Classic Le Mans

Pete and Jeanette’s Trip To Classic Le Mans 2006  

 This trip to France and the Le Mans Classic actually started last year with our trip to The Le Mans 24 hrs. I don't remember much, some thing to do about alcohol I believe, except that MG won it's class and she who must be obeyed said that if we go to Le Mans again it was not going to be in that Midget.

Now we come to this year and I had booked the tickets to the Classic in January with Continental Car Tours and it was getting near July, but with no car to take except the boring, reliable and sensible Vauxhall Astra diesel or even worst the camper van. Well I returned home one night from Rugby slightly the worst for wear stumbled up stairs to the computer and put on the deadly E-Bay ( you would have thought with this nanny state we live in that they would have legislated to have breathalysers fitted to computers by now), and waiting for me there was a MGB GT with my name on it. Only 400 and only 5 minutes to go I had to have it, there was only a couple of problems, it had no tax or MOT and it was in Surrey, but defeatist talk never won an empire, so I pressed the bid button and in no time at all I was the owner. When I informed the much beloved of my purchase for some reason she was not impressed, I do remember some words though, but I can't print them here.

One week later I was on my way to Surrey to collect it from Bramble Close, I told you it had my name on it. After handing over the money I actually had a look at the car and to be truthful I've driven worse. It started first time and I drove it onto the trailer and made my way home. On my return I booked it into the MOT centre and they said to my surprise that it only needed a small amount of welding and some bulbs to pass, that was done for a grand total of 100. There was a slight rattle from the valve gear and as I had a spare head I fitted this, usual thing 2 hour job takes all day. I taxed it at the beginning of July and actually managed to accrue 35 miles before we left for France.

As the ferry was at 0800 at Dover we stayed  at Jeanette’s mum's at  Colchester,  I did not want to face the usual M1 is blocked disaster. We left early Thursday morning, and on the way managed to get a mention on radio 2. As we pulled in to Dover docks there was already a fine mix of classic cars on display. The journey across to Calais was uneventful, just time to have a nice breakfast on the ship and price up the drinks in the shop. On arriving in Calais we quickly found the exit and we were on our way south on the A16 which is a free motorway until we reached Boulogne where we turn off onto the N1. After Boulogne it is a Pearge and for older cars it is not worth paying and you can have more fun on the national roads. The weather was gloriously hot and the scenery was fantastic. There is very little traffic on national roads and you can go as fast as you want to.  Just watch out for the grey boxes which look like traffic light control boxes. These are speed cameras and usually they have another camera watching them because the French like us hate them and they keep bursting into flames. If you go the Le Mans 24hr, you will find a lot more Police about usually taking money off the BRITS for speeding. But as this is France and like the shops they usually have a two hour lunch between 1 until 3 so you are OK to speed then. If you do use the toll roads remember to work out the distance you have traveled and the average speed you should be doing or when you go to pay at the toll booths you will find a fine already built into the price.

As we reached Abbeyville we could not find the exit we needed to take us to the next big city Rouen. And my navigator managed to take the wrong road and even she had to admit we were lost, the discussion that followed included references to each others parentage but in the end we reached a compromise and blamed the French. The road from Abbeyville to Rouen A28 is another fast free motorway and the difference between the UK and FRANCE is the lack of traffic and that  the services actually sell edible food, and if you are having a meal they serve wine, or beer with it. Rouen is a big city and they have a ring road that looks confusing at first but if you take your time it is fine the signs to Le Mans are very visible. Although every time we travel through Rouen , there is a traffic jam, last year it was raining, this year it is very hot and the car is almost overheating.  As we passed through the south of Rouen we saw the Shell petrol station where last year I had to rebuild the wiper switch as it fell apart in my hands, oh happy days!           

South of Rouen you have the choice once again toll roads straight to Le Mans or the N 138 which is free and more fun, the roads are mainly straight and empty except for a few classic cars. We usually stop at Alencon about 30 miles from Le Mans as it has a good couple of Hypermarkets. Last year we had to stop here and buy some food, chairs plates and knife fork and spoons as the support vehicle had blown up at Watford Gap with all the supplies including the chemical toilet, this made it's way to France strapped to the top of a Ford Mondeo, what a sight that was. The reason we stop at Alencon is that the roads in Le Mans get very crowded and it is much easier to buy your supplies i.e   Beer, wine, beer , etc. out side the town.

