France is a wonderful country, famed for its food, its pace of life and its warm, passionate people. The Sarthe region, where the Le Mans circuit (or Circuit de la Sarthe, to give it its official name) is situated, is beautiful; rich, green, rolling hills, close woodlands, tight green valleys filled with charming towns and villages. The city of Le Mans itself has its attractions, a stately square and some grand 18th and 19th century architecture. The people in the city and the surrounding villages are warm, friendly and helpful, especially if you are prepared to make an effort to speak at least some French.
All that ends once you arrive at the circuit. It starts at the gate with the security guards, who, to be fair, are no worse than security guards at most of the other races, it being their job to be professionally unpleasant. But it gets worse as you go further in. The facility itself is ramshackle and crumbling, a patched-up shade of what was perhaps once its former glory. Once inside the building, having to deal with the circuit staff makes things worse. Specially bussed-in from Paris, they combine the miserable temperament of the curmudgeon with the professional obstructionism of the jobsworth, appearing to be selected on their disposition towards discouraging people from asking questions in the first place, and then abiding by such an arcane set of regulations with almost Teutonic efficiency that honoring requests for assistance take the entire duration of the weekend, getting the requested job done long after it has become irrelevant.
A case in point: Internet in the media center. At the tracks in Northern Europe (Silverstone, Assen, the Sachsenring) and the US, internet access is provided free of charge. A fair exchange for promoting the event and the circuit, in my opinion. At the tracks in Southern Europe, they charge for internet access, the most reasonable being Estoril, where they asked just 10 euros for five days of internet access (then refunded to those who had paid when the network speeds weren't up to scratch). Spain and Italy commonly charge 60 euros for four days of internet access, though the combination of rise of pay-as-you-go mobile internet and multiple races in the same country gives journalists (though not photographers) a viable alternative to paying the circuit fees.
Le Mans, though, takes the biscuit. Last year, the circuit was asking for 90 euros for four days' internet access from all of the journalists, photographers and team press staff at the circuit. Given that there are usually some 300 to 400 people in the media center, nearly all of whom need internet access, that amounts to an income of perhaps 25,000 euros in the course of four days. For promoting the Le Mans MotoGP round. At a guess, that is around half the cost of data lines that a facility such as Le Mans requires for an entire year, and given that the track also hosts the car and bike 24 hours races, as well as various other events, it would appear that Le Mans is on to a nice little earner with their internet fees. It wouldn't even be so bad if the internet were reliable, and did not stop working for regular and protracted intervals.
At least the media have a roof over their heads and screens to watch. If the journalists feel hard done by, it is hard to imagine what it is like for the fans. The kindest thing that can be said about the facilities at the track is that they are not as bad as at Magny-Cours. Which is a little like saying that Bashar al-Assad treats his people better than Muammar Khadaffi. There are public toilets and showers at the circuit, but using them is a rather more interesting experience than you might have bargained for.
All this has its effect on the atmosphere at the track. During the day it is bearable, though lacking the charm of the Spanish or Italian rounds. But once night falls, the atmosphere turns grim, with exuberance turning to outright aggression and unpleasantness. The fans at other tracks - especially in Spain and Italy - can be very high-spirited after dark, but their behavior is at least filled with - to use an appropriate phrase - some kind of joie de vivre. At Le Mans, there is nothing but seething aggression, more akin to an English city center after the bars shut than a festival of racing. But where, say, in Newcastle's Bigg Market you might expect the police to intervene should things get out of hand, the security staff at Le Mans are more inclined to stand idly by, and watch.
All this could be easily forgiven if Le Mans was a fantastic circuit. But the track itself is dull and uninspired. A lot of hairpins, and tight esses, connected by a series of short straights. Only the long, sweeping Dunlop Curve has any character, but while the long layout used for the 24 hour car race has the benefit of both history and the natural peculiarities that a road circuit bestows, the short Bugatti circuit has little to either interest or entertain.
The circuit's problem is that other race we keep mentioning, the 24 Heures du Mans. That event's iconic status - exploited locally, where they have 24-hour kart races, 24-hour mountain bike races, a 24-hour book fair and even a 24-hour marbles competition - has made the circuit regard itself as one of the classic venues, and bestowed an arrogance upon the facility that it simply does not deserve. Facilities at other tracks can be pretty basic and ramshackle - Donington Park springs to mind - but for the most part, those tracks have a layout which provides for fantastic racing, and the staff at the track are simply delighted that the fans and media have come along to watch the races. The attitude that the Le Mans staff have is that they would be perfectly happy for us all to curl up and die, preferably away from the circuit so that we do not give them any more work.
So, though it breaks my heart not to be at a MotoGP race, and makes me feel I have let my readers down by not going, I will not be attending the Le Mans MotoGP event. And lest anyone believe this has anything to do with the mechanical breakdown and related stress I suffered at last year's event, while I cannot deny that the experience did not help to make me more favorably disposed towards the circuit, I had already labeled the event as the worst of the year before anything untoward happened.
I was not alone in my complaints. Everyone I spoke to both in the media center and in the paddock were unhappy that the race was held at the circuit. One veteran journalist was so disgusted at the track that he suggested to me - as I have the freedom to do on my own site - that I write a piece discouraging the fans from coming, as this being the only way to get the race moved from Le Mans.
So I echo his sentiments, and make a stand. I will not be going to Le Mans, and I strongly recommend that none of you go there. France is a wonderful country, and it has some fantastic circuits, but the Circuit de la Sarthe is not one of them. It might be near for British fans, but they would be far better served by saving their money and going to Estoril, Barcelona, Assen, the Sachsenring, Mugello or Brno. France deserves a MotoGP race. But it does not deserve to have to host it at Le Mans.