The 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans is an experience unlike any other on the racing calendar.
I’ve been to several racetracks around the world, each with its own character and unique facilities, but if you had told me that I would one day get haircut at a racetrack, I would have asked you to share your dealer’s number. Yet there I was at the legendary circuit at Le Mans, sat comfortably in an old-school barber’s chair, having an earnest discussion with a guy called Paul, who wanted to know what I wanted done with my hair. If I’m honest, I didn’t really need a haircut; it was the sheer novelty of getting one while racing cars roared past just outside that made me gravitate towards that chair. Besides, the temporary barber’s shop (that has been set up inside one of Audi’s several arenas around the track) was so picturesque, and gave off such a retro vibe, that I almost had no choice but to make an appointment. Ultimately, I went with Paul’s suggestions of “a little off the top and sides, and perhaps a beard trim,” and was very satisfied with the results, especially the part when he applied some kind of peppermint unguent to my scalp; at first it felt like my hair was aflame, but this settled soon enough into a very pleasant tingling sensation that lasted a fair while. When I departed, I was convinced that I would no longer be able to attend a major racing event without having access to a top-notch barber.
The traditional barber’s shop set up by Audi at the racetrack
Even without this benefit, the 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans is an extraordinary event, the ‘world’s greatest race’, an experience unlike any other on the racing calendar. For one thing, it does exactly what it says on the cover – racing teams in four different categories blast around the track as fast as they can for 24 hours straight, with different drivers taking turns at the wheel, and the car that covers the longest distance after completing the final lap wins; it’s essentially the world’s fastest and most gruelling relay race. Significantly, the various categories of cars all race at the same time, and because there are major performance differences between them, drivers have to not only stay ahead of the fastest cars in their class, they have to manoeuvre around much slower cars, which isn’t as easy as it sounds – imagine having to simultaneously sprint your way past a bunch of cheetahs and gorillas, all of whom are also trying to outrun each other.
Since 1923, the event has attracted the most legendary names in the automotive world – Ferrari, Ford, Porsche, Audi, Toyota, Aston Martin, Bentley, Chevrolet and Maserati, to name a few – and a win at Le Mans (heck, even a podium finish) is considered the very acme of motorsport achievement. In this regard, Audi has built quite a reputation for itself at the event, having won it eight times from 2006 to 2014, becoming the first manufacturer to win it with a diesel-powered car. Le Mans has also been the site of some horrific crashes, given that the cars are capable of speeds of over 400 kph – in fact, the world’s worst ever motorsport accident took place here in 1955, when a crashing Mercedes-Benz killed 84 spectators and the driver. Motor racing is of course much, much safer now, but the risks here are still considerable.
2016 Drivers’ line-up
The other amazing thing about Le Mans is the level of audience participation. Thousands of racing fans show up here from all around the world for an annual pilgrimage, many of whom make it a point not to miss the race if they can help it. I met a doctor from Belgium who’s been attending like clockwork for 15 straight years – he books his accommodation for the next year when he shows up. I asked him what it was about Le Mans that made him come back unfailingly, and he thought for a moment before replying “It is unique in racing. There is no other race in the world where the spectators are made to feel so welcome, where you can interact with the teams and drivers, where you can pitch a tent right next to the racetrack and watch racing action all night.”
What he said was absolutely right, especially the part about it being a spectator-friendly event. Le Mans feels like it’s been set up for the fans, unlike the hugely snooty world of Formula 1, where attendees are almost made to feel as if they’re being done a favour. Almost the whole town shows up for the opening driver’s parade, a jovial affair held in the shadow of the town’s cathedral (Jackie Chan, who owns a Le Mans team, was in attendance this year, grinning non-stop). At the circuit, there’s something for everyone – souvenir stalls, food and drink, special exhibitions, joyrides and more – so it’s a family-friendly affair. If you manage to snag an invitation from Audi, you’re in luck – there are helicopter rides over the circuit, and a great go-karting race to take part in (Indian racing driver Aditya Patel blitzed the field, which included a former Le Mans winner who was not overly pleased at being beaten). The glamour quotient at Le Mans is invariably high – this year, Brad Pitt showed up to flag off the race, and Patrick Dempsey, Keanu Reeves and Jason Statham were there too. Dempsey, in fact, is a very accomplished racer himself, having finished second in his class at Le Mans last year.
The driver’s parade before the race
The go-karting track
Audi’s drivers on the podium
This year’s race was among the most memorable in the event’s history. The top three teams in the principal LMP1 category were Toyota, Audi and Porsche, and the lead changed hands several times over the course of the race, until it became clear that Toyota was well on course to win its first ever Le Mans title. With just three minutes to go, however, the leading Toyota slowed to a halt on the Start-Finish straight, a mechanical failure cruelly shattering the team’s dreams. The 2nd-placed car from Porsche (each team runs two cars) thus crossed the finish line for a totally unexpected win, with Audi securing a 3rd place on the podium; the other Toyota placed 2nd, but it was really no consolation to the team, which was left tearful and utterly devastated. In racing (as indeed in life), it isn’t over till it’s over, and Toyota was made to understand this in the most emphatic manner possible. The team has vowed to return next year, though, so if you’re a racing fan, you could do worse than to start making preparations for the 2017 edition of the world’s greatest race.