The 24 Hours of Le Mans Lives Up To The Hype, As Always
Photography by Will Broadhead
It’s near 9:15 on Saturday evening, and I find myself staring at a cloud somewhere around the Indianapolis section of the Circuit de la Sarthe, willing the sky of amassed cumulus to part, gifting the 87th running of this grand race the proper sunset it so deserves, but my concentration on the sky is broken by the sudden quietening of engines brought on by the deployment of yet another safety car. It’s the third caution period inside the last hour, and I figure the drivers must be getting tired of it—hell, I am! Then it dawns on me, we are only a quarter of the way done…
24 hours is a long time when you’re awake for all of it, but it’s also not long enough. The ebb and flow of the minutes seems to be in a perpetual state of flux, despite the passing of time being just about the only constant that is present during the event (well, that and Toyota’s lead). Time stretches and skews, some hours pass by in the blink of an eye, whilst others seem to drag forever, and not because of boredom—there is simply no room for that during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the race presses on, we photographers, and I’m sure all those involved, are constantly recalculating how long we have for the tasks at hand, re-assessing and refreshing our weather radars to chase the light and constantly second-guessing whereabouts on the track we are going to get our shots. Or at least I am, but perhaps that’s because this is my first Le Mans, and I am climbing an incredibly steep learning curve.
Thankfully I have a guide in the shape of fellow photog Mark Timms to show me around and help me get the lay of the land. He’s been here a few times already, and whilst he would be the first to admit there are many out there with a far bigger back catalogue of experience, I’m glad for his help as I begin what will hopefully be a long association with this event.
Back to the race itself though, for I am in constant awe of it. I’ve done endurance events before and even covered the WEC at times, but this is different, this is its own entity entirely, and from the second you arrive you get a sense of the history and the very high regard this race is held in across the world. If concrete could talk, the stories that these old tribunes could tell would be thrilling, at times utterly tragic. The static elements of the circuit seem to be alive as I take everything in; the surface of the sections that will return to public road status on Sunday evening, the forests and their critters, they all radiate with a specialness they wouldn’t possess elsewhere. Just think, some of these trees have seen D-Types and 917s and R8s in the same lifetime.
Of course, the overall race win seems to be a foregone conclusion. You wouldn’t have needed to be a great prophetic talent to predict that Toyota would be on the top step of the podium come Sunday afternoon, and it would be easy to be cynical about this situation of one factory against a handful of much smaller budgets. But still, you need to finish, and it would be foolish to be under any sort of illusion that the task at hand was a drive through the park for the twin Toyotas. The two cars were split by a relative hair throughout the 24 hours, quite impressive considering the distance, but the really entertaining racing was happening in the “lower” classes.
Corvette Racing seemed to be in a good position to celebrate its 20th anniversary at the race with some fresh silverware, but alas, they were foiled by pit timing and safety car rules. With overtaking commonplace in the GTE Pro class, it appeared that it could have just as easily gone to Porsche or Ford than it eventually did to Ferrari. Though I look forward to the LMP1s’ hypercar-based replacements, one wonders if that field can match the slew of manufacturers competing in GT. Anyone who bemoans the lack of tread-to-tread action in Formula 1 could do a lot worse than to catch the highlights of Le Mans.
The crowd of course loved it, cheering every piece of overtaking action, and applauding with respectful admiration when teams who had worked on battle-damaged cars in garages during the race were able to push them out to re-join the melee, even when they had fallen many laps down the order. The spectators, too, were fighting their own type of endurance race, struggling to stay awake in solidarity with the teams competing, keeping the chill of the night out with all-weather sleeping bags as increasingly horizontal bodies peppered the banking around the Dunlop bridge, or retreating to their campsites for BBQs and perhaps the odd bits of snatched sleep as the cars relentlessly circled in the background.
Le Mans is a race that truly has it all. Exciting cars, intense racing, wonderful history, and a crowd that is as passionate and excited as any that I’ve been a part of. Add to that a time period across which anything can happen, heartbreaks and heroics alike, and you’ve got yourself a comprehensive set of ingredients that combine into the ultimate auto racing weekend. There are other 24-hour races out there, and other races with deep provenance, but there is only one Le Mans (even if there are technically two in this year’s WEC calendar). If you get a chance to go, you’ll find that the hype undersells the experience of being a live witness.