Monday, April 21, 2014

Day Three, Four, Five and Six in France: The Mulsanne Straight and the calling of a race track.

The last few days haven't exactly been productive on the blog but there just isn't always time to really put pen to paper. Having a limited amount of time with my girlfriend here means that I sometimes just need to cast this aside and let it wait. That can be a good thing though. Thoughts percolate a little longer and sometimes more meaning is derived from things when given some time to stew. I may have even managed to forget the irrelevant bits so that you don't feel the need to bring a very big bag of popcorn to the computer with you. Still, it might be a good idea to get a cup of tea.

The four days previous to this have really flown by with me engaging in two French meals with two very welcoming French families. I've ridden the VFR along the Mulsanne straight and as much of the Le Mans 24 Hours circuit as possible without going into the Circuit Bugatti. I've strolled through a busy racing paddock and eaten in a cafe with various Le Mans race suits pinned to the walls around me. I've seen a large old castle in a small village called Le Lude and even eaten in a Dutch-themed restaurant. There was a lot in those few days.

Keeping things on track for this blog and the audience that tends to read it lets begin on the Mulsanne straight.
The VFR by the armco that runs along the Mulsanne Straight
I had intended to run the VFR around the Circuit de la Sarthe, the famous 8.47 mile circuit, which is mainly composed of public roads. Having planned my route I set off and it didn't take long to see exactly where I was. The names on the signposts conjured up the ephemeral feelings of watching Le Mans races on the TV and hearing the commentators guide you around the circuit...Mulsanne, Arnage...they all seemed so familiar but in a very unfamiliar way. It is hard to put it into words but the overall feeling was one of real excitement and amazement. This was the place. And here were trucks and buses and cars just ambling by, using the roads as it was intended. No prototype racers here, no exotic Ferraris. There was the odd Renault 5 I grant you but that was about it! The amount of traffic actually made it relatively difficult to take any good pictures but the feeling of just riding along that straight and seeing the chicanes (and how well blocked off they were for obvious reasons) was very special. Going through a couple of the roundabouts on the straight (a couple of which are actually cut right through by the track for the week of 24 hour racing) I thought it fitting that the VFR was able to prowl along the Mulsanne straight and head out then toward Arnage and the Indianapolis bend. Many of its roots go back to Honda's endurance racers in the 80s and indeed the 90s too and so it seemed right that the VFR visit the home of endurance racing and take a peek around.

Stopping outside the stands on the main straight of the Bugatti circuit, where all of the races start from, I simply wanted to sit down and take it all in. I'm not used to this at home. Motorsport is very much a niche sport in Ireland and there is only one purpose built track in Ireland (Mondello Park) and, while I had fun there on the trackday I did on the VFR, it cannot provide the variety that a selection of different tracks could offer. On top of that it is not nearby, located near Naas in Kildare, it is about 3 hours from Cork. Not that far in the scheme of things but not altogether close either. Especially so when you consider that in another 3 hours you can be at the other side of the country! And so, having such a historic track so near where I was staying, together with motorsport being considered an equal with field sports (in fact more important in many senses) made this whole experience almost surreal.

Upon parking outside I had noticed some very highly pitched engine noises, something was definitely happening inside and so I ended up buying a weekend pass for the VdeV endurance series. €9 with paddock access was an absolute bargain I thought. Leaving the VFR behind I walked in to sample the atmosphere. While there was but a scattering of people in the stands I felt like I had the whole place to myself in a way and after watching some of the GT cars make their way along the straight and up towards the Dunlop chicane I ambled towards the paddock. Mondello had not been very busy for the trackday I had been at and on my previous visit to the Le Mans circuit it had been all but empty. Today however it was buzzing with activity. Michelin tyre technicians were working on small production lines, mounting wheels with tyres, balancing them and sending them off to various teams. The team trucks were neatly lined up with the backs of the trucks facing into the rear of the garages. Team personnel walked about with a purposeful air, some wheeling tyres or other equipment around the paddock. Having read about racing paddocks for a long time, and hoped to visit as many as possible in my lifetime, this was exactly what I had been expecting. It looked and sounded productive and yet, perhaps this depends on the race series, it was friendly and convivial as well. I am sure that for a lot of these people racing is not a job but a hobby that they pursue at the weekend. It didn't seem to make the action on track any easier, even during practice laps cars were running each other quite close into the corners which was interesting to see. The competitive spirit, whether it be amateur, semi-professional, or fully-professional, burns brightly at the track and it was clear that these were people who were thoroughly enjoying what they were doing. 

