This weekend will see the 2021 Le Mans 24 Hours kick off with 62 cars setting off at 16.00 Saturday afternoon to battle it out around-the-clock for arguably the single greatest prize in four-wheel motorsport.
Even if you are ‘two wheels until you die’, there is no denying the mystique and heritage of an event that has been going now for 89 years, always at the same circuit, always 24 hours.
Indeed, anyone who may have gotten the chance to indulge in the Endurance World Championship with its 24 hours races at Le Mans and Magny-Cours will understand that majesty of watching bikes disappearing into sunset vistas, soaking up the sensations of throbbing action in the wee small hours and the widening weary eyes as motorcycles cut through a dewy morning.
In short, 24 hour races are an assault on the senses – good and bad. After all, what seemed like an excellent idea to stay awake throughout nearly always comes to a halt at around 4am despite eating 18 packets of crisps and your own weight in Haribo. I may be talking from experience here…
Bikers generally don’t gravitate towards the four-wheel Le Mans 24 Hours – though there are strong rumours a certain Valentino Rossi will be there in 2022 or 2023 – but there is in fact one WorldSBK race winner and 500GP podium winner competing in 2021.
Not only that, Takuma Aoki is no ordinary ex-rider. In fact he is paralysed, the legacy of an accident while testing at Suzuka in 1998.
Prior to that Aoki was one of the many Japanese-flagged wildcards that liked to shake things up with the regulars when WorldSBK rolled into town at Sugo. Already a top ten contender on home soil, Aoki went all the way to glory during the 1996 WorldSBK event, the same year he won the All-Japan Superbike Championship.
That earned him his first full season in 500GP with Honda, where he proceeded to stun with three podiums en route to fifth overall in his rookie campaign. His pre-season testing crash aged 24 put paid to a glittering career, however.
It is therefore credit to Aoki that in the years after the accident he has knuckled down and maintained a racing career that has seen him complete the Dakar Rally and race in the Formula E-supporting Jaguar I-PACE Trophy.
He has also remained an ambassador of Honda, where he helps the manufacturer develop cars for disabled people.
This year’s Le Mans 24 Hours will see him occupy a car classified as ‘Innovative’ – formerly known as Garage 56 – which is a special spot reserved for those either entering future-forward entry or have a particular quirk compared with others.
In this case, the Association SRT41 comprises a three-man driver line-up of which Aoki is part of – his co-drivers full quadraplegic Nigel Bailley (who doesn’t have fully formed legs or arms) and able bodied driver Matthieu Lahaye.
Though it runs outside the classes, the car is an LMP2 equivalent ORECA with modified controls and between the trio they aren’t exactly slow with the car qualifying 29th of 62, a modest seven seconds off the leading time from Qualifying Practice.
So while you may be down to watch WorldSBK and BSB this weekend, keep an eye on Aoki and co. to see how they fared come 16.00 on Sunday when the flag falls.