For those that don’t know, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the world’s greatest motor race. It is the only motorsport even on National Geographic’s list of the World’s Greatest Sporting Events, and it tops the list at #1. Teams enter the race by invitation, and push themselves as hard and fast as they can for 24 hours straight on a track that’s twice as long as most. It is a race of attrition as much as speed, as cars inevitably break down or crash, and limp back to the pits if they can, where team mechanics replace turbos, transmissions, or suspensions in as little as five or ten minutes.
There are other 24 hour races. There are races even longer than that. Some of them even on bigger, tougher courses. There are faster races. But none can match the history, prestige, and technology of Le Mans. Now in its 84th year, the top class of cars at the race are the most technologically advanced race cars in the world, and the most powerful running on road courses (eat your heart out, F1).
So there’s your primer. I knew all these things going in. And I had been to plenty of motorsport events before. But Le Mans is so massive, physically and symbolically, I quickly found that my normal approach didn’t really work. There’s not only the usual merch vendors to parouse, but big tents set up by the major players to check out their cars, temporary exhibits, the open pit-lane day, the drivers’ parade in downtown Le Mans, car shows in surrounding villages, a permanent museum, and an entire carnival. Plus of course the non-racing cultural sights to see in the city of Le Mans, if you’re into that sort of thing. There was always something to see or do next, aside from trying to get to the next vantage point to see the cars on track.
Getting to the next vantage point was no cakewalk either. The area around the main village and grandstands was easy enough to explore by walking, and had some nice views, but was two miles long. This area itself was two miles from my campsite. I had bought a parking pass closer to the village area, but depending on the traffic it could take literally an hour to get from place to place by car. (But it did give me an excuse to drive my car down Hunaudieres, a.k.a. the Mulsanne Straight, which was a fun racing nerd moment.) Getting to Arnage and Mulsanne was another two miles in the opposite direction, with the direct routes closed off (because they are part of the track). There were free shuttles running throughout, but between waiting for the next bus and the actual trip it always took over an hour to get from seat to seat.
Really, the way to get around is by bike, which you could rent for 25 Euro/day. But if you can ride a bike with a camera, backpack, tripod, and camping chair, you’re much more talented than I am. Maybe next time I should just buy all the parking passes. Or a helicopter.
So, even though it was a 24 hour race, I still felt kind of rushed trying to check out all the different views like I normally do.
On the other hand, my campsite was only a 10 minute walk from the Porsche Curves viewing area. When there was racing in the morning, it was fun waking up to the sound of the cars, then walking over to eat breakfast and get ready for the rest of the day as they were racing past.
But to be totally honest, I’m not sure that camping is the right idea. It was suggested as the “right way to experience Le Mans,” and I did it for that, and because I’d rather spend my money on die-cast models than hotel rooms given the choice. If you want to camp because you like camping, don’t camp at Le Mans. Le Mans camping is not like regular camping. Things do not quiet down after sunset, even when the cars are not on track. You are not in a pretty forested area with stars overhead. There’s no firepit for a nice evening campfire. It’s a densely packed village of tents and RVs, with people partying and carrying on at all hours. The low constant din you can sleep through (even the cars during the race), but the occasional 3 am fireworks will wake you with a start.
Le Mans is always an emotional experience for the teams from the sheer effort and exhaustion. Being there lets you share in that. Being around all the other fans reacting to the race amplifies it. It’s a little harder to track than at home, but the jumbotrons, live timing application, and free radio commentary (by Radio Le Mans, the best commentators in any sport) make it as easy as possible.
For the start there was a torrential downpour. It is said that “it always rains at Le Mans,” so I was ready for this with a covered grandstand. (This year it was more like “At Le Mans it is always raining,” with rain of various intensities for four of the five days I was there. Fortunately the rain at the race start was the last of it.)
This meant a safety car start, which eliminated any possibility of seeing the classic, hoped-for stampede of racecars coming under the Dunlop bridge. Never was I so disappointed by a safety-car start. As the safety car period drew on and on, for nearly an hour, even as blue skies appeared overhead, people in and around the stands started booing it every time it went by. It was fairly amusing. Eventually the field was let free, but it was a much more subdued moment than a proper start would have been.
After another hour or two in the grandstand, I moved on to the Mulsanne corner viewing area. From here you can’t quite see down onto the straight proper, but it is one of the track’s main passing zones, so there’s some good action to see.
Or you can stand down the road a piece and watch them power off on the high-speed run toward Indianapolis. Unfortunately I had to move on fairly quickly because I didn’t want to miss sunset at the Porsche Curves, and it could take me 90 minutes to make the trip.
