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Tales from La Sarthe
publication date: Jun 29, 2015
author/source: Glen Smale
By Glen Smale
Summer always comes to France in a way that we don’t really experience in West Wales.
But it is not for this reason that we make our way to the Continent every year in June, it is just that Britain’s biggest motor race happens in France at this time.
The Le Mans 24-Hour race is where legends are made, and sometimes broken, but you can always be sure of a spectacle and the memories are sure to remain with you for a lifetime.
I have just enjoyed my seventh trip to Le Mans, my third together with Elke, and this year we camped at Arnage.
The tent is there just for the briefest of catnaps, as the days are long and tiring, and the night time work sees you packing up in the media centre in the small hours of the morning.
You’re on the go for an average of 20-hours per day for the whole week, photographing, interviewing, writing up your work and by the time the race weekend arrives you’re already running on empty, or adrenalin, or both.
But the excitement and anticipation of the big race keeps you going, and as Saturday dawns and you leave your tent for the media centre, you know that you’re not going to see your sleeping bag for another 40 hours!
Besides making excellent baguettes, the French really know how to put on a show, and as the clock passes noon, the razzmatazz begins with pushing the cars out onto the grid.
Pit crew, drivers, team personnel, journalists and snappers, celebrities and officials all crowd the grid for the next hour or so and this is followed with a fly-past by the French air force, and then the chaos begins in earnest.
Officials try to get everyone off the grid and this can take an age as celebs and WAGs try to get that last snap with their mobile phones before being forcefully removed. A few years ago, the official carrying the 1-minute board was making his way down the grid to clear the grid, when he was overtaken by another official at a flat gallop carrying the 30-seconds board!
Once everyone has eventually been removed, the cars are waved off on their settling in lap, after which they can pull into the pits to have some small adjustments made if necessary, but then the cars must make their way around to form up in their grid positions. And at that all the mechanics and pit crew pour back onto the track as last minute instructions are given to drivers and more adjustments are made.
Finally, at around 14:55, the pace car leads them off on a warm up lap, and as they round the last curve onto the main straight the pace car peels off into the pits, the lights go green and in excess of 30,000 bhp is unleashed in an instant.
There follows 24-hours of high speed, relentless racing, the cars covering in one race what Formula 1 cars cover in an entire season. And if anyone thought that the racing is any less competitive or nail biting because you have got 24 hours to play with, you couldn’t be more wrong, because the difference in lap times between the first and the last hour is just three seconds – over a 13.6km circuit!
This year’s race was won by Porsche, their 17th Le Mans victory, the winning car being powered by a 2-litre V4 petrol engine in conjunction with a hybrid energy recovery system.
Despite the authorities trying to slow the cars down, the winning car completed 395 laps, which is just two laps short of the overall record distance.
After being on such a prolonged high, you have to plan a bit of downtime or R&R, and after the race we spent two nights with fellow Westies, Nick and Julie Baldwin, in their beautiful country estate in the hills south of Le Mans.
It was not easy to find their pad, but when we got there we received a warm welcome, a tasty meal and a warm comfy bed all of which was greatly appreciated. For the rest of that week we set up camp at a superb campsite in the Loir Valley where some long lie-ins and early nights followed…together with a few baguettes and a some French wine. C’est la vie!
The food, the weather, the motor racing, the camping, in many ways Le Mans is a feast…we’re already looking forward to next year!