Confession time. I have always been a bit sceptical about the Le Mans 24 Hours.
There is nothing to doubt about its prestige, or the special challenge it presents. It clearly is one of the most important races on the planet.
But as a spectacle to watch on television, I have always been a bit wary. Could I be kept on the edge of my seat by a race where the gaps are ultimately measured in laps rather than seconds?
This year, for the first time, I have got access to Eurosport. So I decided to make a concerted effort to watch as much of the Le Mans 24 Hours as possible. For one night only, my sofa became my bed, and I dozed off with the race going on in the background.
I am mighty glad I did watch it. Because I discovered that Le Mans has it all and more.
All the initial indications were good. An intensely close battle between the Audis and Peugeots was promised. But disaster struck twice for Audi, with truly horrific crashes for Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller.
McNish’s crash was incredibly worrying. But the way the car teetered over the barrier before somehow opting to land back in the gravel trap, was truly frightening. I was concerned for all the photographers that were being showered in debris, and it can be considered luck that there wasn’t another 1955 Le Mans disaster.
Even scarier was Rockenfeller’s crash. It was difficult to make out anything in the darkness, but the mangled wreckage looked very little like an Audi R18 TDI. I feared the worst, and the Eurosport commentators revealed later in the race that they had as well. It was such a relief to hear that he managed to exit the car by himself and suffered only a cut arm.
These were two low points that punctuated a rollercoaster race. Once it was established that Rockenfeller was OK, I drifted off to sleep.
When I woke up at about 7am, I was astonished to see that — after around 18 hours of racing — the top three cars were all within two seconds of each other. I watched it while I could, but soon succumbed to the sleep monster for another couple of hours.
I awoke again to see my favourite of the Peugeots, the #7 driven by Anthony Davidson, Marc Gené and Alexander Wurz, had crashed off. The gaps had grown, and the fight was basically down between one Audi and one Peugeot, although there were a couple of other Peugeots a few laps down that could help out.
This tense battle, coupled with some hairy driving tactics from the Peugeots and an intriguing difference in strategy, ensured that the last few hours of the race were utterly gripping to watch. After 24 hours, the lead cars were separated by just 14 seconds. Incredible.
But it wasn’t just about the battle at the front. With 56 cars, there is no shortage of stories to tell. Plus, there is a variety in the designs of the cars and engines that simply does not exist in most other forms of motorsport.
It makes Formula 1 seem like toytown in comparison. All the F1 cars have practically identical 2.4 litre V8 engines. The spirit of innovation has been lost there in the drive to cut costs. But at Le Mans, it lives on strongly.
I also enjoyed seeing what the spirit of Le Mans is all about. The reactions of rival mechanics to the horrific Audi crashes. Victorious Audi chief Wolfgang Ullrich graciously congratulating his rivals from Peugeot immediately after the race. The deepest lows imaginable. Great joy at immense accomplishments. Sheer love of motorsport.
Watching Le Mans this year, it finally clicked with me. No longer do I just need to take people’s word for it that it is a special race. Now I feel it as well.