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Driving a Toyota Supra around Le Mans
Le Mans 24hr day, and you're first on circuit in *the* car of the moment. A dream, right?
Eau Rouge at Spa. The Corkscrew at Laguna Seca. Karussell on the Nordschleife. Drive the world’s most famous race circuits and, much as you’ll learn to love the whole ribbon of tarmac, that first lap around it is all about The Corner. The one you’ve read about a hundred times, watched on YouTube a thousand times. Your heart beats faster as it approaches and the hair on your arms stands on end as you power out of it.
The Circuit de la Sarthe – aka Le Mans – is different. During my one, exasperating lap of it on the morning of 2019’s 24-hour race, I was most overcome not by any of its turns, but its straight. The Mulsanne Straight.
I’ve driven the Mulsanne numerous times in its usual, public road state. But when it’s closed off? With you and the pace car driver the first ones out on the circuit’s biggest race day of the year? Skimming between the trees at the Vmax of your car? It’s special in a way I can only attempt to describe.
That car is a Toyota Supra. One that’s arrived on such an unrelenting wave of hype, it can surely only ever be a let-down. After all, driving a sole lap on one of the world’s most glorious circuits in a layout only usually enjoyed by Grade A racing drivers – no trackday allows you to complete the full 8.467 miles that make up the Le Mans 24-hour layout – is always going to take up far more brain capacity than the car you’re driving. Especially when it’s a circa £50k sports car as opposed to the kinds of hypercars that’ll race here proper in two years’ time.
It doesn’t half feel like a BMW Z4, either, but under these circumstances you’ll find me the most appreciative member of the British press about that. I’ve been running a Z4 M40i – with its identical engine and gearbox to the Supra – for six weeks now, so I know its dynamics reasonably well. The relief of the Supra feeling so similar is palpable, allowing me to hop in and drive as fast as I dare without having to learn its idiosyncrasies, helping pop this lap firmly at the good end of my memory bank. Comparing the Supra against a Cayman or Alpine, it feels safe and undramatic. But safe and undramatic are what you want if you’re wringing a car’s neck around la Sarthe just as the campers looking on emerge from their tents.
The lap starts, as these things tend to, with a briefing from the man about to hop into the ACO’s 911 Turbo and lead the way. “You aren’t qualifying for Le Mans,” he quips, “and any crash you have will delay the actual racing. So don’t get carried away.”
With that, he leaps into his Porsche and fairly disappears, and as I pull onto circuit, there’s no sight of him ahead of me, which is exciting and exasperating all at once. How much speed should I take under the Dunlop bridge? The sweep up and down through one of Le Mans’ most hallowed spectator spots is a lot more blind than I’d imagined, sending me hurriedly to my memories of watching here at sunrise to work out where the hell I turn.
I try to sweep between the kerbs, fighting more understeer than I’d expected, only to glance at the gear I’m in and realise I’m going really flipping fast. Way quicker than I’d actually realised. Something about the width and smoothness of the circuit, and the fact I’ve got no other cars around me, has fully discombobulated my sense of speed. Just in time to acquire as much of the stuff as possible on the Mulsanne.
In truth, this couldn’t be much easier, the Supra’s straight-six muscular and its paddleshift gearbox uncommonly smooth. It’s only by seeing pictures afterwards I realise how quickly the speedo was reading 254kmh – 158mph – but knowing how soft the Z4’s brake pedal is, I bail much earlier than I need to for the first of the Mulsanne’s chicanes.
Going into Mulsanne corner itself, I balls things up even more, changing down to second and slap bang into the final few hundred revs before the limiter. Cocksure about how well I know this gearbox from the Z4, I’m still caught out by just how short the ratios are. And how unsporting this transmission can feel when you try to rush it.
The Supra as a whole has a mini GT vibe about it, a road car of great breadth rather than an energetic track toy. Just like my Z4’s proving. So I smooth out my inputs into Indianapolis, out of Arnage and through the Porsche Curves, heeding our safety car driver’s advice and committing a little less, playing into the Supra’s comfort zone and giving me better opportunity to glance away from the next apex. Seeing some of my favourite viewing points, from the inside looking out, is oddly affecting. Especially in the golden morning light.
When I finally pass the famous Ferris wheel and jink through the Ford Chicane, gleefully nibbling at the kerbs, my lap feels like it’s taken ten minutes. Or ten seconds. I’m not sure. My head’s still in something of a spin at the surrealness of it all, my hairs still firmly stood on end. As I’m directed into a reluctant U-turn by the finish line to feed off the circuit, I’m desperately fighting temptation to ‘misinterpret’ the instructions and head out on another lap.
Who will chase me? Well, apart from some angry ACO officials in their notably quicker 911s, desperate to get the actual Le Mans drivers out for their 45-minute warm up session. When I think about how magical another go at the Mulsanne will be – with a much braver braking point into its chicanes and no cocked-up gearchange at the end of it – it’s a temptation requiring all of my willpower to fight. As a first go in the car of the moment, it’s unbeatable.