Le Mans: An endurance test for fans

Le Mans

Le Mans is one of sport's most famous endurance races, a gruelling test for drivers, but it's also a challenge for spectators, who stay up all night to watch the drama unfold.

"When you're racing... it's life. Anything that happens before, or after, is just waiting."

So said Steve McQueen in the 1971 film, Le Mans, in which he played Michael Delaney, a driver competing in what's widely regarded as the most prestigious endurance event in sports car racing.

But what is the real race like? And how tough is it on all those who're involved -both on and off the track?

Driving into the city you soon realise the scale of the event. Hundreds of thousands of people pack into the Circuit de la Sarthe for what's really a huge festival honouring motor sport.

Geoff Clark-Monks has travelled from Leicestershire with his brother-in-law to pitch up at one of several campsites circling the circuit.

"I won't be able to do this for very much in the future so I'm making the most of it," says the 75-year-old. "I see it as a big, friendly gathering of motoring nuts, I suppose."

It's an atmosphere super-charged by the unrestricted roar of engines. Some scream like Formula One cars, others deliver a deep, pumping bass which can make your insides shake.

For many of those competing, reaching the chequered flag after 24 hours of constant racing is victory itself.

Le Mans is important because it allows prestige car makers to showcase their vehicles in the most trying of conditions. The circuit takes the fastest cars more than three-and-a-half minutes to complete, partly on ordinary roads and partly bespoke track.

Ferrari, Audi, Porsche, Aston Martin, Toyota, Chevrolet - all are here racing everything from familiar-looking road cars to the exotic, experimental - and very fast - prototypes.

Image caption Tactical sleeps help fans get through it

And that's the spectacle which draws the crowds. Further up the campsite, Mark Hodgson from Reading has arrived with a few friends and a fair few beers in the fridge.

"For us it's the racing. It's a long one to watch so we see a bit of it - the start of course in the grandstand, then come back and get something to eat and go back up again.

"At night in the grandstands you see so much of the pit crews... falling asleep, playing the waiting game and sparking into life with setting up the cars.

"It's a whole different type of race. And it's because it's such a long race you can go and come back and still enjoy it."

Le Mans is probably the only time in the year that many throw sensibilities out the window to watch around the clock. In my case, the constant stint lasted around 40 hours, save for a cheeky 20-minute nap.

Image caption Audi dominated the race

For spectators, mostly Europeans but a few Japanese and American fans too, this unnatural experience brings out all the body clock's hidden features. At 3am, you can feel yourself feeling unusually cold and things seem to slow down.

Watching people fight the urge is to see a sea of nodding heads drop, then suddenly shoot up, desperate to stay awake.

The conscious battles with the unconscious, helped no doubt by bursts of engine fire punctuating the calm.

Elsewhere, the sound of partying wafts in between the passing roars. Cans in two hands, smiles and little jigs on the wet grass. Keep moving to keep sleep at bay.

As dawn broke, there were inevitably a fair few who succumbed.

Some young spectators turned the steps of the grandstand along the start-finish straight into their mattress.

And a rather painful one at that with the sharp concrete jutting one in the back of the neck.

Endurance rules the roost in the commentary box too. John Hindhaugh's distinctive style has been a feature of - which broadcasts coverage of many sports car races - since 1989.

His team's 24-hour coverage extends well before and beyond the race. The graveyard shift from 1am to 7am is the most difficult - but that soon passes.

Image caption Fans jostle for the best shots

"Six o'clock in morning - when the sun starts to come up, when you see the first vestiges of light just starting to appear - that is tremendously uplifting. It's day again.

"There is still 10 hours of broadcasting to do but at least I feel I'm within touching distance. By the time we get to midday, I know it's a short sprint to the finish.

"When we get to the chequered flag, I'm feeling quite emotional, but the adrenaline has to continue to flow to get off air. Then it's all the packing up and starting thinking about next year."

I was lucky enough to make it onto the grid as the cars lined up an hour before the formation lap, soaking up the atmosphere. There's a tremendous buzz of expectation and some nervousness. You can see why it generates such emotion.

Endurance racing works differently to Formula 1. More than 50 cars compete for the 24-hour race. They are grouped into several categories, or classes, each generally defined by how fast the cars go. But they all race on the track at the same time, producing epic racing. Team drivers take turns in the hot seat.

The dangers were demonstrated with Anthony Davidson's huge crash on Saturday. He was charging along the fastest section of the eight-and-a-half mile track when another driver inadvertently turned into him.

Davidson's car flew into the air, spun violently and went headfirst into the barriers. There were gasps in the media centre when seasoned hacks saw it.

"Well that was a big one! Lying in a French hospital with a broken back wasn't what I had in mind at this stage in the race," Davidson said on Twitter. He should make a full recovery.

Image caption Just reaching the end after such a long race is an achievement

The race was very good for British drivers. Audi dominated in the end, with Allan McNish on the podium in LMP1. Tom Kimber-Smith and Ryan Dalziel won with the Starworks team in the LMP2 class and in the GTE Pro category, Darren Turner secured a third position for Aston Martin Racing.

If there is something special about Le Mans, perhaps those best able to comment are those who live in the city.

Lucille Lefloch's home is just five minutes from the gates.

"To me, it's the most beautiful race in the world. The ambience is typical Le Mans... typically 'of here'."

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