This has been on our bucket list for a while, but the right time never came. This year provided that window of opportunity. My brother Gordon was getting married. I had turned 30. What bigger milestones do you need?
So we set off to Le Mans to watch the most legendary motor race in the world — the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The road to Le Mans
Because I hadn’t been before, I decided to book it through a travel agent — Travel Destinations. I am glad I did, because I was only thinking about going via Dover/Calais. It turns out that is quite a long way to drive.
The agent’s advice was blunt: “don’t do that — you’ll kill yourself!” She pointed out that we would want to arrive during the day so that we don’t get lost and don’t have to pitch our tent in the dark.
The agent advised me to get an overnight ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge instead. That would allow us to split the drive up into two, have a good night’s sleep overnight, and arrive at the circuit in the daylight.
Being on the ferry was a little bit like being trapped in an episode of Phoenix Nights, but without the laughs. To compound the matter, the ferry arrived around three hours late.
The drive through Belgium and France was pretty challenging in torrential rain. When we finally approached Le Mans by the evening, the queues were extreme. We were probably arriving at one of the worst times possible. We tuned into Radio Le Mans and lamented not being able to watch the qualifying session.
Part of the Le Mans experience is being part of a mass pilgrimage to a motorsport Mecca. We didn’t see too many French registered cars, but there were plenty of British and Dutch ones.
We saw some pretty epic cars along the way. In the queue for the ferry our dependable but dull Skoda Fabia kept good company with an orange McLaren.
But my favourite was a vintage 2CV that had been given some flourishes of Gulf livery colours.
When we eventually arrived at the campsite it was after 8pm, the rain was pounding down and what little daylight there was coming through the thick clouds was receding further as the sun set. So much for pitching our tent in the daylight!
At this point, I still thought this was going to be my only ever trip to Le Mans. The experience — while it certainly was an experience — had not changed my mind on that… yet.
Getting into the campsite we got rather lost. There was no-one to advise us where our plot was. So we aimlessly drove around the campsite, along dirt roads and through gates, looking for somewhere to pitch up.
After working out that we were, indeed, still in the right campsite, we found a decent looking spot that didn’t have too many people in it. That’ll do, we thought.
Our neighbours on the campsite were curious. “How did you end up here?” More than one person told us, “this is the best spot — we come here every year”.
It turned out that we had accidentally parked right next to the Porsche curves. We could see the cars from our tent!
OK, from our tent it wasn’t a great view as they flashed past through a distant gap in the barriers. But we were right next to an incredible viewing embankment that gave us a fantastic vantage point of the Porsche curves.
After pitching our tent and drinking a beer with our friendly neighbours, we walked to the circuit itself to watch night time qualifying. But the rain was so bad that a large portion of the session was red flagged, and there wasn’t much running when it was green either.
Friday — a busy “rest” day
There is no track action on the Friday. But there are still plenty of activities on offer to keep the fans occupied.
Our first port of call was the pitlane, which was open to fans. Unsurprisingly, the pitlane is rather busy. But if you brace yourself and get your elbows out it’s possible to get some good views of cars being worked on.
I am never quite sure how genuine the activity is during these open pitlane sessions. It seems like a crazy environment to be doing serious work on the cars, or even pitstop practice.
Manor’s Graeme Lowdon conspicuously spoke to his driver Matthew Rao, presumably to make themselves available to any fans wanting a selfie or autograph.
More startlingly, I was taking photographs of a spare engine cover when I looked up and saw Chris Hoy being interviewed by Eurosport right in front of me!
The circuit was open as far as the Dunlop bridge, enabling us to get up close to the trophy, which was on display there.
Next, we took a trip to the Museum of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It is situated directly outside of the circuit near the main entrance, so there is no excuse to miss out.
No race has a greater history that Le Mans, and the museum is a great way to get a feel for that. There are countless cars on display from throughout the history of the event. I even saw the car my friend’s father drove, which I wasn’t expecting.
We then took a walk to the tram stop to head into town to see the drivers’ parade. This is a traditional part of the weekend’s events, but I found it a bit of a let down.
It was difficult to see anything through the crowd. Even then, cars and drivers appeared sporadically between very long gaps. The weather was less than perfect, which didn’t help lift spirits.
On the plus side, I saw a few famous faces including Mark Webber, Fabien Barthez and Jackie Chan — as well as a number of the drivers.
Sadly we didn’t get much chance to explore the town itself. Once we had managed to find somewhere to get a modest bite to eat, it was getting late and time for us to catch a tram back and trudge back to the campsite.
This so called “rest” day was our busiest — I walked 9 miles in total. So we needed a restful night because the next day was the big one — race day.
We got up bright and early to watch the Ferrari Challenge support race from our vantage point at the Porsche curves.
I have no photos from the Road to Le Mans race and I can’t remember watching it either. We must have been eating breakfast and preparing for our long day ahead. The start of the 24 hour race was getting closer!
