Aysedasi's Le Mans

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Le Mans 1997 Ayse's Story

Page 1 - The Prologue

 

 

So, as I begin another story revision, right now I should be at day 2 of scrutineering for Le Mans 2020, but COVID-19 put paid to that.  So I'll revise another story instead.   Here is the fully revised version of the 1997 story.  



As I begin to write this introduction on 9th April, 1997, unusually a couple of months before Le Mans, it is the day after my father's funeral.  After years of depression and illness, my father was admitted into hospital in early March.  A few weeks before he had finally been diagnosed as suffering from cancer and despite radiotherapy, the pain became too much for him to suffer at home.  Once in hospital, the deterioration was shockingly swift, and on Good Friday 28th March, he was transferred from the cold starkness of the hospital to a wonderful hospice near Chichester.  After many emotion-racked hours, relief finally came for him at 9.00 p.m. on Easter Sunday, 30th March, 1997.

 

My Le Mans stories were never intended to be a diary of my life, although inevitably important things in my life tend to feature, usually because of the effect which they have on my trips to Le Mans, and I suppose, my own psychological state leading up to and after this most selfish of obsessions.  When talking of Le Mans and of 1997 itself it would be impossible for me not to record the impact which the death of my father has had.

 

If it had not been for my father's influence I may never have acquired my passion for motor racing.  It was he who took me to Goodwood Circuit as a babe in arms (and so my mother always insisted, on one occasion a babe in the arms of Stirling Moss), and much later to Thruxton.  It was my father who was the first member of the family to experience (a very wet) Le Mans in 1970, his only trip to the great race.  I will always remember that my first sight of my motorsport hero Ayrton Senna in a Formula 1 car was at a special Lotus day at Brands Hatch in 1985, when he drove a number of demonstration laps in his JPS Lotus - an experience which I will never forget, along with the fact that my father was with me at Brands on that day. 

 

Most poignantly, on the wall of my study is a painting which my father completed in 1987.  It shows a deliberately idealised view of Paddock Hill Bend at Brands Hatch, with a gaggle of Formula Fords rounding the corner.  Of much more importance, however, is that fact that both Dad and I are depicted in that painting (as is my MGB).  Some things you treasure.


 

I have a multitude of other memories which I could record regarding my father's effect upon my interest in motor racing, but those are but one facet of a man who, as a long-time friend remarked at the funeral, was "...the most talented man I have ever known.  Not one of the most talented, the most talented.  And the sad thing is that he never actually appreciated that."  Those words meant more to me than anything else said about my father at the funeral. I therefore mark my father's passing with this unusual but nonetheless heartfelt tribute by reference to those words, and by adding that, if I should attain but one per cent of the talent and achievement he attained during an incredibly creative but sadly far too brief a lifetime, then I believe I will be entitled to feel that I have attained more than enough.

 

 

After the sheer brilliance of last year's trip, I was of course banking on going to Le Mans again in 1997.  As in previous years, nothing could be taken for granted, and although I began to count down the days in the usual way and collect and collate my Autosport cuttings, I knew there was no guarantee that I would be going again.  In each of the last five or six years I suppose, there has been a suspicion that perhaps this would be my last Le Mans for a while.  Each year however, I managed to get to La Sarthe again.  Even as I write this it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine what it would be like to be sitting at home on a Le Mans week-end, imagining what the other Tourists are up to, every minute of the four days.  It sounds silly I know, but I have absolutely no doubt that it would be purgatory!

 

This thought was reinforced by a comment made back in January by Hilda, Peter's partner, when Jayne and I were invited to dinner with them, to celebrate our wedding anniversary.  You will remember that after coming with me to Le Mans in each of the four years from 1992 to 1995, Peter had to miss out last year, much to his chagrin.

 

Peter and Hilda were away on holiday on the week-end (that was the problem, it was impossible for Peter to get back from the holiday in time to meet up with the team on Friday morning for the start of the Le Mans trip).  Hilda told Jayne that, under no circumstances should she ever think of trying to stop me from going to Le Mans.  For an entire week-end, she said she had heard nothing from Peter other than where the Le Mans “team” would be and being told what they would be doing at that very moment!  Somehow I don't think Hilda enjoyed that holiday very much, and there was no doubt whatsoever that Peter would be going to Le Mans in 1997 (and I believe that would have been so, even if I had turned around and said that I couldn't go).

