Whether it be the history brought to life in grainy images, the spherical headlights puncturing the night sky and then disappearing again, or the numerous Hollywood actors who have tried to bring it to life on the big screen, the Le Mans 24-hour is an enchanting part of motor-sport lore.
For the drivers it is the holy grail, because nothing provides a more thorough examination of your skills and your senses quite like the day-long marathon through the French countryside.
“You can picture moments at Le Mans where you get to breathe and soak it all in,” begins Richard Dean, a Yorkshireman with the unique claim to fame of having won the race as a driver and as a team owner.
“There’s the long Mulsanne Straight where you maybe get chance to have a look at your instruments, you notice the campsites and the fireworks, the camp fires.
“You might even catch the whiff of a barbecue. But you have to shut all of that out.”
Because a chicane arrives out of the darkness, the headlights reflecting off the signs; left turn, right turn and slingshot back out onto the straight, thankful that the momentary lapse in concentration did not cause you to crash, costing the team a result, and you, even worse.
“The hard parts of the Le Mans 24-hour race are when you’ve got out of the car at midnight,” continues Dean. “Your team-mate gets in and you’re expected to go back out there at 3am, you’ve got out of your soaking wet suit, you’ve grabbed something to eat, you’ve had a debrief with the engineers.
“As a driver you want to get some rest, so you grab about 20 minutes, 30 minutes, and then you’re back up again, in a new, clean suit and back into the car.
“It’s not natural to be thrust into the middle of a race in the pitch black and straight into the heat of the battle. You are so dialled into it, though.”
Dean, 56, from Leeds, won Le Mans as a driver in 2006. Having been in motor sport all his life after watching his father – a second-hand car dealer in Castleford – race throughout Britain, it was the highlight of his career.
“We were in the GT class back in 2006, one of the last seasons I raced,” he remembers. “I was racing for Lawrence Tomlinson who owns Ginetta. We weren’t the favourites, we were very much a surprise winner because we only came into contention with two of the 24 hours to go.
“I finished the race so I took the chequered flag then immediately got whisked off to do a drugs test. I couldn’t pee into the bottle for about three hours so I missed all the celebrations.
“It just happened so fast, so unexpected. I can picture the moment on the podium, though, and I can take that in.
“As a driver, you recognise how lucky you are. There have been some very, very good drivers who have been going to Le Mans for years who haven’t won it, not because they’re not good enough, it might have been a puncture, they were in the wrong car, the team might have made a mistake.
“So to stand on the podium in front of a huge crowd like that is what you dreamed of, certainly what I dreamed of as a kid.”
By then Dean was already a team owner and as his 40s began he knew his days behind the wheel were numbered.
“You don’t officially retire, the opportunities just dry up,” he laments of his driving career.
The chance to run a team had come a decade earlier in Birstall through an old mentor who was no longer well enough to run the team.
“I wasn’t a businessman, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. But while I’d not trained in business, I’d been involved in motor sport long enough to have made enough mistakes to make fewer mistakes as an owner,” he adds.
Dean ran teams across a host of support classes until by 2010 he wanted something more. So together with Zak Brown, a lifelong motor racing buddy of his from America and the future chief executive of McLaren Racing, they launched United Autosports in West Yorkshire.
A decade on, they run teams all over the world, primarily in the World Endurance Championships, a six-race series involving races four to eight hours in length, headlined by this weekend’s showpiece Le Mans 24-hour.
United entered Le Mans for the first time in 2017, competing in the second-tier LMP2 class because they are not a manufacturer like Audi, Toyota or Porsche, the famous names synonymous with winning Le Mans’ premier class.
But still, it is competitive. “There’s 26 cars in our class out of the 60 on the grid,” says Dean. “Everybody has access to the same equipment, everyone is on the same chassis, it’s the same engines, even right down to everyone on the same tyres.
“So it’s down to the teams, it’s down to the drivers about how well prepared the cars are, how reliable you are, what your race strategy is like, how good your drivers are and what differences you can make with the equipment available to you.”
United Autosports won the Le Mans LMP2 class last year. They also won the European and Asian rounds of the World Endurance Championship and the overall series itself.
It was an historic run of success, coming off the back of a coronavirus pandemic that gridlocked the world just six months after the rapidly-expanding United Autosports had moved from their 10,000 square-foot home in Garforth to a 62,000 square foot building off the M62 in Wakefield.
“Winning Le Mans as a driver, while a fantastic experience and really appreciated at the time, is different than winning it as a team,” says Dean.
“With the team, I’m much more involved in every aspect of it, we are trying to build a business here and our success is key to sponsorship, to attracting the best people, it’s key to unlocking opportunities.
“So there was a lot more at stake winning it as a team. To win it with people who have been with us for so long – some from that very first team back in the 1990s – everyone so emotionally involved in it, there’s some great photos from the chequered flag of the faces around the garage, it’s such an emotional moment. Winning as a team just pips it.”
At 4pm French time today, three Oreca 07 LMP2 cars in the dark blue, red and white of United Autosports will begin the 24 hours of Le Mans trying to win it all over again.
“We’re the team to beat but we have had a great start to the season, winning two of the three races so far and we’re leading the World Endurance Championship,” says Dean. “We have a target on our back.”
Dean is joined at Le Mans by a team of 120 employees. Fifty of those are full-time, the rest brought in because at Le Mans everything is greater.
“We’re very much a Yorkshire team,” beams Dean. “We’re not just based here, with me born here, our technical director is from Sheffield, a lot of crew and mechanics are local guys. They’ll all be out there with us.
“We pull from all our departments for Le Mans, we even pull people from our historic cars department. Every area expands; media, logisitics, catering. We’re out there for two weeks. It’s a massive show.”
Just as when he was driving it, for the 24 hours of Le Mans there will be no sleep for the team owner. “I don’t sleep during the race, there’s so much going on, adrenaline keeps you awake...and coffee,” says Dean, for whom entertaining the sponsors who fund the team’s £15m annual budget is part of the job.
“There’s a couple of occasions when I’ve gone somewhere quiet to close my eyes, but it’s impossible, so it’s another cup of coffee and back to the pit box.”
From there he will see the grandstand alive with people again after last year’s victory was enjoyed in front of empty seats.
Traditionally, Le Mans attracts 300,000 fans every year – it will be limited this year as coronavirus restrictions ease – but many will still make the journey from Britain.
“You see it when you drive down, a convoy of cars, decked in their Le Mans flags. You’ll go past a train of jaguars on a pilgrimage to Le Mans. It’s a real festival.”
Long term, the ambition of Dean is for United to be chosen by a manufacturer to run their operation for them. The success they have enjoyed and the growth they have overseen, can only strengthen their hand.
This weekend, though, is all about the magnificence of Le Mans.