How to race Le Mans at night | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

20th August 2021
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

You will probably be aware that Le Mans 24 Hours starts tomorrow, the third latest time in the year the race has run, after last year and 1968 when the race was held in September. And I’ve been wondering what fresh insight into the race I might be able to bring. And in all honesty, the answer is ‘not much’. I’ve never done the race nor even got close to doing it, so I really can’t tell you what it’s like.


However, what I have done is a few races in the Le Mans Classic and in a couple of cars that themselves did Le Mans in period: a Porsche 904 that came fourth in class and 11th overall in 1964 driven by double Targa Florio winner Herbie Muller, and a Ferrari 750 Monza that raced in the fated 1955 race, with Masten Gregory at its wheel. But back then the Ferrari retired early so when I raced it in the dark, I was doing something it hadn’t done in period. The Porsche on the other hand…

The only other place I’ve raced where you’re as aware of the history and, for want of a better word, romance, of the circuit is at Goodwood on those occasions I’ve been lucky enough to do the Freddie March Memorial race that drives into the dusk. To be driving into the sunset as you sweep through Goodwood’s curves in something truly historic, well you can get completely carried away by the occasion. And Le Mans? Well join me in Herbie’s Porsche as we exit the Ford chicane and rocket past the pits. It’s about three in the morning but, happily, it’s dry.

This is where you get to look up into the grandstands and feel briefly and erroneously famous. But soon you reach that arcing right hand curve with the super slow Dunlop chicane beyond it. Here lies the character of and key to the circuit: it’s not just the fastest place most people will ever race, it’s also one of the most difficult thanks to its habit of dishing up quick corners in one direction that lead directly to slow ones in the other, forcing you to brake with a fundamentally unbalanced car. In modern machines with slicks and downforce it’s far less of a problem, but despite being a power circuit, in something old you need a car that really handles too. And the 904 does.


But you’re still too tentative through the curve though it doesn’t matter too much because you’re about to lose all your speed anyway. The Dunlop chicane is awkward and boring, but then the relatively near flat sweeps that lead down to the Esses help you re-establish your rhythm. The Esses, taken in third or fourth are quite straight forward and fun, but you’re already thinking about Tertre Rouge, perhaps the most important corner on the track because your exit determines your speed down the fastest section of the Mulsanne Straight.

You have to be brave here, really launch the car and just trust it will stick. The 904 is so forgiving you feel you can get away with almost anything in it. And now you sit there as the straight opens up. The car only has around 210bhp from its flat six motor (the fiendishly complex flat four Herbie used still belongs with the car) but it’s very slippery, so you just have to wait as the speed accrues. Make sure you use all 8000rpm before pulling back into fifth, then peer into the gloom at 150mph trying to spot your braking point. The circuit is actually far better lit than other places I’ve raced at night, like Spa or Silverstone, but the price of getting it wrong doesn’t bear thinking about.


The chicanes are quicker than they look on the telly – third gear – but only the exit of the second is interesting as it takes you into the old kink, now barely noticeable, over the crest and down to Mulsanne.

Again, exit speed is crucial because you’re flat from here to Indianapolis and as fast as at any point on the straight. But there are a couple of curving crests that need your attention and a proper line. In the wet they might not even be flat.

It is from here to the Porsche Curves that the track is least changed. Every person who ever raced at Le Mans from 1923 to date came out of Mulsanne, over those rises, into Indianapolis, the tight left, the even tighter right at Arnage and off up the road back towards the pits. It is here, in inky blackness as you feel the Porsche go light over those crests and smell the barbecue smoke at Arnage that you feel most like a real Le Mans racing driver, even though you’re just a middle-aged amateur who’s lucked into a drive in a short and entirely unimportant race.

I’m not sad the track no longer spears through White House, because the corner is still out there on the old public road and it looks absolutely terrifying. As Richard Attwood once told me who drove Porsche 917s through here at unimaginable speeds, ‘if you cock it up there, or something goes wrong, there’s just nowhere to go’. And actually, the Porsche Curves are the best bit of the track, at least in a light but underpowered car: you come in fast, but each section is slightly slower than the previous one, so it’s all about how you position your car and how it copes with the transitions and the 904 is sensational. So, while around the rest of the lap the E-types and Cobras come howling past, here they simply hold you up.

Then it’s just a brief blast up to the fiddly but technically quite interesting Ford chicanes and away again on another lap. I’ve been lucky enough to race at most of grand old tracks still in use in Europe but none, not even Monaco, brings out the goosebumps like Le Mans. In its character and sense of occasion there is simply nothing like it.

  • Thank Frankel it's Friday

  • Column

  • Le Mans

  • Le Mans 24 Hours

  • Porsche 904

  • Ferrari 750 Monza

  • andrew-frankel-porsche-904-driving-main-goodwood-08022019.jpg

    Andrew Frankel

    Thank Frankel it's Friday: racing a Porsche 904 at Le Mans was one of my greatest experiences

  • le-mans-1954-ferrari-375-plus-gonzalez-trintigant-maglioli-marzotto-lat-mi-main-goodwood-26022021.jpg


    Ferrari's greatest Le Mans win | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

  • frankel bmw le mans MAIN.jpg


    BMW’s disastrous Le Mans | Thank Frankel it’s Friday