Part 2: the journey
by Hunter Skipworth
There aren’t many cars I can think of that would cause more of a disturbance than a Ferrari 458 Speciale during its cold-start warm-up procedure. Luckily, I don’t like my neighbours, so the pain of a 4.30am start for our journey to Le Mans is offset with the delightful bark of that 4.5-litre V8 beating the dawn chorus at its own game. And annoying those killjoys in Flat 2a.
Photographer Aston Parrott and I fill every spare area of space in the Ferrari with the usual accoutrements for a weekend away in a field: squishy overnight bags, wallets, sunglasses, driving licences. Unfortunately Aston didn’t get the ‘pack light’ memo and will be cuddling his camera bag for the next 360 miles.
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The sun is barely up when we arrive at Folkestone to meet road test editor Dan Prosser in the GT3. And we’re not the only ones making an early start – the Le Mans road-trippers are gathering. The M20 en route was neatly peppered with a fine selection of automotive iconology mixing it with liveried caravans. Cameraphone-wielding passengers didn’t know which way to focus. This already feels a special journey and we haven’t left the UK yet.
An hour later, more than £350,000-worth of supercars safely unloaded from the Chunnel, fuel tanks brimmed with 98-octane and cockpits topped-up with Haribo, we turn south-west out of Calais and head towards Rouen. If there wasn’t a grid of some of the fastest race cars in the world waiting for us we’d have hugged the coast of northern France and enjoyed the sweeping route nationales and sleepy villages. But we’ve a plan, kind of, and it means getting to Rouen tout suite.
Endless miles on an autoroute provide very little opportunity for any meaningful testing. This time does, however, allow for numerous games of ‘which car sounds the best on a fly-by’. Having swapped from the GT3, Prosser rockets past in the Speciale. The noise and ferocity are insane. The GT3 isn’t exactly quiet, but the Ferrari is nuts.
Rouen, the bottleneck of any journey to Le Mans, has more to offer than horrendous traffic, and once away from the bridges, underpasses and traffic lights, we head to the old Grand Prix circuit – the Circuit de Rouen-les-Essarts. Situated south-west of the city, it opened as a street track in 1950, measuring 3.2 miles. Evolving over the years in both configuration and length, it finally closed in 1994, but during the ’50s and ’60s it hosted five French Grands Prix, with the 1962 event being the scene of Porsche’s only Formula 1 victory.
Today the track’s route is purely public road. The old cobbled hairpin is still evident, as is the blood-curdlingly fast downhill start-finish straight, with high banking on one side that once had a grandstand perched atop it, and an opening opposite leading to the pits and paddock. There’s little else to remind you of this once great venue, one many called France’s greatest.
Retracing the old lap is straightforward, and after a couple of tours we stop for cake and for Dan and accompanying evo contributor Adam Towler to consider just how fast this circuit was and what it would have been like for Jackie Oliver, Dan Gurney, Jochen Rindt and Denny Hulme to race flat-out here – often in the rain. It’s tricky for us mere mortals to comprehend. When you’re planning your trip to Le Mans next year, factor in a detour to this sacred venue and try to get your own head around it.
The days of red-line runs from Rouen to Alençon and on to Le Mans are long gone, but the journey to the most famous motor race in the world needn’t be a soulless jog along the new autoroute. A Speciale and GT3 certainly help make any drive unique, but following the old road to Le Mans feels like a rite of passage no matter what car you are in. The D438 and D338 crest and dip their way through the French countryside, and it’s when you’re absorbed in the scenery and the intoxicating sights and sounds of thoroughbred supercars that you realise the 4.30am alarm call is well worth it.