It's early Friday morning on the Le Mans weekend, and I'm on the start line, about to take Audi's finest for a spin. That the start line belongs to Brands Hatch rather than Circuit de la Sarthe and the Audi in question is an R8 rather and the R18 LMP1 racer is hardly a disappointment - I'm about to fire up and head under the sea towards my first experience of the 24 Heures du Mans.

After a short stint on the M20, the automotive delights begin at Folkestone's Eurotunnel terminal, where a large congregation of British petrolheads is assembling for a French pilgrimage. Among the minibuses and overloaded family cars there are McLaren MP4-12Cs and Ferrari 458s, and our party includes an Aston Martin DB9, its owner relishing the rare chance to exercise his car's GT credentials.

But it's another Aston that's weakening knees in the car park - an impossibly perfect light-blue DB5, all handsome curves, wire wheels, flawless chrome and creamy leather. It's an understated class act among the steroidal modern sports cars, built six years after Aston's sole outright win at La Sarthe when Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori took the DBR1 to victory. Aston is again a favourite in this year's GTE class for production-homologated cars (split into Pro and Am divisions) with the Vantage GTE V8.

France greets us with the grey haze we left in England, and the driving is similar, too: most of the 264 miles between Calais and Le Mans pass on motorway, but on this side of the Channel there are relentless autoroute tolls and countless gendarmes ready to swell your bill if you transgress with the throttle.

The Audi R8 makes a very easy cruiser, and we sit in sixth for the first few hours. Ours is an early V8 4.2 with the robotised manual R-tronic 'box, and we finally nudge it into sports mode on the rural roads that snake through rolling hills to our base for the weekend in the hamlet of La Chapelle-Saint-Fray, just north-west of Le Mans city. The R-tronic's shifts seem ham-fisted in comparison to the latest S-tronic R8, but there's something authentically racy about the way it slams into gear during full-throttle sprints.

Our Friday culminates with a visit to the drivers' parade in old Le Mans - a pretty enclave in the heart of this otherwise humdrum city. Despite the rigours ahead, the drivers seem jovial and relaxed in their vintage drop-tops, including Alex Brundle, part of much-fancied OAK Racing's LMP2 Morgan-Nissan driver lineup. From the banks of La Sarthe river, we follow the procession as it heads steeply up Rue Wilber Wright to imposing Le Mans Cathedral. The crowds brave some heavy showers to line the road itself and the bridges that cross it, and the drivers reciprocate with fistfuls of branded goodies launched into the verges.