The Automobile Club de l’Ouest has nominated you as Grand Marshal of the forthcoming 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s a role you haven’t yet played in a race that has few secrets for you.
This race is very special to me. Le Mans has always been good to me. Really good. I came as a driver several times, with excellent cars. [He doesn’t say so, but he won the race six times, a long-standing record broken by Tom Kristensen] I was a consultant for the only Japanese manufacturer to have won the race to date [Mazda in 1991]. I’ve been the starter and I was also race director one year. And now Grand Marshal.
As Grand Marshal, you get to drive the leading car of the formation lap before the start. You’ll be a guide, in a way. This year two Formula One champions Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button will be Le Mans rookies. How would you describe Le Mans to them?
I’m going to borrow the words of Thierry Sabine, who was talking about the Dakar, but it applies to Le Mans too: “Le Mans is a race for amateurs but professionals have their place too”. That’s the magic of this race and ensures its longevity. We need a balance between major manufacturers and small outfits. Pierre Fillon and Gérard Neveu are set on making sure that happens. I can only add that Le Mans, endurance racing, is a source of inspiration. In racing, drivers attract attention they don’t necessarily deserve, when behind them there is a whole team of men and women who contribute their skill and their passion to achieve a result. I try to emphasise the importance of teamwork to make up for that injustice.
Do you remember your first 24 Hours of Le Mans?
I was overjoyed. It was in 1966 in a Ford GT40. I was young, which meant I wasn’t fazed by anything. I didn’t realise that taking part in Le Mans was an extraordinary thing to do.
Do you think Fernando Alonso will take it in his stride too?
I don’t know him personally but I think it’s great that he and Jenson Button will be competing. In Alonso’s case, it’s a miracle. Today’s drivers are often tied down to a particular discipline. In my day, you could race every weekend and switch from one series to another, and do Le Mans as a team of two. You can’t do any of that any more.
Fernando is suffering in F1 and McLaren is letting him go and try to win in another championship. They realised a new challenge was the best way to motivate him. It’ll be great for his morale. Alonso is a great racing driver, a real fighter. It’s great that he’s come to endurance, it’s just what the fans needed too.