Intersection: Tracking the past at Le Mans

Intersection-Magazine

After relieving himself under the shadow of a small oak tree, Etienne Moreau scurries back across a stony path, carefully avoiding the burning embers and smoldering beer cans from a recent barbeque, before unzipping the canvas doorway and rejoining his sleeping wife. Their kids are within earshot, comfortably entombed in the leather-lined cockpit of the Moreau’s black and gold Lamborghini Muira.

Doubtless, a Frenchman’s tent is his chateau. But, when you own a real, full-size, portcullis-and-all castle, what compels the likes of the Moreau family to swap it all for flysheets and undercooked andouillettes?

It’s 4am on the 25th of July, and the Le Mans Classic has now been running for 12 hours. We’re halfway through. In only its second year, the event has drawn classic car owners and fans from every corner of the globe. It has also drawn past Le Mans winners, including Johnny Herbert, Phil Hill and Jochen Mass, eager to relive the memories of their success. Each of the 384 cars entered had originally raced in the legendary 24 Heures du Mans. Rather than having all the entrants run for 24 hours, as is the case with its more famous sibling, the Le Mans Classic comprises six different categories, each with its own paddock, dependent upon the age of the automobiles: 1923 to 1939, 1946 to 1956 (France had other things on its mind between 1940 and 1945 – hence, no cars of that age are here this weekend), 1957 to 1961, 1962 to 1965, 1966 to 1971 and, finally, 1972 to 1978. Each category races three times over the course of 24 hours., with each race lasting roughly 1 hour 20 minutes. Category Four is out on the circuit at the moment. The first five places are all taken by Ford GT40s. They are as dominant today as they were back in ’65. It’s in the dead of night, headlights blazing, engines cracking, exhausts flaming, that you can feel transported back in time. In the grandstands, a few spectators watch the action in awe. Others, beaten by fatigue and without the luxury of a tent, cover their ears and scrunch their eyes tight, trying desperately to get some rest.

Down in the paddocks, the scene is much more tranquil and the drone of circulating V12s less noticeable. Those not out on track, or whose stage call is imminent, try hard to get some shut-eye. Many drivers lie unconscious on rickety camp beds alongside their mechanics and their beloved, valuable machinery. One crew member sleeps uncomfortably atop his quad bike. He awakes every ten minutes or so, checks his watch, shifts his balance, yawns, and goes back to sleep.

The Category Four paddock is a ghost town. Its inhabitants are all down in the pits, or out on track. Surplus tools and equipment are left abandoned untidily. One of the GT40s is left in its parking bay – dripping oil and unable to move. Silence is broken in the Category Three paddock. A Swiss Jaguar driver has a heated exchange with his mechanics, out of frustration with his car’s lacklustre performance, and his own tiredness. Nearby, two rival British teams argue over something and nothing. Again, fatigue is the culprit.

In need of forty winks ourselves, we go in search of available lodgings. Comfortable options are scarce. We settle on a thinly-carpeted floor, under a desk in the media centre. A jacket for a blanket and a press pack for a pillow.

Most spectators awake at 10am, and with it the character of the event changes. The temporary shopping village, selling mainly team clothes, models, books, paintings and auto-jumble, is now awash with human traffic. The hangovers from the previous night have mostly been beaten, save a few pasty-faced car club members. As lunchtime approaches, several race-goers head down to the Mumm tent for burgers and champagne, continuing their celebrations in civilized style.

Out on track, a temporary break in the racing allows Aston Martin to demonstrate a convoy of handsome DB9s to lucky VIP guests. Ford, Ferrari and Porsche also have an official presence here, along with a premium auction from Christie’s and a concours displaying Le Mans cars from the 1920s right through to the 90s. The heritage of Le Mans and these marques compliment each other and, with it, the daylight hours of the event take on a more corporate and formal atmosphere. Gone is the smell of burnt sausages, back is the smell of money. On the circuit, though, the burnt rubber chokes out competing odours, as the Category One drivers run from the grass verge at the far side of the start/finish straight to their waiting automobiles. They jump in, clip in, fire the engine and drop the clutch. For safety reasons, this is just for show, but the crowd loves it. As the field returns to line up on the starting grid, the fans’ excitement remains constant, even after nearly a full day of competition.

As one driver takes the chequered flag, he waves gratefully at his pit crew, who in turn give him a middle-finger salute. They’re knackered, and glad it’s all over. The drivers’ adrenalin acts as their personal fuel. They return to their paddocks energized. After his race, American Ed Davies springs from the seat of his 1933 Alfa Romeo 8c Monza, with a grin wider than his face. “I’ve never had so much fun”, he boasts. A large Steve McQueen Le Mans movie poster overlooks one of the garages. For many of these racers, it’s a virtual crucifix. It reminds them of why they are here: to emulate their heroes and live out their younger dreams.

Tagged ,