Situated 200km south west of Paris, Le Mans is a relatively quaint and picturesque little French city with one heck of a rubber-burning twist.
Once a year its population practically doubles as more than 250 000 motor-heads converge around its 13.6km Circuit de la Sarthe for the Le Mans 24-Hour endurance race.
Although the race lasts exactly a day, this year’s edition kicking off at 3pm on Saturday 16 June, I’m going to be subversive here and rename this event the Le Mans 48-Hour.
It’s so much more than just a race.
It’s a 48-hour shindig of epic proportion. When I arrived on the Friday afternoon as a media guest of Nissan, the circuit grounds had already attained tent-city status and a hugely festive, beer-drenched atmosphere. The streets were literally littered with exotic cars - from modern supercars to classics and everything in between. Not to mention a glut of less rare performance machinery doing burnouts along streets lined with cheering spectators.
But the real pomp and ceremony was in the town centre later that afternoon. After following our hosts back onto a tram, packed in a way that would make SA’s minibus drivers gawk in astonishment, we found a stretch of road lined with fans and bustling to the sound of trumpets and thunderous engines, with appearances made by everything from vintage Mercs to Pagani Huayras and the actual Le Mans racers that pulled us to this corner of the planet in the first place.
The next day it was time to focus on that actual endurance race and the car on everyone’s lips was one that technically wasn’t allowed to race for position because it’s just so radically different as far as conventions, and race regulations, go. From its ‘sinister eye’ headlights on that narrow front end to its jet-tail fin on the wide back end, the Nissan DeltaWing is the Batmobile of Le Mans racers. Yet the real talking point is beneath the skin. This Nissan weighs just 550kg, making it 350kg lighter than an LMP1 car and meaning its 1600cc turbo engine can afford to be a dwarf among its peers.
Yet while Nissan was proud to show off what it sees as a super-aerodynamic and efficient new blueprint for the Le Mans of the future, it wasn’t the only race car on an economy mission. The most prominent LMP1 cars were hybrids, with two of Audi’s four V6 turbodiesel R18s and both of Toyota’s 3.4-litre V8 contenders assisted by electric motors .
Granted, there was no shortage of traditional V8 petrol-guzzlers in the LMP1 and LMP2 classes and I’m happy to report that these still scream loud enough to have most spectators scrambling for their ear plugs within the first few laps. Hearing these engines pop and crackle at full speed down a straight is a bucket-list moment, which is why I actually felt a little eerie when I heard those LMP1 Audi e-tron TDI’s whoosh past so quietly, giving me a bleak premonition about the future of motorsport.
When the Audis flew by I’d think, “hmmm… that’s a really smart piece of engineering”, but when a traditional V8 thundered past there was little to think about as the noise reverberated through my soul.
Same goes for the GTE road car brigade in which a generous helping of Ferrari 458’s, Chev Corvettes, Aston Martin Vantages and Porsche 911’s provided more spectacle than an optometrist while also making life more interesting for the LMP1 cars that were constantly playing dodgem to lap them.
The Nissan Deltawing might not have challenged the front runners, but I did see it overtake GTE cars and it was a sad moment when an accident forced it to retire seven hours into the race.
Some teams faced even bigger drama. Just as Toyota’s No.7 LMP1 car took the lead with Nicolas Lapierre at the wheel, Anthony Davidson’s No.8 Toyota collided with the Ferrari it was busy lapping. The Toyota went spectacularly airborne and destroyed itself against the barriers but thankfully its driver escaped with only two broken vertebrae.
Bad then went to worse for Toyota later on when engine failure forced the team to retire the No.7 car.
Yet as Toyota experienced a sad ending to its first Le Mans effort in 13 years, and a stellar one at that, lady luck belonged to Audi, which celebrated a 1-2-3 victory at 3pm on Sunday, with the Lotterer/Fassler/Treluyer trio bringing the first-ever hybrid Le Mans winner home ahead of McNish/Capello/Kristensen and Jarvis/Bonanomi/Rockenfeller.
Within hours, the city of Le Mans had an eerie calm about it.