There are many famous races but here’s why the 24 Hours of Le Mans tops them all

Nine cars finished on the lead lap, and that after 24 hours of racing. Picture: Supplied.

Nine cars finished on the lead lap, and that after 24 hours of racing. Picture: Supplied.

Published Jul 3, 2024


It’s not just a race, it’s an occasion.

It’s also not a two-hour Grand Prix but a full 24 hours of non stop action on the track and very much also off the track.

There have been many movies, documentaries and reputations made and lost as millions are poured into trying to be called the 24 hours of Le Mans winner.

The scale of the event is difficult to comprehend.

It’s a massive sensory overload that we had the privilege to experience as guests of Toyota South Africa to see the two Toyota Gazoo Racing Hypercars fight it out for honours.

It’s a week-long production with various activities around the track and town, culminating in the drivers’ parade through Le Mans on Friday where literally thousands of spectators line the streets with the biggest cheer reserved, obviously, for the French Alpine Hypercar drivers, accompanied by a string of Alpine A110 sports cars, before the main event starts at 4pm on Saturday.

Fans were treated to a nail-biting race. Picture: Supplied.

It’s difficult to comprehend how organisers manage to put together the logistics of coping with more than 300,000 spectators that converge on the track.

Still, things run smoothly with courteous police and volunteers directing you to parking and wherever you need to be.

And from there you become a staring toddler, seeing the famous ferris wheel, the thousands of people in queues waiting for transport to the entrances, million-rand supercars parked in the field and, of course the campers standing around eating croissants and drinking coffee.

Seeing Porsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, basically every exotic car you can think of, with two-man tents pitched next to them, reminded me of weekends at Kyalami with my grandfather and uncle, albeit a little less glamorous on the back of a Toyota Dyna four-ton truck.

With a history as rich as that of Le Mans and its iconic cars, drivers and manufacturers, the museum captures that perfectly.

It’s a long walk to get there, in fact getting anywhere is a long walk as you can imagine, with a 13.6km long track.

It’s a collection of key personalities, cars and drivers since the first drivers ran to race in 1923, including a room displaying Matchbox-sized replicas of every car and winner.

The museum contains a sensory overload of historic gems. Picture: Willem van de Putte.

The highlight is obviously the actual cars through the ages, including Ferraris, Ford GTs, Jaguars, Mazdas, Renaults, Porsches and today’s hypercars standing side by side with classics from the 30s, 40s and 50s.

You can only marvel at the insane speeds those drivers were doing, without so much as a seat belt, with a leather helmet, glass goggles and narrow cross-ply tyres with rubber tubes. Add to that open cars belting around the track in the rain.

And that was before 1990, when they put in two chicanes in the famous six kilometre long Mulsanne straight!

Only when you get up close to the cars, having to battle your way through throngs of people, Samba bands and clowns on stilts during the gridwalk, do you get an idea of the technology today’s cars are fitted with and that’s not just the hybrid Hypercars but so too the LMP2 and GT3 classes.

With the obligatory La Marseillaise, fighter jets flypast and French soccer star Zinedine Zidane dropping the flag, the side shows stop and the scream of engines dominates everything for the next 24 hours.

I was under the impression that because of the length of the race, perhaps the cars would keep things a little under maximum but that’s not the case. They are driving full tilt from lap one, pushing everything to the limit. Every second counts.

Le Mans welcomes 300,000 fans each year.

A visit to the Toyota Gazoo Racing garage gave further insight to what happens behind the scenes.

Apart from the 30 sets of tyres used per car, 90 litres of fuel that lasts only two hours and the constant activity, there are three sets of carbon fibre replacement panels for the cars, a fully fitted high-tech workshop and a container with every possible spare part that may be needed.

The three drivers get about one to two hours of shut-eye between shifts, before they sit with the race engineers to analyse the thousands of gigs of data gained from a room with four rows of manned computers connected to sensors on the car that monitor and analyse everything that’s happening in the car. And when I say everything, I mean everything.

That’s during the race.

When the chequered flag drops and the air becomes silent, the cars go back to Gazoo Racing HQ in Cologne, Germany and are completely stripped and analysed microscopically. A far cry from the days of mechanics in oily overalls and a Gedore tool box.

Seeing it on television or through an onboard camera gives you a glimpse of the track but a bird’s eye view, literally, in a helicopter, provides a proper perspective of the scale and size of the track, the stands filled with spectators and people snaking their way around.

Talking of snaking your way around, I reckon I must have received a step top-fan badge from Discovery as we traipsed around taking in all the sights and sounds.

Stalls with every manner of merchandise, manufacturer areas, food, drink and beer (lots of it) stalls are full-up as you can imagine, with 300,000+ people that need sustenance. We also didn’t see any staggering drunks or fistycuffs, which when you’re paying €300 (R5,960) and up for a ticket probably means you’re there to watch and interact, not show your UFC skills.

And as the sun sets, Simple Minds kicks off their concert in the Fan Zone.

Moms with babies on their hips, teenagers bopping to Promised You a Miracle and Alive and Kicking and old farts like me that grew up dancing to them in clubs and dodgy bars singing along, takes place all the while with the constant drone of the cars in the background, as the drivers go hammer and tongs.

By 10pm it starts to get dark, throwing in on-and-off downpours, a safety car or two and it really gets even more interesting. Do they back off? No siree, racing drivers are made of sterner stuff than mere mortals.

Arriving at our hotel in the early hours of the morning for a few hours of sleep, it’s surreal to think that when we returned to the track after coffee and a croissant (what else), they were still at it and had another seven hours to go!

We’d made the call that if it looked like it was a runaway forgone victory, we would leave half an hour before the end to avoid traffic to get back to Paris.

Right. That was never going to happen.

With Toyota Gazoo racing and Ferrari changing the lead, up each other’s tailpipes getting shunted off the track, tyre changes, fuel top-ups and driver changes, a nail-biting last lap with the Toyota #7 chasing down the Ferrari with its fuel rapidly evaporating saw us on the edge of our seats in the Michelin hospitality area.

With 1% left in its tank, the Ferrari streaked across 14.221seconds ahead. In fact nine cars finished on the lead lap, and that after 24 hours.

With Simple Minds on the shuttle’s stereo in the background, Paris five hours away and time to absorb and reflect on it all, there may be other famous races and there may be Monaco but the 24 hours of Le Mans tops them all.