The doyen this weekend is Henri Pescarolo, who has taken up the challenge 31 times and won on four occasions. He says that in spite of the introduction over the years of chicanes which interrupt some of the long straights and which he deplores, Formula One drivers find Le Mans an irresistible challenge to their sense of real motor racing.
His own first victory came in 1972 in a Matra with Graham Hill. "I thought that because he had been world champion, he wouldn't think Le Mans was important, but in the night when it rained, it was his driving that won us the race." The fastest driver in last month's pre-qualifying, another Formula One man, Martin Brundle, says the race draws you back "until you win or get too old to try". At 54, Pescarolo is one who cannot keep away. Neither can another veteran: Mario Andretti (57 and partnered by his son Michael) yesterday began still hoping to complete the ultimate triumph, the F1 title, the Indy 500 and Le Mans ... only Hill has ever achieved that.
Apart from Brundle, who had to opt out of his ITV work at the Canadian Grand Prix ("because you don't give up an offer to drive at Le Mans"), other ex-F1 drivers, including Riccardo Patrese, Nelson Piquet and Thierry Boutsen, set off yesterday afternoon. Brundle, driving a Tom Walkinshaw TWR- developed Nissan R390 GT1, had set a lap record for the 8.45-mile circuit of 3 min 43.15 sec last month, beating the highly fancied Joest Racing Porsche, also developed by TWR and driven by Michele Alboreto who, in Thursday's qualifying, was quickest of all, reducing the record to 3 min 41.581 sec, but there were rumours that the Nissans of Patrese and Brundle were keeping some revs up their sleeve. At least TWR started yesterday's race in France more optimistically than Damon Hill will today when he sets off in their still uncompetitive Formula One car in Canada.
Anyone thinking that this great summer event could bring relief from the seemingly unending football season would have been disabused by seeing on the starting grid yesterday two Lister Storms decorated in the colours of Newcastle United. Douglas Hall, son of the Newcastle chairman, Sir John, owns them and among the drivers he employed for the occasion was the BBC Top Gear presenter Tiff Needell.
If the Nissans were being held back a little in practice, the reality of their real work to break down the long, successful LeMans pedigree of the Porsche cars quickly became evident yesterday when Alboreto, the ex-Ferrari driver on pole, recovered from dropping to third place on the first lap to take the early lead. And even when he dropped back, more Porsche cars moved up to make their claims.
Some 50,000 British fans were at the race, but within three hours they were disappointed to see Needell's Lister develop problems and drop out, but that was nothing to compare with the troubles that quickly beset the multi-million pound Nissan challenge. All three of their cars began to slow with gearbox problems. Brundle's car was so badly hindered that it had to be withdrawn for a long period, leaving Porsche dominating the race as it went into the night.
Noel Edmonds, involved with the David Price Racing/Panoz organisation's entries, had sensibly decided that his own racing days were better remembered than revived. He volunteered for pit duty and was kept in full-time work as the team's cars found the pace painful.
Meanwhile, the ever-enthusiastic Pescarolo in the Courage Porsche C36 slid into a gravel trap but refused to concede defeat, had the car extracted and drove on ...true Le Mans spirit.