Le Mans 1999 - Ayse's Story
Page 1 - The Prologue
Here we are again in May 2021 with another story update. The next year for the update treatment is 1999... As before with the majority of my stories at this time, the text was written shortly after returning home from the race.
The small number of video clips that I've now added to this story were from camcorder video footage taken by my friend Peter. Bear in mind that the footage is now some 22 years old. You can understand why mobile phones have made camcorders completely redundant!
As I tend to say every year, old habits die hard, and it takes only a matter of days after the end of one Le Mans trip before my thoughts begin to turn to the next. When Peter and I went to Le Mans on the Chequers coach in 1992, I was sufficiently concerned about whether or not Ian Gordon would go to Le Mans the following year to book us in again for the same coach trip in 1993. As it happened, Ian did go, and although Peter and I had a great time, it was a shame that we missed out on the full Tourists trip with Ian, Martin and Carol. I say this I suppose, by way of contrast. Although I had that feeling of uncertainty in 1992/93, I never had the slightest doubt that, having missed the race in 1998 Ian would organise a trip to Le Mans in 1999. Ian chose not to go to the race in 1992, but his decision to stay at home in 1998 was most definitely not made out of choice. Despite the importance of the event which took place at home on the Saturday night of the race, I know that Ian was not a little put out at having to miss one of the truly great Le Mans races. As it happens, he did manage to watch a lot of the race on satellite TV, but the difference between watching on the ‘box and actually being there is simply too great for mere mortals to begin to contemplate!
Peter had already made it clear to me that I was to “book him in” with Ian at the first available opportunity. He had made sure that there were no silly time-share clashes to worry about, especially as he and Hilda had finally managed to move back to their beloved Milford-on-Sea. I was delighted too, as it meant they would not be moving down to Cornwall as looked likely at one stage. As usual, I was avidly scouring Autosport for any snippets of information about this year's likely contenders, noting down all of the essential information as I had done in previous years. I had already assumed that Toyota, Mercedes, BMW and Porsche would be back again, and it was confirmed at a fairly early stage that Audi would be taking their new R8 sports racer. With all of the other main protagonists from the last two or three years expected to join these works teams, everything looked rosy - in fact, rosier even than in 1998, when most pundits had predicted one of the best Le Mans ever - and they weren’t far wrong!
I would normally expect to hear from Ian as to his intentions by about the middle of February - if I haven’t heard by then, I normally give him a call anyway. My recollection is that the call came pretty early this year, some time during January. I suppose, in a sense, there was a problem this year, but fortunately it was not going to stop Ian from going to Le Mans! Carol had coolly reminded him that the Le Mans week-end was followed immediately by their silver wedding anniversary, and although she was quite content for him to go, he would have to be back home on the Monday in good time to pack and be ready to catch a flight that evening to Johannesburg! Ian knew full well that if he was going to be able to meet this direction it wasn't going to be possible for the trip to extend into the Monday after the race, even if we returned late on the Monday afternoon or evening. That would simply be too late. It meant therefore, that we would have to head home immediately after the race in much the same way as Peter and I had done with M.R.I. last year and in '92 and '93.
was definitely a little troubled at the prospect of cutting short the Le Mans
trip for everyone in this way and in order to extend the week-end he suggested
that instead of travelling over to France on the Friday morning ferry, we might
instead go across overnight on the Thursday.
This would mean arriving in France at about 7.00 a.m. (French-time) on
the Friday morning instead of 2.00 p.m. in the afternoon. This would give us plenty of time to motor
down through France during the morning, go straight to the circuit and be there
just after midday, to see what was going on.
