Thursday, April 20, 2006

A trip to Le Mans Pt 1

If you make one motorsport pilgrimage in your life, make it be a trip to Le Mans. There is nothing like it, and I feel I have to write about it as I plan my next trip in 2007. Since it's a subject very dear to my heart, I'll break it up into 4 separate entries over the next couple of weeks: one for my first trip in '94, one for the '97 race, one for the fantastic 2004 event and one for my planning for 2007.

I got into sportscar racing at the tender age of 10 when I went to Brands Hatch to watch the Group C cars do the 1000km. Throughout the late 80s I watched as year after year my father would head out to Le Mans with his motor racing friends to see the Porsche 962, Jaguar XJR9/10/11 and Saubers fight it out. Each year I promised myself that the next Group C race I would go to would not be at Silverstone, Donington or Brands - it would be at Le Mans.

Alas, my first trip to the 24 Hours was not until 1994, and even then it was not with my father, who had moved to the US. I planned the trip by myself and chose Airtrack as the tour operator of choice. I knew they had gotten my Dad there a couple of times, so would be a safe bet. My transportation choices came down to coach or charter plane, with about £100 difference. I splurged on the flight, not wanting to arrive at the track exhausted from a night on a ferry.

We landed around 1pm, and I got my first look at the place. It seemed dusty, utilitarian and dare I say it, a little run down. There was lots of cement and corrugated iron used in the construction of the facilities, and I was a little disappointed. It was also brutally hot, so I made sure to drink a lot of water (I don't think I ended up drinking any beer during the whole trip.)

I watched the start from the dirt mound on the outside of the first corner, and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the track making sure to grab a merguez et frites at The Esses. By 8pm I was ready to meet up with my father's friend Martin at the fabulous Terte Rouge Bar. With the sun slowly going down, and the sound of the cars accelerating away down the Mulsanne towards Les Hunaudieres, it was a great place to hang out, eat les sandwiches de jambon et fromage and drink beer. So, actually, maybe I did grab a pint that year! The twilight spell at the Tertre Rouge has proven to be an enduring tradition, not just for me but for many other Le Mans regulars.

That year I was unable to get to either Mulsanne Corner or Arnage, due to my lack of car, so I spent the depths of night in the main general admission area, before finally taking a nap underneath the grandstands, as the soothing tones of Radio Le Mans in my headphones sent me to sleep... for 4 1/2 minutes, because that's how long it took for the damn Mazda RX7 to come around with its insanely piercing exhaust note.

By 6am, I had had enough sporadic rest to face the remaining 10 hours, and a cup of coffee and a croissant brought me back to life. I picked up a copy of Le Maine, a newspaper that shows retirements from the race overnight and settled in for the final push. After a lunch of roast chicken, hot off the spit, I watched in fascination as Jeff Krosnoff's Toyota broke down at the end of the pitlane whilst leading, with less than 2 hours to go. Finally, with 30 minutes remaining, Eddie Irvine took the Krosnoff Toyota from way back in 3rd, to underneath the rear axle of the second placed Dauer Porsche 962. The manic Irishman finally took the place at the last corner of the last lap, which is where I was standing.

An hour later I was on the plane home, dusty, exhausted, and voraciously hungry for my next Le Mans experience. For that, I'd have to wait three years, but next time I'd be back with my Dad...

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