Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A trip to Le Mans Pt 2

Sportscar racing fans are, in general, a loyal species. They'll stick by a series with the thinnest, weakest grids in the hope that some exciting new entries are just around the corner. That was how things stood in 1993, with Le Mans grids that were struggling for any quality whatsoever. It could be said that 1997 was the first year that truly turned out a quality field, due in no small part to the FIA GT championship regulations, the fledgling International Sports Racing Series, and the IMSA World Sportscar series in the US. From each of these three championships came a wide variety of solid entries.

To wit... three of Nissan's new GT1s, eight Porsche GT1s, six McLaren F1 GTRs, two Lotus Elise GT1s, two Lister Storms, three Panoz GTRs, four Vipers, two Mustangs, two Marcos', eight Porsche 911s, and eleven LMP cars.

This was clearly a year to go, and luckily my father and I had planned on it during the running of the 1996 event. We were sitting outside our home in Sunnyvale, CA, in the sunshine, both disappointed to not be there. We vowed to go the following year.

We arranged to fly to England, meet up with my Dad's friend Steve, and fly on to Paris the next day. We picked up a goofy little rental car and proceeded to get snarled in Parisian gridlock, and get hopelessly lost in the process. Luckily we managed to get to the track in time for Thursday qualifying, which turned out to be a dry affair after unseasonably wet weather. Naturally we made sure to feast on merguez et frites (spicy lamb sausage and fries), an eye-opening affair for Le Mans rookie Steve. Here was an aspect of Le Mans that my Dad and I both knew and loved but had never actually shared, one of many such experiences that trip.

The closest hotel we could find was in Alençon, 50km north of Le Mans, which proved to be a bit of a pain in the ass. However, we made the best of it and enjoyed the more sedate atmosphere. It was easy to get tables at restaurants too. We hung out with folks from the TVR and Bentley owners clubs late into the night in the hotel bar every evening.

It was on this trip that we discovered the "empty day". Apart from a drivers parade in the town centre, nothing happens on Friday. So we headed out into the countryside and came across a small auberge in a tiny village that we would be unable to find again in 2004. This turned out to be one of those nearly unforgettable meals that come straight out of nowhere (I say nearly because I can't remember what I ate, only that it was awesome). Later that day, back in Alençon we had another slap-up meal at L'Escargot Doré (The Golden Snail). Meat was cooked in the middle of the restaurant on an open fire and carved to order. We were busy establishing traditions left, right and centre, and the Friday night gourmet meal was one of them.

Raceday came, albeit damp, and we headed to the track. Lunch was taken at the Tertre Rouge Bar: soft white baguettes filled with cheese and ham. We listened in to Radio Le Mans' last-minute entry changes before scouting out a place for the start. We ended up at the bottom of the hill as the cars decend from the Dunlop Bridge. Not a bad spot to watch the Nissans attempt to assert early dominance.

This year, we had grandstand tickets for the stands directly above pitlane. Unfortunately we only had 2, so couldn't use them whilst there were a lot of people in there. As things calmed down a bit we were able to take 2 people in, have one come out with the second ticket and then bring in a third. Sneaky! It turned out to be a a good place to watch from, as you can lean over the railing and watch cars in the pits directly beneath you. Another tradition established....

Dinner on Saturday was the roast chicken cooked on a spit, which provided good soakage for the beer at the Tertre Rouge Bar, our sunset / twilight destination. Again, my father and I were captivated by that magic time at Le Mans as the cooling air allows the sound of the cars to carry further than during the day. From Tertre Rouge, it's hard acceleration all the way to the first Mulsanne chicane, which is nearly out of earshot. Every now and then, there's enough gap between cars to listen to one car do that whole section, 50mph up to 210 and back down again in about 25 seconds.

Night-time was spent in the grandstand, watching the "routine" series of pitstops, followed by a drive out to Mulsanne Corner and Arnage, both new experiences for me. Mulsanne is remarkable for the glowing disc brakes as the cars brake from 200mph, and then accelerate off into the night towards Indianapolis. Arnage, at the other end of Indianapolis has its own vibe - more mellow, but with a great grass banking that allows good views of the cars as they roar out of the forest and brake for the slowest corner on the circuit.

After a couple of hours sleep outside a farmhouse in the car, we headed back to the main area for some coffee and croissants and to catch up on the activities of the night. We spent mid-morning back in the grandstand before it started to fill up, and then decided to watch the finish out at Arnage - we felt we could get a headstart on traffic by being away from the start/finish area. By now the weather was lovely, and we relaxed on the grassy bank of Arnage as the LMP1 Porsche of Kristensen ticked down the laps. This was the year that the reliable old prototypes beat all the GT1 rabbits.

Back to the hotel, we slept for a couple of hours before hitting another great restaurant for a crab dinner, sitting next to members of one of the teams. Next day we returned to Paris to catch a heavily-delayed flight to London before returning to California on the Tuesday.

1997 was the year we laid the groundwork for future trips. We figured out what could be done better and what would make a visit to Le Mans easier and more fun. It was also the year that two seperateLe Mans histories would become merged, as my father and I were able to put each other into our collective memories of Le Mans. That alone was worth the effort.

1 comment:

Peely said...

Motorcycle Lemans anyone ?