Aston Martin and the famous Le Mans Start

Le Mans, 8 June 2010. Just like Aston Martin, the Le Mans 24 Hour race has a rich heritage with several traditions surrounding it.

One of the most famous is the Le Mans start, in which drivers used to sprint across the track when the French tricolour was dropped to signify the start of the race.

Their cars were lined up in a herringbone formation opposite the pits, and the drivers would jump in, start the engine and get going as quickly as they could. In order to speed up the process, different teams and drivers used to have various tricks to help save time.

A number of teams, for example, located the starter button to the left of the steering wheel so that a driver could engage first gear at the same time as starting the engine. Stirling Moss -- an Aston Martin factory driver in 1956, 1958 and 1959 -- used to have his car with first gear already engaged, so that he could travel for the first few metres on the starter motor before dipping the clutch and firing up the engine once he was underway.

With drivers doing everything they could to shave off tenths of a second, it was inevitable that there were shortcuts when it came to safety. In particular, many drivers used not to bother fastening their safety belts -- which only became a feature of Le Mans cars in the 1960s -- until they were already well underway.

Jacky Ickx, a six-time winner of Le Mans, opposed this practice on safety grounds and registered his protest by walking across the track to his car at the start of the 1969 race and refusing to leave until he was fully strapped in. Although he was nearly run over by another competitor at the start, he went on to win the race -- and the Le Mans start was substantially modified for 1970.

In that year, the cars still started from opposite the pit lane but the drivers were already strapped in and ready to go. Then in 1971, the practice was done away with completely in favour of a rolling start, which still exists today.

However, this year the Le Mans organisers have revived the classic Le Mans start tradition -- but only as a prelude to the conventional rolling start, so that safety is not compromised.

At 2.15pm on Saturday, the 56 drivers taking the start will walk across the track to be strapped into their cars, which will be facing them in herringbone formation: just like the old days. They will be strapped in with the help of their mechanics and then released one by one to take their places on the grid for the rolling start at 3pm as usual.

The starting order for the Aston Martin drivers on Saturday has not yet been decided, but it is a privilege that carries plenty of responsibility. As Aston Martin 007 driver Harold Primat -- who took the start last year -- points out: "There's plenty of scope for things to go wrong and with the cars so close together, it's easy to have some contact that can compromise the whole race. In the end, you just have to focus on your job, concentrate very hard, and stay out of trouble."

All the drivers will take to the track for the first time tomorrow, for a free practice session from 4pm to 8pm tomorrow. After a two-hour break, they will then have their first taste of night driving from 10pm to midnight.

-source: aston martin