Le Mans 1996 - Ayse's Story
Page 5 - Saturday 15th June - The Parade (and the Debris Fencing Disaster)
Breaking out of my reverie (somewhat reluctantly, I must admit!), I had better press on with the story! We must have been on to the tribunes by 12.15 p.m. Although this sounds very early (for us), you need to remember that the 1996 race was starting an hour early, at 3.00 pm to avoid a clash with the England v. Scotland Euro '96 football match the same afternoon. The ACO didn't actually change the start time just for the benefit of the British race fans, it was the only way that they could guarantee live TV coverage of the start of the race. Another illustration of the power now wielded by the TV companies, whose financial input is such as to be able to dictate almost all aspects of modern-day sport.
We made our way straight to the tribunes in front of the pits on the main straight, and were able to take up a great spot, roughly one-third of the way along the pits. If it were not for one thing, I would have described this as the best vantage point I'd ever managed to achieve prior to the start of the race. That one thing was - debris fencing! We were all aghast, particularly Ian and I, the two most keen photographers in the team. The ACO had decided since the 1995 race to put 10-foot high debris fencing all along the main straight and, so we discovered later, along all of the areas of the track to which the public had access. This was a development which had received no publicity at all prior to the race, and it took us all completely unawares. In some ways, I suppose, this was a move to be applauded. We have seen some appalling accidents in motor racing over the last few years, thinking particularly back to Imola 1994, where, aside from the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger, Rubens Barrichello's Jordan actually vaulted from the track into the debris fencing, and, a few years earlier, when Marcel Albers was killed in an F3 race at Thruxton (an event attended by Peter and I), where, if it hadn't been for debris fencing, spectators would surely have been killed or injured. Even shortly after Le Mans 1996, Jeff Krosnoff, a Le Mans veteran with the TWR and SARD teams, was killed in an Indycar race in America, which also resulted in the death of a marshall. These things, taken together, if you like, with the dreadful accident, the worst in motor racing history, which took place at Le Mans in 1955, when the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh left the road and crashed into the crowds on the tribunes, killing some 80 of them and injuring many more was probably justification enough for extra safety precautions. But why had it taken until 1996 to install them? From a purely selfish point of view, the installation of the debris fencing for the 1996 race was nothing short of a disaster for the amateur photographers at Le Mans. Virtually every shot of the cars now had to be taken through the fencing, meaning that the lens needed to be wide open all the time, so as to obtain the most limited depth of field, and reduce the influence of the fencing as far as possible. This can immediately be seen from the photographs taken from the tribunes this year which without the fencing could have been great, but with it are, quite frankly, a total disaster, made all the worse by the fact that I had no idea how to deal with the situation at that time....
We had arrived good and early, with the result that we were on the tribunes before the driver parade actually started. In fact, the cars were still being pushed into their echelon line for some time after we arrived. This (debris fencing aside), provided an excellent opportunity for photographs. I note from the race programme that the presentation of the competing drivers was due to start at 12.50 pm, so it is probably correct that we had actually arrived at the circuit a good hour before that, perhaps just before midday, the earliest that the Tourists had arrived at La Sarthe (although Peter and I had made an earlier arrival in 1992, when we were able to watch the whole of the morning warm-up, which normally starts at 10.00 am). The drivers started to come past the tribunes on Peugeot cabriolets, and I started snapping away, to catch the driver teams for posterity! Its always great fun afterwards, when the photographs are in the album, and I have the task of trying to identify the drivers! Some are easy, but some of the teams of "gentlemen" drivers can be particularly difficult to identify, the deduction process coming down in some cases to an analysis of their nationalities from the flags shown on their race suits!
One of the more amusing points came with the arrival of the Hawaiian Tropic girls. It has always been a standing joke within the team that the only reason Alan Matheson comes to Le Mans is to see the "HT" girls! Last year he equipped himself with a new pair of binoculars, and this year, he had invested in a Canon EOS 500 and 75-300 zoom lens. He tried to tell us that this had been for his recent holiday in South Africa, but we all knew the truth of the matter - he was just making sure that he didn't miss a single glimpse of the girls!
There is a photograph in volume 1 of the 1996 photographs (and we are now up to three volumes!), which shows Alan and Nick Jordan on the tribunes, Alan wearing the biggest grin you could possibly imagine, and with Nick straining to watch the scene through the binoculars. After so many years where Alan failed to get much of a glimpse of the "HT" girls, he certainly made up for it in 1996!