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John Brooks
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Something in the Air

Most of the readers of this site have some connection to Le Mans, we work there, we party there or we want to do these things, either in the future or in the past, it is the place of legends.

Those who go to La Sarthe and have gone beyond wondering how high the beer bottle mountain can grow without collapsing like the Western financial system may be aware that this small provincial French city is famous for more than Le Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans.

The well-preserved Medieval section of the city will attract those looking for gastronomic pleasures. Rillets, fine wines and the fruits of the earth are all in abundance in this fertile area but really it is for things mechanical that the region is most famous for. The Bollee family, in particular Leon, had a fascination with the emerging technology at the turn of the last century and had the money to make things happen.

Some of you will be aware that the first Grand Prix was held in 1906 at a circuit to the east of the city, this was in response to the slaughter of innocents when races were run on open roads between cities such as Paris and Madrid. Strangely there almost no sign of the existence of this event……….an underpass “Pont de Circuit” is all that remains today.

But between that and the first running of the 24-hour endurance in 1923 Leon Bollee was involved in an event that changed the lives of all of us in Europe.

In 1908 Bollee invited Wilbur Wright to bring his flying machine to France to answer the question once and for all whether the Wright Brothers had actually made a powered flight at Kittyhawk in 1903 and whether their subsequent efforts were faked or not. The French and especially their press were particularly sceptical describing Wilbur as a "bluffeur". The only way to answer this attitude was to demonstrate the plane and its abilities.

The venue was Les Hunaudieres racetrack, the one for horses not cars. It can be seen by taking the turning opposite L’Auberge des Hunaudieres (down the Mulsanne Straight) and about half a mile down on the right is the racecourse.

On 8th August 1908 Wilbur made the first powered flight in Europe stunning his critics by staying in the air for nearly 2 minutes and being able to turn and control the plane with ease.  To their credit the French doubters apologised and crowds of spectators came from far and wide to see the miracle of flight. This performance made instant celebrities of the Wright Brothers making them in demand all over the world.

Today the location of the first flight is marked by a weathered memorial and the solid millstone that was used to catapult the plane into the air. Back then the technique used to launch the aircraft was to build a strong derrick so that a heavy weight could be hoisted up. This was attached to the air from and then released to give sufficient energy to slip the shackles of gravity.

The site is in contrast to the magisterial granite memorial at Kittyhawk, North Carolina but is no less important. While Wilbur was wowing the Europeans his brother Orville was doing no less a job with the United States Army at Fort Myer, Virginia. On 9 September he made the first hour-long flight, enduring 62 minutes and 15 seconds.

Back to Le Mans and for more signs of this momentous occasion there is a statue in the Place des Jacobins with more details of the flights and those involved.

A small city in France cast a very long shadow in the mechanised world of the 20th Century, perhaps the 24 Hours can address some of the energy problems of the 21st.

John Brooks, November 2008