I would not be back at the circuit again until Sunday but riding the VFR back to La Ferte and hoping that I would not be in too much trouble for staying out much longer than I had originally planned ("I'm just going to bring the bike around the Le Mans circuit is all"...I hadn't known any racing was going on on the Bugatti circuit at the time) I felt that an important milestone had been reached. The VFR had seen the home of its roots. I had seen, and ridden on, miles of history. And my technical belly had been given quite the feed after all of that paddock access.

The next day was spent on a road trip but this time in a car as Denise, my girlfriend, and I, were chauffeured by fellow World Motorcycle Community member Frédéric Barré and his family on a Saturday drive to La Lude which is a big old mansion/castle about 30 minutes from Le Mans. The stately presence of the old building and fine grounds of the estate were a remarkable contrast from the noisy race track although what was also remarkable were the similarities. The estate was so well preened and perfectly laid out and this correlated with a well surfaced race track and a well organised paddock area. The Circuit Bugatti is far from the most interesting in the world, being a little bit of a cookie-cutter track with no real distinguishing features bar the uphill right turn toward the Dunlop bridge, but the paddock was very tidy and held a certain charm. I suppose it is a sense of history, something newer and better laid out circuits cannot quite capture yet. Le Mans has had a bit of a head start in that regard.
More like a race circuit than you might first think...
After an entertaining Saturday night with one of Denise's work colleagues and her family it was time to head back to the circuit to see some of the racing itself on the Sunday. Arriving in late I was sure that we had missed most of the action as a lot of the teams were packing up but there was quite a bit of racing still to be done in the various different classes. Not being a French speaker myself it was difficult to keep track of all that was going on as the entertaining PA-commentator, well to me at least, was keeping the locals up to date but not the one English-speaking Irishman in the midst of the other few hundred French people attending. Fair enough. Endurance racing is funny though because when the novelty of the sounds and sights wear off the nitty gritty is not quite as fun as more fast-paced races which end sooner. The delight, in endurance racing, is in the details so paddock access helped as you could roam through and see what was happening in the garages. Even hopping into some of the photographer posts around the track gave a good focus, haha, on the cars themselves as I pointed my camera and turned down the shutter speed. 

In a way, what was more interesting, was the Le Mans Legends Cafe/Restaurant in Le Mans city centre. After a day at the circuit it was the natural place to go afterward but this was not a crap eaterie which had latched on to the fame of the local race and hung some tacky souvenir-shop memorabilia on the walls to catch the unawares. This was the real deal with various items of car and bike bodywork, racetrack scratched and all, hanging by tables. Driveshafts rested on a shelf at the side of a stairs. A full Suzuki Endurance Racing Team GSXR1000 is in the front window. Race suits adorn glass cabinets around tables, one of which is made from an old Moto Guzzi. Recognising that both cars and bikes do the 24 hours at Le Mans was very endearing but more so was the originality of the place. This was authentic, and the food was good too. 
Race suits hanging up alongside gorgeous Le Mans race photos

Bodywork from an old Gulf WEC Le Mans car

Bodywork from a Corvette Le Mans car along with a drive shaft and brake disc. Stairs is on the right!
The thing I found fascinating about the Le Mans Legends Cafe was that it really normalised racing. I don't drink and have never found myself at home in a pub as such but I did in this one. Yes it's not a real pub in the sense that its main business is really food but it is also a bar. I felt at home because for me, racing, and all that comes with it, is a normal part of life. In fact it is a part of life that I very much enjoy. I enjoy watching it, analysing it, investigating the technical sides of it, and indulging in some of it on the local go-kart track about twice a year! In a world fairly dominated by mindsets, and media, that see only see field sports as sports, this place made me feel happy that I was interested in motor sport. While I undoubtedly gravitate to the two-wheeled variety, of course, I can appreciate and enjoy four-wheeled motorsport too and this place allowed me to mix both. If you are ever in Le Mans, or near it, then make sure you pay a visit. 

That all just about sums up the last few days here and today I packed my stuff in anticipation of leaving tomorrow for the ferry. There are some thunderstorms on the way it seems so the dream of riding through sunny France is postponed for now but at least some rain will keep the dust down. At about lunchtime today, it's after midnight here now, I will be on my way back to Ireland having enjoyed a few great days in France in the company of my long-suffering girlfriend who puts up with "vroom" noises from me and being dragged to the race track. I am sure that the journey home will provide many stories for this blog!


  1. Love it enjoy and be careful. Also tell us more and more pic

  2. Thanks Lonnie! Heading home today unfortunately but I am sure that there will be more stories and pictures from that too. Thanks again!