If you’ve heard that the 24 Hours of Le Mans is an event everyone should experience once, I’m here to tell you that’s incorrect. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is something you should experience twice, three times, or possibly every single year for the rest of your days. Once? The first time at Le Mans, you’ll have no idea what you’re doing. Trust me on that. I just got back.
To spectate at Le Mans is to be in a constant state of anxiety that you’re missing something. Which is appropriate, because you are. The Circuit de la Sarthe is 8.4 miles long, which means there’s very little chance that you’re ever in the right spot to witness a bold pass, a dramatic save, or mechanical mayhem. Some fans seem to spend all their time at the start-finish line, where you’re at least guaranteed to witness the beginning and end of the race.
If you’re across from the pits, you also have an excellent shot at seeing some extremely forlorn team mechanics. Keeping a car running at full throttle for 24 hours is hard. Ever see a turbocharger replaced in 17 minutes? You would if you’d staked out a spot across from the Audi pits. But more likely, you’d be somewhere else.
I arrived on the Thursday of race weekend, rolling with the Audi contingent. Being with Audi at Le Mans is like being Hef’s guest at the Playboy Mansion. This is their turf. “Is everybody all right? Everyone here having a good time?” The people associated with the team are politely respectful of this year’s foils, Porsche and Toyota, but Audi obviously expects to win. Which is fair, since that’s what they do pretty much every year.
The structures around the track are pasted with banners trumpeting Audi’s “Welcome Challenges” video, in which the R18 e-tron Quattro does burnouts in front of Porsche headquarters, branding the pavement with the words “Welcome Back.” It’s maybe a little bit insulting to Toyota that the Germans seem to be treating Le Mans like their own corporate retreat, but “Welcome Challenges” at least puts a friendly face on Audi’s crushing dominance. If I were in charge of Audi Sport marketing, next year I’d just go completely honest and run footage of Mike Tyson holding press conferences: “My power is discombobulating devastating. ... It’s ludicrous these mortals even attempt to enter my realm.” Then the Audi logo.
Audi brought three P1 cars (Porsche and Toyota each fielded two), which was prescient since one of them kept crashing in practice. On Wednesday Loïc Duval destroyed car number 1 in the Porsche curves, remarkably emerging unscathed. The next day the car was “rebuilt,” which is apparently the Le Mans euphemism for entirely replaced. In an Audi lounge near the pits, 2013 race winner Allan McNish explained, “There’ll be nothing that’s taken off that car and put on the new car. That’s unrecoverable.” And he would know. In 2011 McNish clipped a Ferrari in an ill-calculated pass, sending his R18 airborne into the wall and spraying expensive car parts halfway to Paris.
This year? He’s retired, he says. Although race-driver retirements seem to go a lot like Brett Favre retirements—the role of spectator often sits uneasily with guys who are accustomed to being on the other side of that fence.
I got my chance to take in the view from the more glorious side of the barriers when we took a tour of the track led by John Hindhaugh, the voice of radio Le Mans. This guy knows everything. He knows what happened where on which lap in 1994. He knows where there’s a house for sale right next to the Mulsanne Straight. (That’d make for an interesting backyard barbecue once a year.) He tells us that, in the real olden days, teams would relay messages to the drivers at Arnage corner, because that was the only place where they were going slow enough to read a sign.
“The Porsches are running low in the rear and they’re bottoming out because of the crown of the road,” Hindhaugh says, gesturing to the pavement. “The parts that are a public road, legally they’ve got to have a crown.” Just one among many challenges that arise from the strange fact that the rest of the year, much of this racetrack is an ordinary transportation conduit for Le Mans locals. I made a pilgrimage here in college, pre-GPS, and I knew I’d found my way onto the circuit when the corners had curbing.
The current curbs are a little more treacherous than they were back then. Hindhaugh takes us to the Ford chicane, just ahead of the main straight, and explains that each block of curb includes a raised diagonal crease across the top—they call it razor curb. If that doesn’t discourage you from cheating your apex, the next line of defense is the “baguette curbs,” which are essentially vicious red speed bumps inside the razor curbs. Drivers here have evidently learned about the baguettes the hard way, as scraps of shredded carbon fiber litter the area around the curbs. I grab a piece. I’ve got a little bit of somebody’s race car in my pocket.
