Le Mans 1996 - Ayse's Story
Saturday 14th June - The Start and the Quest for a Beer
Shortly before 4.00 p.m then, the cars set off on their pace lap. The pace lap usually seems to go on for ever, as heads in the tribunes crane to see the view on the huge Diamond-Vision screens at the Ford Chicane, and further up the straight towards the Dunlop Curve, and observe the progress of the cars by resort to the hovering helicopters, which follow every twist and turn as the cars make their way back to the main straight for the start of the race. And then, the race is under way, 24 hours of sheer excitement, for me, for the twelfth time – aren’t I the lucky one!
It seemed from the start of the race that it was likely to boil down into a battle between the works Porsche GT1s, the Joest TWR Porsche and, possibly, the Nissans, which had started very quickly. It was soon obvious that the leading McLarens, from the Schnitzer BMW and GTC Gulf Davidoff teams could not match the pace of the Porsches and Nissans, although the Lark (Parabolica) McLaren made very good progress in the early stages.
We continued to watch the race from the tribunes. Earlier in the year I had purchased a 2x converter for my camera lenses, which (without the massive expense of a large prime lens or bigger zoom lens), allowed me to look right into the pit garages, when the cars came in for their first pit stops. Unfortunately for the photographs, however, the pit boards and the small enclosures provided for the team members to display their pit boards on the pit wall rather got in the way of the pictures!
You will remember that, in 1995, the weather turned sour on us at about this time, firstly with just a few spots of rain, soon turning to consistent showers, for the rest of the Saturday and well into Sunday morning. I know we all still had our fingers very tightly crossed that the rather murky skies were not going to turn to rain!
We hung on at this spot on the tribunes until most of the first round of pit stops had been completed, when, true to form at this time of the race, Ian decided it was time for a beer! Our first beer of the race is normally taken down at the Ford Chicane, near to the Maison Blanche grandstand, and we headed that way, intending to follow the usual game plan. As you can imagine, the circuit is absolutely jam-packed at this time, many of the spectators deciding at around the same time to move on to another vantage-point, or to get something to eat or drink. We therefore had to fight our way through the crowds, trying to keep each other in sight, particularly Jeff, who on his first visit had no idea where we were heading!
About 15 minutes later, we finally arrived at our intended stopping-point, only to find that the hostelry we had intended to patronise had gone! One of the changes to the circuit arrangements in 1996 was the ACO’s franchising of the catering facilities. Prior to 1996, it seemed that anyone could come to the circuit and sell their own wares (no doubt paying a hefty premium for the facility to the ACO), however, last year it was very noticeable that many of the food and drink stalls looked exactly the same, à la Silverstone or Brands Hatch.
What I suspect had happened is that the ACO had taken the catering side of the operation in-house, and who could blame them – the money to be made must be incredible. But as a result of this, it appeared that many of the older, established operators who were always to be seen at the circuit, were no longer there. A shame in many ways, as they added a lot of additional colour and atmosphere to the place but at least we could be reasonably certain of both consistent food and drink and more importantly, consistent prices (that is, consistently high prices – about £2.00 for a small can of beer!).
So, having been let down here, we retraced our steps behind the stands and the tribunes to find another suitable hostelry, pausing to watch the race from time to time at the Ford Chicane. We finally found somewhere at about 6.00 pm, over an hour after we first decided to go for a beer. To celebrate (!), we not only indulged in a beer, but also in our first frites at the circuit, wonderful with the Dijon mustard always provided.
I still had to collect my programme and all my other bits and pieces from the ACO, and I was keen to do that now. I went into the main ACO building, situated at the back of the main ACO grandstand, only to find that I needed to go instead to an alternative ACO building in the Village to get my programme. I therefore arranged with Ian to meet him and the others at, yes, you’ve guessed it, the Grand Marnier crêpe stall in the Village...
I finally found the right place at the back of the Village, very much out of the way, and had a very long wait to pick up my programme, the full list of entrants (which turned out to be a marvelous publication), a poster and my entrance ticket to the “Welcome Area”. (I was to find out during the night what a fantastic bonus this ticket was and you will soon get very bored indeed with me continually reminding you of the fact!).
Rather later than I'd intended, I met back up with the others at about 6.45 p.m. near to the Grand Marnier crêpe stall, where Peter had bought me a crêpe, which I stuffed down with all speed! (Another one wouldn’t have gone amiss, I have to admit!).
It was now time for our
usual gentle meander from the garage rouge area, around to the Dunlop Chicane,
and on down to the Esses. There were a
couple of changes to the circuit at the chicane (there seems to be a new development
somewhere on the circuit every year!).
The chicane itself had been tightened, much to the
drivers’ annoyance (particularly J.J. Lehto!), and the cars were therefore
approaching and travelling through the chicane even slower than in previous
years. When I think back to my first
After a while watching from
the inside of the circuit at the Esses (or as close to the Esses as spectators
can get), we crossed over the famous