Incredibly it is now some forty years since I somehow managed to convince both my school and my parents that it would beneficial to my education if I attended the 1978 24 Hours of Le Mans.
So along with Simon Arron (Who has since gone on to report on motor racing all over the globe) hopped on a coach in South Manchester armed with some sandwiches, rucksack and not a lot else. We had no idea what lay ahead of us, apart from we knew we were heading for France.
We had both attended out first Grand Prix the previous year which had seen James Hunt prove victorious along with the debut of the first ever Turbo Grand Prix car and the legendary Gilles Villeneuve’s first Grand Prix , memories which I can recall as if it were only yesterday. However this was nothing compared to Le Mans.
The whole experience was an “Attack on our senses” that we will never forget. The coach and boat trip, the huge crowd (virtually all French in 1978), the noise, the colour, the famous fair ground and of course the cars. Le Mans was something you had only read about in books or magazines and there we were, it seemed like we were the other side of the world.
In our naivety, we assumed everyone stayed up all of the 24 hours, which we were determined to do. However, as you can see from the picture above I must have nodded off at some point. Good job there was nothing valuable in my rucksack apart from some decomposing egg sandwiches!
I have no excuse really, but I did not return to Le Mans until 2008. Since then work has allowed me to attend every 24 hour race and I have been lucky enough to see the legendary Audi/Peugeot races, epic GT battles between the Corvettes and Aston Martin and more recently the return of Porsche and of course this year, redemption for Toyota.
The Le Mans of 2018 is a world away from the Le Mans of 1978 but it is no less enjoyable. One change over the years has been the number of British people that now attend. Since Jaguar returned to Le Mans in the late 1980s the numbers have been gradually rising, at present close to 45,000 British fans make the journey to Le Mans. Virtually everyone drives, creating the situation where the Channel Tunnel and Car Ferries are full of cars stickered up with race numbers, driver’s names on the windows and pictures of Steve McQueen giving the V sign. Le Mans is now more than a race, it is pop festival, “stag do” and corporate entertainment all rolled into one.
Somehow this year I was given a “pink pass” from home to attend both the Le Mans 24 Hours and Classic Le Mans (For the first time) Arriving at the ferry in Portsmouth is was immediately evident that the event was going to be different. There was not an M3 in sight; however the boat was full of classic MGs, Jaguars, Porsches and GT40 replicas.
I had heard that the event was not that well attended, not the case at all. This year some 120,000 people attended and the pits and paddock area were packed. The event sees the races split into classes based upon the age of the cars (1932-1981) and the cars all race in the hours of daylight and darkness. I am (According to my two girls) “an anorak” so I of course loved the event.
This year’s Classic Le Mans Programme had an article on the marshals who attend the event. The articles are in French and English and sometimes the translation can be a bit dodgy, the marshals were described as “The Guardians of Speed” which I suggest is 100% accurate!
On the Friday evening at Classic Le Mans I was standing alone on the spectator bank at the Porsche Curves when suddenly the car I saw win Le Mans in 1978 (Alpine Renault) blasted into view.
Suddenly I was transported back to 1978, I had a full head of hair, I was sipping on a delicious cup of French Hot Chocolate and the air was full of the aroma of French Gauloise cigarettes.
If you have not yet been to Le Mans, I urge you to make 2019 the year you attend and make some memories!!