Later that day, I nab a seat in a helicopter and we fly a couple laps of the circuit. From the air you really perceive the wild speed differential between classes. Those Ferraris that look so quick on their own are essentially mobile chicanes as far as the prototype cars are concerned. It must be humbling to be a badass race driver in, say, a GTE Pro Aston Martin, and constantly have to move out of the way for cars that find you annoyingly—sometimes dangerously—slow.
A few thousand feet in the air is just about high enough to take in the scope of this place, for Le Mans is all outrageous superlatives. This weekend more than 263,000 fans will press their noses against the fence, watching cars that average 150 mph over the course of a lap and cost so much that—well, they’re not saying. But I’m sure Audi has to move a fair number of A3s to underwrite a single R18, let alone a trio.
At least the piles of cash and effort devoted to Le Mans might have some relevance to mortal street drivers, in that this is one of the few remaining motorsports spectacles where the race technology might make its way to the road cars. And if we don’t end up with bazillion-rpm flywheel energy accumulators riding shotgun in our S4s, at least we’ll have explored the possibility. As Hindhaugh points out, the rules at Le Mans (or lack thereof) leave a lot of room for sci-fi drivetrain adventures. “Every team is taking a different approach, and they all think they’ve got the best solution,” he says. “The regulations allow that. You’ve got a diesel, a turbo V-4, a naturally aspirated V-8, and three different approaches to the hybrid side, too. Whereas F1 is regulating the tolerances inside the engines.” Hindhaugh doesn’t seem to have a lot of regard for F1 and, after talking to him, I’m not sure I do, either. Where’s my 18,000-rpm street car, Ferrari?
By the time Saturday rolls around I’ve done the track bus tour, the helicopter tour, and a pit walk. I’ve watched the driver parade, which for some reason included what was surely France’s largest fleet of Excaliburs. I’ve seen Patrick Dempsey push through the crowd surrounded by a phalanx of security goons, Moses McDreamy parting the sea of Carlsberg-addled Euro-gearheads. I’ve scoped out where I want to watch the start. Now it’s just waiting, soaking in the impossible buildup before the annual inauguration of the greatest automobile race in the world.
And please, no argument—that’s exactly what this is. This is the automotive future and the past crashing together, sometimes literally, as it’s probably hard to find a spot on this track where somebody didn’t get it way wrong back in the day. I mean, this is a track where drivers wreck on the straight. Oh, sure, they added chicanes. And the cars lapped quicker anyway. As McNish explains, “They added the chicanes and lap times still dropped. So where’s it coming from? In the corners. You’re doing maybe 20 mph faster in the corners now than when the cars were doing 250 mph on the Mulsanne Straight. You’ve got to get it millimeter-perfect every time.” For 24 hours. Or 3000 miles, give or take.
McNish, who’s seen the highest highs and nearly the lowest lows Le Mans has to offer, says this track is scary no matter how good you think you are. “The first time I drove here, the sheer speed was so much quicker than anything else I’d ever experienced,” he says. “This place scared the shit out of me. It’s the most daunting place I’ve ever been.”
I’m on a roof deck across from the pits when the green flag finally drops at 3 p.m. on Saturday and the pack goes snorting, roaring, and screaming off toward the Dunlop Bridge. I stick around for maybe a half-hour before seeking out a vantage point closer to the action, down by the Ford chicane. From here I can see the cars roar down the short chute before the chicane, taking their chances with those ferocious curbs. Then they disappear down the straight, not to be seen again for three-and-a-half or four minutes.
I’m happily entranced, head swiveling to and fro as if at a tennis match, drinking a Hofmühl Hell beer and having a hell of a time, when the clouds roll in. One moment it’s sunny; the next everyone’s huddling under an awning as chaos unfolds out at the Mulsanne Straight. The thunderstorm is so abrupt and unexpected that all of the cars are on slicks and consequently ill-prepared for le deluge. On the jumbo video screen across the track we see that one of the Audis is into the wall and a Toyota has grim front-end damage. Right in front of us, one of the Nissan P2 cars goes past at an inadvisable speed and hydroplanes right across the gravel traps, drawing a straight line across the chicane and bouncing back out onto the track over by the pits. There are probably a few new scraps of carbon fiber to be found over that way.
