Le Mans not challenging F1 but people are taking notice
As the 83rd edition of Le Mans get’s underway Formula 1 is in crisis – pounded with criticism for being complicated, irrelevant, boring and predictable – while the legendary 24 hours race basks in popularity and the reasons for this could well be great lessons for those plotting the future of F1.
Nobody could accuse Le Mans organisers of over-selling their big event, the official website for the 24 hours sportscar race describes it, in advice aimed at British visitors, as “like a motor racing Glastonbury (music) festival – noisy, dirty and smelly – but fantastic fun.”
If the sort of celebrities who frequent the Monaco Grand Prix Formula 1 grid would wrinkle their noses at the basic toilet facilities and crowded campsites, then no matter.
This weekend, at least, the cathedral city in western France can claim legitimately to be hosting the biggest sporting event in the world.
The Sarthe circuit has been a pilgrimage for petrolheads since the 1920s — when the wealthy British ‘Bentley Boys’ won four years in a row — and this year a quarter of a million people are expected.
Many of them, in what regulars only half-jokingly refer to as the biggest British invasion of France since the D-Day landings, will make the journey from the other side of the Channel.
“When you get to Calais or Le Havre there’s just a queue of British cars going to Le Mans, it’s just a huge week out,” says retired triple winner Allan McNish.
“It’s a festival atmosphere. It’s like a pilgrimage to go back every year. It’s all the social side, like a rock festival, and the race just happens to be going on,” the Scot told Reuters.
With Porsche mounting a determined factory challenge to champions Audi, along with Toyota and Nissan, 2015 promises to be a classic.
The cars are the stars but many of the drivers will be familiar to Formula 1 fans.
Former Red Bull driver Mark Webber and current Force India racer Nico Hulkenberg are in the Porsche ranks while Austrian Alex Wurz and Britain’s endurance world champion Anthony Davidson are with Toyota.
Even current Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg will be in action on a track he says is”an old track for real men.”
Fernando Alonso is expected to be an interested observer, and is only not racing at this year’s event for Porsche because of contractual obligations with McLaren. But is is known that he is itching to partake.
Denmark’s nine times winner Tom Kristensen has retired but the Audi trio of Swiss Marcel Fassler, German Andre Lotterer and Frenchman Benoit Treluyer are chasing their fourth victory after winning last year.
“I do think Le Mans is doing something right because it’s not only attracting the manufacturers, which also attracts the drivers, but it’s also attracting the fans,” said McNish, a winner with Audi and Porsche.
“It has got something and it’s building something,” added the former Toyota F1 racer. “It doesn’t want to challenge Formula 1, and I don’t think it should or can, but certainly it is the evolving market place.”
“All of the things they have been building for quite a long period of time are actually starting to bear fruit and people are sitting up and taking notice,” mused McNish.
The first race at Circuit de la Sarthe took place in 1923 and since then many legends of motor racing have taken part. Denmark’s Tom Kristensen has won the race a record nine times, with Joest Racing the most successful team with 13 wins and Porsche the most successful manufacturer with 16 victories.