24 Hours of Le Mans
24 Hours of Le Mans
24 Hours of Le Mans. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Lesley Wimbush

Le Mans, France – Deep in the heart of Sarthe county, Le Mans is a charming city filled with cobbled streets, medieval churches and crumbling chateaux. Established more than 4,000 years ago, the heart of the town was a medieval settlement around which a wall (most of which still stands today) was erected in 270 AD to protect it from invading Romans. In 1068, Le Mans was seized by William the Conquerer and later became home to the Plantagenet dynasty that ruled France and England throughout the High Middle Ages.

In the late 1870s, an enterprising bell maker named Bolleé financed what was considered the first production vehicle – a steam car that trundled the roads from Sarthe to Paris at the glorious speed of 22 miles per hour. It was within Bolleé’s factory that the beleaguered Wright brothers, unsupported in North America, were able to rebuild both their airplane and their reputations by thrilling the French public with a 1908 aeronautical exhibition of great daring and skill.

And yet, despite such a rich and storied legacy, Le Mans has only achieved worldwide fame in the last 90 years, becoming synonymous with the annual event bearing its name.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the most celebrated motorsports race in history, the battles fought over the 13.629 km Circuit de la Sarthe course have become legend.

This is where upstart American manufacturer Henry Ford defeated the reigning Enzo Ferrari in 1966, his victorious trio of Ford GT40s crossing the finish line in a 1-2-3 sweep. It’s also the site of racing’s most horrific tragedy; the 1955 Mercedes crash that ended with 82 people dead and 76 seriously injured.

The world’s most gruelling endurance test of man and machine, Le Mans is the race that most drivers aspire to reach – and which fans place at the top of their bucket lists to watch.

And this year – I was able to scratch this monumental experience off my own personal list.

24 Hours of Le Mans24 Hours of Le Mans24 Hours of Le Mans
24 Hours of Le Mans. Click image to enlarge

After an eight-hour plane ride, two-hour train ride and a twenty-minute shuttle, we arrived at the “Audi Hotel”, a trackside bunker featuring tiny, spartan rooms and communal showers. Flimsy walls afford little privacy, but no matter, we won’t be doing much sleeping.

As media guests of Audi, we’ve got access to Audi’s hospitality suites – of which there are several along the pit and paddock areas of the track. With 11 Le Mans victories so far, the German automaker is a huge presence here. The “Audi Arena”, a multi-level, ultra-modern structure of shimmering glass, is a sybaritic overload of white leather, multiple food stations serving sushi to charcuterie and even a Jumbotron with staggered tiers of oversized beanbags for those intending to spend the duration of the race in pampered comfort.

Not me.

I’m here on a mission. For me, the 24 Hours of Le Mans represents the ultimate pageant of motorsports as art; and there are several iconic scenes I’m determined to capture with my lens. First of course, is the Rolex clock, its hands at 3:00 to signify the start of the 24 hour race.

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