Last weekend should have been the 24 hours of Le Mans 2020.
We were never going to go this year. Well, me and the kids definitely not. Himself always harbours ideas about a last minute dash there and back in 3 days. He’s never done it though, we’ve always booked by Easter.
So while we aren’t missing out on a trip, we are still missing the event. Himself has been attending for almost 20 years. He must have been 10 times at least and I’ve been 6. We loved it pre-children. It was a rich, exciting 5 days of travel, camping, cars, beer, miles of walking, racing, more beer and lots of laughter. John Hindaugh is as familiar a voice to us as Terry Wogan.
The kids are the only reason we haven’t been back together since I was pregnant with large boy in 2011. Its loud, really loud and so busy. The crowds of race day are dense and constantly moving. I would be so afraid of losing hold of a hand and then not finding one of the boys again. That’s not paranoia, there are 250,000 people there on race day. The number of times we’ve been in a big group and had to stop to find someone is more than I can count. If that happened with a child not tall enough to spot their grown up, well it’s just a no until they’re much older.
Since it’s not on right now (delayed til mid-September) and we haven’t been for ages anyway, here’s a run down of a Le Mans trip for me and himself – unlikely to happen for at least 10 years when small boy will be old enough for us to go on our own as a couple again!
The trip down
For us Le Mans would always start on a Wednesday night. Either friends would arrive to stay over before travelling the next morning, or we’d get a late ferry and overnight just outside Calais in the cheapest of cheap chain hotels (Formule 1 was our choice).
The drive down to Dover was always interesting as we spotted other cars heading to the same destination. They’d have stickers or be travelling in convoy with a few sports cars and a big 4×4 support vehicle stuffed to the brim with tents. Once we got to the docks, we’d have a wander up and down the queue admiring the unusual cars waiting with us. Or we might meet up with friends coming from different directions booked on the same boat.
Across the channel, the long drive would begin. Fueled with either a P&O full English or service station croissants we’d head off down the péage. We always stopped at the Somme services for some more car oggling. Watching a Pagani Zonda refueling with a Lamborghini on one side and a Koenigsegg on the other is a pretty rare sight. Then onwards.
At Rouen we could chose a couple of different routes. The route national was picturesque if rather risky. If you got stuck behind a lorry it could be very slow – once we went that way and himself’s best mate gave over take instructions from the passenger seat, misjudged speeds and yelled “put your foot down or we’re all gonnae die!” as a tractor barrelled towards us head on. Alternatively, keeping to the autoroutes and passing the famous cow roundabout (well famous to us as a landmark), we could listen to the amazing sports cars’ exhaust noises as they down shifted in the tunnel just for effect.
We had to be careful that route too though. Himself went with his mates a few years ago and they missed a turning, followed my old Honda’s infamously bad sat nav and ended up driving down single track back lanes through a nunnery.
Bad navigation aside, the speed limits must be adhered too. We heard stories of driving license confiscation and on the spot fines 10 years ago. Then I spotted the gendarme and his speed gun as we passed him, hiding behind the armco. We were speeding so felt a little worried, then very concerned when a police motorbike joined behind us 100 metres down the road. Lights flashing he passed us and pulled over the yellow Corvette in front. Presumably no confiscation for them as they flew past us again 30 minutes later.
Back in the old days when we were PhD students, we used to camp on the race-organised sites. Essentially, farmers fields with no pitches laid out, a few portable toilets, shower blocks, and bars scattered about. Think Glastonbury with cars.
We would arrive by 6pm, pitch the tents and head straight out to the supermarket to buy a disposable BBQ and any extra food. We always took a fridge of some sort, early on acquired a petrol generator, and kept the food cold on the journey by freezing it first.
Back to the campsite for dinner and beer. Then maybe potter over to the track for night qualifying. My first year I was amazed at how loud the cars were, half a mile away but all petrol V8 engines were so noisy.
The first night was always tame, although waking up at 3am to the sound of someone shouting “right hand down” and a loud engine, only to open the tent flap and find a double decker red London bus 3 feet away was a little scary.
There are so many options for a Friday at Le Mans! Pit walk and bag some freebies? Drive up to St Saturnin for the Great British Welcome? Walk out to Arnage village to do some car porn watching?
However we spent the day, we always ended up in the town centre for the drivers parade. In the first years I went my French came in very useful persuading marshalls to get autographs, pass freebies, or let me jump the barrier to get my tee shirt signed. Later they were stricter but we still have photos of my husband with Alan McNish, Ryan Dalziel and me and Lord Drayson.
By the time the parade ended and we’d eaten (Mickey Ds, a well hidden chinese, or proper French nosh) maybe a few more beers and a hokey cokey lesson for the locals, we’d plump for a taxi back to the campsite or a tram to the circuit and a longer walk.
You’d think with the race not starting to 3 or 4pm, we’d maybe sleep off the previous night’s excesses and wander down to the circuit after lunch, right? Not a chance. Himself loves to get a good viewing spot, even when we finally splashed out on grandstand tickets. Plus he has to watch the support races, seeing older cars in action is brilliant.