The worst part of the journey is usually getting to the circuit and today was no exception, we usually follow the ring road into the city and turn right at the traffic lights where there is a flyover directly in front of you. We missed the flyover or should I say my navigator told me to turn too early and we had a mystery tour of Le Mans industrial estates. It did not help that the roads were packed and that there is a tram system  being built.              

We eventually found the circuit and our camp site after getting lost only once. We were lucky and were able to secure a place next to the track at Maison Blanc if we borrowed some tyres that were just lying there we would be able to build a viewing platform..  The tent was soon up the BBQ lit and the first bottle of wine open. The evening was warm and after a long days driving the wine and the food were simply delicious After a walk around the campsite to look at all the classic machinery that had made the journey it was time for bed.

Friday morning arrived with a wake up call from the bin men or waste disposal operatives at about 0700 and a blazing sun made it impossible for me to return to the land of nod. After the usual breakfast of croissants and jam we decided to travel to Arnage to have a look in the town. Traveling into Arnage there were classic cars every where and after a unsuccessful attempt to go shopping we ended off in a cafe watching all the cars go by. Is there  a more pleasant way to spend a morning ?  Shopping doesn't count.

We returned to the campsite to change into jacket and tie for me and a dress for Jeannette or was it the other way around? We had tickets to gain entry into one of the tribunes and paddock and according to the instructions on the ticket it was a jacket and tie event, they had printed the instructions in French and English unfortunately so I couldn't feign ignorance. This was practice day all the different cars that were going to race were put into packets according to their age. The two cars we were interested in were a Jaguar XK 140 driven by a friend of Kilsby MG Club’s Trevor and the MGB of Barry Siddery-Smith.  Walking  to the rear of the pits we managed to quickly greet Trevor Groom, it was the last time we could talk to him, every time we went to look at his car in the paddock it was on axle stands with the smell of gearbox not far away. After looking through all the different paddocks we found Barryy with his pit crew all in white to create an era of times past. We chatted with Barrie for a few minutes then continued our tour of the paddock and other things.

                 The cars that were going to race were immaculate and a classic car fans dream, besides the MG's my other favorite cars  were there in plenty the Ford GT40  and the Ferrari's of the same era. One of my favorite films is LE MANS with Steve McQueen and these cars were here, I was in seventh heaven. I know I am biased but some of the most beautiful and exciting cars came from that age, where there was such a vast amount of cars that would race before the accountants took control and decided if it was worth entering a race. The old saying seems to be lost now "RACE SUNDAY SELL MONDAY". Especially today when the cars that race bear no relation to the cars that you can buy.

We watched most of the practice especially the old Bentley boys going around, the fastest truck in the world as quoted by a certain Frenchman. The MGs, Jaguars, Fords and a few cars that I'd only seen on old videos. Watching the practice from different places made me miss the old Le Mans layout in the paddock area. They have redeveloped most of the interior of the race track and it is not good, The Welcome Inn has gone also the Bier Keller and a lot of the restaurants that were there. To replace them are a few fast food kiosks and lots of fashionable shops which is OK if money is no object but the object of Le Mans is to have fun. If I want to buy an overpriced shirt or jacket I can buy them in England, I want to buy food and drink and cheap memorabilia. They have also moved the champagne bar to a place where you can not watch the racing. There was nothing comparable to drinking champagne late at night overlooking the race track.

After watching most of practice we returned to our tent, on walking through the camp site we looked at the various cars that had made the journey over, there were Bentleys, Jaguars, MGs, GT40’s, Simcas and quite a few of those glorified Beetles renamed Porches camping together. In fact there were more glorified Beetles in the camping area than ay other make of car.

We watched some of the night practice from our DIY grandstand and some from the tribune, whilst drinking and chatting to the people in the next camping bay. Saturday dawned with the arrival of the bin men their attitude being that if we're awake every body else has to be awake. We decided to go into Le Mans for some more food and drink before the roads become grid locked. The road works because of the new tramway were horrendous and even though we knew where we wanted to go and could actually see the supermarket we couldn't get to it without bending one or two of the local traffic laws. The return to the track was as bad as they had blocked off the left turn we needed.

