The pain of Le Mans

'RACING is life, anything before or after is just waiting.'' So said Steve McQueen in his 1971 opus Le Mans.

No sooner had the first car been invented than men strapped on leather helmets to race them.

In the early 1900s, they raced them across the winding open roads of France, through crowds numbering millions of "mad people, insane and reckless, holding themselves in front of the bullet to be ploughed and cut and maimed to extinction," according to one Charles Jarrott in 1903, who raced at the time.

A closed section of road in a town called Le Mans seemed a sensible way forward to conduct further competition.

Nearly 100 years later, I count myself among the fortunate few to be racing there this week.

The ethos remains the same but these days the cars top 320km/h and the race endures for 24 hours.

No road car would tolerate being driven by someone like me for that long, so we use something called a ''Le Mans prototype'', the sole purpose of which is to handle 24 hours of hammering without falling apart.

No human can handle the sheer focus or physical demands it takes to guide a missile like that for much longer than four hours, so we share the task among three drivers. Cornering G-forces range as high as 3.5 and the heat in the cockpit exceeds 27 degrees.

Eighty-five per cent of the 12.8-kilometre Le Mans circuit is flat out. The rest involves braking because your life depends on it, or navigating sequences of lethal curves. The heat of the day rubs the skin off your back as the sweat soaks your fireproofs and chafes you in the corners.

The night brings fresh horrors as your vision reduces to a starlit blur. And let's not forget the rain.

Downpours are common in the Loire Valley. Sixty-five cars racing at vast speed differentials suck the water in and spew it out some 15 metres into the air, reducing forward vision to just inches beyond the steering wheel.

You learn to look sideways to see where you're going and use telepathy to discover the cars you're approaching before you slam into them.

Like true masochists, we secretly enjoy the pain and the risk-taking.

As the race goes on, the track becomes littered with the wreckage of expired cars. Brakes searing at 900 degrees, thousands of gear shifts and millions of engine revolutions will wreak havoc with my Honda machinery, all under the watchful eyes of the engineers who have been nurturing their darlings in the weeks building up to the race.

Live telemetry means they see every driver discrepancy as it unfolds. If it dies on track, it's game over. Gone, too, is the million-dollar budget. Dying with it are the hopes and dreams of the 30-strong crew who have spent the past four weeks calling 10pm an early finish.

Tired eyes mistaking an undersized bolt for the suspension is all it takes to trip them. They take 10-minute power naps throughout the race and gorge themselves on water, tea and carbohydrates to keep themselves going; hurling their bodies into the pit stops to fuel and tyre the car in less than a minute.

If it's a driver change, they fling the spent man into the garage and slam home a new one.

You clamber out after a three-hour stint walking like John Wayne, go stuff your face with scram and get some sleep.

When you close your eyes, your retinas replay the white flashing centre road line over and over. Until it's your turn to go again.

Then the heart rate settles near 100 beats a minute, familiar territory from the months of graft in the gym in preparation for this moment. It's what we live for.

The race will start at 4pm on Saturday, as it always has.

Every big brand, from Aston Martin, Honda, Porsche, Ferrari, Chevrolet, Toyota and BMW to old enemies Audi and Peugeot will watch their cars line up two by two, nose to tail, trundling at 80km/h in formation towards the Rolex start gantry.

The 250,000-strong crowd will fall silent and few will deny that the hairs on the back of the neck prickle when the light goes green and the drivers unanimously drop the hammer. Game on.

Ben Collins is a racing driver who was Top Gear's the Stig in a former life.

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