Le Mans MotoGP – a petrolhead Glastonbury


Last weekend’s French MotoGP round attracted 278,000 fans. Some go for the racing, others for the campsite mayhem. So how mad is the campsite and is this a lesson for MotoGP?

Le Mans MotoGP campsite Mat Oxley

Two motorcycles in the Le Mans campsite, one dead, the other dying. Lots of vans too – in which to sleep and also to take home your dead motorcycle

Mat Oxley

Eyes blinded by smoke, faces crispened by flames, ears deafened by the chatter of small-arms fire and the boom-boom of artillery, we keep moving forward, undaunted, towards our target, which must be reached, at all costs.

A man goes down in front of us, face in the dust, gurgling uncontrollably. Ambulances screech past, sirens wailing, blue lights flashing, rushing more casualties to the medical station at the rear.

War is hell, they say. But this is war without the shooting. The man who went down gurgling, now rolls onto his back, face smeared with dust and beer, giggling uncontrollably. Until he realises it’s his beer that’s been spilt.

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My comrades in this adventure are locals Kevin and Ophélie, who have been partaking in this lunacy for years. And they’re laughing too. All around is insanity, beautiful insanity.

Welcome to the MotoGP campsite at Le Mans, which stretches as far as you can see in all directions like a vast warzone: flames erupting here and there, while palls of black, oily smoke hang over the scene as the sun goes down, ushering in the night, when the real crazies come out to play.

Under cover of darkness the place goes completement gaga – like an illegal rave in the countryside, except the crazies aren’t gyrating to a trance beat, they’re jumping up and down to the pop-pop-pop of engines that can’t be far from death.

Only the brave dare stumble through the gates of Hades and into this particular Valley of Death, I’m told. Nonsense, of course. Before I walked into the campsite on Friday evening I had various MotoGP paddock people warning me, “Well, it was nice knowing you…” or “You’ll be lucky to get out alive…”.

Bullshit. The bullet-free Le Mans war zone is super-cool. I saw nothing bad happening (well, nothing I’d call bad, although the fun police might disagree). The only things I saw being tortured to death while voyeurs oohed and aahed in delight were a few dozen perfectly serviceable motorcycles.


Le Mans is Mad Max made real, a petrol-head’s Glastonbury or Burning Man. People go there for the happening. It doesn’t matter who’s headlining at Glasto or who’s going to be on the front row at Le Mans, you go because it’s Glasto and you go because it’s Le Mans.

They are both sacred events, except that the Le Mans crazies get high on the fumes of burnt petrol and melting rubber, not ecstasy or acid.

For three days bikers get to live in their own little world, a counter-culture bubble that’s a million miles from the realities of everyday life.

And apparently, there is racing. The world’s best motorcycle riders are risking life and limb for gold and glory just over there. But only if you can be arsed to get off your backside and leave the campsite, where you can be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do.

It’s all good, atavistic fun. But in all seriousness, happenings like Glastonbury and the Le Mans MotoGP weekend (the 24-hour race is even wilder) do serve an important social purpose.

Modern society becomes more regimented, more restricted and more uniform. Some people refuse to conform and live in that box, so they run screaming from their workaday existences to ‘safety-valve’ events like Le Mans, Glastonbury and Burning Man.

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The Streets’ debut album Original Pirate Material explains this concept very simply, in a track called Geezers need excitement, which goes like this…

“Geezers need excitement. If their lives don’t provide them this, they incite violence.”

Common sense, simple common sense.

Obviously, this also applies to the females squinting their way through the smoke and flames at Le Mans, but mostly it is blokes.

What matters most is that anyone who might like to confront this renegade behaviour with baton charges and barrages of plastic bullets has realised that it’s better for everyone to let the bikers be. Let them go loco somewhere (relatively) safe.

This is one reason why the Le Mans MotoGP weekend has become such a mecca for motorcyclists.

