Just like the Monaco Formula 1 race, it’s a wonder that the 24 Hours of Le Mans still exists. Held each June since 1923 on partially public roads of Le Mans, France, the 24-hour race in its 91 years has become a thing of legend.
Originally organized to prove the reliability of the automobile, the event has become the single most significant race in the world. While the new regulations for 2014 make the contest even more relevant to consumer cars than before, in this story, I am not going to prattle about energy efficiency, lap times, or carbon fiber.
Instead, I’d like to look at Le Mans through another lens, not as a motorsport rivalry, but rather as an experience unlike anything else in the world. After all, Le Mans isn’t just an engineering exercise for gearheads; it’s one of the most distinctive, manliest, fashionable adventures on the planet.
France: I finally get it
I’ve dated women who raved of French fashion, French living, and French food. As much as I played along with their enthusiasm, I never really got it. That all changed the moment I stepped inside Chateau de Saint Paterne, my home during my 2014 Le Mans adventure.
Originally built in the 1400s, the Chateau had seen many lives, including a temporary abandonment in the 19th century. Today, though, it’s a mix of modern amenities and old-world charm. With 10 unique rooms, each with their own distinguishing comforts and layout, no one gets the same experience at the Chateau.
My room was roughly 800 square feet, with 15-foot ceilings, solid hardwood floors, granite fireplace, four post queen bed, claw-foot tub, and adobe shower, the installation of which I can only imaging was a nightmare, as homes build 600 years ago weren’t designed for complex plumbing.
The rooms on the south side of the Chateau, like mine, looked out onto a stunning and expansive property, which consisted of a few gardens, a few well-manicured, large grassy fields, and a modern but tasteful pool. In the evenings, we Chateau residents often spied rabbits and foxes frolicking just beyond the first set of trees in the furthest field. The sight was almost comical; if you had described the place to me, I wouldn’t have believed it existed, as it seemed too fairytale-y.
Wine and chocolate
There are many ways to experience Le Mans, but our Audi hosts insisted we get the full Le Mans treatment. That meant we started off our stay at the Chateau with a wine tasting. Who was I to argue?
The sun setting over our backs, we journalists gathered in the garden, greeted by our guest sommelier, Regis Hardouin-Finèz. He was an average sized man that I’d describe as decidedly French. He wore a well-tailored blue suit, a white shirt, black loafers, and red socks. He spoke with enthusiasm, but also with a hint of disdain. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Pouring glass after glass of wine for us, which included the wine voted “world’s best” in 2009, Hardouin-Finèz told us of the region from which it originated and its significance. He told us to smell the wine, which I was accustom to, but then he had is try something different. He asked us to stand, lean forward, take a sip of wine, look down at our shoes, and suck air into our mouths.
As crude as it sounded, he insisted it magnified the flavor of the wine. And he was right. Many of us performed this experiment with every sip, some for the added aroma of the fine French wine, and others out of crassness. Either way, it was a treat.
When it was a bit darker, Hardouin-Finèz broke out the chocolate. This wasn’t just any chocolate, mind you; this was fresh chocolate from a chocolatier in Paris and some of the most desirable and flavorful chocolate in the world. Hardouin-Finèz chose pieces to accent our wines. Red wines were paired with spicier chocolate morsels, while white wines were coupled with softer, subtler chocolates.
After much wine, chocolate, and merriment, we retired to our stately rooms to rest for the second day of qualifying and our first full day at the track.
After a brilliant night sleep, I awoke to not a wine hangover but the sounds of birds chirping and breakfast being made. I dressed and went downstairs to find the cook had prepared quite a spread.
In the dining room, each of the four large tables were covered in platters, each adorned with homemade baked goods, jams, cold cuts, fresh squeezed juices, and fresher coffee.
We quietly gorged ourselves on some of the most delicious breakfast treats I’d ever tasted, looking out onto the gorgeous grounds. Once we’d had our fill, Audi loaded us into long-wheelbase A8 TDIs and drove us to the Le Mans circuit.
