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The allure, the legends, and the history behind Circuit de la Sarthe

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The #23 Porsche Konstruktionen Porsche 917 K driven by Richard Atwood and Hans Herrmann drives under the Dunlop Bridge during the International Championship for Makes 24 Hours of Le Mans race on13 June 1970 at the Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans, France. Photo by Rainer W. Schlegelmilch, via Getty Images. All other images by Stefan Bogner.

[Editor’s Note: While Siegfried Rauch’s new book, “Our Le Mans: The Movie, the Friendship, the Facts,” documents his friendship with Steve McQueen and the various behind-the-scenes goings-on behind McQueen’s iconic film, we wanted to excerpt one chapter in particular, which focuses on the legend and the history of the famed Circuit de la Sarthe.]

Le Mans – it’s one of those alluring names; dazzling, enigmatic, complex. The fact that the city of Le Mans is the capital of the Sarthe department, in the catchment area of the Loire, with a slow-growing population of 144,000, is largely irrelevant in this part of the world. Such facts are known only to the types of people who sit in the torture chair of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The architectural treasures, including a Gallo-Roman city wall from the third century and the elegantly buttressed Romanesque-Gothic Saint Julien Cathedral, have never really been on the tourist trail. And connoisseurs from abroad aren’t exactly clambering over each other to sample the culinary delights of the city’s one and only Michelin-star restaurant.

It’s a little-known fact that England’s King Henry II was born in Le Mans. But it’s an important one – after all, it was he who, on 29 December 1170, famously had four of his knights brutally murder his clerical adversary and former friend, Chancellor Thomas Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral; a misdeed that had considerable literary consequences. But history and architecture aside, Le Mans is synonymous with the 24-hour race, the original that has eclipsed so many clones, like the 24 Hours of Daytona, Spa, or the Nürburgring, and even the entire Le Mans series contested on many continents. A single victory at the Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans represents the greatest honor there is in this industry. With the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix, these three classics make up the triumvirate, the three pinnacles that tower above the swarming plethora of racing events around the world. And the greatest of them all? Each of them!

In 1987, a chicane is added at the fast approach to the famous Dunlop Bridge to reduce the speed. In 2005 and 2006, this passage is further modified to accommodate a larger run-off area, especially for motorcycle races.

Each stands for something different: Monaco represents grace, glamour, and glory – the ultimate Grand Prix; Indy epitomizes the full-throttle orgy; and Le Mans is the apotheosis of long-distance sports car racing. Somebody once came up with the idea of a Triple Crown, an imaginary distinction for victory at all three events. To this day only one person has managed this feat: the mustached Englishman Graham Hill, Formula 1 World Champion of 1962 and 1968, five-time winner in the Principality between 1963 and 1969, Indianapolis winner in 1966, and victor on the Sarthe circuit in 1972. Surprisingly, Hill never receives a front-row seat in the ranks of the greatest.

Our current hotshot, Juan Pablo Montoya, notches up victories at Indy (2000) and Monaco (2004), but stubbornly refuses to take on Le Mans. From 29 attempts, the brilliantly versatile Mario Andretti wins the Indianapolis 500 only once (1969). There’s talk of the Andretti Curse. This jinx also follows the clever Italian-American to other battlefields: despite his often-expressed keen interest, the top spot at the two other premier events remains elusive, like water and delicious fruit for the thirsty, hungry Tantalus in the Greek myth.

Only change is constant: Like the Grand Prix circuit in the Principality of Monaco, the storied racetrack of Le Mans has received ongoing modifications; for instance the 1991 and 1992 upgrade to a new and modern pit complex. Driving errors are now punished less severely.

In the meantime, the days of the all-rounders seem to be gone and the specialists have taken over. In particular, Formula 1 only reluctantly allows its racers to tackle the classic. In 2015, the F1 chiefs permit Nico Hülkenberg, one of the most talented young aspirants, to travel to La Sarthe. He promptly returns as the winner. However, the top step of the podiums at Indy and Monaco remain as blank spaces on his résumé. Hülkenberg is still young. Perhaps one day he will make the decision to knock Graham Hill off the pedestal and seize the Triple Crown for himself, and maybe Lady Luck of the Racetrack will help him in his quest.

Chicanery: Exiting the Ford chicanes, shown here going against the driving direction, the vehicles accelerate toward the finish line, with the fastest cars doing roughly 125 km/h in third gear. By the time they enter the Dunlop curve at the end of the pit complex they’re already back to 285 km/h in sixth gear. These chicanes are introduced in 1968 to herd the field together and reduce the speed along the following straight. Seasoned Le Mans specialist Mark Webber advises caution when negotiating the second chicane, especially as the passage is bordered by relatively high curbs.

At the Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg, contested a week after the Sarthe marathon, Hülkenberg walks through the paddock as if swathed in an invisible purple cloak – the sprinter who became a long-distance athlete, the 100-meter runner who outpaced the veterans on their own turf in the 1,500-meter event. Sporadic applause greets him; astonishment at something so utterly unusual. Nico Hülkenberg gets the message. Le Mans demands a different type of heroism, a deeper symbiosis with the vehicle, the clever management of the reserves of man and machine, complete immersion into the 24 hours with day and night, wind and weather. Ready at all times: a preparedness for compromise between brutal speed, and the essence of the time-honored racing driver mantra: in order to finish first, you first have to finish.

