Le Mans leaves you wanting more

In the end, it was Audi’s Vorsprung durch Technik (Advancement through Technology) putting the boots to Peugeot’s Motion&Emotion as the newly enhanced R15 TDI cars finished first, second and third at the 78th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The French automaker (winner in 2009) and its faster 908 HDis couldn’t sustain their pace and succumbed to various mechanical ills.

The victory was special to Audi in more than one way. First, all three diesel-powered R15 TDIs entered by Audi Sport Team Joest surpassed the 39-year-old record distance — which was considered by many to be unbeatable — achieved by Porsche and its fearsome 917 in 1971 when Le Mans’ Hunaudieres Straight had no chicanes to slow down the cars. The winning car, driven by Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller, celebrated victory by completing 397 laps of the 13.63-kilo-metre-long circuit. Secondly, it was Audi’s ninth victory in 11 years at Le Mans, tying the automaker with Porsche in number of wins (and second only to Ferrari’s 16.)

That’s the encapsulated sport report, with a little history thrown in. But, as a long-time motor head and a first-time attendee at the granddaddy of all sports car endurance races, I have a few other observations as I tick off another item from my own personal bucket list.

First of all, Le Mans is about people — a whole lot of them. Attendance at this year’s event was reported at 238,500, encompassing not only the mostly partisan (for Peugeot) French but dozens of other nationalities, from the dedicated racing enthusiasts decked out in all manner of motorsport paraphernalia to the lager louts, who seemingly didn’t care where they were or what they were watching as long as it involved copious amounts of alcohol. And, with the added impetus of soccer’s World Cup going on, it seemed the diehard extroverts were out in full force, with painted faces or masks, wild headgear, wigs, capes (usually flags) and all manner of noise makers. That thousands — of all types, primarily the louts and partiers — were stumbling around the track area and clogging traffic at 2:30 in the morning (when I decided to head back to my trackside room to get a few hours of shut-eye) in a zombie-like state can be attributed to a combination of over-imbibing, too much sun earlier in the day and/or not being able to find their camping spots.

Secondly, the car sounds are positively operatic — or primeval, depending on your mood, especially with 56 race cars in two prototype (LMP) classes and two GT classes gunning it at the 3 p.m. Saturday start of the 24-hour show. The Audi and Peugeot LMP1-class turbodiesel-powered racers sounded like vacuum cleaners on steroids. Conversely, the GT1 and GT2 Corvettes and their big-inch pushrod V8s thundered like God’s own anger and could be heard well before they were seen (the competing Ferrari F430s, Aston Martin DB9s, BMW M3s and Porsche 911 GT3 RSRs and their sophisticated overhead-cam engines were almost dainty by comparison). And the banshee-like wail from a Mazda-powered LMP2 car was the very definition of ear splitting.

The race itself and the drama that unfolded as the hours ticked by was mesmerizing as — depending on what driver or team you were rooting for — preparation overcame adversity or defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. A loud cheer from the Audi Arena –one of several entertainment complexes set up by the automaker — arose a little after 7 a.m. A quick look at one of the trackside Jumbotrons provided the explanation as one of the three factory R15s finally took the lead from Peugeot. About six hours later, a groan went up in the concession area where I was strolling–it was as if all of France audibly sighed — as the last of the four factory Peugeot 908s expired on the track.

That wasn’t the only tragedy, either. General Motors was celebrating Corvette’s 50th anniversary of competing at Le Mans with its typically well-funded team. Running first and second at midnight, Corvette Racing’s bid for its first GT2 title in the 24 Hours ended at 9:42 a.m. when the No. 64 C6.R retired with an engine problem. This was after the car had crashed heavily and was rebuilt. The No. 63 car had retired earlier in the morning, also with engine problems.

Even worse, Aston Martin Racing factory driver Sam Hancock endured heartbreak with less than an hour to go. His LMP1 car had been the lead gasoline-powered racer and fourth overall (behind the three Audis). Having all but completed his final stint behind the wheel and with his teammate waiting in the pits to reel off the final 50 minutes, the Aston Martin slowed dramatically with smoke coming from the rear. Hancock was left with little choice but to park the car at the Arnage Corner and catch a ride back to the pits.

Sometimes, victory comes in small doses. There was this single, lovely-to-look-at Spyker C8 Laviolette circling the course, slower and outdated in comparison with the other GT2 racers. But it ran and it ran ? and it finished, 58 laps behind the class-winning Porsche 911 and the second-last of 28 cars classified as still running after 24 hours.

That’s what makes Le Mans a must-see for motor heads–the history, the sights, the sounds, the people, the triumphs, the defeats, the expected, the unexpected and the underdogs. Never mind racing; 24 hours of watching (I managed 19) beats you up, spits you out and has you wanting to come back for more.

Photograph by: Handout photo, National Post