Despite having travelled to the Circuit de la Sarthe seven times prior to this trip, I’m a bit embarrassed to say we’ve always taken the fastest route down the motorway. This is sacrilege, really, considering some of the cars we’ve driven down over the years. People will tell you that a big part of a Le Mans weekend is the journey down, but we’ve always rushed it to get set up for the weekend and never taken the opportunity to enjoy it. Not this time.
I’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 – 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 Italy…), 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 ‘Best route to Le Mans’ returned a ream of PH threads. Being in the south-east I’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? It’s a long journey, so you want something comfortable that can soak up the miles, but equally fast and fun for when you’re on the right roads. Enter the Ford Mustang Mach 1. The track-focused version of Ford’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.
We set off from Calais at 10am with our only motorway stint down to Neufchâtel-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-Forêt for lunch at the Café du Commerce in the town square (thoroughly recommended for a great steak and chips). The road out of Lyons-la-Forêt towards Les Andelys was stunning and the perfect setting for the Mach 1 to stretch its legs.
There’s no doubting it’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. It’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 hadn’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 it’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 you’re knackered and just want to get home to bed.
While this isn’t a mountainous part of France, it’s by far one of the most picturesque and fun routes to take to Le Mans. After all, what’s the rush? The roads were completely deserted and took us through flat farmland, gorgeous villages, and on twisty, undulating roads through forests. This isn’t a route that you’d go out of your way to do on its own, but if you’re heading to Le Mans for the 24 Hours or the Classic, it must be one of the best to take.
Highlights and lowlights
I’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. It’s a car that feels every bit as special whether it’s moving or standing still. Even when we drove to Arnage only to realise I’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 can’t say for a lot of new cars on sale today. And while it’s a car that has been honed for the track, it feels very much at home on public roads.
We didn’t see a single speed camera along the way, apart from the first section of autoroute. There’s no trip computer for fuel economy (or it’s very well hidden) so we’ll just forget about that. My only criticisms are that the roads aren’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 don’t really seem all that keen on takeaway coffee, which is fine if you’ve got plenty of time to sit in a café, but when you want to keep moving, it’s tricky to find one away from the service stations.
Sights, stop-offs and diversions
Lunch in the town square at Lyons-la-Forêt is a must; it’s by far the prettiest old town we drove through and there are plenty of options. Make sure you grab dessert from les desserts colorés in the square, too. The road out of the town towards Les Andelys is the best part of the whole route, so it’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 you’re in a supercar or something very low. The Easy Clean car wash (Imp. Amédée Bollée, 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.
I’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 you’ve got any suggestions or tweaks you’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!
SPECIFICATION | 2022 FORD MUSTANG MACH 1
Engine: 5038cc, naturally aspirated, V8
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 460@7250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 390@4,600rpm
0-62mph: 4.8 secs
Top speed: 166mph
Weight: 1851kg (running order)
Price: £60,075 (As tested £60,675 with Shadow Black paint for £600)
For more information on PistonHeads’ camping at Le Mans and to register your interest for 2023, click here.