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F1 could learn a few things from the magnificent Le Mans 24 Hours | Richard Williams

Le Mans remains a spectacle more thrilling than anything likely to be seen in F1 this year

The job of waving the tricolore to start the 85th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was given to Chase Carey, the new chief executive of Formula One. This is a man who wants more races on the grand prix calendar and more of them in major cities like Miami and New York, where his drivers can be promoted as global entertainment personalities. I wonder what he made ofhis time last weekend in the Loire countryside, where around 250,000 people more than for any F1 event gathered to watch 60 cars of various shapes and sizes race around the clock in the hands of 180 largely unknown drivers. It was everything he appears not to want and it was magnificent.

In 2023 Le Mans will celebrate its centenary. This is one of the great monuments of world sport, all the more valuable because it is a highly professional event that, even in the modern world, manages to retain a vitalelement of amateur participation and amateur ethos.

A lot has changed in the 50 years since I first went there. The drivers no longer start the race by sprinting across the track to jump into cars lined up against the pits. The epic 3.7-mile Mulsanne straight is now divided for safety reasons into three sections separated by artificial chicanes. Several of the corners have been reprofiled but the outline of the eight-mile circuit remains the same, as do many of its most distinctive features, such as the Dunlop bridge on the brow of the hill located just after the pit straight and the line of 20 or so large plane trees marking the outside of the exit from the right-hander called Tertre Rouge, although the sandbank beneath those trees has gone, depriving fans of the sight of drivers frantically attempting to dig their stranded machines out of the trap, with no outside help allowed.

The strip clubs have disappeared from the fairground near the Dunlop bridge and there is no longer a special early-morning edition of Lquipe on sale from trackside kiosks. Yet enough of the events traditions remain to safeguard its unique essence, just as the ambiance of Wimbledon has survived the arrival of the Centre Courts roof andother modifications.

There is nothing in the world quite like catching a couple of hours sleep and then waking in the French countryside to the sound of racing engines, as I and many others did on Sunday morning, knowing that important events had taken place during those hours of oblivion. The high hopes of a few favourites had been dashed by accidents or mechanical problems. Heroic comebacks were already under way.

Le
The strip clubs have disappeared from the fairground near the Dunlop bridge and there is no longer a special early-morning edition of LEquipe on sale from trackside kiosks Photograph: Eddy Lemaistre/EPA

This is how Le Mans has always been: a contest unfolding at a different pace. As with a five-day Lords Test or the 21-stage Tour de France, its popularity makes nonsense of the belief modern audiences require feeding in bite-sized chunks, with everything made as simple as possible. It might even lead you to wonder if the problem with Formula One is not too few races but too many of the wrong type, lacking character and variety.

For hardcore enthusiasts at Le Mans, there is endless fascination in the unfolding of 60 individual stories. The less committed spectator can enjoy a carnival atmosphere with, at its centre, a cavalcade of triumph and heartbreak divided into four easily understood categories. In that sense, too, it resembles one of cyclings grand tours, in which four jerseys are up for grabs, each fought over with great ferocity.

The contrasts at Le Mans come not just in shape and size and in ages of the drivers, which this year ranged from 19 to 62 but in speed. With so many cars and such significant performance differentials between them, no gimmicks are required to ensure the spectacle of overtaking is happening all the time, from start to finish. And if you had assumed the driver of a cartravelling at 210mph would have little trouble overtaking one going at 170mph, you should have seen Nick Tandy, last years winner, in a Porsche 919 from the LMP1 class the fastest cars in the field having to go right off the track while passing a gaggle of slower cars racing three abreast.

The 24-hour race was initially conceived as a way for motor manufacturers to demonstrate useful improvements in their vehicles: better lights, more effective weather protection, more reliable engines. The early regulations specified that competing machines had to carry touring bodywork with four seats forthe large cars and two for the smallerclasses, with running boards, ahorn, a hood, a rear-view mirror and so on. All repairs had to be carried out by the driver alone, using tools carried on the car.

While modern Formula One cars are practically forbidden to break down, Le Mans preserves the drama of misfortune. This years overall winner, a Porsche driven by Timo Bernhard of Germany and Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber of New Zealand, had limped into the pits on Saturday night and spent an hour having part of its energy-recovery system replaced. It returned tolaunch a resolute fightback from the tail of the field as a trio of Toyotas, its LMP1 rivals and the firm pre-race favourites, fell away.

This is a grand prix dendurance but it is also a proper race. The best contest this year, thanks to a successful handicapping system, was in the GTE-Proclass, where works teams from Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Porsche, Fordand Ferrari fought it out using modified versions of cars you might seein the posher kind of street. The battle in the last few laps between JonnyAdam in an Aston Vantage and Jordan Taylor in a Chevy Corvette, a proper ding-dong that ended in favour of the British team, was as thrilling as anything likely to be seen in F1 this year.

Those five manufacturers all have distinguished histories at Le Mans going back more than half a century but their continued involvement is not based on a sentimental attachment. They understand the value of investment in a form of motor sport where technological advances can be explored, applied andpublicised, and where the drivers are not a precious, pampered and petulant bunch firmly sealed off from the rest of humanity.

As the chequered flag came down on Sunday afternoon, even those to whom fortune had dealt the cruellest blows stood to applaud the winners. They had all been on a 24-hour adventure and 250,000 of us had been lucky enough to share it with them.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/jun/23/f1-could-learn-le-mans-24-hours

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