LE MANS, France — It is Wednesday at Le Mans and that means it is time for the heavy lifting to begin in the run up to the 81st running of this magnificent race with two days of practice and qualifying.
Like everything else about Le Mans, the practice and qualifying procedures are unique. Seventy-percent of the circuit is still comprised of public roads so track activities start fairly late each day to facilitate keeping the main road from Le Mans to Mulsanne open as long as possible.
What we know as the Mulsanne Straight the French truckers know as Route National 38. Practice and qualifying are squeezed into Wednesday and Thursday from 4 p.m. to midnight as the public roads reopen roughly from 1 a.m. to 4 p.m.
It is a very tight schedule as besides car set up and qualifying all drivers must complete night laps to prove competency. The tension builds through the two days as things go right or wrong for each of the competitors.
You might ask how important is qualifying for a 24-hour race? It is not very important, unless marketing and grabbing the attention of the worldwide press drive your agenda. It is the first chance for the factory teams to mark their turf. And the first chance for the fans and press to see who has the goods and who has a ways to go to really be competitive.
It is the first time the teams don’t hold something back. Those who are fast will tell you they are pleased, and those searching for speed will tell you they are “working to a program” and “not really worried about qualifying as it is a long race.”
So, it will be for the next two days as hopes rise and fall in the click of a stopwatch or a driving error. If all goes well, it is an intense couple of days for the crews leading up to a 24-hour grind. If it does not go as planned, it can quickly become an over-the-top week from hell with no rest and, in most cases, little reward.
No matter what happens during qualifying, one thing will always be true: They remember the polesitter until 3 p.m. on Saturday, but they remember the winner forever.