I was perfectly happy with this arrangement and it wouldn't be a problem for me (nor Peter, I was sure), to come back on Sunday evening, instead of Monday afternoon/evening. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed of going over slightly early and coming back a day early. For me, the build up to the race and the race itself is the most important, and while the time in France after the race is always enjoyable, it isn't the most crucial part of the trip. I also had in mind that if we travelled over on the boat on Thursday evening and came back similarly on Sunday evening, we would end up saving on the expense of hotel accommodation on Sunday night, and no doubt the cost of a lavish meal as well! I felt sure Jayne would be pleased about this, and would be pleased to see me back a little earlier as well... There was also the possibility that, for the very first time, we might be able to get to Le Mans in time for the driver parade which takes place in Le Mans during the early evening on Friday, although I wasn't sure what time this would be, and I agreed to try and glean some more information from Françoise, my contact at the A.C.O. about what was happening at Le Mans on the day before the race. Ian set about booking two cars on the ferry for the Thursday night. At that stage he was unsure about accommodation on the Friday night, but would check to see what was available. He expected to be able to book Le Hotel Restaurant Le Cheval Blanc at Le Grand Lucé for those that required a bed on Saturday night (not including myself, of course!).
So, at this early stage, who did we anticipate would make up the team of Tourists for Le Mans 1999? Well, there were Peter and I of course. The other three regulars were also confirmed, Ian, Alan and Martyn. Jeff, Ian’s client, who came to Le Mans in 1997, was also keen to go. The other two confirmed travellers were Mark, a partner in Ian’s firm who came to the rain-sodden Le Mans race of 1995 and Clive, another partner who would be this year's Le Mans newcomer. Those were the eight who would take up the four places in each of two cars, to be driven as usual by Ian and Martyn. But what of Jim? Jim had been to Le Mans with us in each of the years 1994 through 1997. Ian told me that Jim had not yet made up his mind whether to go. This was a familiar enough scenario as Jim was always the last to decide, and had told me late in '98 that he doubted he would go this year. Of course, if he did decide to go could we squeeze one more into one of the two cars (as we had done in 1995), or would we need another car? I was fairly confident that Jim would decide to come. Naturally, I relayed all of this news to Peter, and he was as delighted as I was that there would be a full Gordon’s Tourists trip to Le Mans this year.
I wrote to the ACO to try and find out more about what was
likely to be happening at the circuit on the Friday afternoon. After a couple of weeks, I received a reply
from Françoise, to say that the circuit would be open to the public on the
Friday (although it was unclear whether there would be any access to the pits),
and there would be a driver parade in the town during the evening, the time for
which had not yet been fixed.
year, I arrange to let Ian have my albums of photographs from the
previous year’s race. This usually
happens around February-time. In fact,
Ian still had my photographs from the 1997 race, and I was quite keen
to get them back. (It's not that I don’t
trust Ian to look after them, not at all, but having loaned one of my previous
sets of photographs to Jim and having waited about two years to get them
back, I do get a little anxious to get them back home and onto the bookshelf!).
I wrote to Ian in March, sending him a copy of my new Le Mans News (more on that later), asking if we could arrange to meet so that I could retrieve my 1997 Le Mans photographs and hand over those from last year which, although concerning only Peter and myself, Ian was still keen to see. A couple of weeks later, I received a call from Ian in the office, and we agreed to meet on 22nd April. I brought my 1998 photographs in to work with me. They were something of a work of art, even if I say so myself! I had taken months to complete them. The story of the Hounsome and Dyment 1998 Le Mans week-end was traced from start to finish, from waiting for the M.R.I. coach outside Southampton Railway station to the last shots as we were getting ready to board the ferry on the way home. Not only that, but the story of the week-end and the race itself was traced in much more detail than I had ever attempted before.
was very much aided in this task by the List des Engagées which I had obtained from the ACO at the circuit,
and from the full details of the race which I received some months later. In fact, for the second year running, I transferred
that information to a full pit stop schedule for every car. This had prompted another letter to Françoise
at the ACO as, when about two-thirds of the way through what was a very
time-consuming process, I realised that several hours of pits stop information
were missing from the official record.
The ACO had already picked this error up, and Françoise kindly sent me
the missing pages so that I could complete the record.
