Why I (nearly) love Le Mans

Next weekend the motorsport world will turn its attention to a town in the Pays de la Loire region of France. Roughly the same size as Oxford, the population of Le Mans will temporarily triple as a quarter of a million fans, along with countless retail, catering, hospitality and team staff, descend upon the Circuit de la Sarthe.CHAL Banner

I don’t hide from the fact that I’m a Formula One fan, even writing features on what Formula One has done for the road car in recent years (actually, it’s not much but I don’t like to admit that) but even I have to admit to being bowled over by a couple of statistics about the Le Mans 24 Hour race.

The race winning car at Le Mans is likely to cover around 300 miles more ground in this one race than a Formula One car will in an entire season of racing. At the same time, they’ll manage to maintain an average speed around 20 mph higher than F1 averages, and all the time they will use roughly 40 per cent less fuel.

Yes, you can argue that having a three mile long straight, even though it is now punctuated by chicanes, will help keep those averages speeds high, but it is still mind blowing stuff.

Despite ignoring all that in favour of Formula One, I was brought up watching the Group C race cars of the late 80s. Sitting on the outside of McLean’s corner at Donington watching the Sauber Mercedes cars pass by, the low rumble from their twin-turbocharged V8s vibrating every bone in my body, is still one of my clearest early motorsport memories.

There were the iconic Jaguar XJR race cars, the Porsche 962s, the simply awesome Mazda 787B, Italian style from Lancia, the red, white and blue Aston Martin and even a Nissan that you could buy in a road legal form if you were both rich and mental enough.

All this grabbed people’s attention, even at the height of the Senna/Prost years in Formula One. However, while F1 developed and became the most watched world championship, Group C race cars were soon banned from Le Mans and the entire series waned away slightly.

Toyota TS020 Le Mans 2013 FrontThere is no doubt that the sport has had something of a resurgence in popularity in recent years though, with Le Mans remaining the natural highlight of the year. While there may be empty grandstands at the races held at Silverstone and Istanbul, Le Mans seems to be on an unstoppable growth spurt, its prevalence possibly even hindering the day-to-day race series.

The rise toward legendary status is led by a number of things, although the 24 hour bars and easy camping might sway some fans, as might the strip club that sees girls taking their clothes off for 24 hours non-stop (although I’m not sure how, surely it shouldn’t take much more than five minutes?)

One thing that does lead that rise is the technology. Now, Formula One has all sorts of trick bits hidden away behind the curvy carbon fibre skin, but they don’t have to last more than 90 minutes at a time. The Le Mans racers then look to more practical developments, such as making turbo diesel engines work in the harsh racing environment.

They don’t have the eardrum-smashing, migraine-inducing, mechanical scream that comes from F1 but, just like the transformation sound in the new Transformers movies sent me back to playing with the Tracks Autobot on my bedroom carpet in 1985, the lower octave rumble coming from the LMP1 cars takes me straight back to McLean’s corner at Donington Park in 1989.

While Formula One has recently turned in to a tyre preservation championship, with a sideshow of fuel economy runs removing any remaining excitement, Le Mans has more racing than you’d have any right to expect. In 2011, and after 23 and a half hours racing, Audi’s Andre Lotterer was leading the Peugeot of Simon Pagenaud by just 6.7 seconds. Fires, flying cars, crashes and collisions made their mark on the entire race, but these two got through it all to be just a handful of seconds apart.

Elsewhere there have been developments such as high-beam halogen headlights, new wiper-blade technologies and that development of diesel power. Now there is progress being made with hybrid technology and futuristic developments such as radar-powered predictive rear view mirrors. The sport continues to evolve in a manner that offers tangible real-world developments, something that F1 could learn from.

Finally, there’s an atmosphere you won’t get at a Grand Prix. Throngs of families enjoy a weekend away together, young children in ear defenders jump up at the fences, well heeled British race goers camp in muddy fields next to their supercars, all thanks to ticket prices that don’t require mortgages.

It seems like game, set and match to Le Mans, but there’s been just one reason why I’ve still not fallen back in love with the sport though. Audi.

Since 2000, Audi has won 11 times. You could argue it’s 12 wins, as Audi’s sub-brand Bentley won it in 2003. Only in 2009 did Audi allow anybody else to win, with a lengthy pit stop putting the German team behind.

This year their diesel-hybrid R18 e-tron is facing competition from Toyota’s petrol-hybrid TS030. For purely selfish reasons, I’ll be cheering the Japanese team on.

[button link=”http://www.contracthireandleasing.com/car-leasing-news/why-i-nearly-love-le-mans/” rel=”nofollow” color=”orange”]This article was first published at ContractHireAndLeasing.com on 18 June 2013.[/button]

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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