Tuesday, June 1, 2010

24 hours of Le Mans

It's the kind of dare that you only do after too many drinks. It's easy to imagine a few friends around a table on a late night, with empty beer glasses in front of them, slurring:

-- I bet I can drive further than you in 24 hours!
-- You're on!
-- Dude we totally have to do it!
-- OK! *burp*

(This article was written by my husband, that frequented this crazy 24-hour race several years in a row).

That's not exactly how it happened - at least, not officially. It did start as a club race in 1923, on public roads (not under the influence of alcohol, I might add!). The public quickly developed an interest for this extreme endurance race, and within a few years the race had attracted manufacturers who were showcasing their technology. Soon the race was attracting thousands of spectators, coming from all over the world to watch cars and pilots push their limits.

At first, the race was entirely on public roads. Spectators would gather right on the side of the wall, with the virtually nothing protecting them from the occasional crash. Until 1955, that was, when a tragic accident claimed 80 lives: as Hawthorn on Jaguar was battling Mercedes' dream team of Fangio and Moss, he cut off Macklin's Austin-Healy, which hit another Mercedes, driven by Frenchman Pierre Levegh, sending it crashing into the grandstands (photos and stories here). This caused the organizers to completely redesign the course, adding guardrails and a safety perimeter of 15 meters around the track.

The course was redesigned several times, mostly for security reasons: most noticeably, chicanes were added in the famous Mulsanne straight, to slow down cars that were going upward of 250 mph in that section. Even so, spectators are not allowed on this long straight-way, considering how many very-high-speed crashes happened there. In 1999, Mercedes, confirming their streak of bad luck at Le Mans, had three accidents in almost the exact same spot, one during qualifiers, one during warm-up, and the infamous "flip crash" during the race (stunning video here). Unbelievably, the pilot walked away from the wreck.

Luckily, such serious accidents are rare. If some cars don't finish the race, it's usually because of mechanical failure, in spite of the technological advances manufacturers bring every year, not the least of which was the introduction of diesel engines by Audi in 2006. Peugeot followed suit in 2007; in 2009, it is 9 of the 20 LMP1 cars that are diesels, promising a raging battle between six teams.

Not everybody is happy with the diesels' hegemony: the cars are surprisingly quiet, contrasting with the roar of the traditional petrol cars. Because the sound of the cars is part of the experience at Le Mans: between the deafening scream of all the cars going by at once in the first lap, and the distant backfiring you can hear miles away, the racing is always present, even when you are not looking at the track, and even when you are in your tent in the middle of the night. Camping is another important part of the experience: the campgrounds become a vast party, with everyone grilling, mingling, and, of course, drinking large quantities of beer.

Ultimately, you don't go to Le Mans to follow the race. With 55 cars on the 8.5-mile track, racing in four distinct categories, it is almost impossible to follow the standings (although one, two or three lights on the sides of the cars indicate the three leaders in each category): from any standpoint you can only see a minute section of the track, and sometimes cars can be laps apart.

Instead, you go to a festival. Sit in the sun with fellow car enthusiasts, drinking beer after beer and watching cars roar by at ludicrous speed... then get up, walk to another vantage point, grab a hot dog on the way, and repeat. For a full weekend, it is only an intense sensory experience, mixed with a solid buzz. The 240,000 spectators who attend each year form one large family, brought together by their passion for motor sports and their joy of being in the Mecca of car racing.

The 2009 24 hours of Le Mans will take place June 13 and 14, starting at 3:00pm. A TGV will take you to Le Mans from Paris in less than one hour. There is a shuttle from the city center to the track.

Information and tickets are available at www.lemans.org

**Photo Credit: Flickr CC - Some rights reserved by Surreal Name Given

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