LE MANS 2005:
The greatest race in the world and the best road trip
Well I never knew that it was the greatest race until I went this year, often suspected it, but having watched 'the film' many times and promised myself the trip on countless occasions I decided to pull the proverbial finger out and book the PCGB package and find out what all the fuss was about, well it turned out to be the 'trip of a lifetime', and I don't use that term lightly, in fact almost a final trip of a lifetime, but more of that later... oh and if you like your stories with few superlatives stop right here.
My good friend Nick kindly agreed to join the 'virgins' journey, not being a massive petrolhead he wasn't exactly sure what he was letting himself in for, mind you nor had I, so on the Thursday morning at 5.30am, a time he is usually coming home, we set off for Folkstone. A road trip is a sure way to cement a friendship and this would be no exception.
Now one of the best things about Le Mans in my opinion is the journey down, from joining the M20 we were greeted with waves and blasts of horn from all manner of vehicle, a tremendous taste of the great atmosphere Le Mans provides, from Porsches to Astons - Ford GT to Spitfires, everyone without exception was as excited as us, schoolboys forever!
The journey down car wise was uneventful, the '12 behaving and the engine sounding great on the 'right' side of the road, having had the front pan and suspension rebuilt with new koni's all round it felt as tight, as well... well you can imagine... great stuff! We stopped off for lunch on the N138 just outside Bernay at a great little restaurant and had a leisurely 3 hour lunch, 5 courses, no wine for me as Nick was refused insurance on my car, something to do with numerous write off's, most unfair, but I got to do all the driving so no complaints. Everyone on route was very friendly, can't understand some peoples view that the French are less than welcoming, rubbish, as usual if you show willing to speak french, then you will be treated with utter charm and smiles. Only seeing a few of the 'Speed traps' we were expecting we were again impressed with the countries 'grown up' approach to road policing, even the friends who were caught speeding had nothing but praise for the friendly gendarmes, a breath of fresh air for a Londoner.
So we arrived at the PCGB campsite on the Porsche Curves and set up 'Big Top', christened only after a few snipes at the size of it, not massive by any normal standards, but offensive to some PCGBLM regulars, and that was before they even started on the size of the showers ;) Not to be disheartened we took the short walk to the Curves to watch evening qualifying, bloody brilliant, LMP1 cars overtaking GT2's on the outside of the curves, the variety of cars and engine notes a real treat, hard to put into words how fantastic it is to be sat outside your palatial tent listening to all that in the evening glow, quite a spectacle.
We took a stroll to the 'Legends' pits to try to find Andy Prill who was racing in the Legends race with Richard Clarke. All we found however was the car and a poorly looking engine which lay disgorged outside the car, not looking good, and no sign of the crew. So off for a few cold beers and early to bed ready for the Friday. I have to say the French know how to chill their beer too, very cold and not too expensive, ideal for the heat-wave that was to descend over the weekend. It's rare to experience an atmosphere like Le Mans, a massive crowd of 98% men, with much alcohol flowing, many nationalities and no trouble or any sign of police is a real eye opener, truly civilised.
So up early for a great PCGB breakfast and off to the pits for a look around. Not quite knowing what to expect or what to do we chatted to as many regulars as possible around the bars to get the best advice which seemed to be, 'have a look around the pits then 'do' the drivers parade in town then rest up for the 24 heures'. The pits were great if a little busy, but unlike many 'Pro' race series you can get very close to the garages and the drivers are often around to sign stuff although we had decamped to the bar by then and started to hunt for Nick's friends who were arriving sometime Friday. Another famous if not infamous 12 fan was spending his 'Stag' do at Le Mans accompanied by seemingly the whole of Land Rover, Jon Darlington was about to embark on an epic weekend, visiting the hospital tent and being tied to a tree are two Le Mans landmarks we don't yet have in common! The drivers parade in town was worth seeing and a laid back informal parade, no race cars just the drivers, not sure it was worth the special trip in the now soaring heat but worth seeing the once, if not to see Tom Kristianson looking as relaxed and laid back as if he had already finished.
Once back at the circuit we headed back to see if we could find Andy. He was greased up and looking relatively unstressed and chipper considering the 356 had suffered an shattered spark plug and valve. Fortunately another valve was en route from Blighty and eventually the engine was back in and ready for the race which precedes the main event on Saturday morning. After some great hospitality from Andy and Richard, Nick and I decided a quiet drink was in order followed by an early night. Some hope as his mates turned up shortly after and we proceeded to drink the circuit dry into the early hours... the picture of me sat beer in hand in the middle of the Mulsanne straight will have to be one of the best of the weekend, sadly too incriminating to publish here, so cheers to the Scarborough chaps, you know who you are, next year let's try for the whole 48 hours awake!
Waking up with a fairly monumental headache and 30 degree temperatures at 9am isn't the best for feeling like another long stint in the sunshine but despite missing breakfast we managed, after a few of Nick's 'special' coffee's and a few civil words to stagger back to the circuit. Feeling slightly better a visit to the Museum and it's cool interior was a nice break from the now fierce heat. At it's end le weekend was reputed to have hit 40 degrees, mind you that was according to a Dutch guy who looked like he hadn't slept since last year. The circuit was now getting busier and busier all lending an air of excitement and anticipation to the proceedings, first the 'Legends Race'.
So we went back to the Porsche Curves to watch the procession of fantastic metal we had seen in the Legends pits, actually procession is entirely the wrong word, hard driving and more overtaking than a season of F1 can offer and a soundtrack to make a old man quiver was enough to get us in the mood for a great race weekend. Everything from Jags to Ferraris were racing hammer and tong with Andy Prill and Richard Clarke storming through the field from way back on the grid due to their poor qualifying due to that exploding spark plug. A great spectacle worthy of the best Goodwood or Monteray could offer made all the sweeter watching good friends have a blast.
