John O’Mahony spends 48 hours at the world’s 24-hour race
THE burly, blonde barman, painted from head to toe in Smurf blue handed over the beers in large plastic beakers. Close by, what looked like a woman dressed as a dinosaur, waltzed between the rows of tables with a bearded man in a string vest, grabbing her a little too close for comfort.
At one of the tables, a topless guy was struggling to make an impression in an arm wrestling content, while in the next seat another of the party tried to stuff a foot long hot dog into the back pocket of an unsuspecting stranger, bun and all.
All around us grown men were covering themselves in a collage of heavy duty make-up as bystanders laughed and clapped along, eager to get in line.
Inside the massive marquee, the opening riff of Bon Jovi’s ‘Living on a Prayer’ sent the craziness up a notch and all at once, what seemed like most of Denmark, jumped on the tables, the whole place resembling a cross between a drunken, rowdy Euro Song Contest, Geordie Shore, and a Scandinavian version of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.
We had arrived at Le Mans. For a week, the oldest and most famous 24-hour race transforms the sleepy French city into the heaving epicentre of world motor sport — as much an endurance test for 400,000 fans off the track as it is for the skilled drivers on it.
We got a sense of the madness that awaited us hours earlier when we landed in Paris on Friday afternoon.
Optimistically we planned to make the 210km drive to the track in a little over three hours. Two-and-a-half hours after picking up the car, we had travelled 42km — city traffic bumper to bumper, the Sat Nav finding more devious ways of taking us off the beaten track.
When we finally arrived — close to six hours later — our path to the campsite was blocked by throngs of race fans. Lining both sides of the road like a scene from Mad Max, they rocked cars as they passed, spraying drivers and passengers in beer and water, baying for more wheelspins and donuts.
Safely inside the compound, we only had the crazy Danes to contend with. Our stamina finally waned shortly after 2am and we tip-toed our way through the mud back to the tent — dizzy and dazed — and nothing at all to do with alcohol.
The first helicopter circled overhead just after 6am. I was already awake — the disadvantage of camping with three others.
I packed the backpack and headed out into the dawn sunshine. Walking around, I began to get an idea of the scale of the site, and the realisation that this was camping — but not as I knew it.
At the top of our row of tents sat a white Audi R8, not far from that a Maserati Quattroporte, then a Porsche GT3, another Porsche, then another.
Two rows back, an Audi R8 V10, a Lamborghini, a Ferrari California, an Audi RS5, a RS6, a few RS7s, a black Mercedes C63 AMG, then a silver one, and a bright orange McLaren 675LT — to name but a few.
It was a playground for boys and their toys — very expensive toys.
Shortly after 7am, the turbo engines cracked into life, the guttural roar of the V8s rolling over the hills. I made my way to Porsche Curves to get my first glimpse, the noise building as the Ferrari 458s and Corvettes approached Arnage Corner, glided through the Curves, sweeping across the bridge and back towards the main grandstands. The warm-up had begun.
It’s hard to describe the noise at Le Mans — it’s constant, echoing around the 13-mile track, which circles the dozens of campsites.
After a while, you begin to distinguish the cars by the sound — the jet-like whistling of the hybrid LP1s, the angry growls of the LP2s, the rumble of the V6s and the thunderous burbling of the V8s.
Then there’s the music, the in and out of tents, the barbecues, the beer and food tents, the tyre burns, the car horns, the incessant buzz of helicopters overhead, the hordes constantly on the move, the traffic, the sirens, the thousands of tiny radios tuned into the track broadcasts, the sanitation trucks, the mopeds.
We headed on the 30-minute walk to the main grandstands at about 9.30am. The souvenir shops, beer halls, display stands, and corporate areas were already busy, with the start still hours away.
Tiring of the crowds, I headed to the paddock and working pits for a nose around. It was smaller than I expected — garage crews, suits, VIP guests, company types, groupies, gofers and paying punters fighting for limited space.
TV crews grabbed drivers for a quick interview. Models mingled and posed for selfies. Drivers fulfilled corporate commitments, and star-struck spectators tried to get a glimpse of a-listers such as Keanu Reeves, Jason Statham, Jackie Chan, Patrick Dempsey and the official race starter Brad Pitt.
Just before 1pm, we were herded through the gates for the famed pit walk — a unique chance to get up close and personal with the men and machines that would undertake the ultimate challenge.
I took a few pics, grabbed a few words with Cork’s own Matt Griffin who was lining out for Ferrari and then made my way back to the stands for the main event.
With an hour to go, the skies opened, but not even the rain could dampen the excitement.
Then the roar went up, and they were off — the 60 cars filing past the stands on the first lap of their 24-hour odyssey.
After an hour, we made our way to the hospitality area eager to soak up some of the atmosphere. But with the queues at the bar six-deep, and watery pints at €9 a pop, the novelty soon wore off and we wound our way back to the campsite and the welcome arms of our Danish compatriots.
Food sorted, we drew up plans. It was 7pm and there were 15 hours of racing still to go.
I headed back to Porsche Curves, eager to catch some more racing, but away from the maddening crowds. The lads opted for a few hours sleep, planning to get up in the early hours and sample the magic of Le Mans by night.
I lasted till about 10, didn’t really sleep, and got up again about 6am. The site was quiet, except for the continuous soundtrack of the cars circling the track. I grabbed breakfast at one of the 24-hour tents and made my way back to the embankment.
Some of the hardcore fans had stayed up all night. Others still slept, wrapped in waterproof blankets, oblivious to the din.
The regulars were lined up in their fold-out chairs, coffee pots on the go, long lens cameras and binoculars at the ready.
I joined them. Taking one of the spare chairs, I sat for a few hours and watched the ultimate test of man and machine unfold.
At 10, I started the journey home. The tram to Le Mans was empty. The silence unsettling. Outside, thousands were making their way back to the track for the finale. Back to savour the greatest roadshow on earth.
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