I packed for all weathers because the forecast for the day was changeable, as it had been for our whole visit so far. A hat and shorts went on my body; waterproofs and a hoodie went into my bag, along with Alex’s camera (which she very kindly let me borrow for the trip) and my new tripod. Not to forget snacks to keep us going, a spotter’s guide and spare loo roll (lesson having been learnt the previous day).
The start of the race
As we settled into our grandstand seats on the start/finish straight, I took a selfie for a “before and after” comparison. I was appalled to see how bad I looked before the race began! A long afternoon in the sun carrying a heavy bag, following the busy Friday, had clearly taken its toll.
But after it all — the day and a half long journey, the rainy Thursday night, the disappointing and tiring Friday — the countdown to the race was lifting my spirits.
The predicted rain soon came. It was an almighty deluge that I got caught in when I was grabbing a last minute pre-race beer. The rain was so bad that the race started under the safety car, robbing us somewhat of the anticipated pre-race crescendo.
The safety car stayed out for the first 50 minutes of the race, with fans in the grandstand becoming increasingly agitated. However, Nick Heidfeld of the #12 Rebellion pitted to swap drivers, saying conditions were too dangerous for him to race.
Soon enough the race got under way properly, and we could sit back and enjoy a fantastic motor race unfolding in front of us.
Mike Conway in the #6 Toyota did a superb job in the first phase of the race, taking the race lead having started the race from third position.
Exploring the circuit
After watching the first couple of hours from the grandstand, we moved along the circuit to check out the race from a few different vantage points. The Dunlop chicane was, as expected, a favourite place to watch. It was fascinating watching the cars brake hard here.
A bit further along the circuit, just beyond the Dunlop bridge, was another good vantage point. This was a much faster portion of the track, so the cars zip past. But you can also see far down the esses towards Tertre Rouge. Moreover, the spectators are much closer to the cars here.
Standing here was a very raw, physical experience. You could see the cars going full pelt at close quarters. The sound here was amazing. You could feel the cars too. My head vibrated pleasurably as some of the cars rasped past. Fantastic!
As the sun descended and the shadows lengthened, we wandered down to Tertre Rouge. The race was reaching the six hour mark. We had seen one regular World Endurance Championship race worth of action, and several Formula 1 grands prix.
But now we were entering the phase of Le Mans that cannot be compared to other races. With the sun setting over the picturesque backdrop of the “lands of the Loire”, the romance of this event was starting to hit home. Or maybe I had caught the sun and I was starting to feel tired.
Now also I was getting a feel for the unique rhythm of the race. Drivers, like me, were starting to feel tired, and they were beginning to make more mistakes as the low sun obscured their vision.
Tertre Rouge was as far as we dared go. With dusk approaching, we ambled our way back to the grandstand for one last sit down before heading back to the campsite.
As Saturday turned into Sunday, we took our camping chairs up to the viewing embankment to rest as the cars did their thing. I got the tripod out to experiment with shutter speeds. This was the first time I had attempted taking shots like this, and I was pleased with some of the results.
Google Photos created this brilliant auto awesome out of a few of them:
Now another phase of the race began: gremlins hitting. Out of nowhere, a car went off into the barrier in front of us. Then another car spun. Then another! Someone had dropped oil, so the safety car came out to let the marshals clean it all up.
Despite that excitement, any notion that we would stay up for the full 24 hours were fast receding. As 2am approached, we were getting cold and falling asleep. We decided to take a few hours’ kip.
Wake up call
The alarm was set for 5am so that we could be up for dawn. I would probably have slept for longer, but Gordon nudged me and reminded me that if I wanted to see dawn, we would have to get up now.
Remarkably little seemed to have happened in the race while we were asleep. We took up our spots inside the Porsche curves again, drinking the grim instant coffee that was available from the van there (needs must).
It all kicked off in the LMP2 class at this point, and we also saw the #4 Bykolles car catch fire right in front of us.
After breakfast, we headed back to the circuit — more specifically, to the Ford chicane. What an amazing vantage point! This is where I took my best photos of the weekend. I could have happily snapped here for hours. I do wish I had experimented a bit more with shutter speeds here.
We headed back to the Dunlop chicane, our favourite vantage point from the previous day. Here we spent a substantial amount of time watching cars — and the world — go round.
We watched the stricken #98 Aston Martin V8 Vantage crunch to a halt in an awkward spot.
Settling in for the finish
With a couple of hours to go, we headed back to our grandstand seats to watch the end of the race.
This is this year’s garage 56 entry for innovative cars, the #84 SRT41 by Oak Racing. It was designed to be driven by quadruple amputee Frédéric Sausset. His two co-drivers were more able-bodied, so the car would be adapted whenever they swapped drivers.
Sausset could use the throttle and brake using his thighs. A prosthetic limb slotted into the steering wheel to enable him to steer.
The car finished 38th place out of 60 entries. A magnificent achievement in driving and engineering. The spirit of Le Mans summed up.
Meanwhile, at the sharp end of the field, the stage was being set for the most dramatic of finishes.
The story of the race had been of a hot battle between Toyota and Porsche for supremacy. Mike Conway’s stonking stint at the start of the race set the scene for the whole race. No-one expected this pace before the start of the race. As the clock approached 24 hours, the car in front was a Toyota.
