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12 Reasons to go to Le Mans

8 Jun 2009

Being a petrolhead is enough reason to go, but Le Mans is about so much more than just racing. Richard Porter picks a dozen – chiefly booze-related – highlights

1 The drive down

It’s a road trip abroad, which is always great fun. Better than that, no other road trip on earth allows you to mix it with such an insane range of cars from the exotic likes of Ferrari Testarossas and TVR Tuscans to tweedy old Triumphs and knackered BMWs painted up in JPS colours.

The only conceivable downside is that just before the race weekend the French coppers appear to place recruitment adverts reading: ‘Wanted: More traffic police. Must have bad tempers and enjoy picking on the British.’

2 The camping

The sea of varied tentery is just one reason why Le Mans is basically a Glastonbury for car geeks, so it’s always worth taking a wander through the camping boondocks to admire the more outlandish and less sanitised living quarters. Amid the sea of makeshift canvas homes, expect to find several fully-stocked bars, surprisingly sophisticated TV and games console set-ups and much more.

You name it, someone will have carted it along and come up with an inventive way to power it. Either that or they’ve just filled a large paddling pool with beer and other alcoholic beverages and planted a massive flag next to it. Either’s good, and both are common.

3 Le Mans town on Friday evening

The town of Le Mans is a small distance from the circuit, but it’s definitely worth the trip for the famous Friday evening drivers’ parade and the small festival of tasty metal that circulates the streets at speed thereafter.

Alternatively, you could always go down to the Houx roundabout on Friday night, and discover what Armageddon would be like if it was started by complete bell-ends in cars. 

4 Classics racing on Saturday morning

It’s not all about the modern stuff at the 24-hour race. Saturday morning’s annual cavalcade of historic cars is roaring retro porn for petrolheads and the highlight of the event for many. That’s assuming you can be bothered to slither out of your sleeping bag in time.

5 The build-up to the start

As it gets closer to the main event, the air crackles with a strange and almost tangible excitement, like the thickly pregnant atmosphere before a storm, until finally the clock strikes four (or sometimes, including this year, three) and they’re off in an ear-drum-tearing cacophony of engine noise. Enjoy it while you can. When all the cars are diesel or electric you’ll miss not being able to hear yourself think.

6 Beer with motorsport

Unless you habitually watch the Formula 1 in your local watering hole, having a refreshing jar while viewing motorsport is a strange and rather pleasing novelty. It’s also one that might lead you to finding yourself at one of the merchandise stalls buying a retro Gulf jacket that will, in a more sober light, make you look utterly ridiculous. But then that’s all part of the Le Mans experience and it wouldn’t be the same without it.

7 The funfair

As night falls, what better way to watch the cars scudding through the chicanes than from the top of a romantically illuminated, elderly ferris wheel. And what better way to find out about France’s apparently lax health and safety regulations at the same time.

8 You might see Jay Kay

Whatever you think of the diminutive hat enthusiast’s music or his general demeanour, you can’t deny that he’s one of us when it comes to fast cars and motorsport.

And, unusually for a celebrity type, he doesn’t stick behind VIP lines. Jay Kay seems to like nothing more than vaulting the velvet rope and mingling among the civilians to get up close and personal with the racing action.

A couple of years ago he was even spotted out on some distant campsite, eating home-made chile con carne with a bunch of British lads during the race. Fair play to the little fellow.

9 Radio Le Mans

One of the joys of a 24-hour race is that you’ve got plenty of time to watch the racing from different vantage points. On the long walks between different spectator spots you can keep abreast of the action with Radio Le Mans and the excitable Mackem tones of commentary legend John Hindhaugh. Worth tuning in just to hear his voice (but not his enthusiasm) giving out towards the end of the race. He must have to lie down for a week afterwards.

10 The early hours of the morning

There’s a chill in the air and a faint growing light in the sky. It’s 3am and through a haze of sleep deprivation and lager you suddenly realise that the race is only halfway through.

With renewed respect for the drivers, you find a spot overlooking the entry to a corner and watch brake discs glowing, interspersed with periods of almost eerie silence. Later, you realise that you’ve fallen asleep sitting upright and spilled beer on the retro Gulf jacket.

11 The 6am coffee at Arnage

If you like your coffee so strong that you can stand a spoon in it, get yourself a cup of this. It will wake you up. Possibly for five days.

12 The finish

It’s been a long time coming. There have been highs, there have been lows. There may be some unsightly staining on your retro Gulf jacket. But it’s not about who won or lost; it’s about legging it as fast as possible down to the finishing straight to join the mass of people watching the cars come into parc ferme and cheering the drivers on the podium. Or maybe they’re just there to nick stuff from the pit wall.

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