The race starts mid-afternoon (used to be 4pm, now 3pm), preceded by the national anthems of all the drivers and a parade lap. Then they’re off, theres a huge feeling of anticipation and excitement for what the next 24 hours will bring. We’ve watched from all sorts of spots: the grandstands, either side of the Dunlop bridge, further round at the Dunlop curves. Then it’s the afternoon spent watching the race evolve – we’ve carried beer or bubbles up to where we’re watching in our backpacks so there’s no need to move.
There are big screens around the main viewing areas so we can see what’s going on elsewhere. There are bound to be crashes and mechanical failures. There’s Radio Le Mans too (this is where John Hindhaugh comes in) and we’d listen over hastily-bought, exorbitantly-priced head sets or on our phones unless we were close enough to the loud speakers. Some years we printed a spotters guide and ticked off each car that retired so as not to spoil the official program. As evening draws in we go in search of food, burgers or pizza or tartiflette and then move to a different spot to watch as night falls. Maybe between dinner and a return to the side lines we’d grab some drinks – fizz or beer. I remember somehow bartering with a team support guy in the bar to exchange my freebie hat for his official Audi one, we still have it somewhere.
Watching motor racing at night is a totally different experience from day time. The noise is clearer, the smells are stronger, and the sight of headlights beaming through the darkness is magical. As we’ve grown older we’ve stopped staying quite so late. I remember one year waking up at 2am on the grass somewhere having dozed off, shuffling sleepily the mile back to our tent and waking again at 7am. In more recent times we’d leave about midnight.
Next Race Day
Come morning on the Sunday, we’d listen intently to Radio Le Mans to find out what we’d missed overnight, having woken to the distant drone of the engines as the cars continue to speed round and round the circuit. They often set their fastest times in the cool air of the early morning on the Sunday. Can you imagine driving 13.5km in 3 minutes and 15 seconds or a bit more over and over again for hours? The concentration and physical strength of the drivers as they endure the repetition, the challenge of the mixture of classes, abilities, and experience of the drivers and cars, and the G forces from their sheer speed, are just epic.
After breakfast, we’d be back at the circuit as early as possible. We might drive out to Arnage corner or the end of the Mulsanne straight. Mulsanne is a very long straight, now with a couple of chicanes, so its the fastest part of the circuit. Standing on a bank behind the catch fencing as cars hurtle towards you at maybe 200 mph (330 kph, yes seriously) only to brake at the last moment to take the right-angle corner right before your eyes is something so special. This post is becoming rather superlative-laden, sorry.
We would stay wherever we’d watched the morning racing from until just after lunch. Then usually head back to the village around the start/finish straight for the end of the race.
The Finish Line
The first year I went with himself, we watched the end of the race from near the Ford chicanes I think. Then, rather than watching the cars parade back round again, we ran to a huge concrete gate. Back then they opened the start/finish straight and pit lane to spectators after the cars were all safely back. We surged through, climbed over the concrete 4 foot high pit wall and congregated with hundreds of others below the podium. As the winners received their trophies, we watched from below and then got sprayed with champagne (getting wine in your eye is not pleasant!)
After the Race and Home
After the race we traditionally went out to Arnage village for food in a lovely family place that we returned to year after year. Sunday night on the course campsites was always total chaos: mini motorbikes (himself), fireworks, bonfires of stuff people didn’t want to cart home. Often the security on the gates finished at 6pm so there could be some problems, we returned one year to find our tents had been rummaged through and everything of value stolen – tables, toilet roll, camping stove, all sorts. Luckily the passports, cameras and so on were with us in the car. That year we packed up and found a Formule 1 on the other side of town for the night.
On Monday morning it would be an early start for the long trek home. Back up the same autoroutes to Calais and across to Dover, our driver would nap on the ferry and we’d stock up on sweets to fuel the last stretch home. If we’d travelled in a group we’d separate in Dover or if we were car sharing our poor passengers would unload and repack their car to travel on to their home.
Unpacking, washing, sorting out the posters and hats and tee shirts. Back to work the next day, still recovering from the lack of sleep and adrenaline rushes.
Le Mans at Home
Apart from the hustle and bustle, the big difference for the years we’ve watched from home has been the walking as much as driving. I’m sure we would walk 10 miles on race day.
At home we would have watched just as much of the race, if not more. We would have enjoyed really cold beer and prosecco. We might have had a barbeque (doomed to be rained on of course). Previous years we’ve invited masses of friends over and put scalextric up in the garage or had the friends we’d usually travel down with over to stay. We wouldn’t get much more sleep, just on more comfortable beds.
We would watch the race on whatever TV channel was showing it, either with live commentary or streaming Radio Le Mans through the computer. The rituals would be similar, just not in the same place.
Find Out More
If you’ve read this having never known much about Le Mans, I can recommend some viewing.
Le Mans with Steve McQueen.
Le Mans 66 (aka Ford vs Ferrari)
Le Mans: Racing is Everything featuring John Hindhaugh
The Deadliest Crash – motor-racing is dangerous, it says so on the ticket and we must all be aware. I haven’t mentioned the crashes we’ve witnessed or seen the aftermath of over the years. Alan McNish and Anthony Davidson owe their lives to well designed cars. Himself was there the year Allan Simonsen died, and of course there have been many others. The most emotional part of Le Mans is on Saturday afternoon, when Radio Le Mans lists the motorsports deaths since the previous race.
License to Le Mans: two seasons about Lord Drayson’s experiences