Various dignitaries from the ACO, l'Automobile Club d'Ouest, invited guests and the motorsport media filled the Welcome Restaurant, situated to the north of the circuit, for the annual Le Mans awards ceremony today.

The first presentation was made to Don Panoz, the guest of honour for the 71st running of the Le Mans 24 Hours. Panoz, founder of Panoz Motorsports and the American Le Mans Series, was handed the flag that will be used to start the race at 4pm on Saturday.

The Spirit of Le Mans award was designed to recognise those who have brought their talent to make Le Mans a household name around the world, and three such awards were given out during the ceremony.

The first award was handed to former Le Mans winner Phil Hill. He participated in the race 13 times and took three brilliant victories during his career, all while driving for Ferrari. Winning Le Mans and the F1 World Championship drivers' title is something that only five drivers have achieved - Hill was the only driver in this category who won Le Mans more than once.

"At the very least one can say that the expression 'it's make or break time' is no more apt than when applied to yourself" said Michel Cosson, President of the ACO, as he handed to Phil Hill a Rolex Watch which "symbolises that fight against the stopwatch from which you have emerged victorious".

"I am very proud and happy to receive this gift" said Hill. "To you I wish you all the best as well in Europe."

Norbert Singer, another giant of Le Mans, was the second recipient of the Spirit of Le Mans award. In the role of engineer he has contributed to the creation and development of Porsches at Le Mans since 1970. During this time he tasted the joys of victory sixteen times.

"Fidelity, passion, performance - so many qualities which make you a worthy winner of the Spirit of Le Mans award" said President Cosson.

"Thank you very much for your honour, I'm very proud of that" said a delighted Singer. "Thank you for Mr President and for the selection committee, and I also want to thank Porsche for allowing me to come so often to Le Mans and to be a little bit successful."

The third and final recipient of an award was Herb Fishel. He has spent 40 years at General Motors and, in particular, Chevrolet. He was involved in many wins in NASCAR and at the Indianapolis circuit. He entered Cadillac and Corvette in the 2000 Le Mans race and helped Corvette to victory in the GTS category in 2001 and 2002.

"Since the creation of GM Racing in 1991, we know it was impossible for you to remain insensible to the call of Le Mans" said President Cosson. "And coming back to defend the victories of 2001 and 2002 shows the kind of sportsmanship we like at Le Mans."

"Thank you for the ACO staging the most beautiful endurance race in the world, which gave General Motors the opportunity to come over and compete in this great event" replied Fishel.

The three award winners and Panoz posed for photographs and interviews after the presentations.