There’s nothing quite like Le Mans. And for the crowds of motorsport fanatics who travel from far and wide to enjoy the famous race weekend, the annual trip is as much about the overall event as it is the spectacle of the race. A regular visitor at the Circuit de la Sarthe, Anna Prescott gives us the lowdown on life at Le Mans as a 27-time attendee.
This June will be my 27th trip to La Sarthe for what is, in my eyes, the most fabulous race in the world: The 24 Hours of Le Mans.
My first Le Mans was back in 1988. I remember sitting in the front row of the ACO grandstand on the main pit straight, watching on as Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace brought home the No. 2 Silk Cut Jaguar – sealing victory for the team and ending Porsche’s seven year winning streak in the process. The crowd below us went into a frenzy, not least because my father and his friends were spraying champagne over everyone! My first experience of the race weekend was a good one. You could say I got the bug.
And I’m not the only one. Thousands of fans head to the La Sarthe region in Central France every June for their annual pilgrimage to Le Mans. Back in the day, our Le Mans experience used to begin on the Wednesday evening. We’d spend it walking around the pre-loading car park at Portsmouth Harbour, feasting our eyes on the old Bentleys and Bugattis. Over the course of the next few days, you would end up spotting these old beauties dotted around the villages through which the circuit navigates.
Thursday, of course, was track day. As the journey to the circuit progressed, the excitement would build as the back of the ACO grandstand came into view across the airfield. It was a sure-fire sign that we were nearly there, and I wasn’t far away from being able to pick out my favourite car for the weekend. Needless to say, decibel levels and paint job were the significant factors in this most important of decisions!
When my friends used to ask, ‘What did you do on holiday?’, they could never quite understand the appeal of days spent standing in bushes next to a Chinese restaurant at the Mulsanne straight, with the ground vibrating as Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes-Benz M119 5.0L Turbo V8 went screaming passed. I loved it! But the magic of these moments was lost on many.
Sadly, this is not something fans can experience as much as they used to – mainly due to safety concerns, but also due to some harsh green hoarding blocking the once priceless view. My advice? Don’t bother trekking out there unless you have a restaurant reservation – and even then, you can only really hear the cars! Of course, I understand that safety is paramount in motorsport, although why the organisers felt the need to knock down the old pit complex is beyond me. What, I ask, was wrong with hundreds of people sitting on ledges and dangling out of windows above a working pit lane? It all looked fine to me!
Nonetheless, the facilities for fans have definitely seen an improvement over the years, especially the toilets – Oh jeez, these used to be grim! Thankfully, the ACO has brought the circuit into the 21st Century. If you are not already a member, I would suggest it is worth joining the ACO. Not only can you get the best seats in the house – the ACO Grandstand on the main pit straight – you can also enjoy the ACO members’ areas around the circuit. These give you access to private terraces, bars, cafes, toilets and a discount off the purchase of merchandise at the many little Le Mans Boutiques. But, if you are not a member, don’t worry. You won’t starve or go thirsty. There are plenty of food and beverage outlets around the circuit, serving all manner of goodies… I do, however, miss the legendary ‘Chicken George’!
As for the teams, it seems they have finally cottoned on to the fact that merchandise is something fans are willing to spend their hard-earned money on. Us fans proudly walk around the circuit, demonstrating our loyalty to a given team for all to see. In the village area at the circuit, you can find all the big names: Porsche, Toyota, Corvette, Aston Martin and Ferrari, to name but a few – whose wares are available for everyone to enjoy. You can also purchase stunning artwork from artists such as Uli Ehret, as well as leather handbags, watches, t-shirts and the signature favourite of race fans around the world… model cars. There’s also a seating area with a large screen showing all the track action, so you don’t have to miss a second whilst you’re hard at work in the shops!
This year’s Le Mans will see two big changes. The first of which is the absence of the famous four silver rings: Audi. No longer competing in the FIA World Endurance Championship, there will be a noticeable hole to fill, not only on the grid, but also around the circuit as we will no longer see the continuous stream of Audi shuttle buses whisking in guests from the airfield, only to be greeted by the familiar face of Dr. [Wolfgang] Ullrich who beams back at you – OK, slight exaggeration – ‘studiously stares at you’ from the large screens. Audi, you will be missed.
But the biggest difference this year – at least for me – will be in where I watch the start of the race from. Indeed, 2017 will be the first time I will not see the start of the race from the ACO grandstand. Instead, I will be at the other side of the main start/finish straight, watching from inside the pit box of the #61 Ferrari 488 GT, of Singaporean team Clearwater Racing. I have the pleasure – I think I can still call it pleasure at this stage, although who knows what condition I will be in by 3pm on Sunday – of assisting the team with their social media presence during race week, which began for me with scrutineering in the Place de la République on Monday.
It will be a different experience, and one that I am looking forward to immensely. I do, however, wonder how I will cope without seeing the pack slowly crawl their way into view, headlights blaring and shimmering between the trees. My goose-bumps have returned just thinking about it!
At the end of it all, Le Mans is a race for everyone. Young and old, they come in their thousands for this, the endurance race of all endurance races. I love this place. Good and bad, it never stops delivering – just ask Toyota, whose heartbreak last year made memories for all.
And though many things have changed over 27 years at Le Mans, one thing that hasn’t is the passion from the fans. You simply can’t beat that! So here’s to No. 28… and I haven’t even gotten through this one yet!
Anna Prescott is one half of the motorsport news and photography website, Prescott Motorsport. You can find out more about Anna and her husband Adam’s work by visiting www.prescottmotorsport.co.uk, and by following them on Twitter @FromTheTribune.