This Is As Close As It Gets To Watching Steve McQueen’s ‘Le Mans’ In Real Time
Photography by Jayson Fong
For many, the best way to rewind the clocks and experience the drama of racing in the 1960 and ‘70s is to sit down for a viewing of Steve McQueen’s Le Mans. If you haven’t already seen it then you are certainly missing out on some of the very best views of motorsport from the time, especially considering a material amount of it was shot during the race itself. Although it is hardly a film that captivates with its incredible storyline or deeply realized characters, it has a simple and more effective mandate: depict racing in its true form.
It’s a cult classic, a well-worn VHS in many households, and it has played a significant part in helping to glorify the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. However, for those who prefer a more hands-on experience, the Le Mans Classic earlier this month saw almost 80 stars of the film’s era roaring to life on the Circuit de la Sarthe, offering the perfect alternative to a weekend sitting on the couch regardless of what’s playing.
As it turned out, it was quite a few people who preferred this alternative, and the crowds braved the heat to catch a glimpse of a grid made up of cars like the iconic Porsche 917 (including both 917K and 917LH versions) and Ferrari 512s, to the thundering V8-powered Ford GT40s, Chevy Corvettes and Lola T70s. Captivating spectators with some of the most beautiful cars ever designed for competition, from a time before momentous leaps had been made in the area of aerodynamics and large amounts of horsepower were largely the solution to everything, the grandstands were packed full for every session of Plateau 5, leaving no doubt that the on-screen stars of McQueen’s film were also the stars of the Le Mans Classic.
Lit up by a spectacular golden sunset during qualifying, I took a moment to fully appreciate some details from the tail end of the truly analog era in the pit lane, to the backing track of high-compression, high-power engines. Highlights included the incredibly innovative Howmet TX (pictured below), the car powered by a helicopter turbine (producing 400HP in a machine weighing 750kg), and the Porsche 917LH which featured moveable horizontal wings on the rear bodywork which provided increased stability in high speed corners, surely one of the earliest functional adjustable aero designs. As drama unfolded in the pits with teams rushing to work on minor adjustments and tire pressure changes, I couldn’t help wishing I had been around for the real thing in the very same place 50 years earlier.
Rushing into the night, I catch the grid as they enter the Porsche Curves and the famous series’ sequence of technical and high speed corners. Together as a formation with headlights ablaze, over 80 historic cars cascade towards the start of the race—an impressive sight to behold in the absence of noonday sun that covers most vintage racing. Later they attack the curves under green, giving the throttle a blip before snatching the lower gear as their brakes glow red hot. With the sun peeking over the horizon, the faint light brings back memories of some of the film’s most memorable scenes.
As if to complete the romantic and glorified image we have of this era of Le Mans, a red sunrise brought a new day to La Sarthe and a spectacular view as the silhouettes of legends glided down the hill from the Dunlop Bridge and on towards the Mulsanne Straight. Despite the status of the film today, the experience of watching the real cars at the Le Mans Classic takes nostalgia to another level. With a visit to the event being the only real alternative to McQueen’s masterpiece when it comes to this generation of sports car racing, I know which one I’d pick.