The Circuit de la Sarthe is one of the few active circuits in the world with more than 100 years of history under its belt and, in the Le Mans 24 Hours, it is without doubt home to the world’s most famous motor race.
Like all the great circuits, it has evolved through the decades – but its spirit is entirely untouched. That indefinable thing that makes Le Mans special has been jealously preserved by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest against much of the ‘progress’ that has afflicted other classic venues. Indeed, this race couldn’t – and arguably shouldn’t – happen anywhere else in the world. But since the country that created Grand Prix racing fell off the Formula One calendar, the Grand Prix de l’Endurance at Le Mans has taken on still greater importance in the national psyche.
As far as the circuit goes the one real concession to safety standards over the years has been the abandonment of the run through Maison Blanche, which once provided as stern a test as any to be found in motorsport. On today’s Circuit de la Sarthe cars exit the banked left-hand turn at Indianapolis and right-hander at Arnage and then have a quick squirt before turning sharp right into the vast chicane known as the Porsche Curves.
This is the only section of track that really resembles a modern Grand Prix venue – with its acres of gravel and run-off (although it is still somewhere that gigantic accidents can and do happen). All of that takes place on the other side of a wall that would not have looked out of place in Potsdamer Platz during the 1970s – and it means that the historic Maison Blanche section is there to explore at any time one might fancy doing so.
After arriving for the full modern Le Mans experience, the S&G found an opportunity to do a little motoring on the original circuit. The public roads that make up so much of a lap at Le Mans – from Tertre Rouge up the full length of the Mulsanne straight being the N138 to Tours, for example – remain open for as long as possible, giving one the opportunity to recreate that fantastic film of Mike Hawthorn’s lap in 1956.
This is the fast, tree-lined run from the exit or Arnage curving gracefully over the crest that was lowered as a concession to safety after the 1955 disaster and which still exists just as Hawthorn described it in his film. One then keeps barrelling downhill until just past the right-hand diversion into the Porsche Curves, where a roundabout now breaks what was once the long, long run towards the start/finish straight.
From the roundabout (which offers the main route in for the majority of the infield car parking at the 24 Hours), one then accelerates through the gentle right-hand kink up towards the fabled left-right around the old White House itself, visible on the left in this video, before the old circuit runs out and the Berlin-style wall cuts one off before rejoining the modern start-finish straight.
Impressions of driving down this stretch are primarily that it’s bloody narrow. Whether at 80mph in a Bentley 3-litre, 140mph in a Jaguar D-Type or 190mph in a Porsche 917 it would require superhuman courage at any time of day… never mind what it must have been like at night in the rain – as was so often the case.
Visiting Le Mans is essential to make one’s motoring life complete. Drinking in the sights and sounds of the 24 Hours is enough of a feast in itself, but when there is the opportunity to go and explore such riches as Maison Blanche at the same time, it becomes quite the most amazing location of its kind in the world.