This Saturday, along with thousands of other Brits, I will be up all night. It would be hard to sleep anyway, with the sound of shrieking race car engines bashing my ears. For this is the week of the annual pilgrimage to the most famous motor race on earth. In company with some 125,000 other British car enthusiasts, I will be at Le Mans, awake and pumping adrenaline around the clock.
The race, which dates back to 1923, was memorably featured in a Hollywood film starring Steve McQueen. It is the pinnacle of long-distance endurance motor racing. It will be 24 hours of sleepless excitement, watching Audis, Porsches, Nissans, Toyotas, Aston Martins and other ground-hugging missiles screaming around an 8.5 miles circuit that for the rest of the year is mostly public roads.
The race’s famous ‘Mulsanne Straight’ occupies much of the D338 between the town of Le Mans and the nearby village of Mulsanne. This weekend, the race fans who flock to this corner of north-west France will be mesmerised by it, as we watch some of the fastest cars on earth scream along it at 200 mph. Outside of the mid-June race period, you can drive on it in your own family car.
The early hours of Sunday morning will find me, a bunch of chums and countless others wide awake in the middle of a French forest, watching the darkness being constantly pierced by bright beams of light whizzing past the trees as the cars fly by. There is a magical thrill in seeing brake discs glowing red-hot in the night as the cars plunge towards the Arnage bend. Yes, this is another Bentley car name that has been borrowed from the Le Mans circuit.
There is a strong camaraderie about the annual mass British exodus to Le Mans. This week, ahead of the race, the M2 and M20 motorways through Kent to Folkestone and Dover are heavily populated by be-stickered cars and motor caravans, wearing Union Jacks and assorted signs announcing their destination as ’24 hours du Mans 2015′.
Across in France, a steady steam of UK-plated Ferraris and Porsches, Astons and Lotuses, Audis and BMWs are on route to petrolhead heaven. In French villages all along the route to Le Mans, locals sit in deckchairs at the roadside to watch them go past.
What is the big attraction of Le Mans for so many Brits? It is one big party with an automotive soundtrack. A Grand Prix is a 90-minutes sprint; this is a twice-around-the-clock marathon.
Camping is the best way to enjoy it, with everything from modest tents to plush motorhomes cramming the campsites favoured by visiting Brits.This year is significant for many of the UK car fans who flock to Le Mans. The Brits’ favourite campsite of Maison Blanche, inside the circuit perimeter wall, is being swallowed up by development, turned into a Porsche Experience Centre like the one at Silverstone. So this will be the swansong of a long-standing tradition.
In keeping with the economy conscious times, even in motor racing, 11 out of the top LMP1 cars – the fastest category – will be hybrids. It will probably be a battle for victory between front-running Toyota, Audi and Porsche. It will take 24 hours to decide which team will be celebrating on Sunday afternoon.