With ten minutes to go, the chasing #2 Porsche made an unexpected pitstop. They effectively conceded defeat to the #5 Toyota.
The world’s media gathered round the Toyota garages waiting to capture the celebrations. They ended up capturing a very different emotion.
A brutal conclusion
With less than five minutes to go the #5 Toyota’s driver, Kazuki Nakajima, reported a loss of power. The car crept around for the rest of the lap, finally coming to a halt just after the finish line. But there were still three minutes to go.
To compound the matter, the Toyota had stopped right in front of a Toyota advert, which in turn was in front of the Toyota garages. The Toyota Gazoo Racing team, which had only just dared to dream, saw their hopes fizzle away in front of their eyes.
Those hopes fizzled away in front of my eyes as well, and I could barely believe what I was witnessing. Toyota’s first Le Mans win would have to wait further still.
OMFG. I cannot believe what I have just witnessed with my own eyes. #LeMans24
— Duncan Stephen (@vee8) June 19, 2016
This was the most brutal and appalling way to lose a motor race. Few expected Toyota to contend for the win. But they led most of the race on merit. For that to be snatched away in the final minutes of a 24 hour race must have been devastating. I was only watching, not participating. But I felt gutted for Toyota.
I now understand what people mean when they talk about emotion in sport. Maybe it was the heat or the lack of sleep, but I felt myself welling up a bit.
Meanwhile, the race was still to be won. The #2 Porsche crossed the line to a rapturous reception. But it was almost a sideshow compared to the drama we had witnessed with the Toyota.
The Toyota had got going again. In a great fighting spirit, the car made its way round to complete its final lap before stopping at the same location just after the finish line. The crowd went wild for Kazuki Nakajima as he clambered out of his car, dejected and exhausted. However, by the regulations of the race, the car was too slow to complete its last lap and the car was not classified as a finisher.
Porsche were very rightful winners, but it was hard not to feel the pain that Toyota must have gone through. I think Porsche themselves were rather embarrassed to win the way they did.
Fans are allowed onto the track for the podium ceremony, so we headed down to be part of the crowd.
At the Ford chicane, the cars were parked up to let fans take a closer glimpse.
Some other fans — myself included — took some souvenirs from the circuit itself. I looked down at my feet and happened to see a shard of carbon fibre. I have no idea what it was from, but I brought it home with me as a memento.
We then walked on the circuit to get back to the campsite. The post-race atmosphere was an odd one. We had witnessed and exhilarating and thrilling event, but I couldn’t help feeling a little deflated that it was all over.
The further we walked back, the more the crowds thinned. The road that runs underneath the Porsche curves was completely quiet by the time we got there. Clearly the post-race rush to leave had been and gone in the time we had been exploring the circuit.
Back at base
We returned to a subdued campsite. At least half of the people had left. Our plan was to set off early the following morning.
One of our neighbours (wearing a Porsche shirt) came up to us, beaming. “I have come here over a dozen times,” he said. “I have never seen anything like this. And I am a Porsche employee!”
Meanwhile, the neighbours who welcomed us on Thursday dressed as Mario and Luigi were proudly displaying a pyramid of beer they had drunk. Good effort guys!
We wound down with a couple of beers. For the people tending to their allotments next to us, normality was slowly being restored.
As we reflected on the weekend, I was thinking to myself: “next time we come we should do this, and we should do that.” I realised I had caught the bug, as they say. This once in a lifetime trip to Le Mans became the first of many.
As for my “after” selfie, it’s amazing the difference 26 hours makes!
OK, so my hair was still a mess, and my startled expression reflects the extraordinary on-track events. But I looked so much more awake after the 24 hour race. That is testament to just how much I enjoyed it.
What I would do differently next time
It is crazy to think that you wouldn’t be able to do everything you want during a 24 hour race. But it is the case.
Next time I would like to explore more of the circuit and go on the ferris wheel. Apparently you can get some great photos from there.
At first I thought Le Mans could be done as a long weekend. The travel agent advised me to extend that plan by a day either side. Next time, I would arrive at Le Mans earlier still.
Our fellow campers said the same. We had arrived too late! That made the first couple of days difficult. If we’d had Tuesday and Wednesday to settle in, we would have enjoyed more of qualifying and Friday wouldn’t have felt like such a damp squib.
It is also a shame that we didn’t get to explore more of Le Mans itself. Definitely a missed opportunity I hope to rectify in the future.
Check out the slideshow for more photographic highlights from Le Mans, or view the full album of 340 photos.
Also check out the Gareth Jones on Speed podcasts from Le Mans. They stayed in the campsite adjacent to ours, and had a similar experience to us in many ways.
- Part 1: The Drive to La Sarthe and Base Camp
- Part 2: Preparing for the Big One
- Part 3: Anticipation and Tension
- Part 4: The Calm and the Storm
I am a big fan of the Gareth Jones on Speed podcast, and their Le Mans podcasts from previous years are part of the reason why I became so keen to go to Le Mans. Listening to this year’s podcasts took me right back!