‘It's hard to come down after doing 300km/h and then hit the hay,’ said Seb Priaulx as he reflected on his first experience of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The 21-year-old was slumped in a chair in his team’s fast-emptying garage on Sunday evening.
He had slept for less than an hour since the race started a full day before, hopping in and out of the car he shares with teammates Harry Tincknell and Christian Ried for several epic shifts in the world-famous race, which sits alongside the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 in the prestige stakes.
‘The whole week gets to you and then you wake up at 1am to do a two-hour stint, in the dark, you’ve got to be wide awake and wired, you can’t be sleepy,’ said Seb, who earned this chance off the back of a championship-winning season in the Porsche Carrera Cup North America, where the races last just 40 minutes.
‘This is hard,’ he added.
Often described as the ultimate test of man and machine, that hard work begins days before. Ex-Formula One drivers, World Rally champions and Le Mans legends are all put through extensive testing and tuning ahead of the showpiece of the FIA World Endurance Championship calendar.
With as many as 240,000 spectators lining some of the sport’s most storied corners and four classes racing simultaneously – from the Hypercars at the front of the field to the GT Pro-Ams at the back, where Seb is getting his first taste of it – this is motor sport on a different scale.
‘It’s a dream, I don’t know if it’s real or not at the moment,’ he said at Friday’s drivers’ parade as tens of thousands crammed into the streets of the old French town to greet them on the eve of the race.
Having seen his dad, Andy, drive at Le Mans several times before, Priaulx junior was wide-eyed as he took it all in. A huge celebration of the sport and the place which is so special to it.
‘Since I was a kid, I watched my dad. I’ve been going through these emotions since the beginning. It’s great to be here, doing what my dad’s done before,’ he said.
Each team, and there were 62 crews of three this year, sit on the back of a classic convertible for what will be the gentlest petrol-powered outing of their week, a chance for fans to see them up close in the flesh before watching them fly by in a flash once the on-track battle gets going.
‘I sum it up as being like the Glastonbury Festival of motor sport,’ said teammate Harry Tincknell ahead of his ninth Le Mans. ‘It’s really the one time where you actually feel like a bit of fame.’
‘There’s hundreds of thousands of people here. A lot of them have been here all week camping out. Lots of stag dos, lots of hen dos,’ he said with a smile.
🏁 “It’s a dream — I don’t know if it’s real or not at the moment”@SebPriaulx lines up in the legendary @24hoursoflemans for the first time tomorrow 🙌— Guernsey Press Sport (@GsyPressSport) June 10, 2022
He’s just finished the pre-race drivers’ parade, which drew tens of thousands to the centre of Le Mans 🎉 pic.twitter.com/mpg97RDFPD
Tincknell is the perfect partner for Seb as he takes his first steps in world championship competition this year. The 30-year-old Brit raced alongside Seb’s father at Le Mans four times, securing a podium finish together with Ford in 2017.
‘Andy and I have a lot of history together,’ he said. ‘He taught me so much about feedback, how to be eloquent with the team, all these things from all his years of experience of all the different manufacturers he’s been with, and we kept each other sharp on the track as well.
‘Now that Seb’s a champion in North America, it’s like a role reversal. I’m the team leader now, I’m teaching Seb, but it’s great,’ said the two-time Le Mans class champion.
‘He’s one of the fastest silver drivers in the world and we’ve already won a world championship race in Spa. It’s his first Le Mans and it doesn’t feel like nine years ago it was my first, so he’s doing a great job and I’m really looking forward to seeing how he gets on.’
And it was the experienced hand of Harry Tincknell who was trusted to get their race under way on Saturday, as the parties going on around the tracked paused for the first time that week.
Thousands of fans filled every grandstand, step, terrace and balcony as the starting flag was delivered from a French military helicopter, which bowed before swooping down over the drivers and their cars lined up in formation on the start-finish straight.
Having qualified third in class with their #77 Porsche, Harry slotted into place for the 4pm rolling start, which must surely rank among the most awe-inspiring sights in motor sport.
Several minutes after setting off one-by-one for a warm-up lap of the Circuit de la Sarthe, they came roaring back into view, the lead safety car peeling off at the very last moment as they crossed the line for the first of 300-plus flat-out round-trips over eight-and-a-half miles of tarmac.
Harry started well too, his opening efforts moving him up the field as the heat of the late afternoon sun seemed to intensify with the relentlessness of the early racing.
In the garage, where every aspect of the car’s performance is monitored by dozens of technicians across hundreds of screens, Seb was playing close attention too. Alongside him, his team boss Patrick Dempsey. The Grey’s Anatomy star actor, who has driven Le Mans himself, no doubt passing on some final words of encouragement as the young Guernseyman waited for his moment –which came just under two hours in.
