Calais to Le Mans | PH Dream Drive

ByGeraldine R. Pleasant

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Despite having travelled to the Circuit de la Sarthe seven times prior to this trip, Iโ€™m a bit embarrassed to say weโ€™ve always taken the fastest route down the motorway. This is sacrilege, really, considering some of the cars weโ€™ve driven down over the years. People will tell you that a big part of a Le Mans weekend is the journey down, but weโ€™ve always rushed it to get set up for the weekend and never taken the opportunity to enjoy it. Not this time.

Iโ€™m well versed in planning road trips, from organising a weekend in Wales on my favourite driving roads to a monster trip across the Canadian Rockies. But all the routes I plan have one thing in common โ€“ there are destinations along the way that help stitch it together. My geography is terrible at the best of times (I once asked a car dealer from Toulouse what business was like in Italyโ€ฆ), so planning a Billy-no-mates route through France is no easy feat.

Step in a bunch of very helpful PHers. A quick Google for โ€˜Best route to Le Mansโ€™ returned a ream of PH threads. Being in the south-east Iโ€™m fortunate to not be too far from either Folkstone, to get the Eurotunnel to Calais, or Portsmouth, to get the ferry to Caen. Too much choice is a bad thing for me, but luckily Sortie 10 and lowdrag were on hand to suggest roads and towns to take in to hone either option. I settled on Calais, with an estimated 6hr30 journey, versus the usual 4hr30 fastest route down the motorway.

But what car to do it in? Itโ€™s a long journey, so you want something comfortable that can soak up the miles, but equally fast and fun for when youโ€™re on the right roads. Enter the Ford Mustang Mach 1. The track-focused version of Fordโ€™s muscle GT, and the most powerful Mustang to (officially) come to the UK, with 460hp from its 5.0-litre V8. Which is the same power output we saw in the Bullitt four years ago, but the Mach 1 also benefits from six-pot Brembo brake calipers up front, a custom bodykit to generate up to 25 per cent more downforce over a standard Mustang and a bespoke suspension set up. Just my kind of GT.

The route

We set off from Calais at 10am with our only motorway stint down to Neufchรขtel-en-Bray, where we departed the autoroute for the many kilometres of back roads ahead. Our first taste of D roads did not disappoint: deserted and twisting through the countryside with the constant rumble of the V8 around us.

We headed for Forges-les-Eaux, before stopping in the picturesque town of Lyons-la-Forรชt for lunch at the Cafรฉ du Commerce in the town square (thoroughly recommended for a great steak and chips). The road out of Lyons-la-Forรชt towards Les Andelys was stunning and the perfect setting for the Mach 1 to stretch its legs.

Thereโ€™s no doubting itโ€™s a big and heavy car, but the power delivery is the perfect distraction, with the feel of the naturally aspirated V8 reverberating in your chest as the revs build towards their 7,500rpm crescendo. Which is very addictive, as is the weight of the gear shift that makes it so unmistakably a muscle car. Itโ€™s a car that fills you with confidence and, as John described in his review, the faster you go, the more it seems to shrink around you and feels like a smaller and lighter car than it is.

We pushed on through Le Neubourg and Conches-en-Ouche before taking a coffee break at L’Aigle. I was so excited for the drive that I hadnโ€™t slept much the night before, so the shot of caffeine was very much needed. The final stretch through Mortagne-au-Perche and Mamers skirted a national park, dipping in and out of tree-lined roads before we eventually arrived at Le Mans, nine hours after departing Calais. We had a leisurely lunch and several stops for photographs, so you could probably get it down to eight if you were tighter on time.

Why itโ€™s a dream drive

Sure, you can just blast down to Le Mans on the motorways, which many people do. There are always plenty of cars to see at the services, but the route is very forgettable and a complete waste of anything fun to drive in. Save it for the journey back, when youโ€™re knackered and just want to get home to bed.

While this isnโ€™t a mountainous part of France, itโ€™s by far one of the most picturesque and fun routes to take to Le Mans. After all, whatโ€™s the rush? The roads were completely deserted and took us through flat farmland, gorgeous villages, and on twisty, undulating roads through forests. This isnโ€™t a route that youโ€™d go out of your way to do on its own, but if youโ€™re heading to Le Mans for the 24 Hours or the Classic, it must be one of the best to take.

Highlights and lowlights

Iโ€™ve never driven a car that has had so much positive attention. Everywhere we went, people would stop and look, take photographs and give you a thumbs up or a wave. Itโ€™s a car that feels every bit as special whether itโ€™s moving or standing still. Even when we drove to Arnageย only to realise Iโ€™d left my pass at the campsite, there were no complaints about getting back in for another drive. Every kilometre felt like an event, which you canโ€™t say for a lot of new cars on sale today. And while itโ€™s a car that has been honed for the track, it feels very much at home on public roads.

We didnโ€™t see a single speed camera along the way, apart from the first section of autoroute. Thereโ€™s no trip computer for fuel economy (or itโ€™s very well hidden) so weโ€™ll just forget about that. My only criticisms are that the roads arenโ€™t as twisty as some of the fantastic B roads we have in the UK, but they were well-suited to the Mustang. And the French donโ€™t really seem all that keen on takeaway coffee, which is fine if youโ€™ve got plenty of time to sit in a cafรฉ, but when you want to keep moving, itโ€™s tricky to find one away from the service stations.

Sights, stop-offs and diversions

Lunch in the town square at Lyons-la-Forรชt is a must; itโ€™s by far the prettiest old town we drove through and there are plenty of options. Make sure you grab dessert from les desserts colorรฉs in the square, too. The road out of the town towards Les Andelys is the best part of the whole route, so itโ€™s one to savour.

There are loads of places you can stop to take photographs, so pick your fancy. Be warned though that some of the small villages do have speed bumps, so you might need to plan ahead if youโ€™re in a supercar or something very low. The Easy Clean car wash (Imp. Amรฉdรฉe Bollรฉe, 72650 Saint-Saturnin, France) on the northern outskirts of Le Mans is decent if you want to stop and wash off the bugs and road trip dust before you arrive at the circuit.

Iโ€™m sure we only scraped the surface of some of the great roads you can take along the way from Calais to Le Mans, so if youโ€™ve got any suggestions or tweaks youโ€™d make to the route for next time, then please let us know in the comments. Otherwise, roll on 2023, when we can do it all over again!


Engine:ย 5038cc, naturally aspirated, V8
Transmission:ย 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp):ย 460@7250rpm
Torque (lb ft):ย 390@4,600rpm
0-62mph:ย 4.8 secs
Top speed:ย 166mph
Weight:ย 1851kg (running order)
MPG:ย 22.8
CO2:ย 284g/km
Price: ยฃ60,075 (As tested ยฃ60,675 with Shadow Black paint for ยฃ600)

For more information on PistonHeadsโ€™ camping at Le Mans and to register your interest for 2023, click here.