Aysedasi's Le Mans

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Le Mans 1999 Ayse's Story

Page 4 - Friday 11th June

Another First - The Pitwalk



After admiring the view from here for a few minutes I left the others there and set about what I considered to be the real task in hand.  I was determined to find some way down into the pits. I checked out the walkways further down towards the other end of the pits, taking more pictures of transporters and the like, but also checking out the stairways which led down to the paddock area at ground level.  The question was, would the gates be locked?  I then made my way back to the top of the grandstand, to try and chivvy up the others who were dawdling when there was the prospect of more exciting things to see.  They were clearly captivated by the view from here and I have a nice shot in the album of Peter apparently so taken with the view that he had to use both hands to hold both his head and his Toyota cap on!   Ian was also pretty keen to get downstairs and together we checked out the first stairway.  Damn, the bottom gate was locked.  We set off, therefore, to try the next.


Although I have never met the man, I have always had something of a soft spot for team owner Hugh Chamberlain.  A staunch supporter of Le Mans, he has brought cars to race there virtually every year since 1987, those cars ranging from Spices in the early years, to Lotus Esprits in the early GT days, to Chrysler Vipers since 1997.  He was always the one team owner who would be sought out by the commentators from Radio Le Mans, as he was a joy to interview (and to listen to).  Well in 1999 we had good reason to be grateful to the always cheery Hugh.  Why?  Well, this thoroughly decent chap had left his gate open!  Ian and I paused only long enough to attract the attention of the others before we made our way through Hugh’s open gate down to the hallowed ground of the Le Mans paddock!  This was an area which we were certainly not entitled to access, as evidenced by the marshals on the paddock gate who, even the day before the race, were carefully checking passes for permitted access.  But we were in as Magnus Magnussen might once have said, “with no passes!”


Not surprisingly, despite the limited access to this paddock area in which all of the teams’ transporters were situated, lined up behind their respective pit garages, the teams were still being pretty careful about what they put on show.  Nevertheless, we were able to have quite a good look into some of the team areas, spotting pieces of bodywork here and there, and even getting a look at one or two cars (the two Roock Porsches, in particular), through the back of the garages.  Ian was in no hurry, but I was!  If this was a splendid opportunity in itself I had already spotted what I thought might be the only route for us to the pit road itself.  In between some of the pit garages were gates, which led through to the front of the pits.  All of these appeared to be securely locked, with one exception - the gate next to the Estoril team’s transporter.  This gate was open and there didn’t seem to be anyone patrolling it.


After walking around to the side of the pits, where we had thought (wrongly) we might gain access to the pit road, I finally persuaded Ian and the others to follow me back to the Estoril garage.  I was almost running by this time, so eager was I to put my theory to the test.  Eventually, my patience was spent and I headed on through the gate and through the short tunnel under the grandstand, only to find what looked like a marshal standing at the other end.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I simply walked on through, unchallenged, and found myself standing in the pit road, right next to the AMG Mercedes garages.  To put it mildly, I was well chuffed!  In fact, I had to pause for a deep breath - the first time I had managed to gain access to the pits at Le Mans - what a feeling!  The others were able to follow me through and we quickly agreed to rendezvous back in front of the Estoril Porsche pit at 2.45 p.m.  Initially, Ian had said 3.00 pm, however, one or two of the boys seemed more keen to eat and drink by this time, than to take up what was a unique opportunity to look at the cars much nearer to than we had been able to in the previous thirteen years.  By this time, I wasn’t remotely interested in feeding my face, all I wanted to do was to get that camera shutter going!


In retrospect, looking back now with a glass of calvados in my hand as I write this part of the 20th chapter, a fortnight after the Le Mans weekend, I have to say that this was one of the high points of the weekend.  In truth, it was one of those moments which stands out for me as I look back and reminisce over the Le Mans races I've been to.  Alongside being at Hunaudières at midnight in 1986, the Jaguar victories in 1988 and 1990 and the race at night in each of the previous thirteen years, I will always remember working my way from pit garage to pit garage in 1999 for the first time.


