Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Pure Motor Racing Spectacle

A good friend decries boring motor racing circuits, which produce unexciting F1 races. I couldn’t agree more. After you’ve been to Spa-Francorchamps, Monza or Albert Park, most of the ‘scientific’ circuits produce very dull racing, so I, for one, was not sad to see the Bahrain GP cancelled.

Having said that, I LOVE Formula One racing. It’s motor sport at its highest elevation, and it has produced the highest level of technology of making a car go fast in a given environment.
(Start of 2003 race, Bentleys leading. Photo - John Brooks) 
But, for pure spectacle there is no comparison to Le Vingt Quatres Heures de Mans,

Every year since 1923 drivers and their cars line up to ‘race’ for 24 hours. This is not a casual tour until 23h 30m and then a ‘sprint’ to the line. This is racing in its purest sense, and endurance racing at that. For a whole day! Plus, it’s in France – a great added bonus.

You have to preserve the car, be competitive, and watch your back. No quarter is given. Not that there’s any other racer out there with designs on seeing that you don’t finish. There’s enough drama in your own team, and car, to ensure you are truly focussed on your own problems.

However, there are diversions. First of all there is the eye candy, and clearly that’s the Hawaiian Tropic girls, who’ve been at every Le Mans I’ve been at, since 1984.

It’s a just a moment or two, before the real action begins, however it’s certainly not unpleasant, and most of the girls I’ve engaged in conversation were smart and educated as well as beautiful.

Then there’s the stuff that happens during the race itself. Whether you’re with an entrant (I attended with both Jaguar and Bentley); or a journalist, a sponsor or a member of the public, you get to wander through the infield to take in the sites.

Like F1, the Paddock and pits these days are out of bounds unless you have accreditation. Which is a far cry from the first time I attended in 1984, when every man and his dog (yes, dog!), and girlfriend, could wander along pit lane mid-race!

So, you get the opportunity to either ride the ferris wheel, visit the carnival, drink at the Mercier Champagne stand, or just bed down to get a few Zeds during the night.

The Mercier Champagne connection is interesting. The company was founded in 1871, but the owner Eugene Mercier had a love of fast cars. He decided they should occasionally ‘race’ through the wine caves, but in addition he thought his company ought to be a sponsor at Le Mans. The company has maintained a stand since the mid-1930s.

The other great diversion, and in fact one of the really important pit stops is to visit the Grand Marnier crepe stand. I have been to the race more than eight times, and for mid-race sustenance there is no substitute for a Grand Marnier crepe. It is tasty, alcoholic and simply wonderful. There’s nothing like it during the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Of course, there’s the race. The high drama, the disasters, the mid-race crashes, blowouts, fuel starvation and plain bad luck often expose the lack of planning and poor risk assessment by many teams. The guys who plan and prepare well usually end up with a good result, not by good luck, but by good management.

Every year, but one, I have remained awake and alert for the whole period. The following day, after the race, I usually sleep for 20 hours!

That’s what I call a spectacle. I have never failed to be entertained, intrigued, enervated, interested or brought to tears by the effort, the struggle and the results. In my mind the 24 Hours of Le Mans is motor racing at its best, and I applaud L’Áutomobile Club de L’Ouest for its perseverance, pedantic behaviour, passion and punctuality in bringing us motor racing’s greatest drama every year.

Long may it continue!

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