Since 1923, the French town of Le Mans has played host to the annual motor racing marathon often called by the same name (its full title is Les 24 Heures du Mans)—a roaring, winding, 24-hour endurance test that fills the city’s streets for a weekend each June. Famously immortalized in Steve McQueen
’s much-troubled film of 1972, also called Le Mans,
the competition’s basic premise makes it one of the world’s most excessive sporting events. Drivers have one day to travel the furthest distance possible, thundering down the long straights of the main track, Le Circuit de la Sarthe, and making as few pit stops as they can. These days, each team fields three or more drivers, but in the early decades, die-hard speedniks such as Pierre Levegh and Eddie Hall sometimes attempted to screech through the full contest single-handedly. It’s a heart-racingly speedy affair: though occasionally drivers have to slow down to navigate corners, or the rough surfaces of the city’s public streets (which are only closed a few hours before practice runs begin), around 85 percent of the race is completed at full throttle, making huge demands on the cars’ engines and brakes. These unusual circumstances have given rise to many innovations, not only in car design (air brakes and aerodynamic bodywork were first trialed at Le Mans) but in the end-of-race festivities—the winner of the 1967 race, Dan Gurney, was the first man to celebrate a victory by spraying, rather than drinking, his champagne prize. Today, photographer David Ryle
(whose stylish eye has served clients including Audi, BMW, Fiat and Nike) shares an unusual take on the circuits of Le Mans, shot over three days at various times to reflect the 24-hour spirit of the competition. “In shooting the Le Mans corner project I'm trying to show the idea of nothingness,” says Ryle. “I'm trying to create quiet scenes, with subtle color palettes, that are contemplative and yet alive.” The tracks will come well and truly alive this weekend, when the 2010 Le Mans grinds into gear.