Le Mans. Finally I was going to Le Mans. Not finally 'cos I'd always wanted to go, just finally because the last few weeks seem to have dragged by & I've been quite excited! Five years ago, well, maybe even three, I would have guessed at Le Mans being some dodgy French coastal resort, but now I am a bit better educated! Having put off actually going to the race for the last couple of years with sensible-sounding excuses like "I don't know where to stay", "I don't know where it is" and "I don't really know anything about it at all" a couple of chums of mine who are in TIPEC announced that they were going, would I like to come along, and all I had to do was write a cheque! This was my kind of event (someone else had done all the hard work - I just had to turn up!) persuaded me to come along.
The idea was to travel down to Folkestone on the Thursday to go over on Eurotunnel. I went down to stay with one of the chaps in telford on the Wednesday night, and we set off reasonably early, picking people up at various pre-arranged service-station stops on the way. Being an ignorant bugger on the car front, I cannot tell you what tasty machinery I was in the presence of, only that there were ten Porsches, and one 'lil Marcos. We reached Folkestone without any serious mishap, and crossed in only half an hour, which amazes me still! In France I panicked and rushed around the first petrol styation supermarket frantically buying warning triangles & first aid kits, convinced that the Gendarmes had put out a special APB on my car. Well, they weren't going to do any full body searches on me, just 'cos I had not got a spare bulb set with me, I can tell you! In hindsight I wonder if my 'friends' had wound me up a tad about the perils of motoring in France, something I would never lower myself to doing, had I been in their position. Oh no!
We travelled down to Le Mans in convoy, with the cars changing position as and when the driver saw fit. This was a very relaxing way to travel, and the walkie-talkies we had been advised to bring along proved invaluable. I had half expected to be asked to stay at the back, in order not to break up the cavalcade of Teutonic maester-pieces, but everyone was very civilised about it, and I had the odd blast up and down the convoy. At one point I got a little carried away and found myself leading, a pleasurable experience until my passenger wisely pointed out that we had no map with us, and besides, we didn't know where we were going anyway. Hum. We waved a couple of cars past us quite quickly after that!
Apart from the occassional petrol stop, we took a leisurely three quarters of an hour break at a truck stop about fifty miles north of Le Mans, where we could get a great view of the stream of passing machinery. As usual most of the more exotic machinery passed me by unoticed, much to the disgust of my fellow travellers. Despite gain attempts on my part to join in the clucking with suitably low risk comments like "Gosh, that's a jolly nice colour!" and "He was tanking it a bit, eh?" I think we all knew where we stood on the auto know-how ladder by the end of the day! Never mind!
We pulled in to Camping Bleu without mishap early Thursday evening, and split into three groups as the campsite was beginning to get a tad on the full side. It was quite pleasant, with grass pitches and the odd tree, and some (subsequently) very useful bushes indeed dotted about the place. Tents went up and we all trotted off to catch the last of the evening qualifying. My previous experience of auto sport had been limited to watching a few laps of the GTs in the UK while attending various Marcos rallies, so almost everything I looked at was new or unknown. Fortunately my passenger Simon was an old Le Mans lag (compared to me!) and patiently answered the stream of questions coming from me. Initial curiosity satiated, we headed back out of the circuit towards the campsite, bumping into a bar on the way. It was very nice.
Friday was spent wandering around the place - me asking more questions, the others taking it in turns to answer (spreading the load!). There was a real buzz about the whole place, and our neighbours in the campsite were a nice mixture of a family man (with BIG caravan, and all mod-cons. "Been coming for the last seventeen years."!) and some lads in another Porker and a TVR. We sauntered round the grandstands, wandered along the pits and made our way through the fairground, so by Friday evening I was beginning to get an idea of the general layout of things. Some more beers on the Saturday night at the bar, then at the tent. I was in good company and loving every minute of it.
Saturday necessitated a little trip to the local supermarket, so we took both the Mantis and the Porsche out. Lots of attention for the Marcos, which was nice. By now I was hoping to spot another one, but there were quite a few cars about, so...! Having acquired some more beer and a couple of pieces of cheese we returned to the tent, loaded up and set off for our grandstand seats for the start of the race. We got there a couple of hours early, and I watched in amazement as the hordes of scantily clad ladies wandered about the track, whilst mechanics gave the cars a final prod, and drivers strutted about the place. Having naievely assumed that the start would be something along the lines of "OK, line up. 3-2-1 GO!" I was thinking the whole thing most splendid. It just added to my convinction that Le Mans is not just for petrolheads, the whole thing has so many different facets to it that even an ignorant bugger like me can sit there, lapping it all up!
