Almost 8.5 miles of circuit. Purpose-built racing prototypes, some of which annihilated the record lap time for qualifying. Fans everywhere: camping, gawking, eating, drinking. Noise. Rain. Dark. Doesn’t matter. The race goes on, and there’s nothing that can truly prepare you for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
[Full disclosure: Nissan wanted us to check out their new LMP1 in person so badly that they flew me out to Circuit de la Sarthe for the weekend, providing airfare, food, lodging and a few Le Mans-related souvenirs.]
In some respects, I feel like the paddock is more familiar here than I did with the X Games last weekend. Many of these teams do Circuit of the Americas’ round of the World Endurance Championship close to home. Several frequent United SportsCar. There are always a number of one-off participants who ensure that no matter what form of motorsport you follow, you’ll eventually see some of their top drivers make a go at Le Mans. These are our teams. The world’s teams.
Why? Because it’s Le Mans, and Le Mans is the biggest, looniest race in the world. Le Mans is considered part of the Triple Crown of motorsport with the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. Not to knock the other two, but this is by far the most grueling, challenging and significant one of them all.
Teams have to make their car last for twenty-four hours. That’s half the battle. Sharing a car without stabbing your teammates is hard enough on its own. Making sure every single person who even thinks about touching your car — that’s right, crew included — is performing their best is another matter entirely, particularly once exhaustion sets in. Remember the drills from Truth in 24 where Audi makes their entire LMP1 crew practice pit stops for nearly every scenario that could happen in a race? This is why they do that.
Many compare professional endurance races to really long sprints now because everyone is competing at such a high level that there’s very little margin for error anymore. Screw-ups are fatal, because the team that does everything perfectly will be the team that wins the race. It’s incredibly close racing from start to finish. The leaders have ended on the same lap in recent years. You can’t look away, because you very much can miss something huge.
Earlier today, Matt asked why anyone would want to watch a race like Le Mans. I’d rather ask why you wouldn’t, since this is the time of year when I spend a day straight glued either to the TV or to some alternate means of receiving updates. Multi-class racing ensures that there’s never any shortage of drama, as some of the fastest vehicles on the planet have to not only navigate the course, but also safely make it past much slower traffic.
It’s not just captivating racing. It’s everything. I will badger you with news Porsche’s position all day long, now that my team is back in the top class. Will they finally turn an epic qualifying performance into a race win this year, or will there be yet another whoopsie during the race itself that keeps them from the win?
Then there’s the fact that Le Mans embraces and encourages cool stuff showing up. Garage 56 exists solely to promote innovative design, and it brought us cars like the DeltaWing, which completely reimagined what a race car should look like. Nissan jumped all-in this year with an entry that many felt should have been a Garage 56 entry, but surprise! Their insanely different front-wheel-drive car fit within the LMP1-H regulations, giving them the chance to go up against the fastest cars in the World Endurance Championship. Why aim small when you’re confident you can eventually contend for the overall win? They’re here more to test than they are to win this year, but they’re not content to pass up the opportunity to beat all the existing teams in the top class at their own game.
The Nissan GT-R LM Nismo: as odd as it gets.
Next year brings us a Garage 56 entry driven in part by a quadruple amputee as well as the new Ford GT. Garage 56 gets even crazier for 2017 with a biomethane-powered car set to participate. [Insert fart jokes here.] We’re in a country known for delicious cheeses, so I can’t think of anything more fitting for Le Mans than a car that might be able to be topped off with poots.
People tend to announce things like new Garage 56 entries, wacky road cars and new entries at Le Mans because everyone in their right mind is paying attention to Le Mans.
Between the mix of bleeding-edge technology and cool GT cars that are actually based on their roadgoing counterparts, everything here is awesome. You’re no longer likely to see the tech that will trickle-down into your daily econobox in Formula One. You’ll see it here first, in various attempts to make the cars faster or safer.
This isn’t just the biggest race on the World Endurance Championship’s calendar, in Europe, or in the world. This is the only race that matters head-and-shoulders above every other race in existence.
So, I’m here for the first time, and I’ve spent as much time I can looking around, talking to people, and trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’m watching some of the world’s best drivers take on one of the most taxing events. I’m constantly reminded of all the whining people do after competing in amateur 24-hour races. “Why do we do this?” they ask in a half-asleep stupor.
You do it to prove that you can. I don’t know if it’s masochism, insanity, or sheer screw-it-all-I-will-prove-that-I-can-do-this-ness, but full 24 hour races should be on your bucket list, and Le Mans is the ultimate one to conquer.
Avoid the poop, from the Nissan GT-R LM Nismo garage.
Sure, there are a few things that are less than ideal. There’s a little bit of a language barrier sometimes, and I probably should’ve attempted to learn more of the local tongue than “omelette du fromage” and “lapin de pamplemousse.” Luckily, attendees seemed used to it to the point where they tend to shrug off the language barrier with a laugh and a smile.
Moreover, everything is delicious, which only becomes a problem when you realize that you’re out in muggy summer weather and that eating that last falls-off-the-bone hunk of duck is only going to make you sleep.
Sleep? Ha! I’ll sleep when I’m dead. There’s a race to watch.
I’m here all weekend until they kick us all out and revert the greatest place on earth to just another circuit area in France. So, expect us to post everything from notes on the action to crazy fans and/or the most interesting places to take a number two.
It always rains at Le Mans. Men. It’s raining men.
I’m not sure there’s a single person here who’s a sane, well-adjusted individual. There’s a massive party going on, and the race is smack-dab at the center of it. Between the screw loose needed to enter the race itself and the disconnect with reality needed to feel like watching twenty-four hours straight of racing is a great idea, we’re all nuts here. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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