Misty rain sprinkles the ground as headlights blink in the darkness. A cacophony of sound and vision as a blur of colours flash past at over 200mph. Le Mans is mystical but it’s also legendary and the iconic French endurance race celebrated its 100th anniversary in sublime style.
It’s not just petrolheads that have been wowed by its charm with Hollywood entranced by the unique event with two films already hitting the silver screen and star-studded appearances from icons such as Steve McQueen and Patrick Dempsey. The race is a cornerstone of the local community. Every businessman and local is talking about it and there’s plenty reason to see why. Sarthe Tourisme estimates around 300,000 people attend each year with a massive £86.5million (€100m) contributed to the economy.
I arrived in Le Mans for my second visit, having made the pilgrimage back in 2018. However, from the outset it’s clear the 100th edition of the event first held in 1923 will be different.
From Thursday night the atmosphere is electric with the Plantagenet city bursting at its seams. It’s a mood which carries over to the circuit for Friday’s 100th-anniversary parade with packed grandstands enjoying a dazzling time portal of machinery.
Everything from the first winner (1923’s Bentley 3 Litre) to last season’s Toyota TS030 hypercar is on display including models immortalised on the silver screen. The Ford GT40 which eclipsed Ferrari in 1966, the basis behind Matt Damon’s ‘Le Mans 66’, is one of the standout models on display. Meanwhile, the Porsche 917K, made legendary in McQueen’s 1971 ‘Le Mans’, is a clear fan favourite as its flat 12 engine screams past. Another rare treat was racing royalty Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx replicating the famous Le Mans start not seen at the Circuit de la Sarthe since the turn of the 1970s.
Keen to rest after a busy evening exploring the concerts, stalls and bars on offer trackside, we arrive at our home for the weekend. Travel Destinations Glamping is quite a walk from the main fan hub but is well worth the trip for something a little bit different. Located on the outside of the tricky Porsche Curves corner, visitors get access to their own private viewing balcony which offers stunning views across one of racing’s most challenging corners.
Inside the spacious bell tents are two single mattresses (they can be pushed together to create a double), pillows, blankets and towels. A solar-powered charging station proved a lifesaver while a padlock also left me at peace of mind to leave valuables while I was out.
The smaller size of the campsite meant there was little queue for hot showers or the sink which provided welcome relief after a long day. Food is also available from a hospitality marque open from early morning until late at night and sells breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as hot and cold drinks. The menu has plenty of options for all tastes and the Full English and Continental breakfasts were a perfect start to the day. But the meals can be quite pricey (over £10 each) with many of our fellow campers opting to bring their own.
The glamping site is Travel Destinations’ second tier option with traditional camping and a lucrative Flexotel also available. These offer individual huts with lockable doors while you can pay more for your own wash facilities and even a TV.
But, these added luxuries will set you back with a Flexotel almost £800 more than the other two packages. Charles Bruner, Business Director at Travel Destinations said: “We started very much in the arena of a few tents, a barbeque and just being really nice to people and letting people have a nice time. We then kind of said how amazing would it be to have a hotel room inside the circuit and nothing like that existed at Le Mans. So we said, ‘okay, can you actually build a hotel inside a circuit in a parking lot in the space of three days before the race, can it be done?’ The answer is yes it can be, it’s super hard but we’ve worked out a way to do it.”
Another highlight of the trip was the 24 Hours Museum located just metres from the start line. A special centenary exhibition gives fans a chance to get close to almost every winner of the 90 editions to date. This is a ‘warts and all’ look at racing cars with the dirt still lathered on the sides of recent winners. It gives a rawness not found anywhere else and is a must for anyone attending the race.
The race duly delivers with one of the greatest 24 Hours in living memory as Ferrari and Toyota give us a treat for the ages. Endurance races can often be decided hours before their conclusion but the two teams kept up the excitement right until the dying moments. Rio Haryanto’s spin at Arnage with two hours to go ultimately signed the death knell for Toyota’s chances with Ferrari clinching a famous win over 50 years from their last. The crowd runs onto the track, the taste of champagne dripping onto their lips. A toast to one of motorsport’s finest events.