The race started, and it sunk in that in a race that's twenty four hours long, there is not going to be much exciting overtaking type stuff. We watched for an hour or so, then went for a wander. I was not drinking as it had been agreed that we would drive down to Arnarge Corner that night, so I just tagged along; asking questions, just in case anyone had forgotton I was there.
Arnarge corner was pretty impressive, if you, like me, find the sight of brakediscs glowing white hot unusual. It was a barmy night and, in keeping with the trip so far, the group just sauntered up and down the path on top of the embankment, commenting on the race and treading on people in camoflauge sleeping bags. After a couple of hours we set off to drive round the rest of the circuit, got horribly lost in what I now understand to be a legendary one-way traffic system the local gendarms vary every year, and eventually got back to the campsite. I was faded after a couple of beers and left the other guys to it.
Sunday morning and I woke up to the sound of the cars screaming their way round the track. There seemed little inclination on the part of the others to rush to the trackside, from which I concluded that, with several hours still to go, it didn't really matter all that much who was where. Whatever will be will be, you know? Etc, etc. More pleasant campside chat then we bimbled off to our seats for the last hour of the race. I was slightly taken aback to realise that the cars were forming up into teams for the finish, but with over twenty three hours of racing behind them it seemed that the final places had pretty much been decided, and it looked good, so who cared!
The end of the race may have been a bit of an anti-climax to some, but I wasn't really there for the race and the whole Le Mans experience just carried on streaming past me. This was fun! We made our way back along the now familiar route to our tents, only to discover an impressive looking hole in the sidewall of my passenger's abode! Our initial reaction was that some thieving pikies had been in there, but nothing was missing so we eventually concluded it was a firework. While Simon patched the hole up with Duct tape, we considered how fortunate he had been not to have been in the tent when it happened. Erk!
As if to remind us of the perils of fireworks, the chaps nextdoor decided that the Brie they had acquired several days prior had finally had too much sun, and needed disposing of in a suitably spectacular fashion. To this end they placed the (quite large!) Brie in an open area of the campsite about forty feet from our pitch, and placed a (also quite large!) rocket face down in the cheese. To much giggling the taper was lit and the perpetrators scurried off to admire the results of their concoction from a safe distance ie their cars. The subsequent explosion had the desired effect of removing the Brie from God's earth and providing entertainment for the masses. One unconsidered side-effect had been to spatter our tents with the now ex-cheese (which has made me feel hungry every time I've slept in it since!). Alas, the splatter zone also included my car, and some public displeasure was displayed in a light-hearted way by my good self. At this point the still-giggling instigators of Cheese-Fawkes kindly offered to clean the offending material off my car, and I kindly accepted. And so it was that a half hour later, and after four days of looking travel-weary and dust covered, my Mantis miraculously became the shiniest car in Camping Bleu! Result! I wonder if this ruse will work every year? The old exploding cheese trick eh? Pah! All the others probably already know it!...
As we were setting off about sevenish the following morning, and I knew I had to drive back to the north of England the same day, I hit the hay and let the passengers (and some of the hardier drivers!) carry on getting stuck into the booze. Unfortunately for me there was a steady stream of fireworks until something or other in the morning - unfortunate 'cos I love fireworks, and kept sticking my head out of the tent to see what they looked like. Some pretty cools ones too...
Monday morning arrived all too soon and we set off north. The weather remained good and the journey was straightforward. I was introduced to the delights of a Flunch meal (recommended!), then it was on to Le Shuttle and back to Blightey. A quick stop at Telford to drop my passenger off revealed quite how dodgy the quiff had got (think 'dead ferret'!), but I soldiered on and reached home mid evening. No brass band. No flowers. No welcome home. No nothing except me, staggering into the house trying to carry everying from the car in one go, grinning from ear to ear in the knowledge that I had finally 'done' the Le Mans 24 hour race. I made a mental note to mention it to anyone who asked me where I had been to get such a good tan.
Over the next few days I bored anyone and everyone to death about how great it had all been. Seemingly innocent questions like "Would you like a brew?" or "What time do you make it?" were answered by "Er, whatever. Hey guess where I've been? Have you ever heard of the race at Le ...". Well, you get the picture. And they did too, whether they wanted to or not.
So my first ever trip to Le Mans proved to be a resounding success. I think it's pretty easy to work out why. Great company (thanks to Simon, Andy & Fritz), great organisation (thanks to TIPEC, and especially Dave) and great weather (thanks... er... God). How this success be repeated? I hope so, we'll see if I can make it two in a row next year. Can it get any better? It was nice being a convoy of Porsches, now if I could get a convoy of Marcos, well then...