Forget The Results, This Is What It’s Like To Be On The Ground At The 24 Hours Of Le Mans
Photography by Alex Sobran
The 24 Hours of Le Mans can be included in a few groups—day-long endurance races, the WEC series, motorsports’ “triple crown”—yet it remains utterly distinct, an island in mainland France where the palm trees are imported and margaritas will run you a cool $25 per. The temporary staff for the event number in the hundreds but only a small percentage seem to know where anything is, their main function being the shrug. You can’t blame them for wanting a free ticket to something as special as this.
Some of the 250,000-plus spectators fly in on private planes, transferring on the tarmac to humming black sedans with perfectly air-conditioned cabins, while the country’s seemingly perennially on-strike rail unions make hitchhiking a more common means of arrival than one might expect. Others will pack up their nuclear families and once-a-year camping gear inside dusty hatchbacks bursting at the spot welds, but they are all heading in the same direction for the same purpose: to be part of another entry in the history of the greatest automobile race in the world.
That is not hyperbole. Le Mans is where the heroes of motorsports earn the distinction, where heartbreaks manifest as mechanical failures and human fatigue and moments of entropic coincidence, where the forward edge of engineering aptitude is stacked upon dynasties both long-established and gestating.
I have been coming to this event on and off since I was eight years old with Haribo-sticky fingers wrapped around a disposable Kodak, and as such I’ve witnessed the bookends of Audi’s reign over the top rung in this massive multi-class competition, just one of many notable eras that include the Ferrari-Ford fights, the rise of the 917, and of course the oddball years in between when the likes the 935 and the McLaren F1 bested the prototypes that were supposed to lap them.
With hydrogen and hypercars on the horizon, fans of Le Mans have much to be excited about if the GT1 battles of the 1990s are anything to look to, and though the 86th edition completed last weekend didn’t feature the hybrid drag race that characterized the 85th, there is no diminishing the fizz we feel in our guts during the first seconds of the 24 hours that follow, whether it’s seen on screens, in person, or just a table of positions and split times. Every year offers something new, and the GTE pack was astoundingly strong this time around, with five works teams competing alongside the factory-backed Ferraris of AF Corse—this was far from a privateers’ party.
With BMW entering the dogfight again for the first time since 2011, they brought a veritable village of media teams and and other guests to watch the M8 GTE’s debut at the 24 Hours, a group that I’m thankful to have called myself a member of. While hospitality lounges and free food and drink are quite nice things to have when a wet hot dog here goes for the same price as a T-bone in the regular world, the real treat for me was getting a media vest.
This was my first time shooting the race in front of the barriers, and with over 24 hours of tracing the track on foot clocked in addition to campground wanderings, ferris wheel rides, and visits to the pits, I think I got my literal mileage out of the credentials. You’ve already seen the results, the lap times, the PR quotes, and a thousand and one articles about Alonso, so what follows is my best attempt at sharing the actual experience of being there; the longtime fan who’s somehow found himself among the jaded journalists who either pretend—or worse, believe—that this is just another weekend in the motorsport calendar. The action on track is just a piece of the weekend.
Before The Storm
A few hours prior to the start, the full grid of 60 cars are pushed out of their garages and onto the starting line straight where they are soon smothered by crowds of people and their cell phones. If shooting a concours is an exercise of patience while waiting for a gap in legs, this was a marathon. So after snatching a few shots of the cars I was interested in (the liveries this year were astoundingly cool, from the retro RSRs to the sharp modern design of the contemporary BMW M scheme to the awesomely gaudy chrome of the Singha-sponsored 488), I thought the best way to capture the scene was to show its density.
Soon enough the space is clear again, the marshals deploying frowns and way too much whistling to clear the area of people and the things they’ve inadvertently left on the track behind them. It’s appropriately serious I suppose, but we all know that people with temporary authority can tend towards overdoing it. The fans are bunched up on the perimeter now, and in the time since they’ve been ushered out to the seats thousands more have taken their own in the tribunes. The background buzz of many languages merging into an excited singularity is in contrast to what I’m doing in the final minutes of relative silence before the engines are fired; most of the other photographers are bunched up on the sweeping right-hander after the pit exit, so I head toward the Dunlop bridge to post up with just one other guy who had the same idea. I turn and smile at him, he looks down at his camera. The track sits in an ominous state of vacancy.
From here I can’t see the first bits of motion but it’s very easy to hear even through earplugs, and I can picture the forward lurches of motion characteristic of serious clutches engaging first gear as the pack makes its first paced lap behind the safety car. The pair of Toyotas pop over the crest of the hill under the bridge, followed by a steady thrumming pile of lesser prototypes and the deep GTE Pro and Am grids of more recognizable shapes.
Besides Alonso (arguably the worlds best driver sat in the car of the team that currently holds the course lap record is pretty exciting), people don’t seem to care that much about the fastest class even though it’s packed with former winners of this race, and most of the conversations about LMP revolve around how sad it would be if Toyota didn’t pull it off this year. It’s plain to see which cars command the attention; the GTEs are the ones that raise the telephoto lenses en masse when they come around.
