This Is What 240 MPH Feels Like
Is Derek Bell’s 1983 Le Mans lap in the Rothmans Porsche 956 the most visceral ride ever?
The biggest problem with motor sport is the inability of the TV viewer and the trackside fan to experience the actual experience of pushing a race car to its limits. You’re breaking the laws of physics. One split-second error could end your life. It’s impossibly loud. Everything is vibrating. The seat harness is wrapped so tight, you can barely move your ribs to breath. Your suit and helmet can make you feel awfully claustrophobic, if you’re not a professional. You’re hitting the apex of every corner with absolute precision, easing tires within an inch of your potential death.
In large part, the race is won or lost on the tachometer. You are in the right gear, throttling at the max possible without losing your footing, at every moment, of every lap. No two laps are the same. The fuel tank is slowly emptying, lightening the weight of the car, and increasing your speed. Weather conditions change. Photographers lean in, snapping away as you rocket past. Your focus is super human. “True concentration is not aware of itself,” the Formula 1 champ Phil Hill once said. When the driver forgets himself, he becomes one with the machine. “Sometimes you may not even be aware of the break in your concentration,” Hill notes, “not until you find yourself plunging past your braking point.”
Take a lap in a Porsche 956 with Derek Bell at Le Mans circa 1983. We can think of few pieces of footage that bring the racing experience to life so viscerally as this clip. Make sure the volume is as loud as it can go. It still will not approximate what it’s actually like to be in the car. But it will come close.
A.J. Baime is Editor-at-Large at The Drive and the author of Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans.