Why Le Mans really matters

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I’ll admit that most of my time is spent following Formula One but I would be remiss in not also confessing my love for the World Endurance Championship or Le Mans series endurance racing. I am not steeped in the series details as professional journalists and pundits are mainly due to this not being my day job. Authoring a Formula 1 blog and commenting on motor sport is not something that pays the bills nor is it something that the bill-paying job allows much time for but nevertheless, I am a fan and do offer my simple, non-professional thoughts on the upcoming 24 Hours of Le Mans—actually, I am convinced there is a link between my two loves.

As Toyota prepare to take on Audi in the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans next weekend, I feel a sense of nostalgia bubbling from the depths of my motor sport heart. It’s not just the idea of endurance racing that has captured my imagination.

It is the simple complexity of history combined with technology, speed, drama, personality, team sacrifice and the visually stunning backdrop of black pavement nestled—with imperfection—on hallowed soil that bestows glory to those who offer bravery and find purchase between rubber and asphalt to achieve victory.

Each time I think of the 24 Hours of Le Mans I have overwhelming flashbacks of such comprehensively galvanizing historic feats that I can barely process the flow of emotion it brings. Its history is as rich and humanity-defining as any other sport ever devised and no sport is more “beautiful” than the creation of man propelling man around the Circuit de la Sarthe for 24 hours. The elegance, the brutality, the sound, the smell, the tension, the sweat, the oil, the fear, the bravado, the death, the victory… it is more than humans merely being.

Nostalgic snobbery and romanticism

I receive much criticism for my nostalgic view of Le Mans and Formula One. I am often accused of being a purist snob but I choose to see humanity’s achievement prior to and well after my conscious time on Earth. Life for me includes the history of motor sport and it accepts the future of motor sport. It is not selfish enough to consider my lifetime the only one that matters. Eighty people lost their lives at Le Mans in the flaming wake of an errant Mercedes and while I wasn’t alive then, I grieve for them—for the sport—to this day.

As I prepare myself for the coming race, I am reminded that like Le Mans, Formula One has an equal emotional pull for me. If I’m honest, it does so more fiercely when F1 is at Spa Francorchamps, Silverstone, Monza and Nurburg. Lingering nostalgic snobbery? I think not. It’s more than that.

Le Sarthe is the grand equalizer and is, and will always be, the litmus test for endurance racing. There are other races, including Spa, that are equally paramount but Le Mans is the least common denominator. The measuring stick by which all are measured and usually found wanting. So too is F1’s limited and disappearing circuits such as Spa, Monza and Silverstone.

I find one simple truth, shared most eloquently by Steve Charsley, when he said that what makes these circuits perfect is their imperfections. I am unclear if it was safety or money but the widening and normalizing of racing circuits is killing the sport. What makes Le Mans the race it was, is and will be is the Circuit de le Sarthe. What makes F1 the series it is has, is and will always be is Spa Francorchamps (and legendary, imperfect circuits like it).

No one dislikes safety!

Normalizing the radius of all turns and widening the circuits seems to be the rule of Herman Tilke designed tracks in Formula One. We’ve been told it is for FIA safety reasons and no one dislikes safety in motor sport… except reality.

There is nothing safe about traveling 200mph on any surface and that is what makes motor sport what it is. That is what makes Le Mans what it is. It is the speed and imperfections of legendary tracks that make motor sport the history-galvanizing sport it is.

I would never begrudge Sir Jackie Stewart and his quest for safety as it was desperately needed and quite honestly money was trumping the simplest notion of safety in a time when death was all too familiar each race weekend.

The Circuit de la Sarthe is proof that you can install safety measures but death will still occur because few things can withstand the energy dissipated from a rapidly moving racecar when it collides with its stationary surroundings—not least of which is the human body.

I am reminded each year that the appeal, for me, is the imperfection of the circuits I love and it humbles me to the very notion of motor sport. What teams and drivers achieve on imperfect radiuses and narrow tracks draws me like a moth to light and it is because of this incredible skill and bravery that I watch and pray that nothing bad happens and rejoice when victory is achieved.

Mark Webber’s flip at Le Mans in 1999 scared the hell out of me and yet it is an image that stays with me and defines my understanding of motor sport. It is a wellspring of humility and respect I have for Webber. So too for Anthony Davidson and Allan McNish as two men who, more recently, have snatched bravery from the jaws of injury.

It is the circuits, bravery and perseverance that draw me to the nostalgic heartbeat of motor sport. It is what has passed before us that defines what we are about to see and what we fear is the imperfection of the circuit meeting the imperfection of the driver or car. It is in those moments that we wish motor sport could never injure a human but then we humans have been injuring mortality’s pride for decades in the most unlikely of machines on the most unlikely of roads.

It is what defines Le Mans and Formula One and it is the essence of what makes me a fan for better or for worse… it is the bravery of my being out of range that compels me to desire another, better man to take the risk that I am not willing to take and winning at the sport I am unworthy to participate in. It is for that reason I will always have respect for the history and the future of motor sport and crave the imperfect track over the desire for sterile, homogenous risk adverse racing. There…I admitted it.

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