What were you doing at 4.48pm on Saturday? Firing up the barbecue? Pouring yourself a gin and tonic perhaps? Well, just a couple of hundred miles away from his home in Torteval, Seb Priaulx was setting off on his first ever lap in one of the world’s greatest races.
With four classes of car battling it out on one track, the drivers are not just focused on getting the most out of their machines as they clock up the three-minute laps, but also on getting past – or getting out of the way of – other traffic on the road. It is mesmerising to watch from track-side. Behind the wheel, Seb found his rhythm quickly.
Up in the media centre, which overlooks the main straight, another Guernsey soul was watching on.
Fiona Miller, who went to Blanchelande College before heading off for a career in motor sport communications, got to know Andy Priaulx when he started out in the British F3 championship some 25 years or so ago.
‘When Andy switched to sports cars, I began to see him more and more,’ she said.
‘It was always nice to say “wotcha” to somebody in the paddock, and to have a friendly face, and then we’d bump into each other down at Petit Port, crabbing or something like that, when the children were small.
‘It’s just wonderful to see how Seb’s developed. My nephews went to school with him at the Forest School. I’ve seen him grow up, seen him come to races with Andy when he was a lot younger, and now for him to be making his debut here at Le Mans is a really heart-warming thing to see,’ she said.
As day turned to night, and night to day, that debut increasingly looked like it might end in a dream finish, Seb and his teammates running to form and still in the podium places.
The 21-year-old’s burgeoning reputation in motor sport circles, which he has built across continents in his formative years, growing lap-by-lap on this legendary track.
‘He’s served a very good apprenticeship and he’s carved his own path, he’s done very well,’ said Fiona.
‘He’s also teamed up with some really great people at the moment so he’s now standing on his own two feet. He’s very much a young man who’s got his own path ahead of him now so it’s great. I think he has a really great potential.’
‘You don’t win Le Mans, Le Mans chooses you.’ That is what everybody says. The sense that reaching the top of the podium – having come out on the right side of every decision, every stroke of luck, and every roll of the dice over 24 hours of racing – must be the work of some higher power within.
But this year, at least, the #77 Porsche was not among Le Mans’ chosen few.
With a little over two hours to go, and with Priaulx behind the wheel, the prize of a podium spot was snatched away. Twenty-two hours of hard work undone in a split second.
‘I was coming through Porsche Curves and I felt that the steering was a little bit light,’ said the exhausted driver after the race. ‘Then I came through Ford Chicane and the steering went right-hand down so I lost all my feeling in the wheel.’
A loose bolt in the suspension led him over the gravel and back into the pits, where the Proton-Dempsey mechanics battled to get the car back on the road as it looked like their race might be over entirely.
‘It’s heartbreaking, but at least we weren’t leading otherwise I would have probably been crying,’ said Seb, who stood by powerless for the best part of half an hour before they eventually returned him to the road to complete the 24 hours.
‘Harry, Christian and myself did a great job this whole day of racing. I’m tired, I’m ready for my bed,’ he said with bloodshot eyes, still trying to process the day’s events.
‘It’s just one of those things,’ said Harry, for whom nine years of experience had not dampened his emotions.
‘We had a guaranteed podium in the bag. We had a really solid race, we came through adversity a couple of times. Seb had a little spin but recovered it well, we had a couple of dramas in the pits, we got unlucky a couple of times in slow zones, but we also got lucky a few times as well.
‘When you give so much effort and don’t get anything back it’s obviously disappointing, but for Seb it’s a huge learning experience. I was really lucky, my first Le Mans I ended up winning and I remember everyone at the time told me you have to go through the pain of Le Mans first to really appreciate the feeling of winning.
‘To be running third with two-and-a-half hours to go, out of 23 cars in a super-tough field, first time ever at the track, first time ever doing a race longer than six hours, is a fantastic effort from Seb,’ he said.
‘He’ll have come on leaps and bounds. I’ve been saying to him all week to conserve energy. Stuff like the drivers’ parade is fun, but you get back and you wake up on Saturday morning and the battery’s not at 100% because you’ve done a week’s worth of testing and PR commitments, and staying up until 2am to do debriefs after the midnight session finishes.’
For Seb and his teammates, it is on to Monza in Italy next month, before races in Japan and Bahrain to round off his debut season in the World Endurance Championship.
But, such is the draw of this unique festival of motor sport, you get the feeling the next Le Mans will not be far from his thoughts.
‘I want to come back, for sure, and I want to win it,’ he said. ‘To be a Le Mans finisher, that is a dream – and it’s a big accomplishment.’
Not bad for a 21-year-old from Torteval.