Le Mans Diary. June 2000.
We're bowling down long, long straight roads across France trying to reach the circuit before night-time practice ends. Hardly any traffic about except for others going the same way. We are passed by a couple of big 'bikes doing a good 120. Wonder what it must have been like in the 'fifties when the works teams used to drive the race cars all the way from England.
We arrive at the Tertre Rouge entrance, sort out tickets and passes and dump the cars to catch the last quarter of an hour of practice. Despite the fatigue from the long drive the excitement kicks in as soon as a race engine is heard. A couple of Panozs, eight headlamps each turning night into day blast under the Dunlop Bridge, vibrating the ground with that unearthly rumble. Far too soon it's over; time to pitch tents and collapse into them.
The public roads part of the circuit is open again. Having stocked up with provisions in the town's Carrefour, we're off to Indianapolis corner for the picnic. Nothing could have prepared me for the spectacle we see. Every inch of the trackside is packed with parked up vehicles and a thousand picnic tables. The circuit between the roundabouts at Mulsanne and Arnage is filled with cruising exotica. Lamborghini Diablos, Porsches and dozens of Caterhams are rolling up and down, mixing with the local traffic (including one poor girl in a driving school Clio). The crowd lining the road are as happy and excited as ten year olds, good naturedly cheering everything that moves. A big American sedan goes by, at least three of its passengers are inflatable dolls. Two guys cruise slowly past on Go-Peds, both stark naked.
A stocky guy in motorbike leathers is master of ceremonies. He steps out in front of each likely looking car and explains the procedure to the driver. "Bonjour Monsieur, lovely car. Will you show us what it can do? Good. After three then..."
Waiting for the traffic ahead to clear sufficiently to leave a couple of hundred yards of empty track he raises three fingers, rally marshal style, counting down. "Three.....two....one.....Go!"
The driver of the Aston Martin V8 Vantage floors the throttle and with a huge bellow and clouds of tyre smoke it launches itself down the track. The crowd goes completely bananas and I'm grinning so hard my face hurts.
Saturday. 3.45 pm.
Its taken us a quarter of an hour to manoeuvre into a position opposite the start line. It's been a blazing, cloudless day all day and the grandstands are packed. We're standing down in front of one of the really old tin shed stands which must date from the 'forties at least. Sand and beer bottles underfoot. The cars are all pristine on the grid, the three Audis silver paintwork almost too bright to look at.
Finally, they all move off
behind the pace car. now the excitement is palpable, the anticipation is
nearly over. They disappear out of sight and we wait, knowing that next
time we see them the race will be on.
After what seems an age the first sign appears, a couple of TV helicopters, flying sideways with the cameras shooting out of the open doors. We cannot see the cars yet but we can hear the roar, which is part engines, part crowd reaction. They must be at the Porsche Curves, the Ford Chicane....
Suddenly, they're within sight. The PA plays the theme from Star Wars to general merriment but this is almost immediately drowned by the helicopters and the sound of fifty five race engines all blasting up towards the bridge. Cath is shaking and the rest of us are beaming with delight. This is what it's all about.
The race has settled into a pattern, the cars spread out around the circuit so the noise away from the track side is constant, Even the Panoz's rolling thunder is softened a little by the distance.
The Tertre Rouge campsite is filled with the smell of barbecues and occasional snatches of song. One largish group regularly breaks into a spirited rendition of the "Dambusters" unhindered by the lack of any actual words. Beer bottles are neatly stacked into impressive pyramids.
As darkness falls, the atmosphere changes. The funfair is in full swing and fireworks shoot up sporadically from the campsites. The cars continue to thunder round, their incredible headlights giving a cold, unbelievably hard light, like a camera flash which stays permanently on.
We drive through the back lanes to the Hunaudieres Restaurant. leaning over a metal gate between the buildings we are only ten feet from the track. At 240mph the cars are travelling so fast you cannot turn your head quickly enough to follow them. The sensation of speed and power is overwhelming. The idea that each one of these screaming ballistic projectiles contains a guiding human being seems impossible.
I walk up to the Dunlop Bridge to watch dawn come up. There's a full moon and it looks good for some photographs. It's going to be hot again today. Gradually the sky lightens and sunlight starts to touch the tops of the pine trees. The ground is littered with paper, beer bottles and sleeping forms, huddled in sleeping bags, sometimes in the middle of the path. As I watch the sunlight touch the track at the Esses, many of the sleeping bags come to life. The bar Creperie at the top of Tertre Rouge hasn't stopped serving all night. Make some photographs then back for another hour or so of sleep.
It's Hot already. Blearily stagger out of tent and after a very large cup of (Cath's!) tea I regain the power of speech. Morning spent gently recuperating and replenishing food and drink levels. Living largely on tea, bread and cheese and gallons of water. We bought 48 beers between us and have only drunk about eight.
Twenty hours in, still two Grands Prix worth to go. Henry, George and I stroll down to watch at the Esses, a good spot to see the cars going comparatively slowly close up. They are now scarred and filthy with oil and rubber dust, some with tank tape patching up damaged bodywork. We see a number of minor moments, drivers almost missing their braking points and over correcting through sheer fatigue. One of the GT1 Porsches has no windscreen left.
Back to the Ford chicane to see the finish.
Something like twenty cars have dropped out, from the ORECA Chrysler which lost all oil pressure on the second lap to the Porsche with the missing windscreen whose damaged wheel fails just a mile from the finish. Twenty three hours, fifty nine minutes run and it ends with a DNF.
The Audis, as expected have run away with the race and they line up for a formation finish, almost tangling with the GT1 class who are still fighting for position on the last lap. Finally they all cross the line to an appreciative ovation.
As Radio Le Mans says, If you've made it through this far, whether driving or spectating it counts as an achievement. This race is unlike any other, it has apace which ebbs and flows as the day turns to night and back again, it offers incredible high points and periods of desperate fatigue and it is so utterly steeped in history. I love all sorts of motor sport but I've never been quite so taken by a race before. Before I went I was always interested but now I'm bordering on the obsessive. There's something about Le Mans which enters your soul.
Dedicated and with thanks
to Bob, Cath, Henry and especially George, who invited me in the first
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