I'll never forget that night. I was standing there, behind a fence, shivering, because my knit jacket was no match for the cold of the Circuit de la Sarthe. Of course, I had underestimated the chill of France's mid-summer nights, but at that point, it mattered little to me. I was behind a stretch of chain link fence, looking out at a piece of tarmac that zigged and zagged gloriously. My hands gripped the camera I was holding. There was a stillness in the air, nobody was moving, all heads turned in one direction. Then came a strange, ghostly noise. A pair of bright white headlights blinded me for an instant. And camera forgotten, I just stood there staring at the Audi R18 e-tron quattro, which whizzed right by, heading from Arnage into Indianapolis, and then out of sight. I remember feeling glad that it was dark, because my eyes had rather curiously gone very moist. At that precise moment, I was at Le Mans, and all was right with the world!
It had been a strange journey to reach Le Mans. It involved missed flights, lost baggage, a wish that I'd been harbouring for many, many years, and some kind souls who had actually made that wish possible. I could imagine that for many people around me who braved the cold at the Circuit de la Sarthe, standing huddled together that night, gazing out at the racetrack, the feeling was likely to be the same. Their trips to Le Mans had similarly been born from a wish to see what they had grown up believing was the greatest motor race of all time. And on that trip, I realised that so very many people took similar journeys. Not just fans. Motorsport writers, mechanics, engineers, team managers, media personnel, and racers. Let's not forget the racers. All of them, had, at some point stood staring out at some part of the track, and they'd all felt the way I did then.
It's something that I've been thinking of a lot of late. Not just because as I typed this out Audi was competing in its very last World Endurance Championship race. There was a passionate team of people in a pit garage at Bahrain, all used to working hard, to winning, to striving together for a common goal, giving it their all one last time. The last hurrah, so to speak.
But more than that, a conversation that I once had with someone at Le Mans seems to have popped into my head. An older and wiser motorsport scribe, who'd been to Le Mans a good 10-odd times, had told me that as time passed it was easy to let yourself get jaded. To start looking at something that you once used to love, with the air of one who'd seen it all and done it all. He'd seen it happen to many people, and it saddened him. "This feeling you have," he'd said to me in heavily-accented English, with a grim narrowing of his eyes, "Don't lose it. You must always keep this feeling." It was a caveat, a cautionary finger wag, a warning.
Back then, with the recklessness of youth, I had thought he was crazy. That it was simply impossible to ever get jaded. I had thought, then, that he was only referring to motorsport. A few years later, I believe that he was referring to life itself. And every time I feel a little let down, I think back to those words, I recollect the feeling that the sight of a racecar in the dead of night could conjure up within me. And I feel ridiculously happy and heavy of heart all at once.
Another reason that I've found myself thinking so much about this "feeling" that is so essential to our well being, is a conversation that I had with Mattias Ekström. I'd listened as Ekström spoke about his love for the rallycross supercar, and the feeling it gave him to drive it. Here's a man who had driven a myriad different machines over the course of a very long career, who could still wake up and go to work every morning, as excited as a young racer on his very first day at the racetrack.
A year-and-a-half before this interview with Ekström, I had a conversation with Walter Röhrl, who has even more number of years behind the wheel of a racecar, where he'd said something similar. That when Ekström had offered him the chance to drive the EKSRX Supercar, he'd taken it without expecting too much. But that by the end of his driving stint, he hadn't wanted to give the car back. He'd wanted to just keep right on driving. Röhrl's eyes had twinkled in much the same way then, that Ekström's were now. It gladdened me to see it.
Here then were two men who had figured out how not to let that feeling slip away. Who'd figured out how to ward off rust that threatens to creep in with the passage of time, and the addition of grey hair. Who had realised that they had an obligation to be happy, and that process of procuring happiness lay within not without. And most importantly, had figured out, that simply because this feeling exists, we as individuals, have an obligation to go find it. And once we find it, we have an obligation to never let it go.