My carefull planning and exploration paid off, because I made it to Porsche curves about an hour before what turned out to be a brilliant sunset perfectly aligned for some choice photos.
I had never shot sunset or night photos during a race before, and it was a fun learning experience figuring out the settings, techniques, and compositions to use. It’s definitely a challenge to balance the exposure with a setting sun in the background, or to get the focus and pan spot-on in the middle of the night, but very rewarding. It’s too bad there are so few events at which I can practice this sort of thing.
I relaxed there for a while (even setting my camaera down for 15 minutes!), just taking in the sights and sounds. At some point I got frustrated with spectator placement as I tried to get some shots of glowing brakes, and decided to move on. So I grabbed some dinner and caught a midnight shuttle to Indianapolis.
Indianapolis turned out to be my favorite viewing spot on the track. There were a lot of vantage points above the fence line (important for photography) to choose from, with a couple jumbotrons to watch the greater race. It was also another good passing zone, and the sights and sounds of the cars crackling and glowing on downshifts into a hard braking zone had an electrifying rhythm in the cool night air. I wish I had brought a chair and a case of beer (or Red Bull, as needed) and stayed there several hours longer.
But no, I had other photo-ops planned. I went back to Porsche Curves for a half-hour to do some poper night shooting with less pepole around.
…Then took a long walk back to the pit straight area to take in some of that atmosphere, as well as the sunrise. It’s amazing how long a walk it takes to cover the same distance the cars do in 20 seconds.
But the sunrise turned out to be a bit rubbish. Overcast skies made it dull and grey, and they didn’t let me into the good grandstand for it anyway. But I took a (2nd) ride on the Ferris wheel to watch cars from on high in the low light.
After a four-hour
sleep nap, I went back to my grandstand for the finish. By this point I had 4500 photos on my memory card, and didn’t feel a need for many more, so I just sat and took in the last of the race. With about 20 minutes to go, Toyota had a 30 second lead on Porsche with no more pit stops to take, so I left the stand to go find out how & where to storm the track (as is tradition).
This was easy enough to figure out, as I found a group of people starting to gather at a trackside gate. But as I was standing there waiting, the news started coming in over the radio commentary: “The number 5 of Kaz Nakajima is crawling down the straight, and the Porsche number 2, on the same lap, has caught it up.”
“Toyota has no power,” my friend Ian told me on my phone, whom I’d been chatting with for the whole week.
Oh no. Oh God! How could this be?!
I had been pulling for them for the whole race, and for four years before this. For five years they have been trying to become the 2nd ever Japanese winners of this race, trying to upset the Germans’ dominance in Audi and Porsche. They had come close many times, finishing 2nd four times in a row. This year they finally appeared to have the winning combination of speed, reliability, and strategy.
But. Four minutes left on the 24 hour timer. “Nakajima is COASTING on the run down to Indianapolis!” Me and people nearby holding our heads in panic, frantically searching for any way to see what’s going on.
“HE’S GROUND TO A HALT, AND HERE COMES THE PORSCHE!”
“IT’S COME TO A HALT AND TOYOTA HAVE HAD THE LE MANS 24 HOURS SNATCHED FROM THEM!”
“IN THE 84 RUNNINGS OF THIS RACE WE’VE SEEN NOTHING LIKE THIS!”
Utter, crushing disappointment for Toyota. A mechanical failure with 5 minutes left, literally 99% finished. Tears of despair from Toyota’s garage, tears of Elation from Porsche’s. Le Mans can be cruel. But I’ll worry about that later. I’ve got a track to invade.
Well that was worth leaving my seat for I reckon, even with that ending. After all, why be at Le Mans if you’re not going to do the customary track invasion?
After being part of the podium celebrations in pit lane (what a place to be), I walked off back to my campsite via the track itself, stopping at Parc Ferme on the way to admire the racecars, which look just as exhausted as everything else at the end of the 24 hours.
What an experience. I learned a lot for the next time I go. Buy Maison Blanche grandstand tickets, buy a paddock pass, watch from Indianapolis longer, leave for the drivers’ parade two hours earlier…I suspect there are many other secrets yet to learn as well, like maybe some secret viewing areas, or the trackside restaurants to get reservations at.
But that might have to wait. Next year I’m hoping to go to the Isle of Man TT races, the Nurburgring 24 Hours, and/or the Goodwood Festival of Speed, which all tend to happen in May and June. I don’t know if I could handle Le Mans as well.
This year’s race will be remembered more for Toyota’s loss than for Porsche’s win. The sheer crushing disappointment of the Toyota team is still haunting me. But I’m glad I was there for it.
For all my photos from the event, visit my Flickr Gallery.