Spectator guide: Le Mans 24-hours race

Part one: The journey there

On the weekend of June 11-12, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) can reasonably expect the biggest influx of British motor racing fans in its history, the prospect of the TWR Jaguars possibly vanquishing the marques from Stuttgart–Porsche and Mercedes – being irresistible.

Amongst this invasion, there will certainly be many “first-timers” with little or no knowledge of one of the world’s great motor racing festivals – what tickets to buy, where to watch, park, eat or sleep, and even where the toilet facilities are – in fact, all the little things that make the difference between a great a thoroughly miserable weekend.

The three most popular ways of getting to Le Mans are by coach, by air and by car.

If you have not already made any arrangements, it still may not be too late; the specialist travel companies (and even our sister publication Motoring News is organising a tour) tend to send as many coaches as are needed, since most of the clients of these tours do not require, and could not get anyway, hotel accommodation. With the coach itself being the base, all that is needed is space for it in the coach park. It is not worth considering taking any camping ear, as the coach parks tend to be located far away from the camp-sites.

There may be spaces left on one of the package-flights direct to the circuit. These tend to leave regional airports around Britain on Saturday morning, arriving in France mid-morning, with the return flight soon after the race on Sunday afternoon. A tent is usually provided for those who want to sleep.

For independent travellers going by car, there may be some spaces left on the Friday/Saturday crossings, but to save disappointment it is worth considering leaving earlier in the week and taking in practice. Alternatively there are daily flights to Paris where there is a good rail-link to the circuit.
One of the facts of life is that there will not be any vacant hotel accommodation within a 30-mile radius, as everything is booked on an annual basis by the regulars, the teams and members of the circus. Consequently most spectators sleep either in the coaches, in their cars, or in one of the camp-sites situated within the circuit environs.

Any rosy image you may have of a continental camp-site, however, will be immediately vaporised on your arrival at Le Mans. They are neither for the faint of heart nor for those concerned with the niceties of ablution. It is not so much the facilities themselves, rudimentary though they are, it is more to do with the sheer volume of people utilising them.

There are a number of camp-sites on the circuit, all bookable in advance thorough the ACO, which cost between £12 and £20 for the week. “Camping Houx” is the site used for those who arrive on the day without having booked, and is situated in the centre of the course between the Bugatti Circuit and the Mulsanne Straight. Other sites are “Maison Blanche”, “Panorama” on the outside of the track near the Dunlop Bridge and the small “Camping des Tribunes” near the village.

There is ample reserved and unreserved parking at the circuit. The reserved parking space, which is strictly controlled and policed, costs approximately £9, but this does include admission to regularly-cleaned washing and toilet facilities. The unreserved parking pace is naturally down to pot luck, but can cost you about £5 if it is in the Rouge, Blanc and Vert areas during the race. Camping is forbidden in the car parks, although naturally you can sleep in your car and prepare a meal beside it.

There are a number of essential items worth taking on the journey whichever way you go. A basic kit should include a complete change of clothes (including shoes), a windcheater or rally jacket with zip-up pockets for passport, money and tickets, and also a plastic raincoat and folding umbrella. Since the food and drink is so exorbitantly expensive on the circuit, it is worth taking a camping gas-stove and kettle, a plastic screw-top bottle for milk, and a sealable container for sugar.

Other essentials include matches, which are impossible to buy at the circuit, a camper’s cookset and cutlery all packed into a cold-box so a small meal can be prepared at any time. A small torch should also be taken as well as a pillow and sleeping-bag. As the cost of film is also very expensive in France, it is well worth remembering to stock up before leaving home.

For motorists a green card from the insurers as proof of cover is an important document which, although not compulsory in France, is useful to have should there be an accident. Without it, the French police can make life very difficult.

The circuit itself is located due south of the town, with the N138 as the best road to use for access to most parking areas. It also has the advantage of passing one of the largest hypermarket complexes in the town, and so is a convenient place to stock up with provisions so as to avoid paying high prices for food at the circuit.

Getting into the circuit is simplicity itself, as the car park locations are marked with the appropriately-coloured arrows below the permanent traffics signs all over Le Mans. The flow of traffic is smooth, directed by the police and marshals who have had years to perfect the system.

Ticket details, and the best vantage points around the circuit, will be covered next month. IB