Ahead of 24 Heures du Mans, our man took to the Circuit de la Sarthe to see what all the fuss is about
Any chance to lap Le Mans is to be seized with both hands. The circuit only exists for a handful of days each year and certainly wouldn’t normally be accessible to mere mortals such as myself. As you read this the drivers involved in this year’s running will be deep into the race, having completed many hundreds of laps of their own. Having already piloted their Le Mans Prototype and GTE cars through the darkness into the pale dawn sunshine, they may even be starting to feel like the end is in sight.
Toyota’s multi-million-pound TS050 Hybrid – by far the most advanced machine on the grid – is widely expected to be in the lead, although that may very easily not be the case, such is the challenge of endurance racing. This is just part of the unique magic of Le Mans, a subject to which a phenomenal number of column inches have tried to convey.
Almost as many as have been consigned to the challenge of accepting Toyota’s new Supra as a deserving recipient of the name. It should have looked more like the FT1 concept, doesn’t have enough power, uses too many BMW components and needed a manual to be properly appealing, apparently. Nonetheless it’s here, and as I sit in the 340hp coupe waiting to head out onto the Circuit de la Sarthe I find it hard to complain.
Even to someone who’s spent quite a bit of time in quite a few different BMWs recently, the borrowed switchgear doesn’t immediately stand out in the cabin – certainly not in the way that the German manufacturer’s gear selector does in Morgan’s latest offering, at least. I doubt many owners will even notice, and those that do certainly won’t begrudge components which, let’s face it, are likely of a higher quality than that which would have otherwise been on offer. Plus it’s hard to worry too much about door handle design and infotainment layout when you’re underway. When you’re pulling onto Le Mans’ hallowed tarmac, nothing could be further from your mind.
We’re the first cars out on the morning of the race, and as such join the circuit just before the Ford Chicane – the pit lane being rather busy at this stage of the weekend. This makes our first taste of La Sarthe a foot-to-the-floor blast down the pit straight, the grandstands flashing past on either side before we head into the long right hander at Dunlop. Here I stay left for as long as I dare before cutting across to the right and braking hard into the left-right chicane that precedes the famous bridge, the practice my 15-year old self put in on Forza finally proving more useful than the GCSE revision I should have been doing, even if my despairing mum didn’t believe it at the time.
The thing that’s hard to tell about the Le Mans circuit from a videogame, TV broadcast or grandstand, though, is how frequently the track subtly drops away, meaning that even relatively gentle corners can take an unsuspecting or inattentive driver by surprise. A precise knowledge of the entire track is therefore key, something which, beyond those first few turns engrained in my memory, I do not possess. It’s just another reason why the deceptively simple layout of the high speed circuit makes for such compelling racing. Misjudge a braking point whilst passing a slower car in the dead of night and 14 hours of work can go out the window.
Similarly, four years of career building can find themselves buried in a gravel trap, so progress remains quick but steady until we round Tertre Rouge and I once more bury my foot down the Mulsanne Straight. The Supra certainly doesn’t feel to be wanting for power here, gaining speed rapidly as its rorty exhaust growls through the gear changes. With over 250km/h showing on the speedo a less enthusiastic car decides to pass an even slower one without checking his mirrors, cutting me off. The brakes are good, luckily.
For the rest of the lap I focus on taking in the experience, after all this is where some of the greatest triumphs and tragedies in motorsport have occurred, each kilometre steeped in history. One lap of a track I’ve never experienced in a car I’ve never driven before was hardly likely to add any new chapters to that legend, but it did give me an entirely new appreciation for what the drivers involved in the 24 hours endure; it may not be the Nordschleife but the raw speed involved makes this is a highly technical track nonetheless. Add to that the cramped conditions, physical demands and mental fatigue of this kind of motorsport and you have a challenge unlike any other.
And the Supra? It certainly made a much better impression in the metal than I was expecting it to – but there is still far more to discover. Perhaps, just like the Le Mans circuit itself, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Inspired? Search for a Toyota Supra here
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