When the first French Grand Prix was held at Le Mans in 1906, competitors’ cars were hauled to the start line by horse and only the very rich could afford to race. Nowadays, anybody can sign up for an exhilarating “track day”, driving their own car on the circuit and recreating the thrills of the greatest motoring endurance race in the world.
I’m on my third lap already, turning into the Dunlop Curve at more than 110mph and following in the treadmarks of my Le Mans heroes, such as Derek Bell, Jacky Ickx and the infamous Bentley Boys.
This is the Bugatti Circuit, a 2.6-mile stretch of permanent racetrack, part of which is used in the 24 Hours of Le Mans itself. The hillside setting makes for a demanding drive but my instructor is calmly handing out good advice from the passenger seat.
This year’s race takes place here on June 22-23, the 90th anniversary of the first 24 Hours. More than 250,000 spectators are expected, including some 80,000 Britons, the largest foreign group, who come to enjoy a high-octane holiday of noise and exhaust fumes. Hotels overlooking the track are often booked up 10 years in advance but those who camp in the fields around the route create their own carnival atmosphere, one that helps make Le Mans such a special event for racing fans.
Returning to the pit lane, I walk a few minutes from the circuit to a trackside restaurant owned by Jeannine Belnou. “The French say the English who come to the 24 Hours are like salmon – they like to return to the same place year after year,” she says.
Belnou has been welcoming them back to Chez Jeannine since 1978. The garden of her simple restaurant backs on to the track near the famous Dunlop Bridge. For one week in June, it’s difficult to find space for a tent peg. “Le Mans may be in France but for seven days it is a little corner of England,” she says. “There is a camaraderie and friendship among the fans that lasts longer than the race.”
The 24 Hours race is run on the Circuit de la Sarthe, a mixture of public road and permanent racetrack, including part of the Bugatti Circuit.
You can drive most of the Sarthe’s 8.5 miles through woodland and fields with everyday traffic, completely unaware of the triumphs and tragedies associated with every corner. Famous stretches, such as the Mulsanne Straight, Tertre Rouge and Indianapolis bend are a part of motor racing folklore, most of which is explained in the nearby Museum of the 24 Hours. Its displays were revamped three years ago, with 150 cars and plenty of petrol-powered memorabilia attracting a year-round stream of tourists.
Visitors quickly learn that if Formula One runs on big budget sponsorship, the story of Le Mans is fuelled by romance and passion. Walking through the museum’s hall of fame, I pass profiles of many of the greatest names in motor racing. The Bentley Boys wore deerstalkers and plus-fours but dominated the 24 Hours race for Britain in the 1920s. Ettore Bugatti brought glamour to the pit lane, and Ferry Porsche saw his cars claim a record 16 chequered flags. In 1970, Steve McQueen spent six months at the circuit filming cult movie Le Mans while honing his driving skills at the same time.
Francis Piquera, the museum curator, tells me that Le Mans has survived because of the enthusiasm of those who take part. “Financially, the race cannot compete with Formula One but I believe we attract the true motor racing fans,” he says. “The spectators can rub shoulders with the teams and it is one big, happy family. Derek Bell, who won five times, used to drive himself here from England so that he could talk to enthusiasts on the ferry – there aren’t many big egos here because it is all about the love of racing and having a holiday at the same time.”
He goes on to describe the fans packing the pit lane to watch the closing champagne ceremony. “Last year, I saw four Englishmen walk on to the track wearing dinner jackets and carrying a table. They set it out in the pit lane, spread a tablecloth and sat down for afternoon tea.”
If the area around the permanent Le Mans track isn’t much to write home about, the walled city centre two miles away is a breathtaking contrast. A menhir dating from 5,000BC still stands in the old town, and the settlement was a key conquest for Roman invaders. Cobbled streets spread out from the hilltop vantage point of Saint Julien Cathedral, where Henry II, future king of England, was baptised in 1133. The half-timbered houses were used as a backdrop for the film Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Gérard Depardieu, and the area has been nominated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The night before the start of the 24 Hours race, motoring fans line the narrow streets of the old Plantagenet city to watch the drivers’ parade. Starting in the Place de la République, past and present drivers are mobbed by more than 150,000 supporters who gather to cheer them on. The cobbled streets are so uneven that modern, aerodynamic racing cars don’t have enough ground clearance to take part. Classic vehicles from the motor museum are wheeled back into use instead.
Back at Chez Jeannine for supper, I ask the owner why the 24 Hours race appeals to people who want to spend their holiday camped by a noisy racetrack. “Because it is not just about the cars or who wins. It is about the people and the friendships that are made here. After 35 years I should be retiring but even I get excited about seeing my old friends from England every June. It is a great race but it is the people who make it special.”
Jeremy Taylor was a guest of the French Government Tourist Office (www.franceguide.com), Le Mans Tourism (www.lemanstourisme.com) and Brittany Ferries (www.brittanyferries.com). Entry to the Le Mans Museum (www.lemusee24h.com) is €8.50; track days cost from €295, see www.lemansdriver.fr