Thursday, April 27, 2006

A trip to Le Mans Part 3

After a whistle-stop visit to Le Mans in 1994, and a more extensive but slightly flawed trip in 1997, 2004 would be the year that we virtually perfected things. This time out the third member of the crew was my father's friend Doug, a scholar of all things "engineerey" and someone whose easygoing nature makes him a joy to travel with.

This time out, we'd splashed out a little, to make sure we ALL had grandstand seats, as well as a parking pass for the car. We'd found a homestay in the village of Mulsanne at one end of the track that put us no more than 15 minutes from the entrance to the car park, and 20 from the track gates. This was a massive improvement from the 50km drive we'd had in 1997. We also had a bigger, better car that we picked up when we flew into Paris from San Francisco on Wednesday lunchtime. We spent the afternoon and evening sightseeing in Paris, before leaving the next day.

Like 1997, we arranged to arrive on Thursday for the second day of qualifying. This year, the support race was an historic Group C / GTP race, and these were first out on the warm sunny evening. It took us back, to see these Jaguar XJR9s, Porsche 962s and other assorted Group C machinery lapping Le Mans. However, by the time the Audi R8s hit the track, it was clear that 20 years of technological development had made quite a difference! Thursday once again featured merguez for dinner, along with beers at the Tertre Rouge Bar.

Friday was spent initially at the pitlane walk, allowing us to get very close to the racecars, and a walk around the village of Arnage, traditionally one big party for Brits visiting Le Mans. The place was hopping, and was chock full of remarkable cars, from a Lamborghini Murcielago, to a bevy of TVRs to an Ariel Atom. We soon headed out into the countryside to look for the auberge where we had eaten in 1997 to get some lunch. Alas, the Sarthe region of France is rather large and our hunt proved unsuccessful. We did however find another nice little place to grab a bistec et frites, a French take on steak and chips. We didn't eat too much however, because our homestay hosts had recommended a superb restaurant for dinner, La Botte d'Asperges. We ended up being one of the few patrons that evening, but were treated to one of the most spectacular dinners I have ever been lucky enough to consume. I took many pictures as evidence but the flavours will never be forgotten.

For raceday this year we got up early to find a spot for the Group C race at 10:30. As great as it was, the level of prep and performance of these cars was slightly disappointing, leaving us with the feeling that we had gotten up unnecessarily early. It also left us with nearly 4 hours to kill before the start of the race. Time for a beer then....

This year's grid was 2 cars short due to attrition prior to the start, but the fight for the win would be very close between 3 different Audi teams, the speedy but fragile Zytek, and French favourites Pescarolo. We spent the first 3 hours in the grandstand, and were treated to quite a show, as one of the Audi UK entries and the Champion Audi both had accidents. We watched as they limped back into the pits directly below us, and were pleased to be in the thick of the action. As always, Radio Le Mans was in one ear, and I was able to keep Dad and Doug up to date. There was no doubt that the above-pits grandstand seats were fantastic, and also cheaper than those on the other side of the track.

As evening came we left the cozy grandstand to begin the slow walk around the track towards the bar. After leisurely pints there, we headed back to the grandstand as darkness fell. Our (now) usual spell in Mulsanne was next, conveniently close to our homestay, where we got a nice 2 hours of sleep before spending time at Arnage as the sun came up. It was 5am, or 9pm in California, so I called my partner who was hosting a Le Mans party for our friends back home. It was funny for them to be watching this bizarre event on TV and to then receive a call from someone actually there. They were cooking up the traditional merguez et frites, and drinking European lager and wine to honour the race. If I hadn't been at the track, I'd have been doing the same thing of course, as we do every year....

As daylight came we returned to the main area and went for a walk along the Porsche Curves, just in time to watch the plucky British Rollcentre Dallara get punted off in front of us by a Pescarolo. It looked serious, but luckily driver/owner Martin Short was okay - only damage was to his wallet, pride, ego and ambition. At this point we also witnessed the fabulous Beer Mountain campsite, guys who make me look like someone only mildly interested in racing!

As the day progressed we started to see how the race was going to play out. The supremely reliable Japanese-entered Audi was leading, but the rabbit-like British Audi was eating into the lead - a classic Le Mans chess game played out over a period of hours. After a roast chicken lunch, we returned to the grandstand to see how things would end up. We watched as the GT2 leader had problems and lost their lead. Then the GT1 leading Ferrari relinquished their lead to a Corvette. Finally, with an hour to go, Johnny Herbert got into the British Audi, determined to close down the two minutes to Seiji Ara in the Goh Audi. As the clock ticked down Johnny inched closer. When the flag finally fell at 4pm, Ara took the victory for himself, Tom Kristensen and Dindo Capello by less than 30 seconds. Once again I'd been blessed with a nailbiting Le Mans finish!

After the race, and some shuteye, we sat at a small bar in Mulsanne with some pizza and beer and watched England take on France in the European Cup. Needless to say, there were many people on either side watching, and the sound of engines was replaced by the sound of football fans.

In 2004, we did it right, and sampled the best that les 24 du Mans has to offer. In 2007, we do it all again, this time with Audi, Peugeot and Porsche all back with factory prototype entries. Let's see, only 414 days to go....

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