Le Mans special: Part 1

June 26 2019
Le Mans special: Part 1

Second-hand Style, with Richard Cooke

I'LL open with a disclaimer: There are no car reviews in this month’s article and there won’t be any next month either. Instead I bring you a two-part special on the subject of one of the pre-eminent motor racing events of the season: the Le Mans 24 hour. For reasons that are not clear, Le Mans is almost totally ignored by the mainstream British press. If you pick up Autocar or other generalist motoring magazines it will likely get a mention, but you have to delve into Motorsport to find proper coverage. And that’s all after the event has finished. The Sunday Times managed a paragraph whilst the race was still being run a few years ago, but last year I couldn’t find any mention at all. And that’s odd, given that the race (which will have already taken place by the time you read this) attracts 250,000 people over one weekend in June. That’s twice the number of attendees that Glastonbury manages, and you can’t escape coverage of that mud fest. So this year I decided to go to Le Mans for the first time. I’ll let you know next month if you should make the effort in 2020.

Since 1923, Le Mans has hosted a race lasting 24 hours (non-stop other than to change drivers) around the 8 mile Circuit de la Sarthe. About 60 cars start, each with three drivers taking shifts at the wheel. In a good year, maybe 40 finish. Le Mans cars therefore have to be tough and efficient, as well as fast and agile. They have a roof and lights but the ‘LP’ class (Le Mans prototype) looks like nothing you will ever see on the road. Wikipedia can provide you with all sorts of trivia, which I must read before I go. The history, glamour and expectation is all quite exciting, although the thought of camping for three days less so – please no rain.

By the time you read this, starting on a Friday at ungodly o’clock, an old friend and I will have driven the Audi S6 from my April 2018 column, in strict observance to French Autoroute speed limits, from Calais to Le Mans. His 5.2l V10 is a good way to start any weekend, but it is quite different from the methods of transport taken by the last two members of my family to attend. My great-aunt Dorothy drove a 1 litre MG Midget at the 1937 race, finishing 16th with her co-driver Joan Riddell (just two drivers per car back then) at an average speed of 55mph. They drove the car to Le Mans, raced and drove back again. That’s her refuelling in the pits in this month’s photo. Note the total lack of any safety equipment. The last British female driver to race at Le Mans was in 1978, so we’re well overdue another speed queen.

The other connection I have to the race is the 1950 event, notable for being the first time Jaguar entered, rather unsuccessfully, with their new XK120. The conversation I had with my father about it very shortly before he died was fairly typical of his understated attitude to certain aspects of his life.

Me: “I’m thinking of going to Le Mans this year.”

Dad: “It’ll be busy.”

Me: “Have you been?!”

Dad: “Yes, in 1950. Bill (his brother) and I went on his motorcycle.”

Me: “You rode on the back of Uncle Bill’s motorcycle all the way to Le Mans?”

Dad: “No, of course not, we put the bike on the plane at Southend and rode down from Le Touquet.”

Me: “Ok, how did you carry all your gear? You know, your tent?”

Dad: “What tent? The plan was to sleep outside next to the bike. In the end some French people let us use their tent. Very nice of them.”

And that was all I got out of him. The details of that trip remain with him and my late uncle.

My upcoming experience of this year’s race will be very different, I know that, but it’s still cars racing round a track for 24 hours in France. I’ll report back with my own story.

Next month: Part 2