend annually, there is one golden rule: getting the best out of the event is not a matter of luck.
A little planning is all it takes to ensure that whatever your budget, you get the most out of the race and its build-up. We spoke to experts with different backgrounds and asked for their ‘secret’ Le Mans tips and hints. Their collective knowledge – gained over decades of attendance – will help you enjoy your first trip or help you take a fresh look at options for your 20th.
This month’s edition of Motor Sport also includes a free preview of the race, sponsored by Dunlop. So once you have read our guide for spectators, take a look at what the teams and drivers go through to put on the show.
Vincent Beaumesnil is the ACO’s Director of Sport. He is effectively second in command for the race. His family is inextricably linked to Le Mans too: his father and uncle were both entrants and his mother now heads the drivers’ club
Make sure you go on the Ferris wheel at night. It is an icon of Le Mans and the backdrop to a thousand photos, but it also offers a unique experience looking on the race 40m below. Then take a walk up to the “Le 24” terrace in between the two kart tracks to catch the cars coming from the Porsche Curves. This new building has an elevated view of this fast part of the track. And if the view motivates you to race yourself, you can try your hand at karting while the race continues only metres away.
Try and book get a table at Auberge des Hunaudières (www.aubergedeshunaudieres.com) on the Mulsanne Straight during the race. You will have to call and book well in advance to guarantee a table during live sessions but it is a very special thing: having dinner just a few metres away from the straight, you have the feeling that the cars are in the dining room with you.
Le Mans is not just a 24-hour race. For the teams the build-up takes two weeks and fans can make the most of this too by attending the scrutineering event on the Sunday and Monday before race weekend. Over those two days all 60 cars pass through scrutineering in front of the fans. It’s a unique event in motor sport, allowing fans to see all the cars and drivers up close.
The atmosphere in the campsites is incredible. Even if you don’t stay on site you should experience it. My favourite is to go by foot through the Beauséjour campsite, where a spectator area has been built to view the cars before the Porsche Curves. You will find fans from all countries having built amazing camps for the weekend. The beer bottle mountains there have become famous. Friendly rivalry between the nations can be felt and this is a great place to make new friends.
Try to stay awake for sunrise. I am awake for nearly 40 hours over the weekend. But one moment that stands out each year is very early on Sunday morning – sunrise in the start/finish straight grandstands. Teams, officials and spectators all tend to look exhausted. At the same time the temperature is rising and the cars are often at their fastest.
Stephen Kilbey, 22, has been to Le Mans 10 times, five as a spectator, and five as a reporter. His only missed event was due to exams scheduled on the Monday after the race
For the final night qualifying on Thursday, the grandstands above the pits are open for the public and offer one of the best experiences of race week. By heading up top you get an incredible view of the screen at the exit of the Ford Chicanes, and a top-down look at the pitlane as the cars come in and out to change tyres, trying to string together a pole lap before the race.
The free public pitwalk has always been my favourite activity on the Friday rest day. You can see the cars being worked on ahead of the race, and the teams perform pit stop practice. In recent years they’ve also opened up the floodgates to allow spectators to walk up to the Dunlop bridge, where they place historic cars on display. It’s a great time to relax with a beer and ease yourself into the hive of activity on race morning.
Go to the concert on Saturday night, to experience the best festival atmosphere Le Mans has to offer.
After the race, storm the pit straight and get a good view of the podium before making your way to the bar directly behind the main paddock entrance. Security is usually a little lax by now and outer paddock passes are not always needed. It’s a good atmosphere and you can mix with the teams.
Stay Sunday night and go into town. Le Shaker Bar on Rue du Port opposite Le Mans Legends normally has many team members in it, either celebrating or commiserating. You will certainly get to hear some stories of the last two weeks of their lives.
Richard Cuene-Grandidier is an ex-racing driver, FIA race director and Le Mans 24 Hours experience expert. He has become one of the go-to ‘fixers’ for high end exclusive experiences
Rent a house in town. The campsites have become more packed and less ‘premium’ as the event gets ever more popular and hotels are expensive. So for groups of about eight, consider renting a house in town (many residents use the race to rent out their home for the week). This offers access to the circuit by tram and reasonable restaurants within walking distance, but for a fraction of the price of a château – which I think are overrated. They are booked way in advance and also create logistical headaches.
If you really want to push the boat out, and have the best Saturday night of your motor sport life, here’s how. First, take a helicopter ride at sunset (book via heliberte.com). It is surprisingly cheap with spaces from about £130 depending on how many people book together and the time slot. Your pilot will take you on an aerial lap of the circuit but won’t be able to keep up with the cars on the Mulsanne. Then have dinner at Le Village Panoramic Restaurant on Saturday evening after your heli tour. Although booking is essential, a four-course lunch or dinner is a reasonable £129 per person. Or there is a three-course option for £89 per person. It’s at the ‘pit out’ and overlooks the circuit. From there it’s not far to stagger to the champagne bar in the village.
Get closer to the action. Book with a firm that includes a grid walk in their itinerary, such as Travel Destinations (www.traveldestinations.co.uk). You’ll never get on an F1 grid – and the atmosphere here is better.
Take an ‘unofficial’ VIP tour around the circuit. There are a handful of specialist companies that will get you to spots around the circuit that you would never find or access yoursel, such as the fastest part of the circuit on the Mulsanne corner/Indianapolis link. Not cheap at about £280 per person with eight people, sharing, but it’s unforgettable. If you can stay up after your dinner, an early morning slot is preferable
Explore France. If you are travelling from the US for example and staying for more than just the race weekend itself, there are opportunities to do things away from the track. With plenty of free time on Wednesday and Thursday before practice or qualifying commences, bespoke guided tours of the Normandy beaches (two hours away), wine tasting with one of the new breed of ‘sommelier entertainers’ in Saumur and the Loire valley (one hour) can all be brought into play.
