Brits and the romantic art of 24-hour driving

Le Mans is a peculiar ritual of tradition and endurance. Derick Allsop reports
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The contest is contrived, the big-name drivers tend to be of, shall we say, venerable age and status, the other drivers are hugely enthusiastic though modestly gifted amateurs. And yet a quarter of a million or more faithful, at least 50,000 of them British, are again here this weekend to witness the ritual.

The tradition is the thing, and nothing reeks of tradition like the Le Mans 24-hour race does. Every year, it seems, they tell you this will be the best ever and this year, yes, it will be the best ever. Come four o' clock this afternoon, the hordes will have worked themselves to a fever pitch of anticipation, and by half-past they will be wandering the banks, or the bars, for a different perspective.

But then that is also part of the ritual. Le Mans is a peculiar event and a peculiar experience. The only way to appreciate it - I hesitate to say "understand it" - is by being here. The aficionados emphasise it is not so much a race, as a pageant for the seriously romantic, an endurance test for the seriously competitive.

Appropriately it features vintage marques exhumed precisely for this day and night. Not only Jaguar but a Lister Jaguar is on parade, and Marcos, as well as Ferrari and an array of Porsches. Equally appropriate is a line-up of protagonists who have stood the test of time. Gentleman drivers, too. Derek Bell, partnering his son, Justin, is back for the 25th time and seeking his sixth win; Bob Wollek is also here for the 25th time, seeking his first win; Henri Pescarolo, Le Grandpere of them all, is at La Sarthe for the 29th year.

A not so regular old stager is Mario Andretti, who retired from IndyCars and is attempting, at the age of 55, to become only the second driver to complete a Formula One world championship, Indy 500 and Le Mans hat-trick of successes.

This sports car classic has been won by 56 grand prix drivers, but gone are the days when our hero would leap from one car to another, one category to another, and still be down at the pub before closing time. The modern Formula One driver is fully committed to his specialist trade. Perhaps sad, probably essential.

Mark Blundell is a sort of exception to the rule. He was a Formula One driver last weekend, a sports car driver this. Come the French Grand Prix, in a fortnight, he cannot say. McLaren have yet to announce whether his temporary term of duty is to be extended.

His seat in the Gulf Racing McLaren F1 GTR for Le Mans was booked long before he was asked to replace Nigel Mansell in the grand prix car. So, straight after last Sunday's racing in Canada, he was on a plane to Europe, a quick pit-stop at base then down here to prepare for midweek qualifying.

"Just about enough time to recuperate, it was marginal," Blundell said. "I wouldn't do it if I couldn't, but in this day and age you can't do it on a regular basis. You are no longer talking about a Formula One car being something you can pedal around for a couple of hours. It's tough physically and mentally. It takes two days to get over a grand prix."

Le Mans presents a very different examination of mind and body. Blundell, a winner with Peugeot three years ago, explained: "It's about smoothness, discipline, patience and team-work. It's a world of emotions, full of ups and downs. It's unique. Formula One is a pressure cooker. Sports cars are more relaxed. It's still serious, but it's still got the gentleman racer feel to it.

"I don't really sleep between my stints. I'll get my head down and relax, but there's not really time to sleep. You still have debriefs. Change into dry clothes, take on food and fluids, have physio. You stay awake on adrenalin. If you think you're tired you soon wake up when you're in the car at 200mph plus, in the rain, fog, mist and darkness."

McLaren may be having a rough ride in Formula One right now but their pounds 750,000 sports car has mopped up half a dozen victories. Here, though, is the conundrum; how to make six four-hour races add up to one 24-hour race. Especially when most observers doubt your gearbox will see out the night.

Blundell says he is encouraged by testing as well as the racing and believes the regulations give the car a fighting chance against the batch of World Sports Cars, including ever formidable Porsches and Courage contenders.

He said: "Our car and the other GT cars are going to be something like five seconds a lap slower than the WSC cars, but while we can do 14 laps a time on the fuel allocation, they can manage only 10. So it's going to be tactical and, I think, very interesting. I think we've got a genuine chance.

"I know what it feels like to win this race. It's special. It's still one of the big three, along with the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500. There's still a place for it and I think there always will be. Look at the crowd,and look how many of them are Brits. That's Le Mans for you."