Part historical fact, part travelogue, this article provides an insider’s perspective to attending the Le Mans Classic at the world-famous La Sarthe track. It also includes an exclusive interview with professional driver, Kuno Wittmer, and his thoughts on his first race at Le Mans.
Every summer, the sleepy French town of Le Mans wakes up to the alarm of fast cars whizzing around La Sarthe. This famous French raceway is renowned as the place where the 24 Hours of Le Mans has taken place since 1923 and the Le Mans Classic biennially since 2002.
The 24 Hours is the pinnacle of sports car racing. It is not only an endurance test, but is also the oldest active car race. Teams of two or three must race for 24 consecutive hours, aiming to complete the highest number of laps over this time. The track for the race is 8.5 miles (13.6 kilometres). The Le Mans Classic is raced on the same track but the cars competing must have been made between 1923 and 1979, and would have been eligible to participate in Le Mans until that year.
I was lucky to attend the 2012 Le Mans Classic. One of the most spectacular cars racing was the celebrity Ford GT40 that came in third at the 1966 Le Mans race. Racing fans may remember this exciting event, in which the Ford GT40 came in first, second and third in a legendary photo finish. This race was monumental as it marked Ford’s triumph over Ferrari. After all, the GT40 was designed to unseat Ferrari’s hold on sports car racing. Scuderia Ferrari had been offered for sale to Ford, but Ferrari had backed out of the deal prematurely. To retaliate, Ford hired Caroll Shelby, famed Cobra designer, to help organize the design and production of the GT40. The car did its bidding with its well-remembered 1966 win. The first and second cars (driven by Amon-McLaren and Miles-Hulme, respectively) were only 66 feet (20 metres) apart at the end of the race, achieving Le Mans’ closest finish to date. Driver Ken Miles was a lap and a half ahead of all the other drivers but Ford instructed him to slow down to create the photo finish and Miles complied, believing he would still win. A technicality robbed him of this win, leaving him in second place. Weeks later, he was killed in a tragic automobile crash. Instead of Miles’ success came Ford’s victory over Ferrari and the GT40 is still a Le Mans legend, though it is only seen nowadays in the Le Mans Classic. At the 2012 race, GT40s were ubiquitous, as the recently deceased Shelby and his cars (Cobras and GT40s) were honored. Under the few rays of sun that sometimes shone through, spectators enjoyed top quality vintage racing from cars as diverse as 1960s Can-am and muscle cars to 1920s cycle fended roadsters. Emanuele Pirro, a five-time Le Mans winner drove both a Lotus 15 and a GT40 in the 2012 race and was interviewed over the loudspeaker. The Italian admitted it had been a lifelong dream to drive the GT40 and that, though he shies away from racing in “the wet” in his current Audi Team cars, he enjoyed driving this particular car in the rain.
This was far from an adult-only event. We watched a number of lucky children drive quarter-scale replicas of actual race cars powered by lawn mower engines. They did a pint-sized Le Mans start as spectators “ahh-ed” and ogled. Whether a V.I.P. guest of one of the sponsors (the main two are Richard Mille and EFG Bank) or camping out infield, there is something to enjoy for everyone. The Village, a makeshift tent city, offers magazines, apparel, photos and posters for sale as well as here-today, gone-tomorrow restaurants and food stalls. There are also boutiques containing merchandise and apparel by Audi, Michelin, Le Mans 24-Hours, Aston Martin Racing, Alain Figaret, Rolex, Gulf, Corvette and other major brands. The Village is continuously packed full of people admiring gorgeous vintage cars both passing through and in toy form. Wisps of French, English and other languages mingle, muffled by the sound of roaring engines. Back in the EFG Bank V.I.P. area (one trackside and the other over the pits and start/finish line) in walked surprise guest Carla Bruni. Later many guests (myself included) admitted they hadn’t even noticed, as they were too absorbed in the scene on the track.
Between the 22nd and 23rd of June of this year, the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans will celebrate its 90th year. Kuno Wittmer, one of a few French-Canadian drivers ever to compete in the race, is making his Le Mans debut this summer. I sat down with Wittmer and learned about the tribulations and joys of anticipating Le Mans.