I look at my watch and guess that it will be another five or six minutes until they pour down the hill at serious speed for the first time, but the sounds of “Also sprach Zarathustra” (you know, the piece from 2001: A Space Odyssey) sync up with the start so there’s no need to keep checking the old Heuer on my wrist. It’s an appropriately epic way to start the race, and I really do hate that word.
The Toyotas can be heard first, but only for a tenth or two of a second; the noise builds quickly as the the drivers pin it one after another as they cross the line for the first time under green. They erupt under the bridge, I almost forget to actually shoot anything and since I’m shaking a bit with excitement most of my shots come out out of focus. I track them the best I can though, and the tight bunching gives my camera’s servo a nice workout. The brake lights of the row of prototypes weave and swap, blinking as they do like Christmas tree lights.
Many Hours Left To Go
I make my way down toward Tetre Rouge and back up again, playing with panning shots and trying to get it through my head that this is technically work, and after only a few laps the sheen of the freshly-swabbed paint jobs and stickers start to wear away and feature the first earned pieces of rubber and brake dust. On the very first series of turns one car has already lost its nose, and there are still 23 hours and change on the clock.
After a few more photo sessions and a few bites to eat and successfully resisting caffeine—much too early for that—I take a trip over to Mulsanne to catch the cars switching straightaways as they accelerate toward Indianapolis. Being just feet from this action, I change the zoom for something a bit wider on my camera for what will be the first of a few dozen haphazard lens maneuvers on top of my knee and backpack.
It stays light for a while in this part of Europe compared to what I’m used to, but soon enough the sun starts to sink below the tall tree line, the track lights up in a golden array of warm tones and I make my way down the long high-speed section toward Indy and Arnage. On the way I notice a piece of dislodged and flung carbon fiber, prompting me to look over my shoulder with a bit more frequency. Being a first-timer to this view, I ask the marshals at each post if it’s okay to walk along the barrier at 5MPH as the blurs go by at 150, and they give me funny looks and say what I think must be “But of course.” I am bemused, smiling in disbelief and at my luck.
After photographing a few cheerful fans and a few easygoing marshals before the sky goes fully black I take advantage of the media shuttle service and sit in the woods near the track at the pick-up point. Along with a dozen others who say they’ve been there for 30 minutes already. They grumble and look at their phones and LCD screens, but I’m happy to have a quick sit, and after all, what’s half an hour in the scheme of 24? After fending off mosquitos and losing the battle, a van shows up and I find myself in the trunk with a Brit who also preferred to make the trade to a bit of unwanted yoga posing rather more time in the itchy woods. We talk about our time so far, and he tells me about a gate in the barriers that not many people know of, seeing as it’s tucked in between huge sponsor viewing buildings near the Ford chicanes. I thank my new friend for the tip, and it turns out that I use this point of access more than any of the others—I’ve forgotten your name, but thanks again!
Fast forward a few hours and most of the fans and most of the press too have socked themselves away somewhere warm and padded by three in the morning, but this is my favorite time at Le Mans so with the chemical push of energy drinks and espressos telling my knees to quit their bitchin’ it’s time to take the obligatory ride on the ferris wheel overlooking the pits and main grandstands. French carneys aren’t as strange as the ones I’m used to in America, I’m afraid. I end up sharing my little plastic basket of many vantage points with another Brit, one who tells me this is his 22nd Le Mans in a row but his very first time on the wheel. Baffling to me, but also a reminder that you simply can’t get used to this race. It always has something new to give.
It’s somewhere between four and five now, and after being here for more than 12 hours in a row the sounds of downshifts and run-over rumble strips has faded into normalcy long ago, and this strange habituating process is part of a stranger overall sensation. You really do forget the rest of the world when you’re here at night, you live in your head alone barely looking at the few other stragglers traipsing around the paddock and the track, and exhaustion is counterbalanced by awe in a way that leaves you almost numb. I tend to forget that the cars have drivers in them, they seem so perfectly relaxed in their movement that it’s hard to find where the human element is, especially when you can’t see much but headlights, taillights, number boxes, and the illuminated emptiness of the seats that were only hours ago teeming. It’s pretty trippy, it’s pretty isolating (I caught myself humming nonsense a few times in my head), and it’s pretty, well, pretty. After taking a few “normal” shots I thought it would be better to try conveying the feeling rather than documenting what my eyes were seeing.
A Different Kind Of Nightlife
I make the stupid mistake of taking a half-hour nap (waking up to the shrill alarm I barely remembered to set on my phone saw me moaning a very drawn out “shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittttttttttt” as I reached for my glasses and the half-full Red Bull next to me), but before I tricked my joints into thinking they might get a break I took a walk through the pit area and the now empty pavilions to find the shots that characterize the scene of blankness that takes over the deep night hours—save for the car crews that must keep doing their jobs.