Now it's hard for a 'virgin' like myself not to have the famous film never more than a few moments from my consciousness, the long pre race scenes are still as potent in describing the build up to four o'clock as they ever where. A few flash backs to scenes of people getting off trains and walking around the circuit help lend more excitement to the growing anticipation. By this point in the day we have met up with the Scarborough 'massive' and are sitting in the Champagne tent, which is getting more raucous by each passing tick of the famous clock. Now my impression of the start is coloured by all the old pictures and newsreel footage of drivers running across the track to their cars, great stuff, however any old Le Mans veteran will still be relaxing at 3.55, safe in the knowledge nothing spectacular is going to happen at 4pm. Rather, a convoy will roar past the grandstands at 4pm and the race will begin, the running men in white overalls a thing of the past, safety rules. Quite right too, not sure I would like my legs taken off at the knees by Mr Kristianson as I tried to run across to my RS... dreaming aside it's maybe a time to point out, unlike many other race series, experience counts for a lot in LM racing and many of the drivers are shall we say, past he first flush of youth, but none the less have stamina and determination that would put the highly paid 'fragile' stallions of F1 to shame, let us not forget the 24 heure factor... balls of steel these guys make no mistake, and so at four o'clock in a civilised convoy they were off!
Now as the cars start to roar it started to dawn on me there was no quarter being given here, these guys we going hell for leather from the first minute. As we made our way to the Dunlop bridge I was amazed at the pace, breathtaking. Although it was very busy, there is room to breath at Le Mans due to the enormous scale of the circuit which I didn't expect so moving from one corner to another although involving lot's of legwork isn't hampered by large immovable barriers of sweaty bodies. Having got into rhythm of the race you start sub-conciously at first being aware of the different engine notes and their relation to their position in the race. Most of the LMP1 and LMP2 cars sound quite similar but the GT's are quite distinctive, Porsches, Panoz's, Chevvies and Aston's become distinguishable without so much of a glance as you trudge through the dust to the next corner. This became helpful as my mission to cover the race with my new camera was made all the easier by knowing what was coming next, trying to 'pan' as cars went past at seemingly supersonic speeds was another matter, but slowly the muscle memory was set and the arm movement became more fluid and some pretty good results were achieved, (if I do say so myself), catching the Aston's flaming, popping downshift was a good feeling!
So once the evening turns to night the temperature cools marginally, the heat was quite oppressive at times and the various beer tents provided some respite and so began the long night. We met up with some mates of Nick's and proceeded to drink the night away with intermittent journeys to the track to try and make sense of the race positions. By 2am it seems nobody, even those with radios, have any idea who is leading or even still in the race.
We head back to the tent whereby Nick falls into a coma which he would not be stirred from even by LMP1 cars at full song 50m away. I try to catch a few winks but the constant roar makes that hard even with ear plugs. As dawn begins to break I make my way to the Porsche Curves banking to watch the cars still hurtling around through the twilight, a very memorable sight and one not to be missed, especially as when everyone else turns up they assume you have been there all night. If only!
Once Nick awoke we decided some breakfast was in order then off to Arnage to see in the final hours of the race. After we hitched to Arnage we settled in to see cars and drivers in various states of disrepair and fatigue in the final stages many not making the Indianapolis corner and ending up in the kitty litter. The heat was still oppressive and only slightly better in the trees between Arnage and Indianapolis. Just sitting down in the shade was enough to be sweating buckets, so came four o'clock and the end of the race, amazing. A great great experience.
So back to the campsite which involved exiting the circuit and endeavouring to regain access near the Porsche curves only to be prevented by the Police from entering anywhere as all traffic had been switched to outbound only, as we had met up with some mates we decided to get a lift. A 40 min walk back turned into a 2 hour journey from hell, but it was worth it.
Once back to the campsite we decided to let the outbound traffic subside and take a leisurely drive back at 9.30 that evening. So we packed up the big top tent into the dusty 12 and took a drive along the now reopened Mulsanne Straight which was quite a buzz thinking the cars had been doing 200 plus hours before.
So the plan was to drive up to Le Touquet and camp on the beach somewhere and have a nice seafood lunch before getting the train at 5'ish on Monday.
Driving up the N138 at about 12.30 disaster struck, well a Deer struck actually, but that amounted to the same thing in the end. Driving through a pitch black forest Bambi decided to run straight out in front of us, having no time to take any evasive action we hit it straight on and it flew over the roof. After the initial shock I slowed the car without lights or brakes and pulled up slowly. Well you can imagine the scene, middle of the night, middle of nowhere, no mobile batteries left, not a light to be seen, well and truly stuffed.
So, having taken stock of the damage (Front bumper , wing, lights, horn grille, windscreen) we managed to prise the front bumper off the wheel and bend the wing back into some sort of shape putting a new bulb in the shattered lens we were roadworthy enough to get to help.
The Deer we imagine was killed outright, although we never found it.
So the car some 7 months later is fixed and as good as new if not better, now Terry has worked his magic, lucky to be alive I have to say that was one road trip that will never be forgotten!
Roll on Classic Le Mans 2006!
Thanks to Terry at Allen's Classic Coachworks for the great job.
A pictorial record...
Nice and early Thursday morning, 5.30am to be precise
Andy Prill and Richard Clarke in the pits
Andy on track in the Legends race
The Aston boys in their surgery
Nick, Le Mans virgin
Aston steaming around the Porsche Curve
White Lightening Porsche at Arnage
A few medicinal refreshments purely as an aid to averting dehydration it the 40 degree heat bought in bulk to save time
Some hot shot Audi drivers, JJ Lehto and TK behind
Deer for next 4.5km, no shit!