Darren Cox worked in the Renault-Nissan Alliance for 19 years and was involved in several Le Mans programmes. He now runs his own consultancy.
Get a job. Le Mans is one of the biggest events in Europe. Teams, hospitality companies and the media need warm bodies to do stuff. Don’t expect to get paid much, if anything, but your accommodation and sustenance will be covered. I washed wheels for a team years ago and would say it is in my top five experiences a Le Mans. This takes a bit of research, many emails and sometimes a lucky break (unless you know someone who can help give you access to the team manager). French is not essential, but could help with some of the hospitality and logistics jobs.
Fly there directly. If you are tight on time but have a few of your friends wanting to attend with you, look into flying direct to Le Mans by chartering a plane. The airport is next to the circuit and the cost spread among six or eight people will mean you could fly in and out and not miss a day of work. Book well in advance and the cost should be under £1000 per person for a full plane.
Sleep in your car. A slightly cheaper alternative is to drive with a willing buddy and a big car. Take the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen. When you get to the circuit find a quiet parking space and go and explore on bikes (which you should bring with you). When you have had enough, fold down the rear seats, lock the bikes up securely and get some shut-eye – the cheapest way to experience the race.
Lean on the experts. Take advice from these pages but also use the many blogs and forums set up to provide advice, such as Midweek Motorsport, Listeners Collective on Facebook or Ten Tenths. And do not forget to bring or buy an FM radio. Radio Le Mans is a tradition. All of the teams will be listening to help them understand this complex race across four classes. I would be lost without it.
Be bold. With bikes and a sense of adventure you can get to some amazing locations around the circuit. A smile and the offer of cigarettes can get you near a marshalling post on the Mulsanne in the dead of night. I know – I’ve done it.
Simon Fox is a Le Mans Super Fan who has attended 19 races and, amazingly, has never travelled there in the same car
Get out and about. The circuit is over eight miles long and most of the iconic corners are reachable with some planning. There are excellent viewing spots from the exit of the Porsche Curves round to Tertre Rouge. But for the real fan experience you need to head out to Arnage after 11pm. It’s worth it: the new spectator banking there stretches up past Indianapolis corner so you get a full view of the cars braking from the fastest part of the circuit. If you don’t know where you’re going and can get out in daylight (Friday morning is best), find your way to Arnage and then to the entrance from the road to Mulsanne corner.
Traffic is a big problem around the race but you can avoid jams with a few precautions. If camping make sure you get all your provisions on Friday (including toilet roll, or you’ll be charged by the sheet) so you don’t have to face raceday traffic. If coming on Saturday via the D326 autoroute from Paris, drop onto the D304 towards the centre of Le Mans and take one of the left turns to Tertre Rouge corner. This brings you in towards ‘Parking Rouge’ and the ‘Parc des Expositions’ near the main entrance, where you can usually find on-street parking. It avoids the massive queues that build up on the autoroute.
Heading into the city from the campsites? There’s now a tram line running from behind Houx Annexe campsite, via Tertre Rouge to the city centre. It’s far quicker than getting there by car. And whenever you are driving remember that the local police are out in force with their speed cameras all the way from the ports to Le Mans – they work even at night. They are also very active with breathalysers around the circuit.
Attend the driver’s parade in the centre of Le Mans on Friday. It winds around the city centre, with each team of drivers carried round on the back of a vintage car. There are two or three cafés in the Place des Jacobins (if you’re there for scrutineering you can often see drivers and team members outside), or try the bars around the Place de la République. For the drivers parade try Le Piller Rouge, a tiny bar on top of the ramparts. It’s worth getting into the city early, especially if you’re driving (there are some good car parks between the old city walls and the river).
If you’re feeling adventurous drive to the roundabout behind Houx Camping in the early evening and join locals doing burnouts. It’s mix between a scene from Mad Max and a local football derby where teenagers in their Novas mix with 50-somethings in their Aston Martins.
Do it our way
Motor Sport’s editorial team offer their tips for getting the best out of the race
- If you are travelling by car drive down via Rouen and detour via what’s left of the Les Essarts circuit – you can still take the downhill esses and remind yourself that F1 cars once roamed this part of the planet.
- To avoid rip-off prices on site, stop en route at E Leclerc in Outreau, Boulogne – one of the best supermarket around. You can get fantastic wine for 5-7 euros a bottle. And crisps.
- Pack a bike and use it for speedy access to the various vantage points. It’s also useful on Friday, when you can cycle much of the lap: even on a 21-speed Raleigh, the run from Hunaudières to Arnage seems terrifyingly narrow. A good padlock is essential though.
- Radio LM is something of an institution and is essential if you want to keep up with the racing as it develops. Also consider the official FIA WEC app. It’s free, but you can get a premium service with live video streaming and timing screens. It works for all WEC rounds.
- Find the Grand Marnier crêpe stand, and when you’re invited to anoint your pancake from an huge bottle of orange liqueur, don’t hold back.
- Think hard before buying branded goods in the village: stand holders have a captive audience and charge accordingly. A better bet is to buy on your way out on Sunday evening; many stalls sell off T-shirts at half the advertised price or less.
- Bring waterproofs: it may be summer, but at Le Mans it almost always rains, sometimes for 20 of the 24 hours.
- Stay to the end, even if the winner looks obvious: you should be able to walk into the pitlane for the podium ceremony, an experience you will never forget.