In such a weekend of celebration and pure adrenalin, it was a picture of total dejection that remains in my memory from Le Mans. With Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing) racing towards such an impressive third Grand Prix win of the season and the record 110,000 crowd willing Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) to steal a podium finish from Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing) the television pictures switched to a deserted pit lane exit.
It was an amazing emotional long shot. The difference between success and failure summed up in such a cruel and stark way. While his nearest rivals were fighting for glory just metres away on Le Mans tarmac, a lone figure walked towards pit lane, head bowed and helmet still on. For a moment there was not another person in sight, and only the roar of four-stroke engines and partisan French voices made you realise you were at a racetrack. The red-leathered figure looked so small and forlorn in the long shot. Pecco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) did not need reminding, did not need an arm around his shoulder to tell him that not only had he crashed out while fighting with Bastianini but had severely dented any chance he had of World Championship glory. It was such a poignant moment.
While Bagnaia grieved, Le Mans simply rocked and rolled the day and night away. A record crowd for the French Grand Prix. No worry about the competitor’s underwear and jewellery that has been the concern of other motorsports this week. No worry about how many A-listers you can cram on the grid. Can-can dancers performing on the front row, rock concerts at night and a MotoGP™ World Champion to welcome home was more than enough.
What a fantastic job promoter Claude Michy has done at Le Mans. This was Steve McQueen, 24-hour car racing terrain and often we did not feel very welcome from the four-wheel orientated brigade. Slowly but surely the crowds have grown, spurred on by the World Championship success of the likes of Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) and Quartararo. An enormous effort has been made to provide entertainment after the racing and it’s paid off.
It seems a long time ago, 40 years, I was sitting in Barry Sheene’s motorhome in the Nogaro paddock surrounded by the Grand Prix stars of the day. They had asked me to draft a letter that they all signed stating they refused to ride at the 3.12km track. They were unhappy about the safety of the track and the facilities at the circuit near Bordeaux and they did not ride. The French Grand Prix went ahead but without the Championship contenders. Others had to ride despite the dangers. They needed to raise enough cash just to make it to the next round at Jarama in Spain.
We loved going to the Paul Ricard circuit in the south of France with the sunshine and sea. It hosted the French Grand Prix, together with Le Mans, apart from 1992 when Magny Cours staged its one and only Grand Prix race. I remember my first visit to the legendary Le Mans circuit in 1983. It was a freezing cold Easter weekend. The traffic on the Paris Perifericue ring road was horrendous. There were no hotel rooms and so I slept in the back of the Champion Spark Plugs van and celebrated a rare British victory when Alan Carter was victorious in the 250cc race. It was also a weekend that reminded us all that despite so many safety improvements there was still much to be done. Swiss rider Michel Frutschi, who a year earlier had won the boycotted 500cc Grand Prix at Nogaro was killed in the 500cc race. Earlier, Japanese rider Iwao Ishikawa lost his life in a practice crash. There was still a long way to go.
Le Mans became the sole home of the French Grand Prix 22 years ago. Even then, and certainly earlier at Nogaro, Paul Ricard and Magny Cours, we would never have envisaged the scenes on Sunday. France is now right up there with the likes of Spain and Italy as a MotoGP™ giant.
Next stop for Pecco Bagnaia and Ducati is their home Grand Prix at Mugello. The memory of that lonely Le Mans walk will be a distant one if he can win in front of that passionate home crowd. It would also make the Championship, which is only at one-third distance, even more interesting.