Even an everyday drive on these sacred French roads is special
Driving flat-out down the Mulsanne straight the engine was approaching maximum revs and the speed was climbing. I could see a car in the distance ahead and one in my mirrors. I was just coming up to overtake Derek Bell in the Porsche 962C ahead on the last lap of the race and by doing that I was going to win the famed 24 Heures du Mans. The speed was approaching 380km/h and I was flying. Then I had to brake, and brake again as the truck on the French N138 (now the D338) road trundled along in front of me at 80km/h. No. I wasn’t in the race, nor doing 380km/h but my imagination had gone wild. Such is the appeal and the aura for motorsport people that the words “Le Mans” and “Mulsanne” fire in the imagination. I was driving a Mercedes van on my first visit to this “Temple of Speed” and I was looking for the turnoff from this everyday French road to head to my hotel — but driving along a French road that was about to become the fastest stretch of street in the world. Le Mans is a small town about 200km southwest of Paris that has a population of about 150,000 — normally. Just outside town is the race circuit and on the 24 Heures du Mans weekend another 300,000-plus people descend. Although modernised and brought up to date in terms of safety from the early days of racing in the 1920s and 30s, the character of the circuit remains largely the same. I don’t believe in ghosts or “the spirits” but, like Monza in Italy, there is a feeling of history, a feeling that one is treading on ground where the greats of the sport have walked — where bravery and courage become almost more important than the pure skill of driving. A huge feeling of tradition and being a part of that tradition. A feeling of both mortality and immortality and a feeling that, as a driver, there is no better place to be or to win. I was privileged to be a part of the Porsche team at the event some years ago and to see the incredible buildup to the race. It is not just 24 hours of frantic activity but more like a week or 10 days on site with the peculiarities of the car scrutineering processes, the parades, practice sessions, circuit setup and the impression that a city full of people is moving into a small town full of locals. The mechanics endlessly check and recheck the cars, the drivers and team management go over the tactics again and again. Pit stops are practised over and over with the drivers practising the seat change from one to another. Who will drive when, for how long? What if scenario number 1 happens, or number 2, or 3 or 4? What will the drivers eat and how will they rest and relax over the 24 hours? Who is responsible for the catering for them and the team, the monitoring of the electronics? Outside the paddock huge fairgrounds are set up, the food stalls, merchandise outlets, row upon row of toilets and those 300,000 fans flood into the track to get the best vantage points. An army of dedicated marshals around the track gets its safety gear together. Meanwhile, the drivers try to get the mental side of the preparations right. Some — here for the first time or those who rarely drive in long-distance races, the “gentlemen” drivers — have an almost-haunted look as they try to take it all in. Then it is time for the race start, a seemingly interminable process. The lead driver gets in the car and the outside world gradually disappears from his thoughts as his focus turns to the business of the weekend. Words from the team manager and the engineers are all he hears. For some this will be the longest 24 hours of their career. For others, the shortest.