100 years of Le Mans in 3 weeks…

July 02, 2023

One of the fab things about being a motorsport photographer is some of the amazing events I get to shoot at. Some are more special and significant than others. Non more so than when it is a point in history at an iconic track. This year I travelled 100 years of Le Mans in 3 weeks at the famous Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans.

A wee bit of Photoshop Wizardry…. My covering of Le Mans Modern & Classic, 3 weeks apart

What’s different?

The Le Mans 24Hr (24 Heures du Mans) is ‘a’ 24 hour race. All the cars start together on Saturday afternoon and 24 hours later the chequered flag greets the winner. The Le Mans Classic is 24 hours ‘of’ racing. The cars are split into 6 plateau (grids) each will compete in 3, 45 minute races across 24 hours with at least 1 race being in the dark.

First up was the Centenary 24 Hours of Le Mans. First held in 1923, this was to be the 91st running of this epic race. This year’s special centenary race attracted a staggering 325,000 spectators to the circuit. World War II and the rebuilding of France got in the way of the other 9 races. Much of the original route of the track is still in use along with its iconic landmarks and traditions.

Le Mans 24Hr in yellow and blue
Le Mans 24Hr in iconic yellow and blue

In 1995 the now annual Driver’s Parade was started. brought in to appease the locals having their town taken over and for those that could not afford the tickets. Crowds of fans line the street through Le Mans town centre, up to 10 deep in places. All keen to see their heroes and nowadays to catch any souvenirs thrown by the drivers as they drive past. I have not covered this part of the event before… the atmosphere is crazy!!

Spectators up to 10 deep at the barriers for give-aways from Ferrari Car 50 in the Drivers Parade
Got to keep your strength up for the Drivers Parade.
Red White and Blue in the campsite
Concert and fireworks… Red, White and Blue lights up the campsite

Traditions and ceremonies dealt with, the concerts and fireworks were done, it was time to get down to business. Race Day had arrived, these modern computerised rocket ships on wheels tore across the Start Line. Ahead of them lay 24 hours lapping around the most iconic motor racing circuit in the world.

Patrouille Acrobatique de France... Fumer Sur!!!
Patrouille Acrobatique de France… Fumer Sur!!! (Or as the Red Arrows would say…. Smoke ON!!!)
Le Mans 24Hr Ferrari Hypercars
Ferrari Car 50 leads eventual winning Car 51 through the Dunlop Chicane – shot from outside track service road
Le Mans 24Hr Penske Porsches
2 Penske Porsches exit the Esses heading to Tetre Rouge – shot from outside track service road gets you a great angle
Porsche Car 6 dives into the Pits for fuel & a driver change….and a quick valet
60 kph captured at 1/25 of a second shutter speed

Into the night….

Now I am convinced that if you lay a collection of photos out on a table and asked even the most non-motorsporty (I’m sure it is a word…tis now!) person to pick out the 1 from Le Mans…. I guarantee they’ll pick out the one in the dark. To me this what makes the 24 Heures du Mans so special for spectators.

Winner of the Centenary 24 Hours of Le Mans
Ferrari 499P Hypercar, Car 51 in front of iconic Dunlop Bridge during Thursday’s night-time free practice for the Centenary 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Glowing brake discs are awesome modern or classic Le Mans
Midnight and some spectators are still awake in the corporate boxes above the Pit Lane

Where’s the best place to be at night?

In the Pit lane! Overhead lights blazing down on the crew as they wait their car to arrive. Then burst into action…. with crews of barely half what we see in an F1 Pit Crew it is amazing to watch the speed of the mechanics.

