Once a year, France forgets to pretend it doesn’t like cars, and the magic of Le Mans happens. Hold on to your butts, it’s the Le Mans photodumpstravanganza!

I arrived at the track by around 9am on Saturday. The main benefit of being French is that I have family not too far from the track, so I get to get there early and get some comfy sleeping!

That’s a good thing, because France is experiencing something of a heat wave right now. Temperatures are hovering around 90°F all day. Not a cloud in sight, not many places to rest and cool down either, especially when the crowd really got it.

Not much was happening on track when I got there, so I went for a quick tour of the Village, the fan zones where you can find shops, exhibitions and refreshments. I wanted to be there before it got completely flooded with people. I saw among other things a booth for the French Air Force, Ken Block, and the new Panoz electric consept thingy (looks horrible up close, by the way).

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Hearing some noise on the track, I headed for the Dunlop chicane to see what was up. The Porsche Carrera Cup was racing, and it looked intense as hell!

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Almost immediately after that race was done, ELMS was on. The cars that races there are GT3 and LMP3 cars, which I had never seen compete before. These LMP3 cars sound amazing, almost like some Nascar V8 beasts! But the slower drivers of the class were way behind the fastest GT3 guys, so they aren’t actually that fast. It was fun and unexpected to see some GT3 racing on the Le Mans track, given the weird relationship that category has with the ACO.

It was then time to go grab a sandwich and head to the start/finish straight. There, I had to fight a bit to find a spot to watch the whole start of the race, and that was more than 2hrs before the cars even got on the grid! That grandstand area had become more of a campsite than the walking area it usually is. And with the sun high in the sky, no shadows to enjoy.

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Danish fans came to Le Mans for Tom Kristensen, they stayed for the beer

But I wasn’t complaining. Well, not much more than my French quota would allow, anyway! The track itself slowly started to fill up with both cars and people, as the grid was being prepared for the start of the race. I love staying there for the pre-grid, because it’s a great way to get even more hyped up before the race. You can see the cars up close and shiny for the last time, teams are generally awesome with the crowd (especially the Corvette crew), and you can even spot some celebrities here and there if you’re lucky.

Bruno Senna chilling in his Vaillante-Rebellion

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Mahk Wibbah

Then, as we get closer to the actual start of the race, the tradition starts to take over pre-race chaos, with a clearly established schedule. First, national anthems are played for each and every nation represented in the race, both for drivers and teams, except the French one. With so many anthems, that can take a while to get done.

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Non team-members are then told to evacuate the grid, and the remaining crews and drivers get in line by their cars for the next parts of the pre-race celebrations.

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The massive Le Mans trophy is then being driven to the back of the grid and given back to the ACO by the current title holder. But apparently if you win three times in a row, you get to keep it, and the ACO has to make a new one. So Porsche will be keeping that one at home!

Next, the French flag is being given to the officials, this time by a troopers coming down from a military copter. At that point the French national anthem gets played.

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But the race start is almost here.

The cars are told to leave the grid and start their lone formation lap. As they approach the starting line from the Porsche curves, the Patrouille de France paints the flag in the sky, as the crowd cheers in anticipation.

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Chase Carry, F1 boss, waves the heavy flag, as the cars come thundering by the packed grandstands for the first time. Only 24 hours to go!

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I only waited for the end of the first lap and then immediately left the place because I couldn’t see much anyway. Also, the star/finish straight, while an iconic place, isn’t normaly filled with racing action. So I spend the next 15mns or so walking up trackside to get to the outside of the sweeping right hander just after the Dunlop bridge. There, you’re on a bit of an elevation point, so you can see the cars for a while, emerging under the Dunlop all the way to Tertre Rouge.

After a while there, I got moving again, up north to Tertre Rouge itself. This, in my opinion, is one the best place to spectate the race. There are a couple of trees so you can cool down (or get away from the rain, which amazingly never happened this year), it’s not as crowded as other parts of the track, and the action there can be quite mesmerizing.

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Tertre Rouge comes just after a quite left-right, and the track gets quite narrow before opening up again for the Mulsanne straight. Cars are getting close to the wall, moving around the bumps as the drivers are pushing hard to get the most speed possible on the long, long straight. If you loose speed there, you’ll have to carry that deficit all the way to the first chicane, loosing a whole bunch of time.

It’s also a great place to really see the speed difference between the classes. The GT cars bounce around on the bumps and have to brake a bit before getting to the straight. The LMP2 cars are more composed, but you can see some drivers struggle as they go a bit wide on the exit. LMP1 cars, though, are magnificent. They seem to float above the bumps, even if you can clearly see the strains of high G forces on their bodies. And in a second they’re gone, with an eerie lack of noise too, even though there are no diesel engines racing anymore. Hard to wrap your head around how fast these cars are.

