One of the highlights of my year. 56 cars and a combined 30,000 horsepower blasting by me only feet away.
The Le Mans Start.
It’s always a little different at Le Mans. For starters, fans are still treated like fans, not as walking wallets like at Grand Prix. You also get more racing in 24 hours than over an entire Grand Prix season. You get it without feeling like you might as well just turn up, throw your wallet over the security fence and go home.
Eevry year since 1923 (barring war, civil unrest and economic disaster) the people of the city throw their town wide open. In fact, so many come from all over the world that the population triples during race week. Day to day, you’ll find around 150,000 people living there. In race week you’ll find the best part of 500,000. And at 3pm on the Saturday afternoon most of us are sat, beer flowing, flags waving and airhorns tooting, awaiting the latest chapter in motorsport history. Some are there just to party, some are there just for the racing, most of us are there for a little of both.
The ‘Circuit de la Sarthe’ has changed many times since 1923. Safety concerns, increasing speeds, local building projects and, sadly, the ‘Le Mans Disaster’ of 1955 (still motorsport’s worst-ever accident) have all forced innovation and change. But the atmosphere at the start, as the noise of the crowd builds along with the anticipation, as the relentless sun beats down or we sit soaked to the skin by yet another downpour, never changes.
The announcers are chattering. The national anthems of every race team and driver are playing. The smells of burnt rubber, brake fluid, racing fuel, cigarette smoke and sweat hang heavy in the air. The tension builds along with the temperature or the downpour depending on which we’ve got this year. It builds, feeds on itself like a cloud forming. And it builds. And it builds. Right up until engines roar, ears ring and eyes water at the sudden smoke and deafening racket. The cars are off on their formation lap. The old ‘Le Mans start’ where drivers ran over to their cars, jumped in and sped off without seatbelts or safety harnesses, is long gone. But the tension and anticipation always remain, fierce and undiluted.
There’s a cheer as the cars head of down the pit straight, head off in the wheel-tracks of the legends, of Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, Phil Hill and many greats. Some are still remembered, some long-forgotten. But here, briefly, even the least-famous racers live again in a welter of smoke and noise as the annual cheer swells, rises and falls among the crowd.
We’re almost there.
It’s almost time.
If you pick the right spot along the pit straight you can see the cars as they approach. See them sliding through the Porsche Curves, hear them jazz their engines, hammering past the pits under the world-famous Dunlop Bridge,into the Dunlop Curves, smell burnt fuel and rubber as 56 cars and 30,000 horsepower obliterate all else for just a few seconds.
Then it’s over. The race has begun. As the euphoria fades a brief pang knifes through me. I’ve waited an entire year for these few seconds. It’ll be another year before I feel this again.