Most of the time, a sleepy little town smack in the centre of France is just like any other sleepy little town. Having existed in one form or another since the Roman era, it’s littered with quaint old buildings – including a cathedral that dates back to the sixth century – but otherwise there’s not much to shout about.

But for a few days in mid-June every year, something strange happens. The entire motoring world descends to this place, sweeping it in a fit of frenzy as it prepares to host one of the world’s great motorsports events, having done so since 1923. It’s a place that has witnessed enormous scenes of victory and heartbreak, and great battles between hallowed names that have become the stuff of legends, all in the space of 24 hours.

We’re talking, of course, about Le Mans. Specifically, we’re talking about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the oldest endurance race in the world, and part of the coveted Triple Crown of Motorsport that also includes the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500.

It’s held on the Circuit de la Sarthe, a 13.6 km track that runs partly on public road. It’s a real test of both cars and drivers because of the mix of slow (Indianapolis) and fast (Porsche Curves) corners, plus the notorious six-kilometre Mulsanne Straight – which, while now broken up by two chicanes, still enables cars to reach in excess of 320 km/h – that ends in a sharp right-hand hairpin. It catches out even the most experienced.

Plenty of famous manufacturers have won here before, including Ferrari, Audi, Jaguar and, infamously, Ford – whose bitter battle with Ferrari in the ’60s probably requires an article of its own. But none have taken the tall gold trophy home more often than Porsche, which remains the most successful manufacturer in the history of the sport, having clinched the chequered flag an astounding 18 times.

Those victories include two in 1970 and 1971 with the 917, two in 1976 and 1977 with the 936, one in 1979 with the 935 and an impressive unbroken string of wins from 1981 to 1987 with the 936 (1981), 956 (1982 to 1985) and 962 (1986 to 1987). During that time, the works Porsche teams attracted numerous would-be legends, including six-time winner Jacky Ickx and five-time winner Derek Bell.

The 962 took another win in 1994, while the TWR-prepared Porsche WSC-95 claimed two wins in 1996 and 1997; the 911 GT1 would go on to clinch Zuffenhausen’s last victory in a long while in 1998. Porsche returned to the hallowed grounds 16 years later with the 919 Hybrid, which won two straight races in 2015 and 2016 – the latter after the leading Toyota broke down in the closing minutes.

You feel the weight of that history the moment you touch down. Le Mans’ only airport is nestled right next to the track, so it’s quite a spectacular sight as the plane lands, and the massive grandstand complex – and the carnival with the iconic Ferris wheel – hoves into view.

Once we’re landed, we’re taken straight to the track, and to the Porsche Experience Centre. The facility houses a driving school that offers performance courses on the smaller, permanent Bugatti and Maison Blanche circuits, and also has a workshop, a restaurant, a classic car display and a boutique for Porsche-branded attire. You can even get your car delivered here, which must make for quite an Instagram post.

For the race weekend, however, everything’s been cleared out for a massive viewing party (the balcony overlooks the track, after all), complete with a trio of racing simulators – including one featuring a full-sized 911. Sitting at the front and centre of the foyer is last year’s race-winning #2 919 Hybrid, still wearing all the dirt and battle scars that can only come from 24 hours of racing.

It’s a real sight to behold – smaller and lower than you’d expect, but lithe and surprisingly elegant, and full of intricate swoops, flicks and fins that only reveal themselves once you get closer. Two tiny doors open upwards and outwards to provide access to the interior, which looks plenty snug despite regulations stating that a Le Mans Prototype needs to have enough space for two people inside.

Before long we’re ushered into the main hall where Porsche is having its annual press conference ahead of the big race. The star-studded event is hosted by Porsche ambassador and former Formula One and LMP1 racer Mark Webber; Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell are also in attendance, as is McDreamy himself Patrick Dempsey, who co-owns the Dempsey-Proton Racing team that will do battle in the GTE Am class.

There’s a cautious optimism in the air; after all, if there’s one company that knows better than anyone how to win here, it’s Porsche. But it’s tempered by Toyota’s strong form this year – the Japanese team had already won the 6 Hours of Silverstone and Spa-Francorchamps earlier in the year, and during qualifying the day before set the course record by a whole two seconds on its way to locking out the front row.

What’s more, Toyota, clearly stung by last year’s defeat, is bouncing back by fielding three cars this year, while Porsche has been limited to a two-car effort since last year. Team principal Andreas Seidl, however, doesn’t seem fazed by the challenge mounted against Zuffenhausen.

“Toyota are the favourites, but this is the hardest race in the world, and we have everything we need to be in the position to fight for the top spot,” he said. “At the moment, from what we have seen in free practice, in colder conditions Toyota is definitely stronger than us.

“We saw some of the runs in hot conditions that we are at least at the same pace or even have a small advantage – so we’ll just pray for heat, for every single degree that we can get. We hope it doesn’t get too cold in the night and then we’ll see how it goes.”

