Le Mans 24 Hours – for Steve McQueen, and many others, a race like no other | Giles Richards

The legendary race, which starts on Saturday, captivated the American film star and the event’s obsessive attraction to the faithful shows no sign of waning

Among a vivid collection of childhood memories, Steve McQueen’s son Chad has one that is seared into his consciousness. His father was making the film Le Mans when he invited the 10-year-old to sit on his lap as he drove a Porsche 917 round the legendary circuit. “It burned into my heart and soul forever,” Chad says. “The sound, the smell, the violence of the acceleration. I remember it vividly – the moment that got me hooked on motor racing.”

McQueen Sr was already hooked and his Le Mans movie was the product of that obsession. Few in Hollywood understood it – they wanted another Bullitt but for anyone who has experienced this greatest of all races it makes perfect sense.

The Le Mans 24 Hours is a meeting like no other that has a hold on aficionados like no other. When it begins on Saturday at 2pm BST it will be the 17th consecutive time I will have been trackside to watch the drama unfold. The idea of missing the race engenders a sense of unease both disturbing and unique, a feeling the faithful who travel to the Circuit de la Sarthe will doubtless recognise. McQueen was captured by its magic so strongly he wanted to put it on the screen.

“Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting,” McQueen’s character, Michael Delaney, says in the film, a quote better known than the movie itself. It sums up McQueen and why he wanted to make it. Chad remembers how he felt. “He said: ‘Son, it is the ultimate test,’” he recalls. “He was covering man and machine in that description.”

McQueen was a lover of racing and speed and it is palpable in the documentary: Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, telling the extraordinary story behind the film and the cost and effort, personal and professional that McQueen put into it. Amid a superbly put together piece, including new footage, McQueen explains how he aims to “crash the film barrier”. He wanted audiences to feel as he felt as a driver. “The racing world is no less creative in expression than film itself,” he says.

The documentary tells the story of how difficult a task it was. His obsession with the film that had virtually no script when shooting started was clear and filming went on beyond what had been planned. By October the crew were painting leaves to ensure continuity. It is still loved by many fans and was both revolutionary in its camerawork and a bravura piece of film making but unsuccessful commercially and critically.

Its legacy as a document of Le Mans is beyond doubt. Derek Bell, a five-times winner of the race, was one of the drivers involved in filming. He was in a car that went up in flames during the shoot. “It could have been worse,” he recalls drily. “I could have been dead.” Bell now believes it captured the cars, the era, the ambience of the 24 hours perfectly. Chad says: “That would have tickled my dad pink because that was the audience he wanted to reach.”

The subject matter was at its heart. Since its first edition in 1923 the Le Mans 24 Hours has gone on to become the biggest, best and now the oldest sportscar race in the world. It is the home of drama, of elation and of course, heartbreak. Around 140,000 will be in attendance, tens of thousands of them British and this year McQueen would appreciate the strong narrative at its heart – one of potential redemption.

The sport took a body blow at the end of last year when Audi, stalwarts of endurance racing since 1999 and during which time they have been on the podium at Le Mans every year and won it 13 times, pulled out. They leave Porsche and Toyota in the top LMP1 category. The former are the most successful manufacturer at La Sarthe, with 18 wins. The latter are still trying to secure their first victory.

Toyota have come close before and have been on course to do so four times only to have been denied by mechanical problems. Most cruelly last year when the leading No5 Toyota of Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima lost power on the penultimate lap and ground to a halt with three minutes to go. A fracture in an airline had cost them the race.

It ended in a stunned silence as the enormity of the loss sunk in across the circuit. For the team it was a crushing blow but one from which they have come back admirably. They have a new car this year and are entering three of them – an extra bullet in the gun – to Porsche’s two. They are quick. Test times show they have the advantage and both the qualifying and race lap records are within their scope, with a potential sub 3min 15sec lap of the 8.5-mile track possible.

Behind them is the 25-car LMP2 category, with brand new Gibson V8-powered cars that sound magnificent. The LMP1s have extraordinary punch out of the corners thanks to their hybrid systems but are heavier and the top speed of the second category will be up to 212mph this year – raising the intriguing possibility of prototype leaders being repassed down the straights. The GT field is competitive as ever and, including works squads from Porsche, Ferrari, Ford, Aston Martin and Corvette, looks to offer a monumental scrap.

McQueen insisted this is the ultimate test and the race will as ever tell many stories. But no one is predicting quite how they might end. Davidson, who returns alongside Buemi and Nakajima, has yet to win in nine attempts. “You learn the more times you go that Le Mans is a fickle race,” he said. “It chooses its own winners.”