If Motorsport was music, Le Mans would be a chart-topper, a masterpiece. It would be Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Oasis’ Slide Away and Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock. It may not have the glitz and glamour of Monaco or the relentless top speed of the Indianapolis 500, but what it does have compared to the other two races in the Motorsport Triple Crown is a perfect balance of everything.
It has spectator accessibility to the majority of the circuit at a reasonable price meaning anyone can attend; it has speeds in excess of 200mph, a large variety of cars and cutting edge technology. There is not a more complete race. Oh and they stretch it over a full day just to add to the drama and unpredictability of the race!
I could write about how I felt at the track, but Andrew Melling has already done that with his hair-raising account last year which you can read here.
So, where do I go from here? Well, I’ll take you on a journey from start to finish, telling two stories alongside how I got to Le Mans and the race itself.
Shift one, Saturday 15 June, 3pm – 7pm: The race has started, the roar of the engine and crowd can be heard on my post then, over the crest comes one set of headlights, then another, another two, another four, another ten. This is happening, Le Mans is heading straight for you. The ‘attack on your senses’ that Andy spoke of is true, you feel, hear, smell and if you have your mouth agape at the spectacle of the start then you taste it as well.
As the hour’s tick by you still can’t get over how good the race is, as you switch from being an incident marshal to a flag marshal and vice versa you need to be able to pick up the race quickly and what is happening because it doesn’t stop for you to adjust.
I was at Autosport International in Birmingham on a stand promoting marshalling when I was approached by a French marshal, Stephane, who wanted to know more information about marshalling in the UK, after a while, we ended up talking about the Le Mans 24 hours.
Break one, Saturday 15 June, 7pm – 3am: With my shift on post over it was time for some downtime, but there was no rest for the wicked as I was off to meet my dad in the main complex, a not so short walk from the campsite is all that lay in my way. Just an hours walk.
Having met my dad, we were treated to a spectacular view of the sun setting behind the grandstand on the pit exit before the Dunlop chicane. It wasn’t a long stay at the main complex but, enough to feel the buzz of the crowd. After heading back to the campsite it was time to get some rest before the next shift, quite easy when you have the world’s most expensive mobile rocking you to sleep.
After some talking about the Le Mans 24 hours, Stephane asked if I’d ever been to the event, I mentioned that I had been in 2013 and 2014 but, only as a spectator. The words he said next will live with me for a long, long time. He said; “Not spectate it but, what about come marshal it this year?” My eyes must have lept out of my head as he could tell I was interested, he passed me his contacts and said to apply to the first chicane.
Shift two Saturday 15 June, 3am-7am: After a short sleep, I was up again for my second shift, the racing was the same and so was the energy from everyone on post. During my stint, there was a safety car deployed to help aid the recovery of a crashed car, a surreal moment as a race that had been roaring with noise fell silent for a minute or two between safety car trains. The natural hum of the surroundings at the point was only broken by a solitary whistle from one marshal to another in an attempt to transfer a message or instruction.
After being treated to sunset at the main complex, my shift saw me witness the spectacular sight of the sun rising about the Mulsanne straight, uncovering the wounds of night warfare that the cars had endured whilst the rest of the motorsport world slept.
After realising I had a chance to marshal Le Mans, the messages between Steph and I were frequent. I didn’t want to miss the application and with his guidance, and the excellent assistance of previously mentioned Andy. I asked Steph again the post number to clarify and it was only then I realised what “First Chicane” meant, it was the one on the Mulsanne, one of the fastest points of the circuit into a heavy breaking zone. Now smiling ear to ear, I had got myself signed up to the ACO and submitted my application. All I had to do was wait.
Break two, Sunday 16 June, 7am – 2:30pm: I’d be a liar if I said that once I was off post at 7am I was that hyped I couldn’t sleep till the end of the race but, I wasn’t. I was tired and with my ear defenders still on and my phone alarm clocks turned off, I slept and slept for a long time.
After surfacing from my pit, it was time to pack down the tent and load the car ready for the trip home. There were photos and stories shared between myself and the new friends I had made whilst on post, a few photos ready for the final bit of track action.
The wait was over, and I was going to Le Mans, the next step was booking ferries, sorting out my tent and getting down to the circuit. Leaving work on the Tuesday night before the race, myself and three other British marshals arrived in Le Mans just after 8am on the Wednesday. We grabbed lunch and went to sign-on to get our passes and our overalls, all before heading to post to meet our teams.
Shift three, Sunday 16 June, 2:30-3pm: The final stint goes by very quickly and it becomes quite an emotional ride, the tiredness quickly leaves as you realise the event is coming to an end. The minutes are ticking down and the chequered flag is getting closer. Every marshal is now on post, some you haven’t seen in more than a day even though you’ve not been too far away from them.
The race is over, but the emotions aren’t. As the cars come round on their parade lap you’re stood trackside waving flags and celebrating the great achievement of making 24 hours, not just for the drivers but, for everyone even your fellow marshals. You’re overwhelmed that once the last car goes by you’ll have to head home and it’s quite a sad moment as you really have made a family, but that sadness turns to happiness as you realise you’ve shared this great race with some great people and you may be able to do it all again next year.
You’ve got your shifts for the weekend ahead and you dive straight into marshalling with the first session on Wednesday. Then Thursday is pretty much the same before you have a day off to explore the paddock and meet up with fellow marshals on Friday as there is no track activity. Saturday comes and it’s time to get serious, the race starts at 3pm and I was on post for the start, as the race ticks closer there are handshakes all round wishing each other good luck. The entire week has built up to this point, the race has started, the roar of the engine and crowd can be heard on my post then, over the crest comes one set of headlights, then another, another two, another four, another ten. This is happening, Le Mans is heading straight for you.
Written By Robert Lee