Le Mans - an assault on the senses
The sights and sounds of endurance racing royalty.
There are few circumstances where a person can be completely content, few places where all preoccupations and qualms are quelled. For motorsport enthusiasts, the Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans is one such location which completely reengineers their being; it lulls them into a sense of bliss and of absolute purpose. There is no better spectacle than the 24 Hours of Le Mans - it is one of the most gruelling and physically taxing motor races on the planet - the astounding eight and a half mile long circuit takes a toll on both drivers and vehicles on a scale which you scarcely see in other races.
Though, there is a silent majority in the endurance racing world which also have a share in the tension and the buzzing exhilaration of this racing series, and that is the spectators. Obviously, they do not engage in the strains that the participants of the race do, but there is a skill to overcoming the sheer mental comprehension of the event. You see, to race fans, this circuit is our El Dorado; it is a palace of performance and every time we walk through those entryways, we are overcome with a definitive feeling of belonging, of inclusion and engagement.
I was lucky enough to first visit Le Mans this year, in August. After the tumultuous year that was 2020, our arrival was left ambiguous until the very last minute, which made the event all the more special. I thought it would be a good idea to cover the race on Drivetribe in an amateur fashion; I darted from one side of the main straight to the other in order to observe the pitlane before the race and I also documented our journey and experiences. But it occurred to me that those recounts did not completely capture the spirit of the race. To watch television coverage or follow the event externally simply does not convey the grandeur of being there in person. It is intoxicating. I thought it only fair to attempt to express the incredibly visceral nature of those 24 hours and show why the atmosphere there is unlike anything else.
I probably have the aura of a starry eyed romantic around me when I describe the scenes that greeted me just outside of the famed town of Le Mans on that weekend, which is partly true. Die-hard racing enthusiasts fantasise about attending events like this one, so our sentiment is one of incoherent joy - the experiences that we take away from our time there will be cherished for years to come. The environment that we enter at these types of races are unlike any other; it is a place of passion and unfiltered interest. The fans and participants alike are drawn to this relatively nondescript location in central France by a common sentiment. They have a mutual conviction that, to paraphrase Steve McQueen, "Racing is Life". And there's something very genuine about that.
For some bizarre reason, we are compelled to follow each driver's story of strife as they try to reach their end goal of victory. There is less partisanship than in other sports and even in other racing disciplines. Put simply, we are a group of likeminded individuals who are at an iconic track to watch some of the most advanced race cars battle with each other at considerable speeds. All whilst becoming giddy with childish glee admiring their bewitching aesthetics, revolutionary aerodynamics and outrageous performance. As the race unfolds, fans take liberties with the consumption of drink and dare to explore the track as far as possible, which makes for some comical sights. I seem to remember a situation involving an intoxicated Dutchman, a gentle slope and a bucket placed atop it, which he had full intention of sitting on. He missed the bucket. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.
With the limited attendance due to the pandemic, there was less of a party atmosphere with none of the concerts or amusements that have become synonymous with this type of race. Nevertheless, the communal ambience was not lost.
There's something magical about watching all manner of GT and prototype cars send it at full force around every bend. These vehicles defy all logic and have capability that boggles the mind; seeing an LMP2 car drive down the main straight up to the Dunlop chicane without lifting off the throttle is one of life's great treats (especially at night). I implore you to watch some of my very amateur footage from the event which is dotted about this article through various links such as this one. The feats that these cars accomplish are unparalleled in their awesomeness.
As the title of this article suggests, Le Mans is an absolute bombardment on the senses; there is something charming about the experience of spectating race events. Sports car racing in particular is a captivating affair. Getting to witness these purpose-built race vehicles being pushed to the absolute limit on every lap, being operated by those who are entirely devoted to their craft, and who conduct at an expert level, is a genuine thrill. Specifically, the diverse GTE racing field was the most encapsulating.
The sounds that surrounded this magical track were my favourite part of the whole weekend, by a significant margin. Acoustics are such a big part of why you visit a track in person; it is an element of the venue that makes the whole event more connected, creating a link between spectator and driver, whose ears are also taking a pounding from the yell of their engine and the satisfying whooshing of an intake. A race car will produce a sound that shakes the very ground beneath you and sends a warm tingle up your spine, so having over sixty of these vehicles competing in the same place provided a soundtrack straight from the theatre of war.
At the higher end of the spectrum, the Hypercar and LMP2 class cars provided a similar yet distinctive rendition. The V6 powered Toyota Hypercar was particularly intriguing as its hybrid power made it seem tamer and more efficient. It was passive as it pulled into the pits for a stop, but unleased like a crazed monster upon pit exit as the combustion engine powered up once again (with an appropriate amount of tire squeal and wheelspin). As for the Prototype vehicles, they all share the same 4.2 Litre N/A V8 from Gibson, which makes an appropriate amount of rumbles and warbles. However, these vehicles were overshadowed by the GTE class vehicles.