I duly made the rendezvous with Ian on 22nd April, and he took me down to the underground car park at his office, from where I travelled in style to the Dell, the home of Southampton Football Club. We took a drink and a bite to eat in the supporters' club and chatted away merrily about last year’s race and the prospects for this year. Ian had already updated me on the full Tourists line-up for 1999 on the telephone. The eight names mentioned previously, Ian, Martin, Alan, Jeff, Mark, Clive, Peter and myself were all confirmed. It was at this stage that the full extent of the 1999 team was revealed in all its glory! The eight would be joined by Robert, Ian’s younger son, who those who have read Chapter 11 will know attended Le Mans for the first time in 1991 when he was about 13 or 14. Robert had been keen to return but the dates always clashed with his studies. This year he was free at last to join us! The 1999 team would be the largest assembled since I started going to Le Mans with Ian in 1986. We had twice taken a party of ten, in 1989 and 1994, but this year, there were to be no less than twelve Tourists as Jim had made up his mind to go after all (at the stage when there were only eight of us going). As I have already mentioned, this created a difficulty over the cars, however, Jim agreed to take his car and persuaded two of his friends to join him. That left one spare place, and Robert was able to take advantage of this.
Good news though this was it left Ian with a headache as he had already organised the ferry crossing for two cars and eight people from Portsmouth to Le Havre. As it happened, he was able to get the third car and four passengers on the same boat. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the return journey. Ian was unable to book Jim’s car on the boat back from Le Havre to Portsmouth, so Jim and his passengers would have to travel to Cherbourg instead for the trip back home. Ian had been able to book cabins for everyone going over to France so we would at least get a few hours sleep on the Thursday night, and cabins coming back again, which were even more important, bearing in mind that we were heading straight back after the race (and I, for one, would not have had any sleep since the Friday night!). Ian also gave me the rest of the itinerary for the week-end. As already explained, the plan was to travel over on Thursday night, giving us Friday morning to travel down at a leisurely pace through France to Le Mans, to see what (if anything) was going on at the circuit on the Friday afternoon. I was delighted when Ian told me that we would again be staying at the Auberge de la Madeleine at Vendôme on the Friday night. As you know, we stayed there in both '96 and '97, and I rather fell in love with the place. Ian had managed to get all twelve of us in and we would be taking our evening meal there as well. Lobster in whisky sauce with pink bibs again?
game plan for Saturday was much the same as usual. After breakfasting at Vendôme, we would make
our way to Le Grand Lucé, where Ian had booked rooms for eight at the Hotel Restaurant Le Cheval Blanc. He had not managed to squeeze in the other
four, so that meant that four of us (which, obviously, included me), would have
to return to the circuit on the Saturday night.
Ian had not booked Le Belinois
for the Saturday night meal and although it was
still unclear, it seemed likely that we would return to Le Grand Lucé to eat
there instead (as we had discussed for the last couple of years).
Of course, there would be no Sunday night stopover this year, as we would catch the 10.30 boat from Le Havre to Portsmouth on the Sunday night (all except Jim and his crew, whose boat from Cherbourg would leave at 10.45 p.m.).
now, we come to the saga of the tickets!
Shortly after my meeting with Ian I received the usual booking
information from the ACO. I had already
renewed my ACO subscription as soon as the forms arrived, and I was keen to
pre-book the six tickets which my membership entitled me to at reduced price
(at a saving of about £8.00 per ticket).
I therefore sent off for the tickets straight away, together with a
request for a ticket to the Welcome Area
(which I knew I would want again, of course!), and also another ticket which for a modest outlay, appeared to give access to the paddock area at the back of
the main pits grandstand. I also
requested a third ticket, which appeared to give access to the main pits
grandstand, however, I didn’t hold out too much hope for this, as it appeared
to be limited to sponsors and guests.
I sent my application on 26th April, and I expected to receive the tickets in a couple of weeks, at the most. Nothing arrived within those two weeks, and I began to wonder where they had got to. I assumed that for an event such as this, the ACO would have printed the tickets long in advance. What concerned me slightly was that the notes which came with the booking form made it quite clear that no tickets would be sent out after 28th May. This set me to wondering if this meant that they did not send out any pre-booked tickets at all until that date? I thought not, as this would be cutting it rather fine as the Le Mans week actually starts with scrutineering on the Monday (the 7th June this year). For anyone who was taking a holiday in France before motoring down to Le Mans for the race, they might not have their tickets before they left if they weren’t sent out until after 28th May. We were by now well into May and any worries I had that my application form had not been received in France were allayed when my Visa account arrived, showing that the cost of the tickets had been taken from the account on 10th May. At least I knew they had my money! (I also found out at that stage that I could not have the additional ticket, as the cost of that had not been taken). So I continued to wait, but as the days went on I began to get rather worried about where the tickets were. Then a letter arrived from the ACO, but no, it wasn’t the tickets I had been waiting for, but my coupons for the programme, List des Engagées, results and so on. Although I was pleased to receive these, I would have liked to have had the entrance tickets as well...