On return to the campsite we changed and went for a walk in the paddock. There was that feeling in the air of frenzied activity, with people trying to finish those little jobs that take twice as long than planned. After finding some refreshment we sauntered over to the tribune, the heat was overpowering and I didn't envy any driver in a closed car. The first race were pre WW2 cars Bentleys, Bugattis etc. They had a traditional LeMans start for the crowds but after the Dunlop bridge they were rearranged into a conventional grid for a rolling start. The sound of their engines was fantastic as they thundered past the start line. Unfortunately because they were relatively slow and the fact that they had to stop for a pit stop, after most had completed two laps they had to come into the pits for stop. My main complaint about this and the other pit stops was that they had to stop for a minimum of 90 seconds so there was no rush to change drivers as there would be in a normal race. The race lasted 45 minutes and the winner would be decided by aggregate of laps at the end.

Two races later, Trevor had his turn and from what we could see he was having a good race, from their start position they made up one or two places and the car seemed to be going well. My other complaint about the Classic as compared to he 24 hrs race was the lack of large TV screens with the positions of the cars on and TV coverage of the race. There was an English commentary on the tannoy system but obviously most of the time it was in French. Also Radio Le Mans had a service but it was not very good. And at night all it played was music. Another two races later Barry came out to play and for his age he can sprint well to the car. He too had a good race and after he had finished we went to the paddock to congratulate him and Trevor.

                      Trevor’s car was on axle stands and the smell of gearbox oil was in evidence. We left them to continue their work and went to find Barry, Jerermy and their crew. They were busy preparing the car for their next session but they were kind enough to talk to us as we wish them the best for their next session. We then wandered over to the Dunlop bride area to watch some more racing and some more refreshment , the queue for the food and drink snaked away from the different vendors and they did not seem able to cope with the amount of people at the track.

After watching some more racing including the GT40’s in action and some of the later turbo cars whose engine noise can't be described. We returned to the campsite for dinner.

The pleasure of Le Mans is that if you camp you are never more than a few minutes from the action and from our position next to the track there was plenty of that, the car were braking hard for Maison Blanc then accelerating hard for the straight but the corner caught a few drivers out and there was more than one spinner here.

After a pleasant dinner we returned to the tribune to watch some more racing and soak up the atmosphere. Le Mans is more than just a race it is an experience to breathe and drink in the history of the place. It is one of the places you  have to visit before you die. Many famous drivers have raced here and the survival of many car manufacturers has depended on their results here. Including MG, Bentley, Jaguar and Aston Martin. Also many people have found it a graveyard for their dreams.

To watch the cars drive in the dark is a surreal experience as they cope with the different conditions from light to total darkness and also the different speeds of other cars on the track. Usually the speeds of the cars increase at night with the air being denser. We visited the paddock once more before returning to the tent and it had an air of calm as people were resting before their night session or having just finished it they were checking the car over.

Back at the tent we watched the racing with a drink in our hands until the early hours and even though the sound of the engines going past were only a few feet away I managed to have a pleasant nights sleep. Once again we were woken early not by the hygiene operatives but by the cesspit cleaners.  Also the big thump of a car hitting the concrete wall next to us was another wake up call, drivers and their cars were beginning to feel the strain. We watched Trevor complete his final session from the campsite then returned to the tribunes to watch Barry complete his. At the end of Barry’s race we went to the Paddock first to find Trevor but there was nobody to be seen they must have been having a well deserved drink.  Barry and his crew were there and after a brief talk with them we returned to watch the final races.

At the end of the races we changed and went into Arnage for dinner and believe it or not we met somebody who lived not a mile away from us in Rugby. After a pleasant dinner we went to drive up the Mulsane straight and stopped at a pub to watch the world cup final.

The next morning we dismantled the tent and threw it away along with the chairs that we had taken to make more room for the wine we planned to take back home. After a few farewells to people we had met on the camp site we started our return journey. We found the only cafe in France that did not have any croissants for breakfast, we had to stop at a supermarket for them and found a nice layby to eat them. Every type of classic car could be seen on the national roads all returning home and we had some fun overtaking a few glorified Beetles and a couple of Cobras.

As we entered Rouen we were stuck in a traffic jam once again and the temperate gauge was climbing but we were saved as a police car came to escort us through the traffic. Well the truth is there was a police car with its siren screaming and we followed it closely through the traffic.

Soon we were at Calais at the wine super market, it's amazing how many bottles and cases you can fit into a BGT, the springs did creak a bit going onto and off the ferry but we managed to fight our way around the M25 and soon we were home at Rugby.

It was a great adventure, and one I hope to repeat soon, we are off to Belgium but are the Belgians ready for us?