Le Mans, France – The historic 24-hour endurance race held here annually is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For all but the most rabid fans of this auto sport, the opportunity to attend the race that began back in 1923, likely only comes once. For scribes the invites regularly arrive in the Inbox but to date, I’ve resisted. The daddy of all endurance races is frequently described as the most gruelling event on the calendar, even for spectators!
Ah, but this year the email arrived from Audi. I figured this would be a first class way to take in the race made more famous in North America by the dreadful Steve McQueen feature film “Le Mans”. (No plot worthy of mention but great footage of crashing cars.)
The flight from Vancouver and TGV fast train from Paris to this Loire Valley town was almost a 24-hour endurance trek in itself. The short drive from the station, past fields of tents and camper trailers, not to mention bedraggled race fans walking zombie-like through teeming rain, did not lift spirits.
But the first sight of the Audi Racing Hotel, just outside the track, was promising. This temporary hotel, constructed to house more than 800 guests in two exhibition halls, looked like luxury. Well, it was in comparison to where most of the other 262,700 spectators were snoozing. My ceiling-less, cubicle-room would be just fine, thank you. Inside, its wafer thin walls there was a single bed, desk, light, decorative flower, and vital toiletry kit.
To the track for the race start. Bit anti-climactic as it started behind the safety car for many laps as the rain continued to fall.
The Audi Racing Bar and Sky Restaurant, situated at the top of the main grand stand opposite the start/finish line and pits, beckoned. Aha, the Audi we know and love: quality food is served and drinks flow. The sun makes an appearance and dislodges me from my perch. On to the Audi Arena, located by the final chicane of the 13.6-klometre track. It’s very loud there but you can still hear the cars over the sounds of clinking champagne glasses.
Personally, I preferred the sports bar below where you could watch the race on a large screen and the UEFA Euro 2016 soccer games on a second screen below, while chomping on delicious thin crust pizza. I would have taken advantage of the vintage barbershop but couldn’t decide which hair to cut on my balding pate. I resisted the fish spa next door where tired feet dangled in aquariums while tiny fish nibbled away at dead skin.
Serious race fans lowered themselves into beanbags placed on a tiered area, separating the two floors, where they watched – mainly through closed eyelids – the track activity on a massive screen.
Time for a nap. Earplugs in and eyeshade in place helped me catch six hours shuteye. A splash in the communal shower then back to the track to buy souvenirs for jealous friends back home. I spied movie star Brad Pitt and movie hard man Jason Statham, also guests of Audi.
The Audi Pit Lounge offered a view of the dirty end of the race and the Audi Garden served a delightful breakfast. Audi helicopters buzzed guests aloft but I took the elevator to the Racing Bar once again and watched the cars fly by. Oh yes, cars.
Audi has enjoyed huge success in recent years using diesel-fuelled engines for the endurance race series. For this season, the Audi R18 e-tron features a new hybrid system capable of delivering 1,000 horses to the wheels. Interestingly, this power consumes 32 per cent less fuel than its first V6 diesel race engine and 46 per cent less than the V12 diesel of a decade ago.
Victory was denied by turbocharger problems but Audi took third and fourth spots behind the winner Porsche and runner-up Toyota.
The Q7 e-tron 3.0 TDI quattro, now for sale in German dealerships, uses this same technology and that technology transfer from track to road cars will undoubtedly move along at Le Mans speed.
Great fun but I think I’ll make it a once-in-a-lifetime experience and recall it fondly as I build he LEGO version of the R18 with my grandson Francis.