While the 24 Hours of Le Mans doesn't officially start until 3pm on the Saturday, for PistonHeads and PHers the weekend begins days before. Even upon arrival at the campsite on Thursday afternoon, the tent pitches were filling up and the campers arriving. There were more than enough cars - Ferrari 458s, 911 GT3s, all sorts of TVRs and a pair of Rover SD1s - to make our transport of BMW M5 and Jaguar XF Sportbrake feel at home. Bravo to all those PHers who brought some very special cars to our campsite.
Thursday is often dedicated to the best meal and sleep you'll get all weekend (this year's storm notwithstanding), ahead of our Friday Service at Classic British Welcome. Despite fears about the weather, Friday turned out gloriously sunny and warm, with all manner of machinery brightening up Saint Saturnin. While BMW was the celebrated brand - and enthusiastically embraced by our French hosts, with Z1s, E21 3 Series, E23 7 Series and a smorgasbord of M cars in attendance - the diversity of the CBW is what makes it so special. From Morgan to Mustang and D-Type to Type R, there was no shortage of automotive delights to admire in the sunshine. Again PH represented itself well here, with the usual array of rare and interesting cars!
Friday's excitement continued with the Spain v. Portug... sorry, the PistonHeads Bleu Nord pub quiz, six rounds of thrilling trivia questions luring many away from the football and the Jamiroquai concert. Thanks to all of you that took part, and congratulations to our victors, who won a mid-race tour of the Aston Martin pit garage. We must also apologise, once more, for Ben's inability to pronounce 'Miura'. Appropriate disciplinary measures have been taken.
Saturday morning saw a stunning Aston Martin race completed on the circuit ahead of the main event, the V12 wails and V8 rumbles audible for what seemed like miles around. Top work all.
There's really nothing like the atmosphere at Le Mans as 3pm on the Saturday approaches. The crowds grow, the excitement builds and the queues for food snake ever further into the village. But it's a special experience, the Patrouille de France (French Red Arrows) making an appearance and the grid teaming with people - it's worth battling through the hordes of fans to witness the beginning of Le Mans.
To be honest, the race followed the script many had predicted. The Toyota TS050 Hybrids shot into an early lead (with the non-hybrid Rebellion and Ginetta entries behind) and various Ligiers, Dallaras and Orecas battling for LMP2 glory. In both GTE Pro and GTE Am, the mid-engined 911 RSRs dominated with freakishly consistent pace and a savage flat-six howl. Even the Ford GTs couldn't quite match them, let alone the Corvettes and the new GTE entries from BMW and Aston. That said, both M8 and Vantage looked fantastic, and the GTE pace of both manufacturers has been proven before, so hopefully there's more performance to follow from them soon.
While the 60 starting cars survived for a good while, as night descended so the casualties began to mount up. Punctures, crashes and mechanical failures saw to a few entrants, but those that remained provided another awe-inspiring spectacle for the fans - the flames more vivid, the sense of speed greater and the thrill of hearing cars screaming thought the inky blue like little else.
Perhaps the greatest sight during those hours of darkness was Fernando Alonso's fight back. With teammate Sebastien Buemi having received a 60-second stop-go penalty for speeding in a slow zone, the #8 Toyota found itself trailing its #7 sister car by two minutes. However the Spaniard's steely determination saw that slashed to under 30 seconds; Alonso told the team he was ready for another stint to close the gap further, claiming he had "the rhythm of the night", but then handed over to Kazuki Nakajima, who took the lead as dawn broke.
And that's how it finished, Toyota finally claiming its first Le Mans victory as the #8 TS050 of Alonso, Buemi and Nakajima led home the #7 car, driven by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez. It may not have been much of a contest in the end, but the determination it has displayed, and heartbreak it has suffered, over the years made Toyota a worthy victor. In LMP2, G-Drive Racing won by two laps from Signatech Alpine Matmut, which in turn was another lap ahead of the #39 Graff-S024. In GTE Pro the 'pink pig' 911 RSR was a lap ahead of the Rothmans homage car, which itself finished just 26 seconds ahead of the #68 Ford GT. Finally, GTE Am saw another 911 on the top spot, the #77 Dempsey-Proton Racing RSR, with second and third taken by the Spirit of Race and Keating Motorsports Ferraris 488s respectively. Phew.
If all that has you keen for a Le Mans experience, then fear not - you don't have to wait until 2019. Le Mans Classic is now less than three weeks away, and we'll be back in France for that. It's a glorious weekend, full of sensational old racers as well as loads of classic cars, so well worth a visit. See here for how to join us!
Images: Ben Lowden