 

I suppose it was around that time that I knew for sure that I would be going to Le Mans in 1997.  (I was, of course, very grateful indeed for Hilda's unexpected support!).  I made my usual contact with Ian Gordon during February, and, thankfully, he confirmed that the Tourists would be embarking upon their annual expedition in June.  At that time, it looked as if it would be a team of six, as in 1996.  As always, I would be joined by Ian, Martyn and Alan.  Jim confirmed his attendance at the same time (making it four straight years for him), however Nick, the sixth member of the 1996 team (who had made his first visit in 1994), was unable to attend this year, and his place would be taken by Peter.

 

As long ago as January 1997, the countdown to the 65th Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans started.  I had been closely following Autosport, looking for snippets of information about this year's race.  We were going to have numerous Porsche GT1s fighting it out against the new long-tail McLaren F1 GTRs.  Into the mix came the Panoz GTRs, the Lotus GT1s, and back for a third (and hopefully much stronger challenge), the Lister Storms.  The biggest news of all, however, was the mighty challenge of Nissan, who would be entering three cars, led by F1 refugee Martin Brundle, with the Le Mans effort masterminded by that canny and experienced Scot, Tom Walkinshaw, via his TWR concern.  On paper, it looked very good indeed.

 

In April I started to collect together all of the things I would need for the trip.  I would as always, need a lot of films, batteries and so on, and I was fortunate to spot an advertisement for discounted films in a photographic magazine.  I was able to purchase 10 each of Fuji's 100 and 400 ASA Super G Plus films at a significant discount.  I also picked up a very cheap battery for my camera, together with a new set of batteries for my remote control.  I had tried to get a set last year as I hadn't replaced them since 1994 and I was rather worried that they could fail on me, however I found it extremely difficult to get hold of the batteries - none of the specialist photographic shops in Southampton appeared to stock them.  I was delighted then to pick up two for the princely sum of £1.00 each - when I bought my previous set in 1994, they cost me £5.00 each!  Over the next couple of weeks, I picked up a relatively cheap supply of soon-to-be discontinued Kodak Ektar 25 ASA films, courtesy of Boots' 3 for 2 promotion!

 

So with the vital things out of the way, I stocked up with all of the other things I needed, such as toothpaste and brush, tissues and shower-gel (making sure this year that I bought shower-gel with a very secure lid, after my problem last year!).  I also stocked up with every possible medication, including special blister plasters (remembering my other problem of 1996!).

 

It was towards the end of April that I learned that the 1997 team was to be extended from 6 to 7 members.  I spoke on the telephone with Ian (who I never seemed to see in the flesh, so to speak, from one Le Mans to the next!).  The itinerary for the trip was now fairly well settled, and, as a result of that itinerary, we had gained another recruit Chris who came to Le Mans with us in 1994.

 

So, what of the plans for Le Mans 1997?  Well, it seemed that we would as usual be catching the early morning crossing by Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth.  Ian was a little unsure whether this would be to Le Havre or Caen, however I supposed that, as in each year since 1991, I would be arriving in France at Caen (Ouistreham).  I was pleased to learn that as in 1996, we would be staying at the Auberge de la Madeleine in Vendôme.  Of all the places to which we have been on the Le Mans week-ends, the short stay at Vendôme on the Friday night last year was perhaps the most memorable.  As I said in last year's story, Vendôme is a super place, and the little auberge was as nice a location as one could imagine for the Friday night stop-over.  I knew that Peter (who, of course, missed the experience last year), would really appreciate Vendôme

 

Of course, as I said in 1996, staying at Vendôme has another attraction for me, and one which I hoped would be felt even more keenly this year.  As you will recall, Vendôme is situated about 50 miles past Le Mans, with the result that instead of having a 2 or 3 hour trip to the circuit on the Saturday morning, the journey would actually take little more than an hour or so.  This meant that we could be at the circuit good and early, ready to feast upon the pre-race activities!

