Motorsport events don’t come any more iconic than the Le Mans 24 hours, which is only a few years away from celebrating its centenary, yet still maintains much of it’s old school charm. This year, we joined 250,000 fans for a hot early-summer night under the stars in the beautiful French countryside to see what all the fuss is about.
All images © Andrew Balfour
I planned the trip too late to get any kind of reasonably priced accommodation near the circuit, so camping was my only option. Leading up to the race, I kept a close eye on the long-term weather forecast and it was going to be hot, no rain. That helped sway my decision; I would leave the tent at home and do Le Mans the old fashioned way, camping under the stars.
This was not an extended trip to Le Mans. I missed the parade in the town center and qualifying. I went for the race only. My Saturday morning train from Montparnasse station in Paris to Le Mans was fast and comfortable, taking less than an hour to cover 200 km. I arrived at midday, three hours before the start of the race. There’s a tram stop outside the train station, so I bought a return ticket and followed the other fans onto the tram headed for the track.
Thirty minutes later and I was already inside the circuit. I had chosen to print my General Admission ticket at home, rather than pay extra to get it sent by courier. I bought a race program, which was a bargain at 6 EUR and included several inserts with detailed maps, useful travel info and the entry list. It was already pushing 30 degrees Celsius and whilst my backpack was not huge, it still probably weighed at least 10kg. Travelling alone, I had no choice but to carry it wherever I went for the next 24 hours. Thank god for the free water taps around the circuit!
After finding my bearings, I decided to watch the race start near the Dunlop Curve. It was hot and dusty, and visibility wasn’t great. After the initial excitement had subsided and the race settled down for the long haul, I began to explore the spectator areas, starting with the popular area between the Dunlop Curve and Tertre Rouge. The latter was definitely my favorite place to watch the action. It was also good for photography (especially on the inside), with several elevated spots and views without the safety fencing.
As the sunlight began to fade, I walked through the village area at the back of the pits and down towards the Porsche Curves. Eventually, I found the shuttle bus area and took a bus down to Arnage. I didn’t spend too long there, but it was a cool area with some great vantage points, including some really close to the circuit.
I hopped back on another bus and took the scenic route along the pretty country roads surrounding the circuit down to the Mulsanne corner. Another iconic corner with good atmosphere, but night was falling and I had already pinpointed an area near the Dunlop Curve to bed down for the night. I took several shuttle buses back to the carnival area with the Ferris wheel, then stopped at the village for a drink. It was starting to get late, and more and more people were showing the effects of a long day of drinking too much alcohol in the hot sun.
I followed the action on the big screen for a while, then wandered slowly back to the Dunlop Curve after midnight as the second of the leading Toyotas retired. I found a quiet area on the hill and managed around 4-5 hours of surprisingly good sleep. I was up and about by 5am as the sun began to rise.
The early morning atmosphere was very special. I wandered up to Tertre Rouge, dodging the sleeping bodies and lost drunks looking for their tents, then walked through the deserted village, stopping along the way for a quick wash and change of clothes. Feeling better after a decent breakfast and a strong coffee, I watched the action at the Porsche curves for a while before escaping the rapidly rising temperature with a visit to the excellent circuit museum (free entry on race weekend.)
21 hours of Le Mans
I’ve got a confession to make. I didn’t quite make it to the end of the race. By midday on Sunday, I was hot, tired and a little worried about missing my train back to Paris. I’d covered plenty of kilometers and my feet were shot. So I decided to pack it in early and head for the center of Le Mans, where I found an air-conditioned pub with proper food.
I watched Porsche regain the lead and win the 2017 Le Mans 24 hours as I enjoyed my first cold beer of the weekend, before catching the 17:30 SNCF back to Paris. I would have loved some more time to explore the city, especially the old town. Next time. Would I return? Absolutely. But I’ll be bringing a tent or better still, getting my hands on a motorhome, and making a proper weeklong trip out of it!