Le Mans 24 Hours: busy even on a Friday

Le Mans
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According to the official Le Mans 24 Hours timetable, Friday is a time of rest – an opportunity for drivers to unwind or, in the case of some mechanics, to convert fragmented carbon into something that passes for a sports-prototype. The absent clamour of racing engines does little, however, to diminish the day’s pace, for this is as hectic a part of the weekend as any.

For members of the public, it’s a chance to explore the pits. Garages remain out of bounds, but cars are nonetheless visible at close quarters. For local hauliers, the D338 (formerly N138, more commonly known as the Mulsanne Straight), briefly reopens to permit delivery without detour (although not without delay, because the road is invariably congested with Caterham thickets and, in this instance, a Lancia-engined Morris Minor and a lovely old Rover SD1 in British Racing Brown).

For two of the Motor Sport crew (the ones not travelling to Paris to source MGB parts), it was chance to cycle a lap of the 8.5-mile circuit – a diversion that highlights much of the weekend’s essence. Traditionally, Le Mans has been way ahead of F1 when it comes to embracing new technology, but light years behind in matters of corporate sheen. That alters with each passing year and the celebrated Le Mans village – once a charming, ramshackle collection of vending huts – is becoming ever more polished. Glass and class are not necessarily one and the same, but peep behind the shiny façades and you’ll still find traces of the past, in the form of discreet coffee kiosks that lurk in the shadows.

If you want to experience the real Le Mans, though, take a bike. The Mulsanne is fun in parts, with large crowds gathering outside the Auberge des Hunaudières to applaud passing cars (a tatty Renault 5 Campus was particularly well received), but humbling, too, because you can’t help but be aware of its uncomfortable history. The most prominent memorial stone pays homage to Maurice Fournier and riding mechanic Georges Louvel, who perished during the 1911 French Grand Prix at Le Mans. The only other obvious concession to potential danger is an ‘Attention au chien’ sign on a front gate that stands a few feet from the circuit’s edge.

There are temporary barricades at Mulsanne Corner, to deter drivers from continuing their lap, but there is ample space for bikes. The silence becomes audible as the rumble of truck tyres fades and the circuit is left to a curious few. Only birdsong ruffles the tranquillity… until you chance upon a group of Germans, each with a crate of beer on his shoulder and two of whom are waging a belching contest as they stroll. This is where new-age spectating and old-school Le Mans collide, a bunch of amiable drunks apparently oblivious to the narrow, unyielding wonder that surrounds them.

A fresher grade of asphalt lies beyond Arnage, the tight-right hander approached at significant speed (unless you happen to be on a pushbike), but the claustrophobia continues. Your arm hairs tingle when you first see the Mulsanne Straight’s distant heat haze (or at least, they should) – and that sensation stays with you for the lap’s balance.

Certain elements of the Circuit de la Sarthe have changed (who would have foreseen that a football stadium might one day stand close to the inside of Tertre Rouge), but there remain bits that defy evolution. There’s not much scope for modification between Indianapolis and Arnage, because locals’ garden boundaries run right up to the barrier posts.

Inspiring place, Inspiring race. Inspiring bike ride.

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