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Even there, it was getting too hot. So at 6pm, a couple of other Opponauts and me decided to get together and visit the track’s museum which was free for the weekend and hopefully has AC. It didn’t, but at least it packed an amazing collection of cars. I’ll have to do a separate post on it!

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As we got out, we were surprised to see that one of the LMP1 Porsches had dropped all the way back the order. We were clearly convinced that that was it for this car, and that Porsche was going to have a hard time fighting Toyota with only one car. Yeah. We were in for a trip.

It was around 8pm already and the temperatures had mercifully started to get more acceptable. Not comfy, but liveable. And with the sun getting lower and the trackside less crowded, it got easier to find some place to rest a bit while watching the race.

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I bought my second chicken-salad sandwich of the weekend (but not the last) and sat down along the pit straight, eating and watching the cars go by. Tired as I was, I wouldn’t have traded it for the best restaurant in the world. Can’t beat that view!

A Zone 60 was being deployed right in front of me. A Zone 60 is a part of the track that’s being momentarily limited to 60kph to allow marshals to clear the track of a stranded car or debris. I couldn’t see what had happened as it must have been on the other end of the straight, near the Dunlop. But it was fun to watch the cars come towards me at full speed, then drop down to pedestrian speeds in a couple a seconds, only to bounce on their speed limiter. As a result, the zone itself gets weirdly quiet, but as soon as the cars leave it they catapult themselves to race speed. The rate at which an LMP1 car can do this is just unbelievable. You watch them purring along at 60, and then suddenly they’re on the other end of the straight doing 250. It’s really hard to keep your eyes on them when they do that!

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I spent a couple of hours there, enjoying life. At 10pm, I had to slowly go back to my car. I was sleeping at my grandparents’ in Tours, about an hour from the track, and didn’t want to keep them up too late. So I traded a bit of Le Mans night magic for a real bed, which at the time felt well worth it.

But I quickly checked the stream before going to bed, and maybe that was a mistake. I watched, amazed, as the two leading Toyotas retired from the race. Hard to get to sleep after that!

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An all too familiar sight...

Woke up at 7am, was at the track by about 10am. Having walked north of the track on Saturday, I decided to go the other way, first to the Ford chicanes, then to the end of the Porsche curves, all before the sun got too hot.

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The Ford chicanes are one of my favorite spots, especially one place right on the outside of the last corner, where’s there’s a gap in the wall for the marshals, and so if you stick your lens through the fence you can get some clear pics of the cars!

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Moving down again, past the big red Motul grandstand, to the first part of the chicanes. You won’t get a clear shot there, but you can really see the cars flexing and moving over the curbs as the drivers decide to push a little more, with a few hours to go. The GT cars seem to be much easier around these tight corners.

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Feeling brave and not yet beaten down by the heat, I walked further towards the Porsche curves. Well, at least the last couple of corners. On the way I walked by the Porsche Experience Center building and some camp sites filled with the cool cars and empty beer bottles that tend to go with them. I also saw the n°1 Porsche retiring from its massive lead, on the big screen. What an unbelievable race. And now LMP2 cars were winning Le Mans.

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These esses are another good spot, not very crowded. You won’t get any shadow though. So I didn’t stay for too long, as it was getting hotter and hotter. Just enough time to do a couple of panning shots, and I walked back back to get my third chicken-salad sandwich meal of the weekend, just in time to hear that the Porsche had gotten back in the lead, with not much more than an hour to go.

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I love how dirty the cars get as the race goes on

It was then about 1pm, time to find a spot to watch the finish. I picked Ford chicanes, because I was just in front of a screen, in a bit of shadows, and could see the cars pretty well.

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And seeing how tense the GT finish was, I’m glad I could follow the action on the screen. It was a great moment to spend in the crowd, as everyone was going wild everytime the Aston got closer to the Corvette, and cheering when the two got past. No one seemed to be really partisan in that fight, just enjoying a great bit of close racing, which is as it should be!

As the 24 hours finished and the track opened for the fans to join in on the podium celebrations, I sneaked on the other side and climbed on top of the paddock area, where I got a prime view of the podium and the massive crowd cheering.

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A great end to an amazing weekend! France sure loves to remind you all year round that cars are not socially acceptable any more. But once a year, 270,000 people come to Le Mans to prove that they still care. And they do it in style!

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And of course, for more of my thoughts the pics I took of Le Mans’ quirks and features, head over to autotrader.com/oversteer my Flickr album:

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This is the third time I’m trying to get Kinja to publish this post, so I had to put way less pics in it than I would have liked to.