I had been dying to go to Le Mans since I was a kid. My friend Roger Stowers always used to go, but for whatever the reason, I never was able to make the trip. The music to the movie ‘Le Mans’ was always playing in my head as I pictured myself seeing the town come to life as the race week got under way. Fast forward to 2008.
I eagerly awaited the press release from Aston Martin Racing on the opening day of the Racing Car Show in Birmingham, which is traditionally the day they release their plans for the upcoming season’s racing activities. I was delighted to see that these plans included Le Mans, my favourite race of the year. Imagine my excitement when I saw pictures of the DBR9 in that most famous of liveries….the powder blue and orange colours of Gulf!
Beaming with delight at this revelation (anyone who has followed sports car racing since DB knows the link between Astons and Gulf through the years, but the two have never before been directly associated), I called my best friend and long time race buddy, “Dr” Dave Lobou, and told him that this was the year. “We are going!”
When I had interviewed David Richards at the Prodrive event last year, I had asked him if the green cars would be returning to La Sarthe the following year. He said that they would be there, but he wasn’t sure what colour they would be. I think he wasn’t letting the cat out, but he knew!
The day of the press release, I drafted a letter to Mr. Richards, outlining my plan to come and work for team for free in exchange for a pass to the race with the team. Working in the pits and being around the cars and drivers, even if it meant doing nothing more than washing wheels, I thought would be an experience to remember! After DR emailed me right back and said that the “idea has merit”, I got very excited, but alas, in the end it wasn’t to be.
Working here at Champion Audi and having a direct link to Champion Racing/Audi Sport North America, I figured that we could always go second class (!) and tag along with an LMP1 team (the overall winners as it turned out) instead of with AMR. This was quickly arranged with our technical director, Brad Kettler who made arrangements for us to get tickets etc once there.
The weekend prior to the race we flew to Paris by way of New York, and spent the day doing all the touristy things there. Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, lunch on the Champs Elysees….the usual stuff. It was Dave’s first time in Paris, so we felt obliged to do the quick tour before heading off to Le Mans.
We almost had a disaster when we stopped halfway for a hotel for the night. The Formule 1 hotel does not actually show F1 races! Turns out to be a shoe box motel. We had to hustle to find a place that actually had staff (no mean feat in rural Franceon a Sunday evening!) and showed F1 races. We lucked out with a small place that had a large flat screen in the lounge, Eurovision and a help yourself bar! Order was restored when the Canadian GP started, albeit in French. My Franglais is sufficient to get by, but not that good I’m afraid!
Next morning at the crack of dawn we headed off for Le Mans and decided to forgo the McDonalds breakfast (who wouldn’t?). Big mistake. I’d forgotten that rural France (Francein general for that matter) is slow to wake up, and as many eateries that we passed on the back roads through small villages, were the same number as those that were closed! When we finally ran across another Mickey D’s at 9am, of course it was also closed! This was the story of our trip. “No breakfast for you!” Strong coffee and croissants are the order of the day. Even when you find a McD’s open.
Arriving at Le Mans, we headed straight for the “old town” and sat down outside for a nice lunch. When in France, eating is always as big a part of the trip as anything else.
The Place de Jacobins is the area where the cars have traditionally been scrutineered. It’s now a large parking lot surrounded by beautiful gardens at the foot of the Cathedral. Back in the old days, the cars would have been driven down to the square, and then back again on the public roads, to the delight of the public. Nowadays of course, that’s not possible, so the smaller teams bring their car on a trailer, whereas the bigger teams come with the big F1 style rigs, which adds to the fanfare. I happened to be at the right place when the AMR rig showed up. A mass of fans flock to see the race cars unload, and if you’re not quick you find yourself at the back of a crowd twenty people deep. I was at the tailgate as they pulled up and was able to fight the professional photographers to snap some shots of the DBR9’s as they came off the trailer. WOW! The cars always looked good in Aston Racing Green, but in Gulf livery they were drop dead gorgeous! The whole affair is considered by some as more pomp and circumstance than anything else, although the cars do actually get weighed and measured etc. If a car fails, it still gets its ACO sticker for the race, but has to be rechecked later at the track. For the team, the whole affair has to be a waste of a day, because what could easily be done at the circuit is done several miles away in what becomes a very busy town. Loading the cars on and off the rigs, navigating the behemoth trucks through town, and then fighting the throngs of fans has to be tiring……and a day of fettling lost. For the fans it’s terrific. The cars are all very colourful and exciting, the drivers are all milling around signing autographs (I had as many as I could find sign my map of Le Mans). You can sit in the shade away from all the activity and enjoy just watching if you like. When the big teams start giving away the posters and goodies mind you, it’s safer to be in Piranha infested waters, I can attest!
We only went for the first day of scrutineering, because believe it or not, you can easily fill a whole week with race related activities and still miss a lot. Travel to and from each event is quite long because the closer the weekend becomes, the more roads are shut off, so navigating becomes a real challenge. From our first day at Jacobins, we headed south to find our lodgings. The privately owned ‘Auberge Relais du Cheval Blanc’ is an immaculate inn with 6 rooms in the very tiny village of Beaumont Pied de Boeuf, a beautiful little place 20 minutes south of the track with a gourmet owner/chef named Philippe who worked in Paris for many years at a Royal residence. He had cooked for Jackie O and Bing Crosby to name a few, plus the Queen and Prince Phillip….he had photos to prove it too! Needless to say, we ate very well, and the price for the whole week was very reasonable. If ever you are lucky enough (crazy enough?) to attend the event, I would highly recommend the place. With his wife Evelyne and a small staff we were made to feel very welcome, and fears of a ‘Fawlty Towers’ experience were soon dispelled. The tranquility of the place made a welcome change from the insanity in town. The only downside, albeit rather humorous, was the church right next door whose bell tolled every hour. Twice! At midnight it would ring twelve times, wait a minute then toll again. Twelve more times! Did you ever see ‘My Cousin Vinny’? Remember the scene with the train? Yeah….not quite that bad, but we laughed until 4am the first night!