 

Worthy of note also was the fact that, unlike in 1996, when the start of the Vingt-Quatre Heures was brought forward to 3.00 p.m., to allow television coverage of the Euro '96 football match between England and Scotland, the 1997 race was back to the usual start time of 4.00 p.m.  Even more time to get there and soak up the atmosphere!

 

As in the three preceding years (and, for Ian and Martyn, 1993 as well), the Saturday night accommodation had been reserved in Le Grand-Lucé at the Hotel Restaurant Le Cheval Blanc.  (Some things have by now become almost automatic on a Le Mans trip!).  Ian knew better than to ask me this year whether I would need a room at Le Grand-Lucé on Saturday night - he knew only too well that the wildest of horses could not drag me away from the circuit during the night!

 

At the time the arrangements were made it wasn't known where we would be taking our dinner on the Saturday night.  In all of the previous 11 years, I had only had dinner at Le Belinois, or in the Restaurant des Vingt-Quatre Heures on the Mulsanne Straight.  In 1996, there was fairly widespread dissatisfaction with Le Belinois.  Ian felt that the food was not so good, whereas I felt that it had become (for me alone perhaps), prohibitively expensive.  Nevertheless, it was unlikely that we would go back to the Restaurant des Vingt-Quatre Heures, as this became a Chinese restaurant in 1994...  So, unless one of the lads had come across another suitable restaurant, or Ian stuck his well-practiced pin in the Michelin Guide, I resigned myself to going back to Le Belinois again!

 

There was to be a change on the Sunday night, after the race.  As you know, we normally end up driving for several hours away from the circuit after the race to our Sunday night stop-over.  For the previous two years that had been the Hotel La Marine at Port en Bessin.  Although we had all been very happy with Port en Bessin, Ian’s wanderlust dictated that it was time for a change.

 

I know that, in 1996, Ian suffered a fair bit on the journey away from the circuit on Sunday afternoon.  We had to break the journey for coffee pretty quickly after we started, as Ian was having trouble staying awake at the wheel.  Although Ian went back to Le Grand-Lucé on Saturday night (or rather, Sunday morning), by the time he came back to the circuit again, he couldn't have had more than a couple of hours sleep, and I think he rather suffered for it.

 

Ian later let me know that he had discovered that, for the return trip to England on the Monday, we would not be able to catch the late afternoon boat from Cherbourg to Poole, as this service was no longer operating.  Instead, we would have to come back overnight on the Monday night/Tuesday morning.  As a result, we would have even longer to ourselves on the Monday in France.           

 

For this reason, Ian decided that it would make more sense to stay somewhere on the Sunday night much closer to the circuit, thereby cutting down on the travelling time.  As Le Mans is situated in the Loire Valley, with all those wonderful chateaus, what better way to spend the Monday than to wander around them, and, if we could, to take our lunch in one!  I think it was the lure of a day spent tripping around the Loire Valley that had changed Chris's mind!

 

As the weeks passed, I started counting down the days as usual, and even used the screen-saver on my new PC at work to keep a track on the number of days to Le Mans!  To say that I was looking forward to the Le Mans week-end would be the understatement of the year....

 

As thoughts of Le Mans gained a greater prominence in my leisure time over the last few years, particularly when the time has come to write up the story, or to provide the captions for the year's Le Mans photographs, I always had cause to think very carefully as to both the sequence and timing of events on a Le Mans trip.  The memory regularly plays tricks and there are any number of facts and details which I simply can't remember even a few days after the Le Mans week-end.  The brain-fade seems to get worse as I get older!  In 1997 I was determined to put this right!  Months before, I purchased a small journal, and during May I divided that up into the four days of the Le Mans weekend, and then into half-hour time slots during each of those four days.  My intention was to record everything of any consequence during the week-end, preferably as it happened!   2020 Edit - was I really that much of an anorak back then?  

 

The Le Mans pre-qualifying sessions took place on the week-end of 3rd and 4th May, and the results only served to whet my appetite for the race to come in June.  The Nissans looked mightily impressive, Martin Brundle heading the time-sheets with a last-minute banzai lap.  Ominous however, was the form of last year's winner the Joest TWR Porsche, which once again looked as though it would be hard to beat, if it was able to achieve the same degree of reliability which it benefited from in 1996.

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