LAST week, I was in France for the 80th edition of the 24 hours of Le Mans, the famous endurance race that has captured the hearts of motoring enthusiasts for years. Le Mans has the ability to concoct the most glamorous of stories. In the 1920s, Woolf Barnato, using Dad Barney's fortune earned at the mines in Kimberley, and his "Bentley Boys" were unstoppable in what Etorre Bugatti described as "the fastest lorries in Europe".
In the 1960s, Henry Ford II was so incandescently furious with Enzo Ferrari after the American's so-near-yet-so-far attempt to buy the Italian sports car manufacturer that he poached a bunch of British race engineers and told them to embarrass the Ferraris at Le Mans. For four years on the trot (1966 to 1969), Ford GT40s won the race, then Ford, having made his point, packed up and abandoned Le Mans for good.
The joy of Le Mans is that it feels like a poke in the eye for the establishment. It's a celebration of everything we are not supposed to celebrate - speed, fast cars and the sound and fury of a 24-hour-long race.
Le Mans is a major event in the British motor-racing scene. This year, 80000 Brits attended. Leaving a country famous for its bus lanes and proliferation of emissions taxes and congestion charges, these folk get into their Aston Martins and their Porsches, hop on the ferry and go camping in France.
Environmentalism is often a veil for political objectives, and what Le Mans this year shows is that the collectivist dream isn't going to happen in the UK, at least, and not even in France or Germany - because Le Mans this year was quietly historic. It was won by an Audi (and diesel-powered Audis have dominated for years now), but this year it was the e-Tron, a diesel/electric hybrid so clever it boggles the mind. Toyota, a company battered and bruised by ill fortune, was there in force. It raced petrol/electric hybrids that were very, very quick indeed.
And Nissan did something remarkable this year: it raced a car called the DeltaWing, an extraordinary-looking thing that was keeping pace and doing well when it was bundled into a wall by a rookie Toyota driver.
The DeltaWing, which its developers reckon could lap up there with the big boys in time, has four-inch-wide front tyres. It has no spoilers and looks like an aircraft. Nissan developed it with Highcroft, a US outfit, so it would consume half the fuel and tyres of a standard petrol-powered Le Mans car. That's astonishingly clever.
And, obviously, the old-school racers were there. The Porsches and the Ferraris and the Astons in the GT Class. But what's fascinating is how well the newfangled technology fared at this toughest of racing challenges. Reducing fuel and tyre use at Le Mans isn't making it any less interesting, it's keeping it as exciting as it ever has been.
Le Mans, with 250000 attendees and its huge car-themed party, shows the allure of private transport is as powerful as ever. Le Mans was won by a diesel hybrid - collectivists and the like need to find a new reason to hate motor sport because racing doesn't get greener than that.
One brand that's got a long and fun history at Le Mans is Porsche. And of course it was there this year, zooting around in incredibly loud 911s. They were pretty much outclassed by the Ferraris this year, but such is racing. Road-going 911s have recently had a fairly significant update. Any new 911 is big news but the slow nature of the evolution of the famous shape of the 911 means that for changes to be obvious and noticeable to non-Porsche types is quite unusual. The 2012 911 (991 for the anoraks) looks, as you might expect, pretty hot.
I had the dubious privilege of driving a glitzy golden Carrera S around Cape Town, sporting the number plate GLDILOX GP. With the sports exhaust switched on for extra shoutiness, this is about as far away from flying under the radar as is possible. So, to escape the glares of Capetonian drivers, I took Gldilox for a rural blast.
And it feels like a significant improvement on the previous car. For emissions reasons, the steering is electro-mechanical instead of hydraulic, something that's put the wind up Porsche fans something rotten. These cars are all about feedback and steering precision. Perhaps the clarity of the communication between road and driver has been numbed a bit but, to be honest, it's still just superb.
These cars are still the best day-to-day supercars. The numbers (294kW and 440Nm) might not seem too impressive in a world where you can buy a Mercedes E-Class with 420kW, but the naturally aspirated flat six in the Carrera S still blasts it to 100km/h in 4,5 seconds.
I'm always circumspect when I get into a 911. The physics of having the engine in the back is a worrying prospect. But again and again I was getting onto the gas earlier and earlier on exiting a corner and all the thing does is track fair and true. I couldn't find any sign of that legendary stockbroker-killing snap oversteer. It's just phenomenally flat and planted, and it makes for a thrilling, addictive ride.
Porsche in SA is run by a very passionate and smart man called Toby Venter. You get the impression he wants people in his cars, because he seems consistently able to keep prices reasonable. A Boxster costs less than R600000. You can get a Cayenne SUV for about the same, new.
This Carrera S is a snip at less than R1,2m. It's a lot, but given the heady company it keeps (Ferraris, Aston Martins etc), it's really a bit of a bargain.
The fact is, Porsche seems to be riding a wave of exponentially improving quality at the moment, something that gives its products increasingly superb value.
. Parker was a guest of Nissan.