By Monday 24th May, I was definitely worried. If the tickets had been lost in the post, who would know? The ACO would think they had reached me - or would they? I had to pay 60 francs by way of postage, which I assumed would mean the equivalent of recorded delivery, so there should be some record of non-delivery. I even searched the house just in case a card had been put through the door and had fallen down behind something, but no, there was definitely nothing there. Eventually, I put pen to paper that day and wrote to my “friend” Françoise, asking if she could find out what had happened to my tickets. I heard nothing. I even telephoned the post office to make sure there was nothing waiting for me for collection. We got to 27th May, exactly two weeks before we would be leaving, and having obtained a copy of “The Essential Guide to Le Mans”, a race pack prepared in association with Michelin, I found in that a telephone number for the ACO’s Club 24, which had a dedicated English-speaking line. I telephoned it on the Thursday evening, but not surprisingly there was only an answer-machine. So I wrote the number down and took that, together with my membership details and Visa statement to work the next day, determined to get an answer!
It was an extremely busy day at work (I was actually clerking a Court), and I didn’t have a chance to make the call until lunchtime. I phoned the number and in my best (and just about only) French, asked if the lady on the other end spoke English. She did - I was in luck! I explained the position, but she didn’t seem terribly interested, saying that I really ought to be contacting the booking office. (It wasn't until the following year that I discovered that the ACO itself does not handle ticket applications, they sub-contract this part of the operation to another company). Eventually, it must have been clear to her that I wasn’t going to go away without some kind of answer and she started to take my name, at which point she stopped, and asked if my initials were A.R.T. - yes, it was my friend Françoise herself, who told me she had received my letter the day before! She said that she had forwarded it to the booking office, and, as far as she knew, there was no problem at all, and if I didn’t receive my tickets by the Wednesday of the following week (2nd June), I should telephone the booking office. Although this made me feel a little better, I was still unconvinced! What if Wednesday came around and they still hadn’t arrived, and the booking office told me they were sent out weeks ago? Would they be prepared to replace them? I obviously couldn’t afford to buy them again (even though I would be recouping the cost of five of the tickets from other Tourists).
had a very heavy day in Court on 28th May and finally got home at
about 6.40 pm. Guess what was there on
my arrival - no, not the tickets, but a recorded delivery note saying that a
package was awaiting collection at the post office. As you can imagine, I was down to the post
office bright and early on the Saturday morning and yes, it was the tickets - my ever-increasing paranoia
was relieved at last!
last few days prior to the departure on Thursday seemed to drag (although in
reality they went as quick as they always do). I actually finished in the office on the
Tuesday morning as I was clerking a complicated case in the afternoon at the
Lyndhurst Court. Unfortunately, it
proved to be far more laboured than I had expected, which meant a late finish,
however, I had prepared my papers very carefully beforehand, so as to leave the
bare minimum of writing-up when the Court had concluded.
Wednesday, my last working day, was perfect in that I was undertaking some
training for Magistrates at Sparsholt College near Winchester. I was delivering training which I had
delivered about 20 times before, so there was no preparation to speak of and
the training was finished by lunchtime, so I had the added bonuses of both a good
lunch and a fee! Even better was the
fact that after lunch, I was free to come straight home, rather than going
back to work in Southampton.
Earlier in the week I had spoken to Ian by telephone, to make sure of any last-minute instructions. I learned that the team was now down to eleven, as one of Jim’s mates was unable to come with us. In fact, only ten of us would be travelling to France from Ian’s home on Thursday evening, as Jim’s other mate was already in France on business, and would be meeting up with us (somewhere) during the early part of the weekend. It was arranged that we would rendezvous at Ian’s house in Chilworth at 8.00 pm on the Thursday evening, before setting off to catch the 10.15 pm ferry from Portsmouth.