June 09 2010
This weekend sees one of the highlights of the year for lovers of motorsport. The 78th Grand Prix of Endurance or, as it’s more commonly known, the Le Mans 24 Hour, gets under way at 3pm on Saturday at the fabled Circuit de la Sarthe in north-west France. The famous race, which takes place partly on public roads and partly on a designated racetrack, was watched last summer by more than 234,000 spectators and has been synonymous down the years with some of the most glamorous marques in motorsport history, from Bugatti, Bentley and Alfa Romeo to Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin.
The most celebrated feature of Le Mans used to be the standing start. The 55 cars would line up against the pit wall with their drivers on the other side. When the flag dropped – a French Tricolore, naturellement – the drivers ran across the road and jumped into their seats. One or two engines would invariably fail to start but the rest of the field would roar off in a cloud of testosterone. This hair-raising tradition ended in 1969, one of a series of safety measures intended to protect both the crowd and the spectators. But the winning cars must still have the right mixture of speed and durability to keep going until Sunday afternoon – though there have to be three drivers in each car and none of them are permitted to be at the wheel for more than four hours at a time.
Sporting subjects haven’t always translated successfully to the big screen. For every classic, such as Martin Scorsese’s superb 1980 boxing movie Raging Bull, there have been absolute turkeys, such as the 1981 football fiasco Escape To Victory starring the unlikely trio of Pelé, Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone.
But Le Mans has its very own 1971 cult film of the same name starring Steve McQueen, the ultimate symbol of all things fast and cool. McQueen plays Mike Delaney, an American in a Porsche 917 who duels throughout the race with the Ferrari team, finally engineering a daring manoeuvre that enables Porsche to triumph even though he himself finishes second. “When you’re racing,” his character says in one typically laconic exchange “...it’s life. Anything that happens before or after... is just waiting.”
McQueen actually wanted to take part in the 1971 Le Mans contest but the film’s producers wouldn’t let him. He did, however, compete in the 1970 Sebring 12 Hour endurance race in Florida. Due to a motorcycle accident, his left foot was in plaster but he and team-mate Pete Revson (who allegedly drove for eight of the 12 hours) finished second.
Many Le Mans competitors – from the Belgian Jacky Ickx in the 1970s to Britain’s Nigel Mansell this year – are past or present Formula One drivers. Maybe one day Lewis Hamilton will make a Le Mans appearance. He did, after all, feature last summer alongside the image of Steve McQueen in a Tag Heuer video commemorating the 40th anniversary of the blue-faced Monaco Chronograph that the actor wore during the filming of Le Mans.
Writing about the 2010 F1 season in April I suggested that, Hamilton aside, the returning Michael Schumacher might be worth a saver for the World Drivers Championship. Unfortunately, the German – or, to be more precise, his Mercedes – has been well off the pace in the early races, but I reckon Hamilton’s McLaren will improve as the season wears on and a buy of his total seasonal points on the spread betting markets at 228 with Sporting Index could yet be a profitable investment.