As Le Mans veteran Hans Herrmann knows after 14 races here, he who goes like a bat out of hell through Tertre Rouge, Mulsanne Corner, Arnage or the chicanes in the early phase, has already lost. More commonly, sensitive Le Mans winners virtually carry their battered cars, like feverish children, over the finish line. A prime example is Jürgen Barth in 1977 with his Porsche 936. Recently, the race organizer, Automobile Club de l‘Ouest, has put a stop to the dangerous habit of parking defective but still drivable cars for hours in the pits or at the side of the racetrack to ultimately limp, wounded, over the line at the end to score. Today, competitors must cover a certain distance in the last hour, and a total of 70 percent of the winning team’s distance. The 100 percent record is set in 2010, with an impressive 5,410 kilometers.

Le Mans at the beginning of the third millennium, however, leaves little room for play. In the hunt for ever-more distance in ever-decreasing time, the trite and fashionable term ‘deceleration’ is left completely by the wayside. Man and machine are usually competing at 90 percent of their potential, sometimes even more, reveals Mark Webber, a Porsche factory driver and 2016 World Champion. Plus, Le Mans creates its own heroes. For many years, the full-throttle jack-of-all-trades Jacky Ickx tops the winners’ list with six victories at the 24-hour French marathon. Netting two vice championship titles in the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship

Soyez prudent: The Ligne Droite des Hunaudières, also known as the Mulsanne straight, runs over a public road, the Route Départementale D338. Apart from on race weekends, anyone attempting to reach the speeds that are possible here would be prosecuted, with their driving license revoked for life – and more.

(1969 and 1970), the long-standing national hero of Belgium seems to have mastered the quirks and dramas of the French classic best. With a spectacular campaign, he dispels an old custom, the famous Le Mans start. From time immemorial, the pilots had sprinted across the finish straight in a semi choreographic, semi-athletic exercise, to their waiting cars. In 1969, Ickx pointedly strolls over the track, leisurely buckles himself into the cockpit of his Ford GT40, heads off amongst the mid-fielders – and wins by a hair’s breadth in a breathtaking finale against Hans Herrmann at the wheel of his Porsche 908. In 1970, the practice of parking cars diagonally in front of the pits is upheld. However, the drivers must now be sitting behind the steering wheel. The following year, the organizer gives in to demands for a rolling start – a thoroughly sensible and modern emulation of the Indianapolis 500. Derek Bell is hot on Ickx’s heels with five Le Mans wins under his belt, yet with none of the drama; Bell joins the Belgian in a team three times; twice he’s paired with his favored teammate Hans-Joachim Stuck and the American

Al Holbert. And it seems as if it will remain like this forever – until the Dane Tom Kristensen eclipses them all with nine wins between 1997 and 2013. In the manufacturers’ rankings, Porsche has advanced to the number one spot, with 18 triumphs.c Audi sits in second place (13) and then comes Ferrari – unchanged for quite some time now – with 9. In the sixties, the feuds between the Maranello Red and Ford from Detroit turn into a war of the continents, much to the delight of the fans. From 1966 (in 1968 and 1969 under the direction of the gifted ringleader, John Wyer), the American manufacturer’s comparatively crude GT40, in its respective versions, beats the graceful creatures of the grumpy Commendatore four times straight. The hellfire of Le Mans traditionally hardens technical innovations, or destroys them; the compressor and turbo engines as well as the eerily-panting gas turbine and screaming Wankel motor that propels the Mazda 787B to victory in 1991.

Ultimately, and against all expectations, the diesel engine and various types of hybrid drives prove to be a winning formula. Nico Hülkenberg’s Porsche 919 is a true miracle of engineering art, an outstanding example of cutting-edge downsizing, built around a two-liter V4 with direct fuel injection, very effectively assisted by two powerful energy recovery systems (brake and exhaust energy). Added up, the round, voluptuous, almost magical horsepower figure comes to 1,000. The decisive impetus for production, cited repeatedly as an argument by motor racing advocates, turns into a spectacle at Le Mans. In 1953, for example, the disc brake withstands its baptism of fire in the Jaguar C-Type. Two years later, the air brake on the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR proves unsatisfactory. On the roads, it would have looked rather strange.

Le Mans – a tradition that began with the first race twice around the clock on 26–27 May 1923; or to put it another way, it represents constantly changing regulations and track layouts. It means torture for the drivers and vehicles, although initially many aspects are treated rather freely. A whole convoy of British club racers flocks to the Promised Land on the other side of the English Channel. Awaiting the pilot at the pit stop is not only the eager-to-serve teammate, ready to jump into the cockpit, but also a small picnic with champagne and truffle-infused foie gras, comparable to supper at the opera festival of Glydebourne, back home. This is France, after all.

In 1967, a premier is celebrated in 1967 which entails a flagrant disregard for champagne. After his  win in the muscular GT40 MkIV, with fellow US racing legend A.J. Foyt, the tall Californian Dan Gurney stands at the very top of victory stand. Below him are the company VIPs under the leadership of Henry Ford II, and a number of journalists who made disparaging remarks about the 1967 Le Mans project. Gurney shakes the magnum of Moët & Chandon and unceremoniously empties the contents on their heads. And thus the tradition of the champagne shower is born.

Le Mans means chaos, hype, and slowly-ticking minutes; rain, fog and chill, the burning question about the meaning of life in the pale light of dawn, the unshakable decision never again to return, the excited anticipation to soon be back in the action.

Monumental building: In 1991, the mighty ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) demolishes the modernized pit complex built in 1956 for 300 million francs, and in its place erects an ostentatious new building with a large press center in the upper floor, and initially 50 spacious garages, later extended to 56 and finally, in 2016, to 60. Of course, the Circuit Bugatti, which opened in 1965, also benefits from this.

[“Our Le Mans: The Movie, the Friendship, the Facts” is available through publisher Delius Klasing or via Amazon.]