Le Mans 24 hours is just one of the treats this high-octane fueled French city has to offer. Located about an hour and a half from the French coast, it’s perfect for a long weekend away and it also makes a perfect stop-off if you’re travelling further south.
Article and photographs by Sam Clark
Le Mans – The Race
Le Mans and the surrounding area have a rich engineering heritage. The Wright brothers took advantage of the local talent. They came here in 1908 to make their first planes in a factory which was later taken over by Renault, who still manufactures cars in the area.
In the early 1900’s France was home to the most motor companies in the world and the 24-hour race in Le Mans was created to showcase their products. It’s been held annually since the first race in 1923, becoming the world’s oldest active endurance sports car race.
A Bentley won the second race and the British love affair with the 24-hour began. British manufacturers have won 17 times and British drivers such as Derek Bell and Graham Hill have become legends. Every year thousands of British fans make the pilgrimage over to the race affectionately known as the biggest British motor race in France.
Le Mans – The City
The 24-hour race is woven into the fabric of this lively French city and you’re never far from a story about motor racing. Before the race, the drivers parade through the city which turns into one big party for the weekend. Afterwards, the winning drivers’ hand and feet prints become part of the city, set in brass on the pavement.
To escape all the engine excitement for a moment, you can step through the Roman walls surrounding the historic old town and meander quietly through the streets of timber houses dating back to the 15th century. Built when many people couldn’t read, carvings can still be found in pillars at the corners of buildings and along their facades revealing the trades and goods that were available within.
On the hill, crowning the old town is one of France’s largest cathedrals. An impressive structure was built over 400 years through the 11th and 15th centuries. More than 100 stained glass windows illuminate the vast interior thanks to an unnamed architect’s ingenuity, splitting the flying buttresses around the outside of the cathedral in a unique ‘Y’ shape design to allow sunlight to stream through the superstructure and flood the coloured glass with light.
At one corner, resting quietly against the wall of the cathedral is an ancient, 4 or 5 thousand-year-old stone menhir (One of the large rocks Asterix’s mate, Obelix used to carry around). For years, race drivers have touched the menhir to bring them luck.
Bigger Picture Films give a thrilling, seat-of-your-pants view of the race in their films, In the Lap of the Gods and Chasing the Dream. The brilliant, Deadliest Crash, tells the harrowing story of the tragic 1955 disaster in which over 100 people lost their lives and motorsport changed forever. The film gives a rare and personal window into how much the race means to the local people and just how deep-routed it is in their lives.
The 24 hour museum
The circuit museum is a shrine to speed. Well over 100 vehicles trace the history of the 24-hour race. From the first winners through to the great wedges of speed like the winning Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-9 and Bentley Speed 8. A Porsche straight from last year’s race sits brooding and unwashed because of a special streamline coating.
If you visit when there is not a race event in progress, for just a couple of euros you can access to the track spectator areas. It’s eerily deserted but fun just nosing about and there are usually some cars from the Porsche centre roaring around the track to enjoy.
Racing at Le Mans
To get a little closer to actually racing at Le Mans, just over the barriers from the main track is a karting centre where you can let rip around the same corners and straights as some the great drivers. The likes of James Hunt, Ayton Senna and Michael Schumacher have all raced karts here.
Inside the karting centre, you can drive the Circuit de a Sarthe in amazing simulators. It’s like sitting inside a video game that picks you up and throws you around the corners. (Top of next year’s Christmas wish list!)
It is possible to just turn up and have a go on both the karts and simulators, but like everything in Le Mans, it gets busy on race days so it’s probably best to book if you’re visiting on an event weekend.
Driving the Circuit de la Sarthe
Le Mans track actually has two tracks. The Bugatti circuit is a closed track hosting regular race events throughout the year and enjoyed by fortunate guests of the adjacent Porsche centre. The larger, Circuit de la Sarthe, used for the 24-hour, extends out to include sections of public road. But this is not your usual street circuit, utilizing roads for a race track; this is more like the race track is actually used as a road. Driving along we suddenly found ourselves turning a corner complete with painted track curbing edging a large gravel trap surrounded by a tire wall. My son was delighted! ‘I’ve driven this on Xbox!’ We pulled over to pose for photos and hunt for bits of carbon fibre for souvenirs from racecars that had overcooked the corner, like we were at the beach collecting seashells.
The race-track-road is, of course, subject to the city speed limits when not in use for the magic 24 hours. But this only slightly dented our joy as we cruised, steadily, along one of the fastest sections of racing in the world, the Mulsanne straight. Following in the tracks of so many great drivers, we turned down through the trees and swept around the famous Indianapolis and Arnage corners. Where else could you do this when popping out for a baguette and a bottle of red wine?
A great place for a quick refuel when exploring the old town is L’Explorateur crêperie. This is a family business with the father front-of-house and his son in the kitchen preparing a menu of very reasonably priced, tasty crêpes and pizza.
Top Tip – The mysterious little ceramic bowls that you’ll find set out on the tables are for the delicious local cider!
Just around the corner from L’Explorateur is La Ciboulette, a lovely, chic local restaurant serving quality French dishes with very friendly service.
On the edge of the old town is the Le Lapin Blanc, a smart, cosy, modern restaurant. The menu specializes in local ingredients and the wine list is filled with superb organic wines selected from small independent local vineyards.
Possibly my favourite food of our trip was at Ode et Lys. Set unassumingly on Avenue Louis Cordelet, a busy road 5 minutes walk from the centre it’s well worth seeking out. You’re recommended to book ahead, it’s popular with the locals and (at least at the time of year we visited) it’s only open for lunch, weekdays! Owner and chief, Patrice Paul creates a very short menu, just 3 starters and 2 mains, from the fresh produce he finds in the market each morning. (They don’t have a website. Address: 6 Av. Louis Cordelet, 72000 Le Mans. Tel:+33 2 43 28 36 03)
Local Culinary top-tip
After motor racing, the most important subject to know something about in Le Mans is Rillettes. It’s a sort of coarse meat pâté, commonly pork. The sheer mention of it sends the locals into dreamy mouth-watering delight. They eat it with, or cooked in, everything. It’s delicious! Personally, I don’t think you can beat just simply smearing it generously on a fresh baguette. Locals will enthuse about their favourite butchers but you can’t go far wrong with a pot of award-winning Maison Prunier, Rillettes du Mans de Porc Fermier Français Label Rouge, available in most supermarkets.
There is an abundance of accommodation in Le Mans and the surrounding area, predominantly to house the thousands of race fans who arrive each year. We found a very warm welcome at the hotel, Les Lamartine from owners Louisette and Terry Chave. Louisette has clearly enjoyed decorating her beautiful home and guest rooms. Her talent for hospitality, eye for detail and high standards were honed over 15 years working at the 4 star, Grand Hotel, Paris. Les Lamartine is very conveniently located, just a 10-minute walk from the old town and city centre and, if you’re not driving, the train station is only 2 minutes around the corner. There are views over the river from the front and the garden behind provides a tranquil oasis.
Le Mans is just an hour train from Paris, many commuters make the journey daily for work and its possible to fly to nearby Angers from several UK airports, but this is an auto-obsessed destination you really want to drive to. Brittany Ferries operate routes from Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth with many crossings through the night so you can arrive for fresh croissants and coffee for breakfast.