This weekend sees the first ever socially distant running of the Le Mans 24 hour race. To mark the occasion, we're taking a look back to 2018, when we headed to the circuit in happier times, on the invitation of TVR:
Some things in the motoring world need no introduction. Le Mans is definitely one of these, but I’m going to introduce it anyway, because surely if there’s anything which can’t have enough column inches on a motoring website, it’s this legendary race. First run in 1923, Le Mans’ uniqueness stemmed from the fact it provided an endurance-based antidote to the outright speed-focussed Grand Prix which had dominated European circuit racing up until that time. A certain prestige comes with being the first at anything, and Le Mans has consistently lived up to its billing as the world’s foremost endurance race, consistently generating dramas which have captivated the motorsport world. Dramas like the famous feud between Ford and Enzo Ferrari, which resulted in the Ford GT40 crushing all comers to achieve four straight wins in the late 1960s. Or the legendary Porsche era of the 1980s, when the hard-as-nails 956 and 962s dominated and in doing so, did so much to build the reputation for sporting toughness which Porsche still enjoys today.
In short, Le Mans is ground zero for endurance motorsports; a crucible which has shaped the sport for nearly 100 years.
So, when TVR give you a call and invite you to take part in the pre-race Driver’s Parade, at the wheel of ‘Kermit’ - the Chimaera you recently drove 27,000 miles across the globe - it doesn’t take you long to decide. You’re there like a shot.
My Le Mans experience started at 6am on the Thursday morning before the race, when I joined Team TVR for breakfast in Surrey, before the run down to La Sarthe. And it was quite a group of cars which assembled at that preposterously early hour. As well as the mighty new Griffith, Team TVR put together a convoy which included a Sagaris, a Cerbera, a ‘90s Aston Martin Vantage, a De Tomaso Pantera and the ubiquitous air-cooled 911. That some seriously good taste was present was inarguable; that the new Griffith still managed to hold its head high in such rarefied company boded well for the brand’s rebirth.
After the TVR crowd headed for the ferry, I went over to Racing Green TVR in Alton, Hampshire, who had prepared Kermit for the trip to France. And a fine job they’d done, the new ACT exhaust sounding magnificent, the newly rebuilt steering rack feeling more precise than ever, and the car’s sense of dependability restored after the punishment it had taken in its trip across the globe.
And so I headed to Le Mans, eating up the autoroutes of Northern France in the company of many a fellow car enthusiast in many a fine machine. Following a life-affirming drive through the French countryside, I arrived at the campsite next to the Porsche Curves in the middle of the final qualifying session, with a race-spec V8s soundtrack echoing through the night.
The Driver’s Parade takes place in the town of Le Mans on the Friday evening before the race. So, what do you do on the Friday morning? Easy. You head to Saint Saturnin for the ‘Classic British Welcome’ car show, which has become a bit of an institution for Le Mans-goers in recent years.
About 400 classics were in evidence, ranging from the sublime (defined for me, by a pair of original red Honda NSXs, parked side-by-side) to the ridiculous (with a stretched and be-stickered Volvo 940 containing 6 slightly drunk Cerbera owners taking this much revered prize). The new Griffith was again in evidence, drawing a crowd and then scaring them away every time Les Edgar – TVR’s new owner – fired it up and proudly blipped the throttle.
All too soon, it was time to leave the show and negotiate the road closures to the paddock in the centre of town, from where the parade would be departing that evening. And already, with the parade still over three hours away, the barriers were lining the road and the crowds were building, beers in hand. It was going to be a rowdy affair…
The paddock was packed with diversions; things which draw your eye as you roam. As well as our ten-TVR convoy there was a predictable selection of modern exotica, ranging from a Porsche 918 to a Mclaren 650. There were a variety of open-topped 1920s machines which would carry the drivers during the parade, a brace of scarcely-more-modern looking Morgans of both the three and four wheeled variety, and an array of circus performers who further added to the surrealism. And then, of course, there were the drivers themselves – the likes of Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and Chris Harris milling through the crowds, enjoying the downtime before the stresses of the following day’s race.
At exactly 6 minutes past 7, it was our TVR convoy’s turn to join the parade, and with fingers crossed against the car overheating in the heat, I inched my way onto the route, with a motorcycle escort introducing our convoy as the ‘TVR presentation’.
The six-deep crowds heaved at the barriers, enjoying the spectacle in their slightly inebriated state. And what does a slightly inebriated person want when they see a TVR? Noise, that’s what. At every point in the parade, it seemed there would be at least one person demanding we ‘rev it’ and obviously, with the marque’s reputation at stake, we didn’t disappoint. Kermit’s new ACT exhaust sounded sublime reverberating off the walls of Le Man’s historic centre, but was solidly outgunned in volume terms by the decatted and near-straight piped V6 TVR ‘wedge’ a few cars back in the parade, which could probably be heard back in Britain.
The parade took just over an hour, and despite the heat and excessive throttle use, all the TVRs in our convoy performed flawlessly, without any overheating or other issues. Which is more than could be said for the ‘60s Mustang ahead of us, which had to limp to the end of the route belching unburned fuel, and aided by the occasional push.
Our lap of the city finished in the shadow of Le Mans cathedral, and as I headed back to the campsite, the requests to ‘rev it’ continued to come – a most reassuring demonstration of the continuing passion for the old ways of doing things, in this world of electrification and automation.
And then, there was the race. At 3pm on the Saturday, 60 exquisite, yet tough-as-hell engines erupted into life, and the 8.467 mile circuit became a place of battle. The overwhelming favourites were the Toyota hybrids which surged ahead from the start, while one of the TVR-sponsored Rebellions lost its nose on the first lap, but pitted for a replacement and began the fight back from last place. The fastest cars could expect to complete over 3,000 miles during the race; a mind boggling distance. And when you watch the cars lapping as day turns to night, fall asleep to the roar of their engines, then wake the next day with them still running and six hours of racing still to go, the toughness of motorsport’s most prestigious event can’t be doubted.
The Toyotas took a well deserved win in the end, with the Rebellions – proudly sporting their TVR branding – coming in third and fourth, as the leading non-hybrid entries. And to this first time Le Mans visitor, it will be remembered as the weekend I finally ‘got’ Le Mans – an incredible spectacle steeped in history and car culture.
I’ll be back. Just not in 2020...