Le Mans 1996 - Ayse's Story
Page 1 - The Prologue
As we approach the end of May 2020, I have moved on to my next update. Here then is the fully revised 1996 Le Mans story....
After Le Mans 1995 Peter and I went to Silverstone for a round of the Global GT Championship. In many ways it was Le Mans revisited, only worse! The weather that day was utterly diabolical, very wet and very windy. The weather was so bad that the organisers halted the race for a period of time, until the conditions eased. So if the weather was bad at Le Mans in 1995, Silverstone, predictably, went one better! The race produced a very popular McLaren win for Andy Wallace and new team recruit, Olivier Grouillard, who had defected from the Giroix outfit. Peter and I were quite lucky having arrived early at the circuit, to be able to get into the pits (at a time when we almost certainly weren't supposed to), and not only that, we got right into the pit garages for pictures of most of the competing cars, and some of the drivers, including Wallace and Grouillard. All in all, it was an excellent day, and the weather finally redeemed itself with bright sunshine for the later historic sports car races, including the truly wonderful sight of a Gulf Porsche 917 in action, later that afternoon.
But it wasn't enough. For me the motor racing 'day out' had become, pretty well, a thing of the past. Over the last three or four years, aside from Le Mans, I had been to only a handful of meetings and it was at least two years since Peter and I last travelled to Thruxton, our local circuit. Although still very much a motor racing fan, Formula 1 had become something of a bore, although the rivalry between Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill (who, coincidentally, have both made one racing visit to Le Mans, in 1991 and 1989, respectively), was just about enough to retain my interest. But in comparison to the rivalries witnessed between the two most recent giants of F1, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, and, to a much lesser extent, others such as Mansell and Piquet, this really was B-feature stuff. Since Senna's death in 1994, it was really only Le Mans that caught my interest in any major way. As far as the annual trip is concerned, the main stumbling block has become, for a man with a wife, two children and a large mortgage to support, the financial outlay that a trip with the Tourists involves. In fact, its not just the team trip that is expensive. In 1992 and 1993, when Peter and I travelled with Chequers and Motor Racing International, the cost of the trip was only a fraction less than in the years when I went with the Tourists. Jayne knew full well that I would be like a bear with a very sore head if I didn't go and said that provided we had enough money for our family holiday in October, then I should go. This was music to my ears! In fact, I was rescued once again by the additional training which I was doing, particularly knowing that there was more to come in July, September, and, very probably, in December as well. In training terms, this particular gravy train would hopefully run for a little longer yet. I also had a couple of fairly successful months writing reports for the Family Court Reporter. Although these funds were not available to bolster my Le Mans "account", I knew that they would come in handy later in the year for the family holiday at Center Parcs.
So, the countdown now began in earnest, and I started to put some of this extra money away in the building society account which had lain dormant since June, 1995. At Le Mans in 1995 my flashgun broke within minutes of my starting to use it so I bought the necessary replacement part so I would be properly kitted out for 1996 (or so I thought). I made early contact with Ian to let him know that I would once again be a member of the "team" for Le Mans this year. There was never any doubt that he would be raising a team again, as the 1996 race was shaping up to be something of a classic. On the sports car racing front, despite the efforts of the FISA, the GT competition appeared to be going from strength to strength. There had been a high quality field at Silverstone in 1995, and this was being repeated, not only in other rounds of the competition, but also in the USA, where both GTs and the World Sports Cars were rapidly gaining strength. In fact, the WSC situation was looking particularly good, after the Riley & Scott team won both Daytona and Sebring with their Oldsmobile-powered car. It was confirmed, soon after the Daytona 24 Hours in February, that the R & S team would be competing at Le Mans. The field for Le Mans looked to be a classy one for 1996, with much strong rivalry, both for overall victory, and within the various classes. In the prototype class, we would have the likes of Ferrari and R & S vying with Courage and the Joest WSC Porsche. The latter was a design commissioned by Porsche from Tom Walkinshaw Racing in 1995 based on an open-topped version of the Jaguar XJR-14, which had been built for the 3.5 litre normally aspirated class in 1991, but which, disappointingly wasn't raced by TWR at Le Mans that year. Joest had rescued the car from moth-balls, where it had been placed by Porsche, who had originally intended to run it at Le Mans in 1995. The major news, however, was in the GT1 class, where the factory Porsche team was intent upon fielding a new, evolutionary version of the evergreen Porsche 911, now mid-engined. If the promise shown at the pre-qualifying week-end in April was anything to go by (and it was widely believed that the team was sand-bagging heavily), this car could well end up blowing the all-conquering McLaren F1 GTR into the reeds! We would once again, have a full contingent of McLarens, the strongest coming from the new works BMW-backed Bigazzi team, Ray Bellm's Gulf entries, and the Harrods and West cars from Dave Price Racing.
I was delighted when Derek Bell signed to partner Wallace and Grouillard in the Harrods car, bearing in mind how close Derek came to victory in this car in the 1995 race. There were other interesting entries as well, notably the Newcastle United supported Lister Storm, four Ferrari F40s, four Chrysler (no longer Dodge), Vipers and a whole host of other cars, including many venerable Porsche 911s. The entry was, as I have said, a quality one, and from the original 107 entries, the ACO had to whittle the numbers down to 48 starters, initially by way of pre-qualifying in April. Eleven cars were seeded through to official qualifying in June, including the thoroughly diabolical Debora, which was "seeded" thanks to winning the LMP2 class in 1995. The fact that it was the final finisher and didn't deserve a preferential place cut no ice with the organising club, and prompted a letter from me to Autosport, bemoaning the manner in which the ACO had gone about the seeding process. If that car hadn't been a French entry, I was certain it wouldn't have received a preferential place.
So we had the makings of a top class race, and people were queuing up to suggest that the prospects were good for the best race at Le Mans for many years. It was very sad then, that I learned that Peter was unable to join the team in 1996. He had been under the impression that I wouldn't be going to Le Mans this year (I had been that pessimistic about the prospects previously!), and he was committed to a holiday the week prior to Le Mans, which meant that he couldn't get back to the UK in time for the start of the trip on the Friday morning, without breaking the holiday.
As it happens, even if I had told Peter much earlier that I would be going to Le Mans, I don't think this would have made any difference to his plans. I did wonder if the same thing would happen as in 1995, when Peter changed his mind about going at the last minute, when fortunately, Ian was able to make the necessary re-arrangements. Sadly, however, this didn't prove to be the case and Peter missed Le Mans, after four consecutive years. I had no doubt that he would arrange his holiday schedule with more than half an eye on the dates for Le Mans in 1997!
I set about making my final arrangements, in terms of films and so on. I had decided (as in 1995), to go mainly with Fuji film again, and bought ten each of 100 and 400 ASA films. With a very optimistic thought to the likely weather, I also bought half a dozen Ektar 25s, which I knew I would only be able to use if the weather was particularly good. I also bought batteries of every description for the camera, flashgun, radio and torch, so that I was properly kitted out in advance.