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Page 5 - Saturday 17th June - The Race is On (And So is the Rain)

 

It wasn't long before 4.00 p.m. arrived and the 63rd running of the Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans was under way.  The rain still held off, but it was all too obvious that it was only a matter of time before it would start.  There were as many eyes looking skywards for the first drops of rain as there were looking at the track for the arrival of the cars at the end of each lap.   Eventually the rain did come, in fits and starts at first, then falling much more heavily.  By this time we had already had a casualty or two, notably the Euromotorsports Ferrari 333SP, which went out with electrical problems and then engine failure after only seven laps, rather vindicating the reluctance of the Ferrari factory to lend support to this first privateer WSC effort at Le Mans with the glorious 333SP.   



We continued to watch the race from the tribunes for an hour or so until the word went around that it was time for a beer.  We assembled behind the tribunes and headed for one of the many beer tents, where we could get out of the worsening rain and reconsider our strategy... 



It would take more than a few drops of rain to dampen our spirits though, and after slaking our thirsts, we started to move on round the circuit.  Rather than walk behind the grandstands we took the opportunity created by the weather of the by now decreasing crowds on the tribunes to watch the action in the pits as we walked along.   As we did I was delighted to see Derek Bell hovering in the Harrods McLaren pit.  Derek was still awaiting his turn in the car, Andy Wallace doing a mammoth triple stint.  Of course, you'll remember that Derek had said in 1994 that he would not be coming back to race at Le Mans again, but was tempted to do so not only by the McLaren drive, but by the opportunity to race with son Justin, as he had (rather unsuccessfully) in the ADA Porsche in 1992.   As he came out of the pit garage, Derek received a rapturous reception from the crowd on the tribunes and kindly (albeit inadvertently), posed for my camera, leaning on the pit wall.  A few moments later, he was joined by Justin.  Those shots are probably the best that I took at Le Mans during the entire week-end.  


  


Despite my best intentions, my photography really suffered in the wet weather.  As we walked on around the circuit, and down to the Esses, the rain became harder and I finally decided (after taking a handful of shots at the Esses) that I would have to put the camera away, rather than run the risk of the unprotected camera and lens getting very wet.    For some years I had been very wary of allowing my camera equipment to become wet in the rain.  I never used to worry about using my old Minolta X300 and 70-210mm lens in the rain, and the lens ultimately succumbed to mould.  I put this down to letting it get too wet at rainy Silverstone, Brands Hatch and Thruxton, over the years!  Bearing in mind that the retail price for my camera gear was somewhere around the £1000 mark, I couldn’t face the prospect of ruining it in the rain...    As a result, there are only a very few pictures of the cars at this time of the race, compared with the dozens I would normally have taken by this time.  I really wished that I had bitten the bullet and obtained a plastic bag from somewhere, so that I could have carried on, giving the camera at least some degree of protection.  As and when I go to Le Mans again, I shall ensure that I am properly kitted out for all weathers - if I do so, you can bet that it will turn out to be the sunniest week-end for years!   



 We were all suffering in the rain, only one or two having brought relatively light-weight waterproof gear with them.   The rain was rapidly soaking through my far from waterproof jacket to my t-shirt below, however, I was quite well off compared to Ian.  He was still in shirt-sleeves, and was completely drenched!   We soon decided that we'd had enough of standing around in the rain at the Esses, and made our way back to the cars to head off to the Mulsanne Straight and Le Restaurant des Vingt Quatre Heures and, of course, Les Hunaudieres.   Unfortunately this year, although the numbers were clearly reduced from those we had seen in the Mulsanne car parks in previous years (actually the numbers had never really recovered after the last real Jaguar year in 1991), it wasn't possible to sneak out onto the frontage of the restaurant as we had done last year.   We were forced therefore, to have another beer in the Chinese restaurant, doing our best to climb onto chairs, tables and assorted garden bric-a-brac to get a look out over the fences.   As it happens, there was actually little to see at this time as shortly before we arrived at Mulsanne, Patrick Gonin had gone off the track in his WR Peugeot, which left the car upside down, and brought out the pace cars.  Gonin was removed from the car and taken to hospital with broken ribs (caused by the front bodywork pushing back against him in the shunt, I believe), and concussion.   Of course, with the pace cars each picking up a group of cars, there were gaps of up to a minute or two before the groups came past.  And the rain was still falling quite heavily at this time....

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