No Overtime Pay
This includes another visit to the BMW garage, where despite being beset by damper issues and some pit lane penalties in quick succession, spirits are still up even if eyes are trying their damnedest to close. The cars are running at podium pace, and earlier on they were contending the 2nd and 3rd positions in the GTE Pro class which made for some great jumbotron action as they diced with the Fords and Porsches up front. Having this backstage access felt a little bit like crashing a party you weren’t invited to, but perhaps that’s the wrong word for a bunch of fire-suited mechanics and strategists staring at screens and nursing cups of coffee and soup.
A Little Light
To the complaints of more than a few photographers I walked past, the sun came up behind a bank of grey clouds and the flat sky was characteristic of the weekend that didn’t see much in the way of good lighting. As someone who forgot sunblock though, I was happy for the consolidation of not turning into lobster by Sunday afternoon. And despite the absence of any golden hour on Sunday morning, the smoky turquoise color was still pretty interesting for a span of about 15 minutes or so when dawn first broke, and it made for some dramatic looking scenes. It’s easy to start feeling reverential at this point in the 24 hours I guess—a tired brain leans on drama after all—but it’s also easy to find counterpoints, like the conversation I overheard by two clearly hammered fans (how they stayed awake should be studied by medical professionals or energy drink chemists) who were arguing over who’d built the taller tower of cans before they reached literal tipping points.
These civil engineers were among the very few awake at this point, and most of the people without hotel rooms had fallen asleep where they’d previously stood, with one dude slumped over a scooter in an impressive act of makeshift ergonomics.
Tiptoeing The Campgrounds
This felt like a good time to explore the campgrounds: the morning after, the evidence of long nights and much booze. They are mostly empty, the tents mostly full with hung laundry swaying between their peaks, wrappers and boxes and cans are crushed into the mud, and as I pick my way between supercars and more utilitarian transports, my route is guided by the dual stimuli of interesting campsites and the overwhelming smell of the bathrooms that must be able to repel even livestock. Forget good views, if you want to camp here I’d suggest the primary location filter be distance from the johns.
(Sorry guys, I didn’t pay the five euros for the photo, forgive me.)
Victory Is Always Earned
Meanwhile the race cars are still looping the circuit as they have been for over 20 hours now, and though the end is nearing we all know that it’s called the 24 Hours of Le Mans for a reason. Toyota has led comfortably since the first flag drop, but they know better than anyone else that it only matters if you can sustain your speed ’til the end. They’ve qualified on the pole four times including this year, which shows their obvious abilities when it comes to outright pace (as does their holding of the lap record), and finally, after 20 attempts made since they began in 1985, they get the damn job done. Walking into the post-race pits, the weariness is overcome by relief, joy, pure punch drunk bliss on the face of everyone involved in the Toyota effort that’s just paid off in full.
Porsche takes the GTE class in the year of their 70th birthday with their pink-pig themed RSR, but while Le Mans is a competition and not in the everyone-gets-a-trophy distortion of the word, I think there’s a difference between that attitude and acknowledging the efforts and jobs well done from everyone who finished or even participated: because you know what’s cool about the amateur drivers? Yeah, maybe they are just a bunch of bankers and white-collars who never went through the trials of karting like the guys that pass them for 24 hours, but there are a lot of recreations and ways to spend your dough that are far lamer than racing at Le Mans. Wouldn’t you do this if you could?
Reflecting On The Other Side
After much announcing and podium posing, the weekend powered by caffeine, nicotine, and gasoline comes to an end. The human body can only stay propped up on chemical puppet strings for so long, because the cars can surely keep at it if we asked them to. From my perspective, it doesn’t look like the teams are going for preservation tactics in the modern editions of this race, and if one of the team’s strategists told me they weren’t driving flat out for the duration it’d be a surprise.
Slicks have exfoliated the track now for 24 hours, and the little bundles of sheered-off shreds of rubber have outlined the racing line quite clearly in some places. This evidence will soon be swept away after everyone but the cleanup crews has left the Circuit de la Sarthe. Everything has its conclusion, but the memories aren’t leaving anytime soon.
Even if you finish dead last or in the pits after only a few hours of track time, even if you got too drunk too early and slept through most of it, you were still a part of Le Mans. To be here is to enter a bubble of fervor, of brilliant driving and behind-the-scenes teamwork, of acceptable immaturity gathered around bonfires and beeramids, of unalloyed, unadulterated celebrations of sport and competition and human talents in their many forms. A bubble that resists bursting even after you’ve physically exited it.
On the drive out—BMW lent me a wickedly cool metallic green M4 which will feature in a story to come—little kids wave whatever little handout flags they were given at anything remotely cool that passed by; they flap them wildly as I pass, these shoulder-sat toddlers that point and mispronounce manufacturer names in adorable excitement. Then there are thoroughly wizened old men and women hobbling toward home on four-footed canes, this being one of those weekends when the hearing aid isn’t so necessary.
Departing by car, I can’t help but add a few more MPH to the speed limits, but not because I was in a hurry to leave it behind.
Thanks again BMW, for providing me with this opportunity. It was one of the best days of my life.