The smell of camp fires, tinged with bacon, hangs in the air. The sun is just rising. But all is not quiet. Just yards from the lines of tents, full-blooded racing cars are hitting speeds in excess of 200mph out on a race track in pursuit of one of the biggest prizes in motorsport. This is the Le Mans 24 Hours, or the world's greatest race for anyone who speaks French, the 50,000 or so Brits who cross the channel each year to attend, and many more besides around the globe.
Le Mans stands together with the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 in prestige and mystique. No wonder they come together to form the unofficial triple crown of world motorsport. Only one driver, two-time Formula 1 world champion Graham Hill, has won all three, though Fernando Alonso has made a concerted attempt to emulate the Briton's achievement. The Spaniard added a pair of victories at Le Mans in 2018 and '19 driving for Toyota to his 2006 success on the streets of Monte Carlo, though he failed to win at Indy in three attempts.
Le Mans, like Monaco, is an anachronism. This endurance race for both purposed-designed racing machines and road-based GT cars is fought out on a track that combines public roads and permanent circuit over its length of eight and a half miles. If you proposed something like that today, you'd be laughed out of town. The event on a track known as the Circuit de la Sarthe, located just to the south of the city that gives the race its name, owes its place on the international motorsport calendar to its much-celebrated history.
Le Mans is now only two years shy of celebrating its centenary. Only world conflict and, on one occasion country-wide industrial strife in France, has prevented the race from going ahead since 1923.
At the heart of the Le Mans legend is what Brits refer to as the Mulsanne Straight, though it is correctly called the Ligne droite des Hunaudieres. This long drag, once the main route between the cities of Le Mans and Tours, has been a constant at Le Mans.
Today the straight measures slightly less than four miles and is interrupted by a pair of chicanes. On the foundation of the race, it was longer still. The original version of the track measured more than 10 miles and took the cars deep into the city.
Speed on the Mulsanne or the Hunaudieres remains key to unlocking a quick lap time at Le Mans. It was doubly so in the days before the straight was cut in three by the chicanes in 1990. The fastest speed ever recorded was a shade under 253mph, posted in 1988 a quirky French special known as a WM and built by a group of Peugeot engineers in their spare time.
Three years later, the French manufacturer was on the grid at Le Mans. It joined a long line of car makers, from Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Chevrolet and many more, to seek glory in the 24 Hours. They have been queuing up to race around the Circuit de la Sarthe almost since the beginning, to promote their name and showcase their wares. Then as now, the race at Le Mans is an automotive proving ground.
In the earliest days of the race, cars had to complete a prerequisite number of laps with their hoods up to prove their integrity. In the 1950s, Jaguar fined tuned disc brake technology on its successful C- and D-type racers of the 1950s. In more recent times, manufacturers have used the event to develop direct fuel injection, a new breed of clean turbodiesels and, most recently, energy-retrieval hybrid systems.
Today, Le Mans sits at the heart of the FIA World Endurance Championship. The event was on the calendar from the get-go of the original world series for sportscars that ran from 1953 until 1992. It was only fitting the organiser of the race, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, should play a central role in its revival and become its promoter.
Nearly 10 years on from the rebirth of the WEC in 2012, Le Mans in particular and sportscar racing in general is beginning what looks sure to be a golden era. The latest rulebook introduced for 2021 has created a new category of machine, known as Hypercar, to fight it out at the front of the grid.
Already signed up are Toyota, Peugeot, Porsche, Audi and Ferrari, as well as Honda's Acura brand and boutique manufacturer Glickenhaus. The position of Le Mans 24 Hours as one of the most important motor races in the world looks assured as it gears up to celebrate its 100th birthday.
Author: Gary Watkins has been writing about international sportscar racing — among other things — for nearly all his adult life, working for Autosport, motorsport.com, Motor Sport and others.. He's been lucky enough to have reported on the Le Mans 24 Hours no fewer than 30 times and to visit nearly 100 circuits around the globe.