Welcome to the Le Mans 24 hours 2008. Most of Autocar’s team are here, joining the pilgrimage of British petrolheads who come in their thousands every year to witness motorsport’s most gruelling race. This year, organisers reckon around 70,000 Brits have made the trip. And we’re doing it properly too – camping out in Spay, which is a small town near the Circuit de la Sarthe, and we’ll be blogging on the race throughout the weekend to try to bring you a taste of the fantastic atmosphere that engulfs the entire event. Let’s talk about the start first, which has only just happened at 3pm local time. If there’s a finer sight in motorsport than a full bore Le Mans rolling start, I’m yet to see it. The enormous sound’s phenomenal; more varied and overwhelming than the shriek of an F1 grid launching.
OK, so the chief LMP1 contenders (Audi’s R10 TDI and Peugeot’s 908HDi) are near-silent diesel racers. But the raucous LMP2 and GT1 cars, like Aston Martin’s DBR9, and Chevrolet’s Corvette C6R are more than vocal enough to make up for it.
I reckon it’s a crying shame the drivers aren’t allowed to run to their cars from the pit wall these days, but the Le Mans field is so vast that by the time the lead LMP1 cars are hitting 240-odd mph on the Mulsanne Straight on lap one, the trailing GT2 racers are only just crossing the starting line.
As it stands – and we’re only half an hour in – the three Peugeot 908s are leading having got the jump on Audi at the start. Alan McNish’s Audi R10 TDI is fourth. Oh, and the British-run Lola 25 car in LMP2 class had the first accident of the day, careering into the barriers with Tommy Erdos at the wheel, but it looks like they’re able to carry on.
Right now I’m writing this in the paddock by the pit straight, perched in a quiet(ish) corner of Prodrive/Aston Martin’s garage, surrounded by towers of spare tyres, Gulf-liveried body panels and mechanics buzzing backwards and forwards. I think they’re wondering why there’s a bloke in shorts hanging around tapping away on a Mac, but they’re too busy to be bothered about me. It’s fantastic, how close you can get to the action at Le Mans.
Yesterday’s drive down was an entertaining experience. We borrowed a stunning Lotus Exige S for the journey and, not wanting to miss the Friday night campsite pre-race parties, stuck to the faster motorway routes all the way. Despite it’s lack of sound proofing, rear visibility or luggage space, our white Exige proved a surprisingly comfortable companion on the way down. Although noisy, it was far from unbearable, not least because the Lotus’ low-down bucket seats are snug but incredibly supportive.
The Exige also sparked plenty of animated conversation with other enthusiasts en route to Le Mans, which is a big part of the whole appeal for me, particularly on the P&O crossing from Dover. The ferry was packed with groups of car nuts, plenty of them already on the booze or in fancy dress, with designated drivers giving bluff chat about how quickly they intended to drive in France. Then some bloke rolled up in a fantastic Del Trotter-modified 1980 Bentley T2 (see picture), which was just hilarious.
Don’t tell the blokes on the ferry but in the end we had a pretty restrained cruise down to Le Mans. The French police were out in force. The Exige S’s relentless, raw shove of speed in sixth gear, although dangerously addictive, could only really be deployed when I could see far enough down the road to be sure the Gendarmerie weren’t hiding in the bushes. It must have been a bonanza day for them – most of them could be found tucked behind shrubbery with speed guns and outriders to catch the British hoards. A supercar trio – Aston DB9, Audi R8 and Lambo Gallardo – romped past us and were surrounded by rozzers on the hard shoulder a couple of miles later.
We’ve resolved to take the back roads on the way home to properly enjoy the Lotus. For now, we’re settling in for the night….