When the rain relents, it seems like a good time to scope out yet another vantage point, and this time I venture farther afield. I’ve run into fellow scribe Aaron Robinson, who is enough of a Le Mans veteran that he bought a moped for inter-corner transportation at the race. We hop on his Honda 90 and go ride out to the Arnage corner, dodging shuttle buses and like-minded fans, many of whom are from Britain and consequently driving from the wrong side of the car. We climb up on a banking and watch the cars brake for the corner and then slam up through the gears on the way out.
You can hear the traction control working, especially on the LMP2 cars. There’s an audible stutter out of the corners, a flattening of the exhaust note, like someone clumsily driving a Ferrari road car in the rain. But this, as McNish explained earlier, is a deliberate driving strategy. “We’ve got traction control,” he said. “You need to get on the throttle as soon as possible and let the system sort it out. If you’re feeding the throttle in slower, you’re going slower.”
The cars are working harder here than they were at the Ford chicane. The sound is more intense. Even with your eyes closed, you can tell which cars are going past. The Aston Martins and the Corvettes both have V-8 bombast, but only the Corvettes make your coccyx vibrate like a tuning fork. The Ferraris attempt to perforate your eardrums, as Ferraris do. (If the Ferraris are giant robot mosquitoes, the Corvettes are rabid eagles. Go, Team Rabid Eagle!) The Porsche GT cars hammer out their familiar flat-six bark. And the Audis are quiet, seeming almost as if they’re propelled by some external electromagnetic force. I overhear a guy observe, “Noise is wasted energy.” The Audis aren’t wasting much energy.
We’re soon restless for a new view, so it’s back on the Honda. Within a mile we’re out in the countryside, cows grazing, and you wouldn’t know there’s a race going on. Then you round a corner and the auditory assault resumes. Roads are blocked off willy-nilly, but Robinson persuades one barricade enforcer to let us navigate a closed block en route to a parking area. From there we flash our badges at another barricade—crucially, I have one that says “Press”—and the next thing I know we’re standing at the roundabout at the end of the Mulsanne Straight. It’s just us and an emergency crew sitting in a truck next to an ancient-looking stone barn. No fans, no media, just cars coming straight at us at 200 mph. It’s an awesome sight, because right here there’s no fence. They didn’t bother with one, since nobody is supposed to be standing at the end of the Mulsanne Straight.
A cop wanders over and sort of asks what I’m doing. I gesture to my press badge and he says d’accord and lets me resume peering through the underbrush at race cars.
Perhaps the old mantra of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” is largely irrelevant when so many series strive for spec-racer parity, but standing here by the track I’m totally buying into the connection between the race cars and their street brethren. These V-6 diesel R18 e-trons make me want to sign the paperwork on a TDI Audi. Then a Corvette goes past and I want a new Stingray. Then a Ferrari shrieks on by and I want to have enough money to buy a seat in a Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. If I’m ever on “The Lottery Changed My Life,” you’ll see me living in the same house and wearing the same clothes but heading to France once a year to incinerate a bushel of money running a GTE Am 458.
As darkness falls, prudent judgment dictates heading back toward the start line, as the moped may or may not have a functioning headlight. I grab a seat at the Ford curves and stay there till past midnight, at which point the remaining Toyota is looking extremely dominant. When I head out to catch some sleep, the TS040 is the car to beat.
And when I wake up later that morning, it’s out of the running with some kind of electrical problem. Now Porsche is leading. Whither the Audis? They’re out there. Prowling. Biding their time.
I head up to the lounge on the main straight and collapse in a beanbag chair. With four hours to go, Porsche is still in the lead. And then, right down in front of me, the lead Porsche pulls into the pits. At first it looks like a routine fuel stop, but a moment later the car’s air jacks deploy and the mechanics swivel it 90 degrees and back into the garage. And that’s it for Porsche’s chances at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Both of the Audis required new turbochargers, but Toyota and Porsche’s problems are more drastic.
And so, when 3 p.m. rolls around once again, it’s a familiar team crossing the line one-two. The remaining Toyota—the one that got banged up during the rain—comes in third. The number 73 Corvette covers 2862.52 miles, finishing second in its class. A Ferrari may have won, but only the Corvette does a giant burnout on the straightaway while the team leans on its 18-wheeler’s air horn. We’re such obnoxious Americans. I love it.
And I love this race, the sheer improbability of it all. Le Mans seems like something that shouldn’t be allowed to happen, like it’s almost too much trouble for everyone involved—the competitors, the fans, France. And yet it endures. I’m already plotting how to get back. And where to buy a moped.