GRR

Thank Frankel It's Friday: Why Le Mans 1988 was the greatest

31st May 2018
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

If for no-one else, today signals the start of a fairly momentous month for me, for it marks the 30th anniversary of me becoming a motoring journalist. It also therefore means it’s been three decades since Autocar magazine diverted me from a life charging headlong towards ignominy, ruin and oblivion. I was broke but spending money I didn’t have, as if I were still working in the city and not a failed law student with nothing in the diary save watching telly by day and drinking by night.

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But I also remember June 1988 for another reason: Jaguar won Le Mans for the first time since 1957, and I was there to see it. I’d not been before, largely because it involved getting off my backside and doing some rudimentary planning – like buying a ticket – but a whole host of chums were going this time and I thought it might give me something to talk about when I started my new job at Autocar the day after the race. So, armed with nothing more than a few francs, the aforementioned ticket and a Renault 5 Campus hired from Charles de Gaulle, me and my mate Mark duly pitched up at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

It was quite a long time ago and I’ve been to most of the races held there since, but these are some of the memories my brain has chosen to retain for these last 30 years.

1. French beer with caps that actually unscrewed.

2. Everything being at least a two mile walk from everything else

3. Drunk Brits being appallingly rude to French waiting staff

4. Queues for every loo, at the head of which sat soured faced women selling loo paper by the sheet. Yes, you had to specify the number you wanted and if I’d had to spend my weekend selling bog roll by the sheet, I’d have been pretty sour faced too.

5. Spotting a private hospitality area with equally private, lavishly stocked and conspicuously vacant portaloos and realising that so long as I could put enough distance between me and the bloke on the gate to get in and lock the door behind me, there’d be damn all he could do about it.

6. Catching the keys of the Campus as they fell out of my top pocket while I was suspended upside down on the Ferris wheel, the only decent catch I’ve made in my life to date.

7. Being dragged by the aforementioned mates into a show where the young lady on stage kept on dropping her various veils until the final one fell revealing her to be not so ladylike after all.

8. Discovering the Grand Marnier pancake tent where you’d collect your crepe and then be allowed unattended access to the biggest bottle of Grand Marnier I’ve ever seen. The biggest bottle of anything I’ve ever seen in fact. You could have held it over your head and taken a shower in the stuff and no-one would have cared. I think I managed 17 pancakes over the 24 hours, but it might have been more.

9. Chafing, the unedifying consequence of too much walking and sweating in the French sun, combined with the Le Mans dust and dirt that got into everything.

10. Jaguar winning Le Mans.

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Actually I was trackside for most of the race as the battle between the more powerful but fuel-constrained Porsches and the stunning sounding Jaguars ebbed and flowed. I was there, sitting with my feet dangling over the edge of the old pits when Klaus Ludwig limped the lead Porsche into the pits on its starter motor and I’ll remember the cheer from the crowd for the rest of my days. Porsche’s 956s and 962s had won the last six Le Mans on the trot and even the French were bellowing for Jaguar. And I remember when it started to rain towards the end of the race and Hans Stuck in the very same car electing to stay out on slicks while everyone else dived into the pits for wets. I have an image of him on the grass, hammer down, decimating the Jaguar’s lead and no longer having to keep an eye on fuel consumption. Had the rain stayed, the Ludwig/Stuck/Bell 962C would have won for, unbeknown to anyone else, the lead Jaguar of Wallace/Dumfries/Lammers was all out of gears. But it dried out, Porsche had to watch its fuel consumption again and Jaguar made out it was just slowing the car to avoid taking risks in the final laps.

 

I remember fans swarming onto the track, impossible traffic leaving the circuit, somehow catching the flight home and turning up to day one at Autocar exhausted, hungover and probably still stinking of beer and Grand Marnier.

Two weeks today I’ll be heading back to Le Mans but there’ll be no dodgy shows, no rides on the Ferris wheel and no queues for the loo, because in place of a ticket I’ll be clutching the most prized possession of anyone lucky enough to work at Le Mans as a journalist: a pass allowing unfettered access to the enormous press room that takes up most of one floor of the building above the pits. It’s full of desks, screens and computers, but that’s not why we go there. We go for its generous number of immaculately clean washrooms for which you need to neither pay nor queue. Forget all the corporate hospitality we usually get too, when it comes to what’s important to a middle-aged hack at Le Mans, free access to impeccably laundered facilities such as these trump the lot.

Photography courtesy of LAT Images.

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