The 24 Hours Of Le Mans Experience
Photography by Alex Sobran
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a test of endurance for the teams of drivers, mechanics, engineers, pit crews, and strategists, but also for the hundreds of thousands watching their efforts; the competitors have a bit more foresight than the guy slugging his fourth beer an hour before the first national anthem plays, but even so, you’ll likely see that same person watching the race at 6AM, albeit now wearing a crimson sunburn and one fewer shoe.
This is my attempt at a more realistic review of Le Mans as a whole, about the spectacle on the 8.5 miles of tarmac as well as the acres of dirt and grass containing just as much content; the racing is what happens when a bunch of post-grad degrees and private planeloads of money are coupled with the primal urge for competition, but the atmosphere is a product of regular people like us.
Every year is special because every year that a day-long car race can happen means we haven’t given in to the doldrums of practicality. Sure, if you want to be a cynic it’s more or less an R&D and advertising platform for the teams competing, but it wouldn’t happen at all if people didn’t want to watch. In that sense, it is only possible because of the people sitting in the grandstands and sleeping on the dirt alongside Tertre Rouge. The memories of victories and the duels that lead there are to be cherished, but for me the most indelible are those of all the different people that Le Mans pulls in; from locals looking for a place to spend a summer weekend to the Japanese that fly thousands of miles just to see another Toyota heartbreak, this is the manifestation of the universal appeal of motor racing, and it does wonders for your jadedness to see—and be a part of—this enthusiasm.
Before the requisite review of the race results, these are some of the moments that make Le Mans stand out, the things to make it more than just something to watch: seeing a diagonal row of helicopters ascend and then bank up and out over the Dunlop bridge, returning once again to their aerial trace on a fresh tank of fuel; walking down a throughway and hearing the fencing’s metallic and somehow aquatic-sounding twang each time an exhaust pops; the midday Sunday air redolent of sunblock, body odor, spent race gas, and crepes; watching people stack objects on the bent-down heads of their snoring neighbors; hearing every major language coming from every different age group; the overly-animated French announcer, his screams and sighs and the resulting craning of necks toward the jumbotron each time to see if the cameramen are in sync with the drama; the kids and adults wearing the same smiles as they pick through the various scale-model shops, looking for their favorite, or just a good deal; walking through the parking lots full of Renault Twingos and other Eurojunk oddities parked next to bleeding edge supercars; trekking miles around the circuit through tunnels and bridges and berms; riding the ferris wheel at night to try to gain some perspective on it all; waking up in the car after a half-hour nap with the sounds of the race in full swing, just as it was when you fell asleep; watching drunk people trying to pit maneuver each other in go-karts; and to cap it all on the way out on Sunday afternoon, being waved to by an actual resident of the local farmland as he and his wife smile and lean on their old stone gate, either happy that you came, or happy to see you leave.
Okay, the race. Toyota. Poor Toyota. The 24 is about being able to last more than it is about being fast, but after successful testing and a pole position earned in qualifying on a record-breaking lap time from the #7 TS050, it again looked like this might be the year for the Japanese manufacturer to finally take the LMP1 win. I watched with true disbelief when that car, which had been leading the race in its entirety, started coming on and off the power as it struggled with a clutch problem just after it had left pit lane, AKA the worst place on the entire track to have an issue like this. Not tens of minutes after that car struggled around the track like a dying animal looking for a place to lie down, the next-fastest Toyota was struck by slower traffic, blew a tire, and caught fire. One of the three entrants made it to the finish of the race, but it’s not hard to imagine that the #7 car could have kept up its lead had it been able to return to the garage instead of finally stopping for good within sight of the pit lane entrance. I’m of course happy for Porsche, as they did indeed build the car that won the race, but I think a Toyota win would have been better for the sport.
LMP2 also had its fair share of ups and downs in 2017, what with a class-victory at Le Mans from Jackie Chan DC Racing/JOTA Sport marking the first time a driver from China (Ho-Pin Tung) has won in a Le Mans class and stood on the overall podium (not to mention that team only finished a lap behind the overall winner, the #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid). In fact, after scrutineering (more below), the #38 and #37 cars from Jackie’s team took a respective 1st and 2nd in class, and 2nd and 3rd overall. Very impressive as debut team.
Now everyone’s favorite martial artist can claim fame as a winning team owner in addition to his successful acting career.—who knew that being really good at kicking things could lead to something like this? On the less-happy side of things in LMP2, it emerged after the race that Vaillante Oreca that finished 2nd in the class and 3rd overall broke the rules during a pitstop. I feel sorry for the drivers of that car who likely had nothing to do with the cheat, but even worse for the ones who were robbed of their chance to stand on the podium in front of the massive on-track crowd.
LMGTE Pro provided some of the best competition one could hope for this year, at Le Mans or otherwise. For much of the race, all five marques were on the same lap, and often in the same line of sight. I think Ford, Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin, and Chevrolet all led at one point or another, but in the end the #97 Aston Martin Vantage took led when it mattered.
This was pretty controversial; a lot of people have a lot of opinions on the “Balance of Performance” handicaps handed out to the faster cars in the class prior to the race, so here are just two more: to embark on a 86,400-second race and for the top two cars to be within a tenth of each other on the second to last lap is without a doubt extremely entertaining, and yet Aston Martin came to the show with the slowest car and ended up winning the race, and not by outlasting the #63 Chevy either. That just feels wrong; why build the best car you can, that complies with the rulebook, if you’re just going to be stuck with more weight and less power in order for the outdated cars to keep up?
Unfortunately for the driver of the leading ‘Vette (which had been handicapped before the race), it seemed that nerves took over as a result of the pressure being put on by the Aston Martin that’d been reading his bumper stickers for the last handful of laps. Not to take anything from the mental and physical abilities of Aston driver Jonny Adam, but the Corvette was all over the place near the end, and ran through the gravel on one of the chicanes before further erratic driving either caused or was combined with a tire failure that allowed the Aston to pass on the final lap. It was a truly amazing duel, but the Corvette’s tire issue landed it in 3rd, behind the #67 Ford GT.
As for LMPGTE Am, honestly, who cares who wins? I’m not saying it isn’t impressive or that I could do better (I surely can’t, but then again, with enough money who wouldn’t be a decent racer?), but this isn’t nearly the same kind of animal as the top three classes. I guess the best thing that happened in Am this year was that none of the drivers took out an actual contender this year, so good show I suppose. Wait, the #50 Corvette, that came in last place out of the finishing field, did have a pretty cool comic book paint job, so there’s that too. I’m really not trying to take anything away from anyone’s efforts, as to last for 24 hours while racing amongst a field of 60 cars is undoubtedly a test of mettle that few are likely to even attempt, but when the real competition is this good, it’s just kind of hard to pay close attention to the guys who are more or less getting out of the way of the rest of the cars.
Unlike the sterilization and caution of so many other racing events, one of the best things about Le Mans is that when it’s all over you can go inside the fences and walk the track, still redolent of the rubber left there not an hour earlier. And after the awe sinks in of being on the same surface that was recently a gladiatorial stage of motorsport, it all comes back to the people, symbolically and literally, as the track is now filled with bodies of flesh and water instead of carbon and aluminum. Their are kids marveling at the bright curbing, still-drunks riding wobbly bicycles, and thousands of spent but smiling faces making their way back home.
Finally, the race cars leave on Sunday afternoon alone in their haulers, covered with rubber and bugs, and the civilian cars leave full of people, covered in parking lot dust and the things people’ve written in it with their fingers. “I love Le Mans.”