Next day dawned clear blue and warm again. We were heading off for that most mystical of places to Aston Martin racing fans….La Chartre Sur le Loire. The Hotel de France is where John Wyer always based the team on their annual sojourn to Le Mans. The little town is right on the river and is punctuated by lovely gardens and architecture, with the hotel overlooking the town center. Adorning the walls are pictures of cars and drivers going back as far as you like, all of them with notes signed to the hoteliers. Along side the building you can still see the courtyard and garages. If you close your eyes you can imagine Eric Hind and Jack Sopp feverishly tuning DBR1 engines with Wyer barking orders, and then Moss, Shel, Salvo, Brooks et al, sitting out front playing cards and drinking beer with birds happily singing away (double entendre not intended!). If only I could have turned the clock back 50 years! The place must hold an attraction to this day, because it was only Tuesday and the town was jammed with race fans, doubtless there for the same reasons as us.
After the morning history lesson we headed for the circuit, which as yet was not closed off. This meant that the whole circuit except the dedicated race track portion was open to the likes of me and Dave! We were able to go all the way down the Mulsanne straight, round the corner and up through to Indianapolisand Arnage. Needless to say we did it several times, as the traffic was surprisingly light, even non-existent in places. Jumping the curbing on the racing line in the rented Clio made for a good scene on the camcorder! The British fans are fond of adorning their cars with LM stickers to show their support and affiliation. Some of the logos are hysterical if unprintable. I had the graphics designer Phil, at the race shop, make up some awesome ‘Champion Racing’ logos for our car which we defaced shortly after leaving the airport, so we fit right in! After a lunch at the famous Shanghai Chinese restaurant on the Mulsanne straight (which takes some dedication to locate through the backwoods – literally – once the Armco has been erected and closing off the main parking entrance!), we took a last trip around the track before it was closed off for the following days qualifying session. Wondering why we had the road to ourselves, we soon realized why when we were pulled over by the Gendarmes who told us in no uncertain terms that the track was now closed. “Sorry officer, won’t happen again!” Being stopped by the local plod is a race tradition that Dave and I keep alive to this day!
Prior to leaving, I had spent a lot of time researching the trip, and I was lucky to find a great website called Beer Mountain. It is a large site run by an Englishman known to all as Mr. Toad. It’s a very Biggles-esque site with a WW 2 ‘fly boy’ feel. Very irreverent and no one takes themselves too seriously on the forums. With names like Mr. Fluffy, Caddy Daddy and Mr. Disco how could they? However, it is an invaluable source of great info for all things Le Mans. The forum members all meet at the legendary ‘Jeannine’s’ bar just outside the main circuit entrance on Thursday afternoon for a party. We met lots of the people who we had only known via the internet up until that point. Really a great bunch and a great laugh. Mr. Toad and his squadron members all showed up in their authentic WW2 Willy’s Jeep appropriately attired in military headgear.
Heading for the weekend we divided the next couple of days between watching the Group C support race qualifying, wandering in awe around the really interesting and very well detailed Museum at the track entrance, shopping for the requisite souvenirs, walking the pit lane and watching the qualifying from different points at the track. Seeing the AMR1 duking it out with the Silk Cut Jag’s on the Le Mans circuit right before our eyes….well, I had to pinch myself, let me tell you!
A bit of fun on Friday lunchtime was had outside the track on the road at Maison Blanche. Tradition has it that all the fast cars, usually from the area camp sites, perform crowd pleasing burn outs up and down the road for a couple of hours. This ritual is known to all as ‘Mad Friday’, and although some of the veterans told us that this year was a bit lame, we certainly enjoyed it. The cars we saw are those which we almost never see here in the US, let alone being beaten up and down the road all covered in travel grime! The fire engine with sirens blasting was a lot of fun (brought down by a team of the Beer Mountaineers from the UK), as was the display performed by the Beer Mountain ‘Chopper Display Team’. Mr. Toad’s squadron of blokes all decked out in flight suits and riding ‘Chopper’ bicycles, whilst trailing huge plumes of coloured smoke drew jeers and cheers as well as a good soaking from the kids with water balloons and super-soakers! Jolly good fun!
I won’t go into too much detail about the race itself, as those of you reading this, doubtless got better coverage from your arm chair than we did at the track! Oh, but the atmosphere! The huge crowds cheering at the start, the noise of the cars (especially the Astons!), the smells, the Ferris wheel rides, the eerie still at the trackside in the wee hours as the cars fly past, the daybreak as the circuit comes back to life (just like in McQueen’s movie), the helicopter ride over the circuit, the tension as the finish approached; the absolute euphoria at the finish as first the Audi was able to hold off the Peugeot, and then the 009 Aston of Darren Turner, David Brabham and new boy Antonio Garcia doing the same against the Bad Boy ‘Vettes again, both winning against all the odds and surprising all the analysts and punters alike. ‘Our’ boys ran a faultless 24 hours to fend of the yellow machines that were equally impressive, but just not quite there on the day!
Making the trip to Le Mans was the realization of a boyhood dream, another of those things to check off my “bucket list”. I will certainly go back, but I’m not sure when. It really does involve a lot of effort if you want to see and do as much as we did…..there’s a lot more than I can write here, believe me!
To quote Mr. McQueen, “Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.” Truer words were never spoken.
(First published in The Vantage Point, Summer 2008. Reproduced with kind permission of the Aston Martin Owners Club)