At least the team has worked to make the most out of the 919 Hybrid. This year’s car has been thoroughly revised, even though it shares the same monocoque as the 2016 one. That’s partly due to regulations that curtail the amount of downforce produced – this year, there are further limitations to dimensions and exterior aerodynamic devices, which are expected to result in an extra three to four seconds per lap at Le Mans.

Compared to last year’s car, the new one sports higher, wider and longer wheel arches, as well as a new air channel from the monocoque to the wheel arch. There are also new faired-in wing mirrors hidden in the fenders, while the rear air intakes for the radiators have been tweaked as well.

As ever, a 2.0 litre turbo petrol V4 sits behind the driver, making around 500 hp. Paired to this is an electric front motor that produces over 400 hp, providing all-wheel drive traction and a claimed total system output of 900 hp. Porsche says the 919 is the only prototype to recover energy during acceleration as well as braking.

To do this, the front motor acts as a kinetic energy recovery system (KERS), and there’s a variable geometry turbine in the exhaust tract, just like Formula One. These systems transfer electricity into a lithium-ion battery, with most of it coming from the front – around 80% of braking energy recovered by the front axle is immediately converted into drive energy.

Recuperating the kinetic energy usually lost under braking has allowed Porsche to get away with an engine that is 100 hp less powerful, cutting fuel consumption by as much as 20% – equivalent to a litre of petrol per lap. It also enables the fitment of smaller, lighter brakes, which also has a beneficial side effect of reduced air resistance, since smaller brakes require less cooling air.

Later in the day, what seems like the entire world swarms into the town centre for the driver’s parade, where those competing from tomorrow onwards will be driven around the main square in open-top classic cars, punctuated by dancers, marching bands, new-age exotic cars and a dancing panda pulling women to dance on the street. It’s an utterly eccentric show-and-dance, but one you shouldn’t miss all the same.

The next day, as organisers are gearing up for a 3pm start, guests at the Porsche hospitality suite are treated to a rare sight – chairman Wolfgang Porsche and Toyota president Akio Toyoda are engaged in conversation and sharing a laugh or two. Even though the rivalry between the two top LMP1 teams is as stiff as ever, there is a mutual respect that’s evident, especially after Toyota’s last-lap heartbreak last year.

Later, the two men pose next to the winner’s trophy – perched inside an original 911 Turbo Cabriolet – then set off for a drive around the track, Toyoda in a Lexus LFA and Porsche in the one-off one-millionth 911. Based on a Carrera S, the special model is finished in gorgeous Irish Green and features houndstooth fabric seat trim, a mahogany steering wheel and a old-school manual gearbox.

With the opening festivities concluded and all the cars lined up parallel to each other in typical Le Mans style (albeit without the drivers running across the track – for safety reasons they now start the race strapped-in), it is nearly time to begin, and one by one the racers head out onto the track for a rolling start.

Flagged off by Formula One chairman Chase Carey, the cars go racing past the start/finish line at exactly 3pm, and as expected the #7 Toyota TS050 Hybrid driven by Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Stéphane Sarrazin sets the race pace from the get-go.

Behind it, the #8 Toyota of Sébastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima jostles for position with the #1 919 Hybrid of Neel Jani, André Lotterer and Nick Tandy, while the #2 Porsche of Timo Bernhard, Earl Bamber and Brandon Hartley holds station just behind. Meanwhile, the #9 Toyota of Nicolas Lapierre, Yuji Kunimoto and Jose Maria Lopez eventually falls back, some ways away from all the action.

It’s still the early stages of the race when the Porsche team is hit with its first problem. Into just the fourth hour, the #2 car finds itself the pits after Earl Bamber experienced a loss of power on the electrically-driven front axle. Viewers watch on as the stricken car flashes on the screens with its entire front end disassembled, in order for the mechanics to access the front electric motor.

A heroic effort means that the car is back out after just over an hour, but by then the damage is done – it’s 19 laps down in 56th position, seemingly out of contention of a podium, let alone a victory. The leading trio continue to fight for the lead until just before the ninth hour, when Sébastien Buemi pulls the #8 Toyota into the pits with a small brake fire.

After the blaze is extinguished, it is revealed that, like the #2 Porsche, the #8 Toyota is suffering from a front motor issue. While the mechanics beaver away on the car, the #7 Toyota continues its charge at the head of the field ahead of the #1 Porsche, when disaster strikes the Toyota team again.

TOYOTA GAZOO Racing.
Le Mans 24 Hours Race, 12th to 18th June 2017
Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans, France.

Coming up towards the 11th hour, the #7 car begins to slow down to the horror of the Toyota team, who less than two hours ago had two cars fighting for overall victory against only one Porsche. As the #1 Porsche passes the limping Toyota for the overall lead for the first time, driver Kamui Kobayashi makes a desperate attempt to keep it going to the pits, but is finally forced to retire the car just before the Porsche curves.

While all this commotion is happening the #8 Toyota is able to get back out, but the resulting two-hour repair leaves it an astounding 30 laps behind, putting it even further back than the #2 Porsche. But worse is to come for Toyota – just minutes after Kobayashi leaves the #7, the #9 car, driven by Nicolas Lapierre, is involved in a collision with an LMP2 car, causing a puncture.

