The Le Mans experience

Most motoring enthusiasts aspire to savour the very special atmosphere of the Le Mans 24 hour race. Certainly, I’ll never forget my one and only time at the circuit for the 24-hours.

For us, the build up started before we had even left the UK. On the motorway to Portsmouth we found ourselves beside a cavalcade of Union-Jack-bedecked Morgans on their way to the circuit.

But, what if you can’t make it to the race itself? Well, join me for a pictorial visit to the Musée des 24 Heures in Le Mans.

But, if you include it in your itinerary, you can do more than just look at the cars.

Much of the circuit for the 24-hour race is on public road, so you can drive in your own car, or hire car. Just remember that – unlike the drivers in the race – you have to stick to the speed limits!

Ford GT 40

This 1967 Ford GT40 is one of the first exhibits you see in the museum. Ford built the GT40 – based on the Lola Mk 6 – to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. Famously, it is said that the spurned Ford takeover of Ferrari was the impetus to go out and beat Ferrari at its own game. Ford succeeded in its aim, winning four consecutive times from 1966 to 1969.

Sausset 2016

An amazing story of determination is told in the exhibit above. Frederic Sausset is the first quadruple amputee to drive and finish the 24-hour race.

Adding to the story of enterprise and ambition, he competed in 2016 driving his own car entered by his own team.

Like so many people, the 48-year-old had a love of beautiful cars and dreamt of competing. But, five years ago his life was changed. He sustained a scratch on his finger and, as fate would have it, a bacterium entered his body and started attacking the extremities. He fell into a coma and, to stop its spread, doctors decided the only solution was to amputate his forearms and his legs at the knees.

As well as fulfilling an ambition, Frederic Sausset saw his goal as “sending a positive message about disability”. For Sausset, the gearbox was set to automatic and pedal extensions were fitted to the brakes and the accelerator. On Frederic’s right forearm he used a prosthetic sleeve that engaged with a box on the steering column.

Frederic was lifted in and out of the car, using the racing harness, by his team of mechanics. Because teams in he 24-hour race have three drivers, the car had to be swiftly adapted to a manual gearbox and conventional steering wheel at each driver change.

Bentley Speed 8

Bentleys were most successful at Le Mans in its earlier years, so it was very apt that the marque returned to Le Mans after a 73-year absence. Their first reappearance at Le Mans was in 2001 with the Speed 8 (above). Two years later it won.

The Bentley 3L Sport Torpedo Vanden Plas (below) recalls the early glory years. This car won in 1924 after setting a new lap record the previous year.

Bentley 3L Sport Torpedo Vanden Plas

While cars like the Bentleys of the 1920s used vast petrol engines to give them Le Mans winning power, in these more environmentally-friendly days, the move has been for greater efficiency.

The 2013 Audi E-tron Quattro R18H (below) is a hybrid diesel-electric with a 3.7-litre diesel V6 engine plus a flywheel accumulator system designed by Williams Hybrid Power. Two 101PS engines power the front wheels.

Audi E-tron Quattro R18H

Ferrari was the dominant force at the Le Mans before Ford broke their run with the GT40. But this is how it began with this Ferrari 166 Barquette Touring (below) that took Luigi Chinetti to victory in 1949. What better way to put the shadow of the Second World War into the background than by celebrating Ferrari’s first victory in this gorgeous red car.

1949 Ferrari 166 Barquette Touring

Cadillac Northstar LMP 900

Le Mans may be seen as a quintessentially European event, but the Americans have come “over here” to try and show us who’s boss. In fact, I was surprised to discover Cadillac’s first entry was back in 1950. The Cadillac Northstar LMP 900 prototype (above) competed from 2000 to 2002.

Porsche 911 GT1-98

The Porsche 911 GT1-98 (above) was designed to match the pace of Mercedes and Toyota. It succeeded with first and second place in the 1998 race, but some would attribute some of Porsche’s success to the reliability problems that dogged Mercedes and Toyota in that race.

Every winner is represented at the museum. If there isn’t a full-size car on show, there is a rather smaller one in the display cases. Below are models of the victorious first and second place Ecurie Ecosse Jaguars from 1957.

Ecurie Ecosse Jaguars took first and second in 1957

So, if you are planning a trip to France and it doesn’t coincide with the 24-hour race. It’s still worth heading to Le Mans to visit the Musée des 24 Heures and perhaps to sample some sedate driving down the Mulsanne Straight.

Oh, just one word of warning. Check the prices in the museum shop before you decide to buy a T-shirt, sweatshirt or jacket as a memento of the visit. Unless we got the exchange rate entirely wrong in our heads, the blow to your credit card could be pretty hefty.
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