Friday 17 June 2016

The Lure of Le Mans

Annually in the month of June, race fans from Europe and around the world converge upon a town in the middle of France. In most ways it's a relatively unremarkable place that would have probably remained unknown in global terms except for one thing. Its name resonates with a history of human endeavour, triumph and tragedy. People who have no other knowledge of motor racing have usually heard of Le Mans. If you are reading this as seasoned veteran, I'm preaching to the choir, but if you have alighted upon Club Arnage with a general interest in motor sport and are wondering why this 24 hour race is so important and why so many people are hooked on it, then read on...

 Racing twice around the clock and taking the chequered flag as a classified finisher is, in its own right, an achievement to be proud of. There are countless things that can go wrong. Going fast is not enough. To win you need to be consistently fast and error-free for hour upon hour in daylight and darkness in sunshine and torrential rain. The diversity of cars on the grid and the difference in pace between classes means passing and being passed is something that happens not just once in a while but every lap and usually several times each lap. The leaders will need to successfully complete literally thousands of overtaking manoeuvres during the 24 hours. The challenge for the drivers of the road car derived GT classes is arguably harder than that of the prototypes. They are simultaneously racing for class position and vigilantly checking their mirrors. There are three drivers per car so that they can get rest between stints, but there is no rest for the cars which have to run reliably for the duration. Engineers must design, build, develop and prepare cars that can endure the punishment of racing for extended periods, doing track time long enough to be comparable with an entire F1 season in just one weekend. 

In 1923, a three-year event was conceived and named the 'Rudge-Whitworth Triennial Cup', to be contested over three consecutive 24 Hour races held on public roads at Le Mans and the winner would be the car that had travelled furthest over the three annual events. This format was retained until 1925, after which a winner was declared each year. With the exception of a hiatus for WW2 and one year hit by a national strike, the race has continued each summer ever since. From the outset the race was intended as a test of new technology, and that is as true now as it has ever been. The link between the technology seen on the circuit and what appears later on road cars seems much stronger here than in F1. There are currently two GT classes for road-derived sportscars (GTE Am and GTE Pro) and three prototype classes for thoroughbred racers (LMP2, LMP1, LMP1H). This rich variety and diversity is one of the most interesting aspects of endurance racing. There are several races within the race for class honours as well as for overall victory.

I'm often asked what draws people to endurance racing and to Le Mans in particular. It isn't a question that has a definitive answer because there are probably as many reasons as there are race fans. For some it is a regular event, inscribed on the calendar as soon as the date is announced, for others a once in a lifetime pilgrimage.  Racegoers are usually well informed and follow the track action assiduously but many come as much for the boisterous camaraderie and atmosphere as for the racing. On the face of it, sitting in a grandstand watching cars go past for 24 hours might not be an attractive proposition and if that was all there was to it then I'm inclined to agree. There are only a dedicated few who watch the entire race, most will take a break from trackside interludes to make the most of the vast number of alternative activities such as concerts, fun-fair, exhibitions, bars and restaurants.

It is true that Le Mans is a bit of a 'Marmite' race, you either love it or hate it, but if you DO get hooked its a habit that is very hard to break!