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Le Mans 1999 Ayse's Story

Page 7 - Saturday 12th June

Arrival and Race Start



We arrived in Le Mans town at 1.00 pm and there was a great deal of traffic around.  Although the journey into Le Mans from the direction we came was much easier than the route with which we had become familiar up to 1994, there was an inevitable snarl-up of cars as the main entry roads to the circuit itself were reached.  We eventually arrived at the main road running alongside the garage rouge but there was a problem as the gendarmerie were not happy to allow any more cars down this road.  The implication being that the car parks were full already.  Ian didn’t manage to make the turn, but both Jim and Martyn did.  Jim apparently told the gendarmes that he was following another car (when he wasn’t, of course), while we were successful because we already had our garage rouge car park ticket.  Getting down the road however, was a simple operation compared to finding somewhere to park!  Although we did actually get into the rouge car park (by the same entrance we used the day before), finding spaces for two cars was far from easy.  For some reason, the marshals had abandoned their usual neat vertical lines in favour of what seemed to be an “abandon it where you like” approach.  I assume that they had been overwhelmed with the volume of cars arriving during the day and had basically given up...


Eventually, Martyn and Jim did find a couple of spaces near to the front of the car park but the clock had ticked on to 1.45 by the time we reached the main entrance gate.  We were fortunate to meet up straight away with Ian, Robert, Clive and Mark.  They had been forced to park in another car park down near Tertre Rouge corner.  But before long that wonderful moment had arrived, the moment that I had waited a whole year for… the entry to the circuit for the 67th Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans!


After pausing for a few minutes while Steve purchased his enceintes generales ticket (as everyone else had already obtained theirs the day before), we were into the circuit.  I knew what was going to happen now, Ian would set off at breakneck speed for the tribunes, leaving everyone else stumbling in his wake.  I had already made up my mind that I wasn’t going to watch the start from the tribunes, I couldn’t face the argy-bargy of another trip through the crowds.  Instead, I was going to do what Peter and I did so successfully last year, that is to watch from the banking just before the Ford Chicane.  Although I wouldn’t be able to watch the driver parade, or get any close-up photographs of the cars on the grid, I was content with what I had managed to see in the pits the day before and I knew that when the race did start, I would have a much better view of the cars from the Ford Chicane than the rest would have through the thick debris fencing in front of the tribunes.


I did know however, that it was vital to fix a rendezvous point and time if we were all going to successfully meet up again at some time during the evening, before we went back to Le Grand Lucé for dinner. I knew only too well that it was very easy for someone to become separated from the rest (like I was for the best part of fourteen hours in 1989).  We decided that the rendezvous point would be the champagne stall in the Village (although the old wooden stall had now become a modern open-fronted marquee) and that we would aim to be there at 6.30 pm.  Having decided this, and making sure that every one of the twelve Tourists was fully aware of what was expected, Ian set off for the tribunes leaving the rest of us trailing behind.  As it was by now about 2.15 pm, Ian knew that if he was to find any space on the tribunes, they had to hurry.  The crowd was enormous, evidenced not only by the problems we had parking the cars, but also by the huge numbers of people already on the tribunes and milling around the bars and stalls behind them. 


As I have said, I had made up my mind what I was going to do and I was able to let Peter know before he and the others were completely lost in the press of bodies as we walked along the front of the tribunes.  The last I recall seeing was Clive trying to catch the rest up.  I had been quite tempted to offer the two new boys, Clive and Richard, the chance to come along with me, because when you haven’t been to Le Mans before you inevitably stick with whatever the 'leader' is doing.  On this occasion I could have presented them with an alternative.  All too quickly though they were completely lost from sight and I thought I would leave them to sort themselves out.


So, at about 2.30 I set off on my own out of the tribunes to the walkway behind, which was also a heaving mass of humanity!  I was intent upon getting a merguez before I went much further and I was in luck, there was a stall near to hand.  I bought a double merguez sandwich with lashings of mustard, which I ate as I moved on down past the end of the tribunes and grandstands and on past the Ford Chicane, until I reached the end of the banking just before the chicane.  Here in its usual position, was the M.R.I. marquee, which Peter and I made good use of last year.  I was looking for a good spot from which to watch the start of the race and about a hundred yards up from the beginning of the banking, there was such a spot, right at the top, where I could sit down, and hopefully have a fairly uninterrupted view of the track.  I had about half an hour to take in the wonderful atmosphere, including a couple of shots of the start/finish straight and the main grandstand (much as I did last year from here), before the cars were released from the pits area at 3.25 p.m.  As they completed their reconnaissance lap (a couple of laps for some of the cars), I was able to get some photographs, particularly of the three Toyotas and the two BMW’s. It would have been a great spot for photography, if it hadn't been for the debris fencing.  Still, I did my best...


All was not well on the Mercedes front.  The team had repaired the No. 4 Webber/Gounon/Tiemann car following Webber’s practice accident, however, the Mercedes had “flown” yet again in the Saturday morning warm-up and literally minutes before the start of the race this car was withdrawn by the AMG Mercedes team.  There was a great deal of concern in the pits about the situation, and there were various reports on Radio Le Mans (which I was now listening to intently), about the steps the team had taken to add extra winglets to the front of the two remaining cars, in order to avoid a repeat of the two “flying” accidents which had already befallen the CLR’s.  So we were down to just forty-five cars to take the start of the 1999 Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans.


I had my first sighting of the modified Mercedes (although for some reason I didn’t manage to photograph them), and also of the four new Audi’s, two open roadsters and two closed coupes - the coupes really looked the part!  At about 3.50 pm all of the cars were released from the grid to begin their final pace lap and as always, there was a hush in the crowd, that familiar feeling of high expectation as the cars trailed around the circuit behind the pace car, their progress followed by camera-carrying helicopters.  With incredible precision the cars arrived at the Ford Chicane, bunched up by the slowing pace car for the 4.00 pm start.  The 67th Le Mans 24 Hours was under way!


The start was as fast and furious as usual, with Martin Brundle determined to convert his pole position into a lead in his first stint.  He did so, followed by Thierry Boutsen in the second-placed Toyota, now chased by the two Mercedes and the two BMW’s.  It was obvious even at this very early stage, that the race was going to be a battle between these three marques. 


Very much aware of the fact that I only had until 6.30 pm to see what I wanted to see before making the rendezvous with the others in the Village, after about half an hour or so, I made the mistake of walking up to the Porsche Curves.  I say “mistake”, because it must have taken about twenty minutes to get there, and, when I did, there was very little to see.  The ACO had allowed the trees and shrubs to grow in this area, so very little of the cars could be seen as they came around the final right-handed sweep of the Porsche Curves.  I soon made my way back and decided to head for the Village and the “Welcome Area” on the inside of the circuit.















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