Everybody ready??
23:22 and 32 seconds….. Stop Board out, hit the marks!
23:22 and 34 seconds…. Fuel hose going on
23:22 and 35 seconds…. Clean the windscreen
23:22 and 44 seconds…. Fabio Scherer (broke his left foot at first Pit stop 50 mins into the race) hops clear in the driver change over
23:22 & 46 seconds…. driver strapping up as last of fuel goes in
23:24 and 28 seconds…. 4 new tyres, refuelled, drivers changed & out in 2 minutes

Unlike the 20 mechanics in an F1 Pit Crew all descending on the car at once, sending it away in just over 2 seconds. Only 2 wheel guns and 4 mechanics are allowed in the Le Mans 24 Pit Lane. They cannot start until the fuel hose is released and clear of the car. Barely 2 mins 30 seconds and the car was on it’s way with 4 new tyres, a new driver and a full tank of gas (…and I’m wearing sunglasses… HIT IT)

Unlike the 20 in an F1 Pit Lane, only 2 wheel guns and 4 mechanics are allowed in the Le Mans 24 Pit Lane
New Tyres, New Driver, more fuel…..GO!!!

The cars barrelled on through the night. Rain at far end of circuit destroying many hopes as cars collide or end up in the barriers. Ferrari Hypercar 51 eventually coming home to take the historic chequered flag.

Centenary Le Mans 24 hour winners
Winning Car 51 driven by Antonio Giovinazzi, James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi overtaking slower cars at the Esses

Time to head for the EuroTunnel again…

5500 images processed and selections sent to clients from LM24, the phone goes and I’m heading back again. Joining the record breaking 235,000 classic racing fans attended this year’s, 11th running of the Peter Auto Le Mans Classic.

This time I have clients taking part in 2 of the plateau/grids of the Le Mans Classic. Looking down the entry list of 800 racing cars formed into the 6 grids, it’s amazing to see a few cars that were built in 1923. I felt I had literally covered 100 years of Le Mans in 3 weeks….

1929 Bugatti Type 35B
1929 Bugatti Type 35B – shot from outside service road at Dunlop Bridge
Twas but a blurrr

These early race cars were often sport or touring road cars of the period and almost always had no seat belts. They race as ‘in period’ today so imagine flying down the Mulsanne Straight at over 100mph on a slippy leather bench-seat with nothing strapping you in!!!

A slightly different looking paddock to the Le Mans 24 Hour

Further down the grids, the years get progressively more modern. From the single seater cars of the 1930s and 40s, through the Jaguar E Types and Ford GT40s of the 1950s and 60s. The more recognisable saloon cars shapes of the 70s and 80s. All the way to Le Mans specials like Group C racers.

Jaguar E-Type at Le Mans Classic
Jaguar E-Type at Le Mans Classic
1989 Group C Porsche 962C helps the composition with the iconic Le Mans yellow and blue kerbs
Little bit of wheel waggling at Dunlop Chicane
Little bit of wheel waggling at Dunlop Chicane

A Classic night at Le Mans…

Le Mans Classic at night is just as exciting at the modern Le Mans 24 Hour…. Not quite as many glowing brake discs, though some were trying hard.

GT40 glowing brake discs
GT40 throws out the anchors and gets its brake discs glowing

The modern fuel injection systems in the LMP cars burn smart fuels efficiently. They produce small crisp blue shot of flame at the exhaust as the drivers lift and brake. Classic cars burn is a different petrol fuel and result is what there were more of, was flames….

Even in daylight you can’t miss them…. but as the light fell into darkness….lots and lots of bright yellow flames.

BMW CSL racing during Practice and Qualifying for the Le Mans Classic
Flames barking from the exhaust of this classic BMW CSL racing during Practice and Qualifying for the Le Mans Classic
Huge flames fire from the exhaust of this classic BMW M1
Huge flames fire from the exhaust of this classic BMW M1

As darkness fully closed in so did the rain… now we had the treat of flames and rain in the cars lights. A photographer’s dream.

Flames and Rain….a photographer’s dream
It wouldn’t be Le Mans without rain – Shot from marshals point on outside at Dunlop Bridge
Ford Capri in the morning sunlight at the top of the Esses Curves – shot from outside track service road by Dunlop Bridge

It’s often true that if you brave out the rain you’ll be rewarded with a great sunset or dawn. We didn’t get much of a sunrise at LM24, but LMC made up for it with some amazing morning light.

2 massive motorsport events to test both car and drivers… both very different and similar at the same time. 1 mega task of physical endurance to cover as a photographer. At one point during LMC I realised I was in my 52nd hour of shooting with only 4 hours sleep!!

By Skelly

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