Racing in the Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans

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Le Mans really is “the mother of all long-distance races”.  It has a long history — the first race was held in 1923 – and is gruelling for cars and drivers alike.  For car manufacturers it is an important shop window, because it is widely reported internationally, and in the eyes of the public a win is a testimony to the performance and reliability of the successful marque.
At different times it has been the battleground on which Ferrari, Mercedes, Porsche and Ford have sought to demonstrate their superiority.  Enzo Ferrari invested much time and money in the preparation of the cars for Le Mans.  Some of his F1 drivers (for example John Surtees) complained that he did not really concentrate on perfecting the F1 cars until after Le Mans.  Mike drove in the race eleven times, in 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971 and 1972. He came second twice (1961 and 1967) and third once (1963), but never first, one of his unfulfilled ambitions.

In an interview from “GT and Prototype driving” (1964) he describes what it is like to drive at Le Mans: “Once out on the track the long race can be incredibly lonely, particularly if the majority of the cars have fallen out.  At the start, however, the melee encourages Grand Prix-type driving and one has to fight hard to keep cool, for there is absolutely no point in getting involved in a dog-fight in the early laps.  This type of event is more of a race against the clock, a race in which the driver must settle down to lapping quickly and consistently, using the car’s performance and reliability, oblivious of what may be going on ahead or behind.  One must make no emotional, illogical moves, be drawn into no short-term contests, for this is the way out of the race in the shortest time.  I find that I just sit in the Ferrari minding my own business, working hard at driving with speed and precision, trying to change gear perfectly, trying to use the car at its peak without exceeding the maximum revs, trying to take corners in copybook style in order to conserve rubber and brakes.  Usually I don’t even know which lap I’m on, I am virtually out in a desert on my own, trying to get to a certain point in the quickest time within the laws of gravity and adhesion, and within the limits of the car.  The challenge of Le Mans is not like the more personal challenge of the Grand Prix; this twenty-four hour marathon demands long-drawn-out concentration, a perfectionist philosophy and a mathematically cool head.  It is a race against time and space, and this is no doubt why it is not really popular with Formula 1 drivers, who obviously enjoy the short, sharp, wheel-to-wheel battles of the G.P. event.”

He also gives a graphic description of driving in the mist: “Probably the worst hazard on the Le Mans circuit is the early morning mist.  The only way to overcome this delaying obstacle is to learn the course so well that it could almost be driven blindfold – because that is precisely what a driver must do when he hits the dawn blanket.  It hangs about near Arnage, in the tree-lined areas of the circuit, on the Mulsanne straight, never static, always shifting and swirling over the track, settling in a different place on every lap.  When the mist swathes the lower end of the long straight at Le Mans it often covers the fast bend just before the Mulsanne right angle turn.  I hit mist here in my last race – and could see absolutely nothing at all of the road, let alone the bend.  In these conditions the accepted method of keeping on the road is to mark your entry into the mist (I checked the six-kilometre stone) and count-down the seconds – five, four, three, two one – put on some lock, and hope that you’re on the bend.  A frightening, but usually successful manoeuvre, so thoroughly do most drivers know the track.  This count-down through the fog is not recommended for new drivers, though.”

Next: Formula 1 racing 1966 and 1967

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