I had no thoughts at all for any of the other members of the team as I made a bee-line for the Toyota pits.  They were easy to pick out - they were the ones with the largest crowd standing outside!  It was sensational to be able to take pictures of the cars, some fully clothed in their race bodywork, others almost entirely denuded, with front and rear bodywork sections laid out in front of the pits, just asking to be photographed.  Looking along the pits, taking photographs of several at a time, showing the refuelling gantries with the various team logos adorning them - what a fantastic sight.  I made up my mind to try and get a shot of each of the garages (if not each of the cars), and I worked my way up and down the pit road, taking shots the like of which I hadn’t managed at such an important event since the European Grand Prix in 1985, when I had managed (entirely legitimately!) to get into the pit lane.


On reaching the Panoz pits I had a stoke of both good and bad luck.  There was the lead Panoz driver, David Brabham, signing autographs for the punters, but there was a huge queue.  I forced my way in, and finally reached the front of the queue, only to find that at that moment, Brabham ran out of the team photographs he had been signing, and disappeared into the pit garage.  Darn it!  Never mind, I did manage to get a couple of pretty good photographs of Sir Jack’s youngest son.  I got to the end of the pit lane, photographing the pit gantry with the clock giving a rare reference-point, time-wise, of 2.25 p.m.  I also photographed the empty track in front of the pits, which would be a hive of activity this time tomorrow and for more than a day thereafter.  I still had plenty of time on my hands and a lot of unexposed films just waiting for their turn in the camera, so I retraced my steps, even taking a rare self-portrait, reflected in the glass of the hospitality suites up above the pits.


On my travels back along the pit road, I was lucky enough to pick out Panoz drivers Johnny O’Connell and former Stewart F1 driver, Jan Magnussen.  The Panoz boys could certainly teach the others a few things about encouraging a good relationship with the fans.  I paused for quite a while back in front of the Toyota pits.  The Toyotas seemed not only to be everyone’s favourite for victory this year, but they were the team that most people actually wanted to win.  After so much bad luck, particularly in 1994, when the SARD team was robbed by a gear selection problem in the last hour or so, and similarly last year, when Boutsen, Kelleners and Lees were struck down by Toyota’s perennial Achilles heel, gearbox problems, when they had the race all but won, they really did deserve a break.


In the ORECA pits, I was again lucky enough to get some more shots of the drivers, as the team appeared to be practising their pit routine.  David Donohue, Jean-Philippe Belloc and Soheil Ayari all found their way in front of my lens.  Similarly, in the Audi pit, I was able to get good shots of Christian Abt, 1998 winner Stéphane Ortelli, and Stefan Johansson, a victor with Joest in 1997.  All too soon, however, 2.45 p.m. arrived and I made my way back to meet up with the others in front of the No. 66 Estoril Porsche pit.  Some of them were missing, as Jeff, Richard, Mark, Clive and Alan had already cried enough and left the pits for the Sebring bar which we had passed earlier.  Ian, Robert, Peter and I made our way back through the tunnel to the paddock and headed up again to the walkway above and into the Sebring bar.  Some French bread and cheese and a jus d’orange later, and I was feeling quite refreshed, still on a high from the experiences of the last hour or so. 


While we were in the bar, I had another stroke of luck, in that Jim was kind enough to let me have a small book he had been given, showing all the cars and their drivers’ names and details, in which he had managed to get a number of autographs.  So I ended up with the autographs of Andy Wallace, Perry McCarthy, Alex Caffi, Patrice Gay, Yannick Dalmas, Fredrik Ekblom, Grant Orbell, Olivier Beretta, Justin Bell, Karl Wendlinger and Peter Kitchak.  Jim had also managed to get Max Angelelli’s signature on one of the Panoz posters, and I was very grateful to him for his efforts...















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