Reba Wilson for Urecommend: What’s the most exciting thing about racing at Le Mans and what are you looking forward to most?
Kuno Wittmer: Well, racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is magical for any driver. When I grew up racing in smaller formats or divisions, there was always that ultimate goal… which was going to Formula 1. Although, only some can make it to Formula 1, the other dream for me was one day to be racing at Le Mans. This has been my dream since the age of 15 [he is now 30]. The level of excitement is next to incredible. With over 200,000 fans pouring in for race day and absolute gorgeous machinery on the grid for the start, these are only a couple elements that give me goosebumps! Definitely competing against the elite drivers from around the world is truly amazing.
Reba: What is the most dangerous part of racing at Le Mans?
Kuno: Probably the most dangerous part of Le Mans is racing during the night. As many know, the race starts on Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and finishes on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Apart from regular pit stops every hour or so for fuel, tires and driver changes, we don’t at any time stop during the night, after all, this is a race! During the night the biggest difficulty would be encountering some fog and rain at 300 km/h+. Oh, and the smell of fans cooking BBQ at that time… that’s actually the most dangerous, because you want some. [Laughs]
Reba: How do you train for a race on a track you’ve never been on?
Kuno: When it comes to actually being able to practice a track, it’s not like hockey, baseball or any other sport, due to costs. To rent the track and get all logistics in place at this level of competition, it can lead to heavy expenses. These numbers, depending on team budgets for a single practice day can easily cost over $100,000/day. Teams do it, but the tracks we practice at are selected with precision. Also, you cannot rent out the Le Mans racetrack. So, I resort to something way cheaper, which is a simulator. It can be a very basic simulator and all you really need to know is the track layout and the corner directions. The rest as far as elevation, passing zones, facility know hows, can be studied on paper and through watching videos from previous year’s races.
Reba: Who chooses the co-drivers for you?
Kuno: Being a Chrysler/SRT Motorsports factory race driver, the decisions on driver line up come from higher up. I have no problems with that, because the CEO and his team are truly class acts. Ralph Gilles (SRT CEO) along with his team, were the ones that gave me a shot at this deal back in 2009. Ralph, also being a really good racer behind the wheel of a Viper, gets it and understands what a driver’s role is. Working for everyone at SRT is a true honor for a driver and also co-driving with any of the five other drivers is a dream. We all jive very well together!
Reba: How is La Sarthe different from other tracks, like Sebring?
Kuno: Well, Sebring is probably one of the bumpiest tracks on the calendar. The Sarthe circuit is actually pretty smooth apart from the back straight. The Mulsanne straight is narrow and bumpy. Very tricky at night. As far as the track being physically demanding, it’s not that bad.
Reba: Would it interest you to drive in the Le Mans Classic? If so, what car would you want to drive?
Kuno: Sure! As long as it’s a Chrysler/FIAT product.
Reba: How hard is it to sleep during a sustained race, like Le Mans?
Kuno: Keeping up with your body’s natural habits is very, very difficult in a 24-hour race. You’re basically fighting everything your body wants to do. So getting sleep is very important, but a hard task to accomplish. You cannot take sleeping pills, because then you won’t wake up and your mind won’t be sharp. The trick is to get some shut-eye anytime you can, but in the 24-hour race you’re only three drivers which means you need to be on guard for your turn. Keeping nutrition and hydration in your system is also vital. I personally eat twice as much during these races due to the loss of body fluids and energy. Your mind is what moves you towards victory at Le Mans.
HOW TO GET TO EITHER LE MANS RACE
Many visitors stay in Paris and travel by TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse or High-Speed Train) or car to Le Mans each day. The time by TGV is only 54 minutes, so book your ticket in advance and depart Paris quite early. Alternatively, there are many housing options available in Le Mans. Tickets for the race can be purchased online.
Whether you are an avid car nut, an adrenaline junkie or just interested in the experience of a car race, Le Mans has something for you. If you prefer the beauty of classic cars, head to the Le Mans Classic. If speed is a draw, instead attend the 24 Hours of Le Mans and catch a glimpse of Kuno Wittmer speeding past.