Out of the darkness and into the light... night driving at the 24 Hours of Le Mans
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Out of the darkness and into the light... night driving at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

At the 24 Hours of Le Mans, night driving is a challenge that the drivers really appreciate. All alone in their cockpit, their concentration is full-on as pitch-dark sections give way to floodlit areas. Three of them have shared these rather special moments with us.

Almost a third of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is raced at night. The drivers have to have their wits about them as they cut through the darkness at over 300 kph in some parts of the track, such as the Mulsanne Straight, and adapt to different degrees of lighting. While most common or garden motorists would shudder at the thought, the asphalt heroes revel in the conditions. “I love the challenge!” insists Marcel Fässler, driver of the #64 Chevrolet Corvette C7.R and three-time Le Mans winner. “We push back the braking points and change our racing lines. The track is like a tunnel when it is pitch black all around.”

"At night, we are even more at one with the circuit"
Stéphane Richelmi, #38 Oreca

These may be magic moments but driving at night at the 24 Hours of Le Mans calls for considerable skill and no small amount of bravery. “As it is not a permanent circuit, the track is quite narrow which increases the sensation of speed. At night, we are even more at one with the circuit and we need that feeling as there are fewer visual markers,” says Stéphane Richelmi who drives the #38 Oreca 07 – Gibson for Jackie Chan DC Racing. “It requires a great deal of concentration. We have to focus on the state of the track to detect any traces of oil as it trickier to pick them out at night,” adds Nicolas Lapierre, driver of the #36 Alpine A470 – Gibson for Signatech Alpine Matmut. The slightest dip in concentration can lead to a very nasty surprise.

There is also the issue of prototypes sharing the circuit with grand tourers. The vast differences in performance between these two types of car (up to 40 kph in terms of peak speed) makes overtaking the backmarkers something of an art. The eyes of LMGTE drivers are as fixed on their mirrors as much as the road ahead. “When the prototypes catch up with us, their lights are so bright that it isn’t easy to tell how far behind they are. Experience counts for a lot in this respect,” Fässler says.

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A number of drivers resort to traditional remedies supposed to improve night-time vision. Blueberries, for example. Others use yellow visors which sharpen contrasts. Each driver has their own little quirks to get them through the early hours of Sunday. However, when the dark of night finally gives way to the first light of day, the battle will be far from won as there are still several hours of racing to go to the chequered flag.

PHOTO: LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES DU MANS, 2017 24 HOURS OF LE MANS, SATURDAY 17 JUNE 2017, RACE. Overtaking backmarkers is just one of the difficulties of night driving.