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Ben from our operations team on how best to experience the ‘holy grail’ of petrol heads.
It’s no surprise that, along with the Indy500 and F1’s Monaco GP, the Le Mans 24-hour is part of motorsport’s unofficial ‘Triple Crown’. As a racing challenge, it’s unrivalled — with drivers from other classifications often migrating to it as an unfulfilled career ambition. For manufacturers, build the winning cars and you’re renowned as quality technicians — names like Porsche and Audi are synonymous with Le Mans. But as a fan, it really is an event like nothing else.
Here’s a few ways to make the most of it.
1. Camp, glamp and caravan
If a F1 Grand Prix is a sophisticated city break, Le Mans is like the best festival you’ve ever been to. With a population the size of Bolton (also twinned with Le Mans), there aren’t enough hotel beds to accommodate the annual swell of spectators. Which is why the fields neighbouring the town and the famous circuit are transformed into a fan village of epic proportions. I should know — I help build some of it. We arrive a couple of weeks in advance on a site with no electricity, to make the most luxurious temporary paradise for petrol heads. An amazing team effort results in a fully functioning ‘village’ emerging from an empty field, ready for a few hundred fans to descend just days later.
Everyone pulls together to paint pitches, park caravans and build well-stocked marquee bars with big-screen sports and cask ales on tap. Themed catering nights, live bands and DJs, comfortable caravans, hot showers, round-the-clock staff and secure lockers are all part of the service.
2. Arrive on site in style
Whether you’re piled into a campervan bought for a few quid each, or in a hundred-grand supercar, it’s traditional to turn heads with your transport.
Whichever wheels you roll in on, you’ll only be walking distance from the famous Circuit de la Sarthe paddock and the start line of the race itself. As fans arrive, the site comes alive, as gazebos go up and old friends and new catch up, between rows of tents, motorhomes and Ferraris. Even those flying from overseas are smart enough to save on luggage by arranging a pre-pitched tent and purchasing sleeping bags and pillows. You’ll love the wheelspins and spontaneous drag racing of the on-site show offs that take place a day before the main event.
And even if you’ve not quite got the vehicle to take part in ‘Mad Friday’, just join others in taking photos and throwing water balloons instead.
3. Immerse yourself
You might think that 24 hours of racing from Saturday to Sunday is plenty for anyone — but there’s much more four wheeled fun to be had. Arriving on the Thursday means you can saunter over to see practice underway and look around the pit lanes.
The friendly fan village area behind the paddocks boasts bars, restaurants and fun activities for race enthusiasts, including driving simulators. Last year’s ‘fastest tyre change’ leaderboard was a favourite among those who fancied themselves as pit crew professionals with pneumatic guns. As well as the fun of Mad Friday, you can also take in the vintage vehicle parade that makes its way through the Le Mans streets that afternoon. Enjoy the engine roars of former fan favourite cars as they’re taken through the town by drivers from this year’s race.
4. Spot the celebrities
Le Mans is a magnet for famous participants, although some get more involved than others.
Olympic cycling legend Chris Hoy made his driving debut last year as part of a team that finished a respectable 18th overall. World Cup winning goalie Fabian Barthez will also be speeding round at 200mph this year, having previously driven in other classifications. Other high-profile previous drivers include actor Patrick Dempsey (Grey’s Anatomy) and a few years back, Oscar winner Paul Newman. Even if you’re not looking behind the wheels, you may still spot some stars — last year’s official race starter was Brad Pitt. Also keep an eye out for racing royalty from other motorsports, with former F1 drivers a regular fixture at Le Mans. It’s seen as the ultimate driving challenge by many and recent participants include Hulkenberg, Heidfeld and Fisichella. Former challenger Mark Webber will act as this year’s Grand Marshall too, so you could get plenty of photo opportunities.
5. Don’t miss the start
A full day and night of racing probably should be enjoyed in shifts — by fans as well as drivers. Staying up to see every lap is a tough ask and most people take a sleep break — drink induced or otherwise — so they see the finish.
But the start is spectacular — a rousing rendition of the French national anthem and maybe a tricolore smoke flypast by the air force. 🇫🇷 Then you’ll see every car from each category complete a rolling lap of the Circuit de la Sarthe, before powering away from the start line at speed. The noise is as impressive as the sight, as the drivers head out onto the main loop for the race.
Despite being over eight miles long, the track will only take around four minutes for the fastest cars to complete — the speed is unbelievable.
6. Pace yourself
Like the drivers, who typically work in shifts of three or four hours at a time, you may need to pick which parts of the race you enjoy. As I said, the start — around 3pm on the Saturday — and the end 24 hours later, are no-brainers. But to truly appreciate the bravery and excitement of Le Mans competitors, you’ll need to see some of the night racing. Fearless overtaking, evasive manoeuvres and cornering at breakneck speeds — all lit with just car headlamps, no F1 style floodlights. The ten minute walk back from track to site (still within the event compound) means it’s easy to refresh with a few hours’ sleep.
Then, once you’re powered up, it’s a short stroll over the bridge back to the paddock, fan village and grandstands. Many people seem to run on better fuel than the cars, staying up for days until the podium champagne has all been sprayed. 🏁
But however you do it, remember Le Mans is much more than 24 hours — there’s Thursday practice, Mad Friday, the race itself, Sunday concerts…
See you there!
Those are a few tips to help you enjoy this unique sporting spectacle. I’m amazed every year how our few fields morph into a space with delicious food, evening entertainment and 24-hour security. But for 2017 I’m looking forward to welcoming first-timers, seeing familiar faces and working on the only site with Guinness on draught. As a fan experience, it’s almost inaccurate to describe Le Mans as ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ — because so many people come back every year.
I’d just say that several hundred thousand enthusiasts (including me) can’t be wrong.
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