That decimated tyre begins to tear up the rear bodywork and the hydraulics, and soon there’s a fire. It dies out and, before long, so does the car, which parks up in sight of the pit lane entry. Toyota’s race, rock solid just an hour ago, is in complete tatters – it’s now Porsche’s race to lose, with one car in the lead and the other fighting its way back up the order.

With the remaining competition eliminated before the halfway, it’s a lonely, uneventful night at the top for the #1 Porsche, and as the sun breaks over the top of the French countryside it holds an unassailable 10-lap lead over the LMP2 cars. With the #2 Porsche having just broken into the top 10, it appears likely that Jani, Lotterer and Tandy will be joined on the overall podium by drivers from a class down.

So, it seems that the race has been all but decided with a handful of hours still left to run. But Le Mans isn’t the world’s most prestigious endurance race because it is predictable, even one like this. And with just four hours left it deals its most devastating blow.

Having led for over 10 hours since the #7 Toyota’s failure, the #1 Porsche, in the hands of André Lotterer, is now the one that’s crawling on the track before coming to a stop, to the shock and dropped jaws of everyone in the Porsche suite. The V4 engine is suffering from a lack of oil pressure, and despite Lotterer’s attempts to get the car started up again, it’s a no-go.

With the #1 officially out of the race, the overall lead is passed, rather incredulously, to the #38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca-Gibson LMP2 car driven by Ho-Pin Tung, Thomas Laurent and Oliver Jarvis. All eyes are now on the #2 Porsche currently being piloted by Brendon Hartley, which has now climbed into fifth and is now just three laps down, closing in at a rate of around ten seconds a lap. It’s the showdown of a lifetime.

That sets off a tense couple of hours, particularly as the rising attrition rate causes more and more cars to drop out on the track, leading to slow zones that threaten to halt the #2’s progress. It’s not plain sailing for the #38, either, which needs an entire rear bodywork replacement due to malfunctioning tail lights (yes).

The #38’s remaining drivers, rookie Thomas Laurent and Ho-Pin Tung, bravely hold out, but the inevitable happens just over an hour before the end. It’s Timo Bernhard who swoops past Tung for the overall lead, to the delight of the Porsche team and the magnanimity of Jackie Chan DC Racing, which can be proud to be the first LMP2 effort to ever lead the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

With that over, Bernhard brings home the #2, at one point written off any chance of victory, to take the chequered flag. It’s Bernhard’s and Bamber’s second Le Mans win and Hartley’s first, and together they roll into the pits on top of their battered 919 Hybrid. They cap off a hat-trick for Zuffenhausen, and extend the company’s record as the winningest manufacturer in the sport, now with 19 victories to its name.

The trio are joined on the podium by Tung, Laurent and Jarvis, as well as Nelsen Piquet Jr, David Heinemeier Hansson and Mathias Beche who drove the #13 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca-Gibson LMP2 car – the latter is later disqualified because the team cut into the bodywork to conduct an earlier repair.

This puts the second Jackie Chan DC Racing car, #37 driven by David Cheng, Tristan Gommendy and Alex Brundle, up into second in the LMP2 class and third overall. The sole remaining LMP1 car, the #8 Toyota, finishes a lowly eighth.

As for Porsche’s GT efforts, the new 911 RSR has been spectacularly loud throughout the race but ultimately couldn’t provide the results the team was looking for. The #91 car driven Richard Lietz, Patrick Pilet and Frédéric Makowiecki finishes just outside the GTE Pro podium in fourth after a last-minute puncture, while the #92 of Michael Christensen, Kevin Estre and Dirk Werner crashed out during the night.

As the winners hoist the gold trophy into the Porsche suite for a victory party, it’s a scene of both joy and dejection. Bernhard, Bamber and Hartley are of course over the moon, but those in charge of the #1 car are gutted after having come so close – particularly Lotterer, who was the one driving on course for a place at the top step of the podium when the car spluttered to a halt in the closing stages.

That’s Le Mans for you. With so much at stake, emotions run high here, and after experiencing it first-hand it’s easy to see why these teams and drivers come back year after year. Which is why it’s a poignant moment when, just over a month after the astonishing victory, it is announced that Porsche is exiting the World Endurance Championship (WEC) at the end of the year and with that, Le Mans.

The move has been done ostensibly to accommodate a works entry into the fledgling Formula E series, which the company says more closely aligns with its future strategy of offering fully-electric sports cars. But it will leave a large hole in the sports car racing community, especially after Audi’s departure last year – Toyota is the last remaining LMP1 challenger that will be racing in 2018.

No matter what, Porsche has ensured that it is leaving the sport with the bang with a stunning performance at Le Mans. After being at the brink of defeat and performing an inspired charge from the back of the field, the team of Bernhard, Bamber and Hartley can hold their heads up high knowing that Zuffenhausen’s last victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe is also arguably its most memorable.