The outrageous quartet of GT cars that were racing in 2021 came from all over the world to fight for the victory in the professional and amateur classes. Eventually, the mighty Maranello-based Ferraris clinched both titles, but not before providing a stupefying soundtrack. The twin-turbo V8s in the back of 'those red cars' were surprisingly underwhelming in terms of outright noise, being overshadowed by their rivals from America with their naturally aspirated Corvette engines providing a set of sounds reminiscent of a fully automatic weapon. For the Ferraris, it was turbo noise which was their party piece - the electrifying flutter sound resonated off of the grand stands to create an ambience of a '90s Touge mountain drift run in a modified JDM car.
Elsewhere, The Aston Martin team provided yet another V8 composition with a deeper, throatier noise with their AMG derived powertrain. Though, as usual, it was the engineering wizards from Weissach which brought the percussive pinnacle; it is, in my opinion, the ultimate modern Flat-6 for both sound and performance. The stunning naturally aspirated engine revs to a staggering 9,500 RPM and with some exhaust trickery makes a sound that reverberated off of every surface in Northern France across the course of those 24 hours. It is so distinctive, so bewitching; I cannot seem to get over the incredible shriek as it upshifted on the main straight with a smooth, resonating change in tempo. These cars are enchanting.
Of course, sound isn't the only thing that greets you at the metaphorical door. Visitors are struck by an overwhelming scent - the stench of hastily cooked foodstuffs and hastily consumed beer fills your nostrils. Every second there is another portion of chips or another steak sandwich being dished out (all of which are scrumptious, even at one o'clock in the morning). Meanwhile, on track, the smoke and excess rubber generates a pungent smell with plenty of dust being thrown up from the countless amounts of spins and pit box burnouts. Though, it was the podium where I felt so connected to the drivers; namely because I was in such close proximity to the celebrations that I could quite literally smell the champagne. But what of the visuals? What is it that you actually get to witness during those 24 Hours?
Enzo Ferrari said that “Racing cars are neither beautiful nor ugly. They become beautiful when they win.” I’m afraid that I have to disagree with the supercar guru in this instance because those cars were bedazzling from start to finish, winner or not. No, they’re not modern day Targa Florio racers, but there is an appeal to the outlandish angles and aero of these modern track weapons.
This is what makes Le Mans one of the best events for spectators; these titans of technology are completely mesmerising. The near incomprehensible levels of engineering which go into each vehicle makes you appreciate the event as a whole. It's simple premise is made much more complicated as we try to understand the ludicrous amounts of planning that go into it.
The most prominent side of Le Mans is the invigorating on-track action: we are treated to 24 hours of bumper-to-bumper racing which only intensifies as the event progresses. I can't imagine the sense of pride that teams have to see their cars being hurled around some of the most iconic corners like Tetre Rouge or the Dunlop Chicane, and then steaming full throttle down the Mulsanne Straight. Though, despite their immense performance, one of the greatest spectacles of the race is when the cars are at their slowest, during the pit stops. It is a misleading process as it seems organised, yet on the verge of catastrophe at every moment.
The commotion starts with a particularly brave crew member leaping atop the windscreen of the vehicle with arachnid-like movement. Their visors hide the purposeful look in their eyes as they swiftly clean the vehicle, allowing for greater visibility. The driver relinquishes command of their vehicle, allowing for their teammate to begin their stint; they frantically switch positions, putting in their seat inserts and clipping themselves in. All the while, they avoid hindering the well oiled machine that is the pit crew. A duo of tire changers strategically replace the wheels whilst the vehicle is refuelled. It truly is a spectacle which engages even the most seasoned of industry professionals. Finally, the car ticks back into life with a thunderous roar and speeds away from its marks, ready for another battle.
Meanwhile, the theatre and commercialism of the event takes hold; we see huge displays and some of the most famous faces in both motorsport and the wider world of entertainment. For example, this year there was a huge demonstration from the Alpine team - all of their vehicles ranging from their GT4 race cars to their Hypercar entry did a tour of the circuit. It also marked the first time a Formula 1 car had lapped the track, with Fernando Alonso at the wheel.
It was thrilling to see characters from all walks of the car world. We saw IndyCar legend Dario Franchitti drive the ear-splitting Aston Martin DBR9 in the Le Mans legends support race and 5-time Le Mans winner, Derek Bell, was the Grand Marshal for the race which had earned him legendary status. Prominent automotive journalist Jethro Bovingdon, F1 reporter Will Buxton and "Mr Le Mans" himself, Tom Kristensen, all acted as race reporters. It was an odd congregation of automotive royalty. And that's without mentioning those driving in the actual race.
Le Mans Hypercar podium
Former F1 names like Kobayashi, Montoya, Vandoorne and Kubica made up part of the racing crew, whilst famous sports car drivers such as Alex Brundle were the backbone of the lineup. There was also young talents on their way through the field with Ferrari F1 hopeful Callum Illot scoring third place in LMGTE-AM and the all-female Richard Mille team on their way to a good finish before their race abruptly ended with a midnight collision. Seeing so many famous faces was quite surreal.
The eye-watering aero of the 911 RSR
In summary, that’s what makes Le Mans special - it’s the complete lunacy of the whole experience, from start to finish. The provenance and contents of the event compel you to love it. There are few other places that you can gawp at the diffuser of a Porsche 911 RSR in the early hours of the morning whilst munching on a superbly affordable steak sandwich. I shall venture to Le Mans again, and again because it is my racing nirvana. I encourage you to do the same, at least once. Thank you for reading.
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