I might have mentioned I’m a bit of a motorsports nut. I’ve been watching F1 for fully 23 years, and can name every F1 champion from 1950 to date instantly on request. Well this year I got a Eurosport subscription on my iPad, and was able for the first time to watch the Le Mans 24 hours from the start.
I like slow sports. They’re not fashionable in these days of impossibly short attention spans, but I like them. Give me a Test match over T20 any day. Give me a gruelling safety battle stretching over 35 frames of snooker, and you can keep your Pot Black. Well, Le Mans is like this. 24 relentless hours of cars going round in circles incredibly fast. For the most part nothing much seems to be happening. Frankly, it’s boring.
And that’s exactly what makes it so exciting.
There’s no spectacle in watching a cricket ball get tonked for six if you know the next ball’s likely to go the same way. You get excitement fatigue. Pretty soon you’re jaded and it just doesn’t thrill any more. You need the boredom, to make the excitement exciting.
Well this was my first proper Le Mans were I watched it for more than 12 hours, and it’s only when you follow it all the way through that you can fully comprehend just how long 24 hours is. I’d been watching for what felt like ages, my eyelids were drooping, and then I noticed there was still 21 1/2 hours to go. Jeez…
Gradually sun set, the headlights got brighter, nothing much was happening but no-one was pulling away. After 10 hours the favourite, Porsche #1, was out of the running after losing an hour to overheating. Audi were already not at the races, so there was just the #2 Porsche driven by three guys I’ve never heard of (and I’ve heard of quite a few drivers), and the two Toyotas.
Toyota have never won Le Mans. They haven’t won much if truth be told. They had the most lavishly funded F1 team for several years and never won a race, let alone a championship. Porsche meanwhile went into the race on the back of their 17th Le Mans win last year. Well that’s hogging it a bit.
As I woke after a few hours sleep it was clear that Toyota were on course. Their two cars and the Porsche were, incredibly, still all on the same lap, with Anthony Davidson, a brilliant British driver who acquitted himself well in F1 briefly, putting the hammer down to eek out a minute’s lead. Endurance racing is not meant to be this close!
4 hours to go… 3 hours… 2 hours… 1 hour to go.
As Toyota #5 left the pits after it’s final fuel stop, with Japan’s own Kazuki Nakajima at the wheel, you could see the Toyota management in the pits were absolutely made up. Beaming. And who could blame them. They will have been happier still to see a tyre stop for Porsche extend their lead to over a minute. Toyota win the 23 hours 55 minutes of Le Mans.
However, the race isn’t called that.
“NO POWER! NO POWER!” screamed Nakajima as his car started to slow. Five minutes remain, less than 0.2% of the race. Porsche told their driver to step on it. He took chunks out of Toyota’s lead. As Nakajima came round to start the last lap, his car ground to a halt and Porsche swept past. Joy in the Porsche pit, particularly for the lead car’s two co-drivers. Abject misery at Toyota. Their only hope now that lightning strikes twice, that Porsche breaks down handing the win to #6.
I have never seen such a cruel ending to a motor race. After 24 long, long hours, after years of work and money spent by Toyota. They had it in their grasp. No-one could say they didn’t deserve it.
But as Murray Walker always said, “to finish first, first you must finish…”