The official figure for the weekend attendance was 278,000 fans. No one can remember the last time so many people turned up for a MotoGP race.

Most likely it was either the 1987 Czechoslovakian GP, at the brand-new Brno venue, or the 1960s East German GP, around the old Sachsenring street circuit, which both took place behind the Iron Curtain, watched by people starved of anything to do.

The man who has built the Le Mans GP into what it is today is promoter Claude Michy, who took over the French GP in the mid-1990s, when it took place at Le Mans.

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Dorna wanted to move the event to Circuit Paul Ricard, in southern France. There are few racetracks in nicer parts of the world than Ricard, situated a few miles inland from the Cote d’Azur. But the French GP struggled to attract a crowd there, so Michy returned the event to Le Mans in 2000.

It took a while to make it happen. Michy invested and risked everything. A former colleague of Michy’s told me, “At one point Claude only had his underpants”.

Michy knows how to promote an event, how to get people excited. Within a decade the Le Mans MotoGP weekend was attracting more than 160,000 fans, making it the fourth most popular GP, after Jerez, Sachsenring and Brno.

In 2017, when Johan Zarco arrived in MotoGP the crowd surpassed 200,000 and last year 225,000 people came, just a few thousand behind the biggest MotoGP weekend of them all, Sachsenring.

In fact, Michy doesn’t like these numbers, because they are weekend figures, so a fan that attends on all three days counts three times. Michy says he sold over 100,000 tickets this year, which is close to twice the number sold at last year’s French Formula 1 GP.

Michy’s approach to his job is not complicated.

“During the 30 years I have run this event my objective is always to look after the spectators,” he says. “This is very important. It’s necessary to have an easy price and the ticket is for everything: programme, radio, no extra for parking, no extra for camping. For the weekend we charge 98 Euros, or less for advance sales.

“And we open the gates to the camping on the Monday before, so people can come and stay, then during the weekend we have many concerts and lots of shows.

“When we moved the GP to Ricard I said the geography is wrong, because to the north of the track there aren’t so many people and to the south of the track there’s fish!

“Now Le Mans is mythic to MotoGP, like Monaco in F1. It’s become an important event for the fans and has become an important date in their years. It’s become like a religion!

“Even before Johann and Fabio [Quartararo] arrived we already had many, many spectators coming here. The top French riders are a bonus now, but the most important thing is to give the fans what they want and to make a show.”

Claude Michy Le Mans 2023 MotoGP

Claude Michy – the man who makes Le Mans happen. This year he is also promoting June’s Spa 24 hours motorcycle race


Before Michy took over, bikers at the GP and at the 24 hours liked to ride into Le Mans city and fight pitched battles with the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité), France’s famed and feared riot police, sometimes with fatal consequences.

This doesn’t happen anymore, because the authorities told Michy it mustn’t happen anymore.

“The authorities at Ricard and also here said it’s necessary that the spectators must stay at the track, so we make a show for them all through the weekend.”

There is a bigger lesson here for MotoGP.

Motorcyclists are a very different demographic (both socially and financially) from the F1 crowd, for example. What Le Mans and similar events prove is that it’s possible to create huge events when you promote them to motorcyclists, not to some other wealthier social group that’s never really going to get into MotoGP.

I often feel that MotoGP rights-holder Dorna worries too much about the VIP Village than about making sure bikers get what they want.

Bikers may be a bit grubby and very noisy, but promoters should chase them, not, say, the Glyndebourne opera set, who would rather sip champagne and have a picnic than take their fun around a campfire in a kind of war zone.

It is no surprise that MotoGP’s biggest events – Sachsenring (232,000 fans last year), Le Mans (225,000), Termas in Argentina (186,000), Thailand (178,000) and Assen (158,000) – are all biker events, where bikers rule and normal society must adapt, rather than the other way around. Just like the Isle of Man in TT fortnight.

More than anything, Le Mans and these other biker happenings prove that MotoGP does have a life beyond Valentino Rossi.