The first 24-hour car race at Le Mans was run as early as 1923, on the present 13.6km Sarthe circuit, with average speeds of 92kph (57mph) – these days, the drivers average around 210kph (130mph). The Sarthe circuit, on which the now world-renowned 24 Heures du Mans car race takes place every year in mid-June, stretches south from the outskirts of the city, along ordinary roads. When the competition isn’t on, the simplest way to get a taste of the action is just to take the main road south of the city towards Tours, a stretch of ordinary highway which follows the famous Mulsanne straight for 5.7km – a distance that saw race cars reach speeds of up to 375kph, until two chicanes were introduced in 1989. Alternatively, visit the Musée des 24 heures wmusee24h.sarthe.com) on the edge of the Bugatti circuit – the dedicated track section of the main Sarthe circuit, where the race starts and finishes. It parades some 150 vehicles dating as far back as 1873, ranging from the humble 2CV to classic Lotus and Porsche race cars. The focus of the museum is the characters who made the race famous. Vintage newsreel along with newspapers and mannequins in period costume keep this interesting even for the non-car fans.
During the race weekend, you’ll need a ticket to get anywhere near the circuit. Buy them direct from the organizers at wlemans.org. You’ll need a separate ticket to get access to the grandstands, and be sure to book well in advance. Many enthusiasts’ clubs and ticket agencies offer tour packages including accommodation – otherwise impossible to find at race times – and the crucial parking passes; try wclubarnage.com or look through the adverts in a motor-sports magazine. True petrolheads can book themselves a place at one of the circuit-side campsites.
Outside of race days, you can watch practice sessions, and there’s the bikers’ 24 Heures Moto in early April and the Le Mans Classic in July.