On June 16-17 the Circuit de la Sarthe, on the outskirts of the French town of Le Mans, will host sports car racing's most famous event. In April, it hosted the two-wheeled equivalent. ESPN was invited to spend that race stationed inside the operation of Honda's factory team, providing a perfect view of the resolve required for a race operation to complete 1,440 minutes of racing.
It had been dark for a couple of hours when the garage next to Honda's suddenly burst into life, as each of the separate openings of the Le Mans pit lane would do at various interludes throughout the event. But this felt different to a team responding to a scheduled pit stop -- there were pained expressions in the garage, unrehearsed and chaotic movements among the pit crew as they clumsily rushed out to their positions in the pit lane itself.
Soon it became clear why. A green and black Kawasaki bike was rolling down the pit lane, its engine choking as it did so. Usually this would be encouragement for rival teams -- at Le Mans, a different kind of brotherhood exists. As this sequence played out, Honda team manager Jonny Twelvetrees walked out of his garage, clapped the rider in and watched with concern as the rival team next door frantically worked on its bike. The roar of racing bikes continued from the circuit beyond, the whizzing of nuts and bolts followed, as did some muffled shouts between pit crews, before the Kawasaki bike -- now without a rider aboard -- was slowly wheeled back into the garage itself for repairs and the lengthy delay likely to accompany it.
Twelvetrees moved into view of his rival team, clapped again and shouted some words of encouragement, before returning to base. After the briefest of interludes it was back to the task at hand.
"This event feels a bit like climbing Everest," Twelvetrees, the brother of rugby professional and former England international Billy, would tell ESPN later. "We're all trying to get up there -- getting there is more important at this point."
The full 13.629-kilometer Circuit de la Sarthe that hosts the car race is not quite the same for the two-wheeled equivalent -- the "Bugatti" configuration used is around 9 kilometers shorter, but one thing remains exactly the same: It's 24 hours of non-stop racing, 24 hours of grueling endurance for man and machine, a test of the human body and mind on the track, in the pit lane and even the confines of the narrow paddock complexes and hospitality centers.
While a standard sprint race is dominated by thoughts of how best to win it -- an alternate strategy, an aggressive start, an optimistic setup -- an endurance race is dominated by one of the most basic and contrasting human instincts: survival. Winning is the ultimate goal, but you can't win an event that long in the opening hours of it, nor in the darkest moments of the night, nor under the beautiful light of a morning sunrise -- all that is waiting for competitors in those moments is crushing defeat.
Those working within the garage of the Honda team would experience all of the emotions possible in a motor race in this time period. The team would go from 38th overnight to a podium finish by the checkered flag, a turnaround characteristic of endurance racing when so much is at stake and so much can be won and lost. As various systems on the bike failed or operated below the expected level, human perseverance and determination prevailed. This is a much lower-key event than the one which will take place this weekend, but the demands on the human body are the same.
As the sun comes up, red-eyed mechanics sit in deck chairs in the garage, briefly resting their legs before the next routine stop. Even if they wanted a moment of shut-eye, the roaring sound of bike engines outside and the bright, hospital surgery-style lights inside make it impossible. The smell of petrol and burnt tire rubber grows the closer you get to the pit complex and the circuit which lies beyond, so much so that the air-conditioned surroundings back at the infield hospitality center feels like a different world entirely.
"You can't win an event that long in the opening hours of it, nor in the darkest moments of the night, nor under the beautiful light of a morning sunrise -- all that is waiting for competitors in those moments is crushing defeat."
Like clockwork, food is brought to and from the garage from that infield base, where a chef works for the entire race to fuel the riders and the crew. Tire pressures are routinely checked at the back of the garage. When one pit stop is completed, the cycle begins again. Some crew told me the easiest way to process the race was to view it as 24 mini races, marked by each new pit stop and rider change. Of course, that mindset also makes it easy to get downhearted when things do not go to plan and the carefully devised plan made in the calm of prerace has been erased, rewritten, and erased again.
Each team consists of three riders, meaning at all times there are two trying to fill the empty void of time waiting for their next stint. If all runs to plan they get two hours off the bike at a time; after a stint, a physio session awaits each rider, as does a plastic box of pasta and chicken. At best, a rest consists of a 15 minute lie down in a darkened trailer behind the pits. Once the sun comes up and breaks those sickening, heavy-eyed hours of the early morning, Honda's riders seemed to get a new lease of life, as if the piercing light which cut through the French sky had reset them back to 3 p.m. of the previous day.
Overseeing all of this was Twelvetrees. While younger brother Billy is used to the demands of 80 minutes of the highest intensity in rugby union, in this event Jonny sustains his same steely focus for 24 hours. His concentrated gaze was the same 15 minutes in as it was 15 minutes from the checkered flag, the only difference being the telling dark bags under his eyes and the pallid, weary face that was watching the timing screens by the end.
The respect he showed for the rival team in those early hours of the night should not have been a surprise. That candid moment showed a reverence for the event itself, and perhaps an unwillingness to tempt fate with arrogance or an overly competitive spirit. Honda would witness another team's lowest moment on the TV screens adorning its garage.
Fifteen hours in, the bike which had led the entire race to that point crashed -- cue images of rival mechanics with head in hands, disbelieving looks. A week's entire work undone by a simple error of a fatigued rider. It moved Honda up a place, but there was little more than a murmur of acknowledgment from the garage floor -- the same outcome could be waiting the No.111 bike they have been faithfully working on all week. In a race this long, celebrating the misfortune of others seems like a one-way ticket to heartbreak.
Honda finished second: "It's not first, but it felt like it with the start we had," a teary-eyed Twelvetrees would say immediately after the checkered flag. They had reached the summit -- they had all done it together. The hugs and celebrations which followed in the Honda garage were a mix of joy, overwhelming pride and relief that the bike had made it -- a combination of raw emotion and exhaustion.
This is why they do it.