Each big racing team has its own amenities for its guests. None, though, is perhaps as nice or as comprehensive as Audi’s. While Nissan had a big tent and Aston Martin had a couple doublewide trailers, Audi had two-story structures full of racing artwork, gourmet foot, and as much free booze as you could consume.
It wasn’t just one facility, either. Audi had four. It offered a “Garden”, which was exclusively a dining area. It had a Racing Club with “Sky Lounge”, which overlooked the starting line and pits. It had a media center near between the Garden and the track. And down near the last two corners of the track, it had an “Arena”, which was where it held press conferences during the day and parties at night.
I wish Americans dressed like Europeans.
Every one at Le Mans dressed impeccably – and I don’t mean a couple people, but everyone. Heck, even the commemorative shirts sold at the stands were slim-fitting, button-up collared shirts. Perhaps it goes without saying, but American racing merchandise doesn’t come close, that is, unless you consider XXXL t-shirts with images of Jeff Gordon drinking Pepsi to be on the same level.
If that weren’t enough, beautiful women held even the most mundane jobs at Le Mans. The early 20-something brunette getting your drinks was a knockout. The buxom blonde in the orange safety vest directing traffic was a stunner. It was nearly ludicrous.
Then there were the drivers. They, too, were all handsome. They stood about five-foot-eight-inches tall and were all in triathlon shape. In fact, Porsche driver Mark Webber even has a multi-discipline endurance race named after him. This was the story of Le Mans: beautiful, well dressed people, having a wild, loud weekend.
I had been brought to Le Mans by Audi to report on its Le Mans Prototype 1 cars, the R18 e-tron quattros. Immediately, though, I fell deeply in love with two other cars: the Chevrolet Corvette C7R and the Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
The sounds hooked me.
The Aston had a gentlemanly but evocative bass thrum, which separates it from the production car that sounds more like a machine gun shooting a tin can full of gravel. The Corvette, though, moved you – literally. It sounded like what I imagine a fleet of B52 bombers sounded like over Normandy: menacing, guttural, with a mix of unbridled, carbon-burning gravitas. I don’t know what Chevy was doing to get that sound, but I don’t care. My hat goes off to them.
Beyond those two, the sounds varied greatly. The Ferrari 458 Italias sounded like Formula 1 engines being played through a 1930s loud speaker, while the Audis barely had a sound at all.
When the race began, Toyota was the favorite. Though, many had their money on Audi, the reigning champ. Others, however, held out hope for Porsche, which was returning to Le Mans for the first time since 1998 after a 16-year hiatus.
The resulting race was one of the most spectacular races I’ve ever seen. If you’d like to read the play-by-play of the race, check out my feature story on Digital Trends.
We started the race in the Sky Lounge and over the day, made our way around to the various corners of the circuit, driven around on dirt roads by surly French men in Volkswagen vans.
Each corner – no matter how remote – had its own party. Some even had makeshift dance floors complete with disco balls.
Around 2 a.m., after having our fill of cigars and scotch at the Audi Arena, we found the A8s and made our way back the Chateau. In the morning, we awoke, had a quick croissant-based breakfast, and rushed back to the track.
We enjoyed sparking wine at the Sky Lounge, as we watched the end of the race. When two of the three Audis took the checkered flag, a half dozen beautiful German women handed out Audi flags and we waved them as the drivers passed, taking their victory lap.
When the trophy ceremony started, we were whisked to our fleet of A8s again and driven up to Paris to catch our respective flights.
A thing of beauty
Thanks to Audi, the 24 Hours of Le Mans 2014 was an experience I’ll never forget.
It wasn’t just the Chateau, or the plethora of beautiful German women, the spectacular, ear-shattering sounds of the racecars, or the triumphs and tribulations of the race itself that will stick with me; it’s the whole thing.
I urge – nay, insist – you to seek out the Le Mans race for yourself, even as a car or motorsports enthusiast or not, as there is something there for everyone to appreciate. It’s an event like nothing else in the world. And if you consider yourself a fella in-the-know, you can’t miss it.