It’s really hard to fathom the idea of an 8.469-mile racetrack until you start trying to move around to look at all the famous turns, but nothing quite hits home the gargantuan size of Le Mans’ Circuit des 24 Heures like an aerial tour. When it’s even huge in a helicopter, that’s saying something.
[Full disclosure: Nissan arranged for this helicopter tour, as I was their guest for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Fortunately, I did not wuss out and actually went. When the words “helicopter tour of Le Mans” are uttered, you go on it, or your hate yourself forever for passing it up.]
Normally, I’m the most squeamish person about flying I know, but I do a lot better when I can see out of a window and confirm some kind of logical reason as to why we’re getting tossed around. “Ah, there are clouds. There’s wind. That’s why.” Fortunately, a helicopter is all windows. Panic level: moderate, but only moderate. I like to fly cars, not aircraft!
I shared our almost-Gulf-themed steed with a trio of Swedish broadcasters, so I got the front seat. This was fine with me, although I had to be careful not to stick a long zoom lens in the pilot’s space.
We soon left from the field next to the airport across the street from Circuit de la Sarthe along with another helicopter taking the tour.
This is when the sheer scale of the track itself started to make itself known.
Sure, Le Mans prototypes aren’t exactly gigantic, but seeing them traverse La Sarthe like sub-Micro-Machines-sized ant cars is unreal.
The famous Dunlop Bridge is much bigger in person, even from the air. It’s a truly massive structure.
From there, the track snaked onwards to Tertre Rouge, with the hills next to the course dotted with more people than you could ever imagine in a single venue.
Our group of guests stayed in an impromptu cubicle hotel set up within the MMArena, just inside Tertre Rouge, very similar to the one Travis stayed in the year before. Earlier, I went up to the top of the stands to take photos of cars whizzing down the Mulsanne Straight behind it.
To the outside of the circuit was the bustling little town of Le Mans.
This is perhaps the most interesting thing about Le Mans if you’ve never been. The circuit itself is right through a couple villages. You’ll try to drive out to Mulsanne Corner or Indianapolis and pass businesses that closed their doors for the week and peoples’ homes. Sure, everyone knows that the 24 Hours of Le Mans uses public roads for much of its course, but you never really see the towns in the race coverage. You certainly do from the air, though.
If only we had towns that were cool with this! I can only hope that the entire town has preemptively banned NIMBYs from ever befouling the greatest race in the world on principle of “you moved to Le Mans—duh.”
Some businesses, like this cafe outside Tertre Rouge, catered to the race crowds and were rolling in the dough all weekend long.
The MMArena wasn’t the only huge structure within Le Mans’ Circuit des 24 Heures. There was both the Antarès arena (above) as well as the Hippodrome des Hunaudières (below).
The L’Arche chicane even runs next to a series of big-box stores.
From there, the scenery becomes considerably more rural. The long, twice interrupted stretch of road still known as the Mulsanne Straight is a run through the forest down, through the Mulsanne Kink and down to the Mulsanne corner where it meets (surprise!) the village of Mulsanne.
Inside Mulsanne Corner was a golf course. Outside were hoardes of campers.
That’s another thing you’ll notice from the air: campsites are everywhere. Le Mans, Mulsanne and all the surrounding villages are fairly small, with only one huge event during the year. Thus, many people opt to camp.
As the helicopter angled back towards Indianapolis and Arnage, I took a look away from the track. The entire area around Le Mans is gorgeous.
It was hard not to envy little houses like this, either. Yes, please—do hold races in my front yard.
As the track curved back around through the Porsche curves (labelled for easy aerial spotting!) towards the pit straight, however, campsites dominated the scene once again.
Lest anyone forgets how ridiculously huge the 24 Hours of Le Mans is, each of those little boxes represented a space that was just comfortable enough for a few people, and there were thousands of them dotting the land.
Sometimes the curvature of the helicopter’s windows added its own almost tilt-shift-like effect to my photos, blurring the edges and making everything seem that much tinier from above.
At this point in the race, more people were interested in browsing the paddock and the fan areas than they were watching cars whiz past on the pit straight.
Those stands typically fill up for the start and the end of the race, but everyone wants to wander out to more action-prone spots in the meantime. The weather is mild and walking is no big deal.
One of the more unique sets of buildings was this group of near-identical portables behind the paddock area, no doubt used for some official purpose. It looked like the world’s tidiest trailer park.
As for the permanent Circuit de la Sarthe, the parts that weren’t in use for the 24-hour race gets used as a parking lot.
We were back where we started, so we took one more lap of the circuit before touching down.
I tried to zoom in on some of the cars, but they were just a little too far for me to capture without getting totally in the pilot’s space, and I didn’t feel like trying to pan in a wobbly helicopter, either.
At one point, I spotted a response vehicle hiding off to the side on one of the roads that merge onto the Mulsanne Straight, waiting and ready for anything that could happen.
Mostly, though, I continued to marvel at the enormity of it all.
Le Mans is like absolutely nothing else I’ve experienced in person. I nailed it when I called it overwhelming, but to be honest, it’s even bigger and more insane than I could have ever imagined even when I wrote that.
It’s a must-see race to begin with, and one of the only big events that’s lived up to its hype. However huge it looks on TV, picture it even bigger and you might come close to how Le Mans is in person.
Every single type of wonderful automotive lunatic seems to show up to this one. I saw everything from a perfectly restored Volkswagen Type 3 Squareback to festively stickered-up subcompacts in the parking lots. Everyone was having a blast. Even the most obscure drivers seem to have a following as well. You’re bound to run into other folks who are the same kind of crazy as you are.
Perhaps Le Mans is just too huge to take in on one weekend. I now understand the people who go year after year. There’s way too much to see, do and explore within a track that’s over 8 miles long.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.