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Le Mans 2006 - an epic journey. Image by Audi.

Le Mans 2006 - an epic journey
Our annual pilgrimage to Le Mans was an endurance event for spectator and racer alike.
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Blood, sweat and tears; unreliability, heart ache and stamina are all part of a typical Le Mans weekend once a year. Oh, and there's a 24-hour race on too...

Such was my conclusion after spending the best part of three days at the 74th running of the highlight of the motorsport year, with barely enough sleep to cover two nights. You can't help but be carried away by the non-stop nature of the event.

This year, we piled into an Audi A6 Allroad and made for a mid-morning tunnel crossing at Folkestone. The early start and bleary eyes were soon forgotten at the sight in the Eurotunnel car park where Porsche 911s and BMW M3s were too common to notice and exotics such as a Lamborghini Diablo and TVR Sagaris drew crowds of onlookers and mobile phone photographers. With a smile on my face I steered the Audi on board the train and an hour later we were speeding through France.

I say speeding, but actually we stuck religiously to the speed limits, following on from more horror stories than usual regarding the French constabulary and their obsession with the actual speed limits. We were justified in doing so, instead observing queues of sportscars being stopped and the Gendarmes relieving the smirking drivers of piles of Euros. A friend of a friend of a friend (!) was apparently caught doing 134mph in his Renault Clio. Was it really worth 750 Euros?! Ouch.

Eventually getting to Le Mans, the traffic density increased and with it the quality of car spotting. Name an exotic car you'd like to see and odds are you'll spot one in and around the Le Mans circuit at this time of year. We found our camp site and sensibly put the tent up before any socialising began. By the early hours of the next morning we were quite glad of that...

Fresh from a sauna that looked suspiciously like a tent, the next day landed on my head with a bang as the unmistakable sound of race cars ripped the air to shreds. Panic set in, but no, we hadn't missed the start of the race...

If you've been to Le Mans in recent years you'll appreciate that the heat was unbearable by mid-day. Thankfully this year's race was delayed an hour to allow for the World Cup. The start-finish straight is the place to be for the very start of the race, where the roar of the racecars on a rolling start is nearly drowned out by the holler and whoops from the crowd. The various distinctive engine notes meld into one cacophony of power reverberating off the pit garages. Then almost silence for what seems an age and when the snake of cars next comes past, the Audi R10 TDI racecars have built up a lead over the local favourites, the Pescarolos and the rest of the field. A couple of hours later it is time to wander around the circuit and take in the sights.

These inevitably include thousands of race fans already drunk and/or sun burnt. An incredible 200,000 or so spectators come through the gates of the circuit each year and up to 80,000 of those come from Britain, the majority in their cars. Those numbers begin to give you an idea at the shear scale of the place, though it only ever feels crowded at the start and finish.

In ways, the area around the circuit and the infield are reminiscent of a music festival with lines of catering vans and badly maintained toilets included (and drunken/sun burnt men with beer bellies). This year, a huge stage was erected, to house The Charlatans in a free concert. By the time it has started, it is gone 9pm and though the cars have been tearing around the circuit for four hours already, it is sobering to realise that there are still another twenty to go.

As night falls, the number of spectators does reduce, but somehow Le Mans comes alive. The sight of the race cars flying past at speeds up to 200mph in the dark, with headlights blazing and brake discs glowing is like no other in the world. It matters little at this stage who is winning, though it is clear that Audi is the clear favourite, despite teething problems on its radical new diesel-powered racecar and the pace of the Pescarolo Sports.

Back at the campsite, the air is thick with the smell of barbeques and 'salad' is a dirty word. People are crammed into cars as the few designated drivers join the queues of traffic through the dark countryside to the furthest reaches of the 8.4 mile long circuit. This is where Le Mans diehards will spend most of the night, at Arnage or Mulsanne corners, where tired drivers often outbrake themselves into the gravel trap. Unlike F1 or other sprint races, just because a car is bogged down in the gravel doesn't mean it is out of the race. The marshals do everything they can to get that car back on the track, including using cranes and the crowd gives them and the driver a mighty cheer afterwards.

Despite the sleep deprivation at this stage, it is difficult to force yourself to go to bed so mesmerising is the view of the different colour headlights and the various distinctive engine notes. Watching the lights snake down the hill from the Dunlop Bridge at night is one of the most famous views in motorsport and I challenge anyone, race fan or not, to tear their gaze away from it.

Eventually tiredness wins and a few hours' kip are required. No such luck for the race teams though; few of them will get any meaningful sleep in a typical 24-hour race. In the morning, having been in bed for a few short hours it really is something to think that the race is still going on.

As the final few hours of the race count down, traffic snarls up once more as all 200,000 spectators attempt to find a decent vantage point to watch the climax from. At this stage the finishing order is usually decided and there are few surprises, with competitors separated by laps rather than seconds. That does not dilute the atmosphere though as everybody expectantly watches as the clock ticks away the final few minutes. Finally, the two Audis round the last bend and cross the finish line with an assortment of other racers keeping behind them so as not to have to complete another lap. The crowd has worked themselves up into a frenzy equalling that of 24 hours earlier and suddenly you feel like you could do it all again.

Shane O' Donoghue - 22 Jun 2006


2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.

2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.









    - images







2006 Le Mans. Image by Shane O' Donoghue.
 

2006 Le Mans. Image by Shane O' Donoghue.
 

2006 Le Mans. Image by Shane O' Donoghue.
 

2006 Le Mans. Image by Shane O' Donoghue.
 

2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.
 

2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.
 

2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.
 

2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.
 

2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.
 

2006 Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans. Image by Audi.
 

 
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