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My first Le Mans | Thank Frankel it's Friday

20th April 2023
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

I always remember the exact day I became a motoring journalist for it was the very day after Jaguar won Le Mans in 1988, after a break of 31 years. It was also the day after my first visit to Le Mans and I’m trying hard not to dwell on the fact it was closer to that 1957 victory than it is to the present day.

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But I won’t be going to Le Mans this year and I hate myself for it. To think I will miss the centenary race is, well, unthinkable, but the truth is I’ve been averaging a week’s holiday per year for too many years and Mrs F has quite rightly put her foot down. And because of the nature of both of our work, Le Mans falls somewhere within the only mutual diary window we have.

So I will instead be heading off to my happy place, the Le Mans in my head, the Le Mans I went to as a gangling, green 22 year old, the young lad who thought only about how to get there, and not at all about what would happen while I was there. I went with my mate Mark, now one of the country’s leading heart specialists, then every bit as big an idiot as I. Don’t ask why, but we decided to fly to Paris, rent a Renault 5 (a base Campus model I seems to recall) and see if we could hold it flat from peage to peage from Paris to Le Mans. And broadly speaking we did.

We must have purloined some tickets from somewhere and, I guess, some kind of parking space. I genuinely don’t think getting a tent even occurred to us. We arrived two hours before the start so were already completely legless before the flag fell.

We watched the start from the seats on top of the pit garages, those ancient garages that had seen so much action over the years and which were shortly to be demolished and replaced with the concrete and glass edifice that exists to this day. Back then you could dangle your legs over the edge, point your Instamatic straight down and take a photograph looking right into the guts of car being serviced that today you’d need a drone to achieve.

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Even more than the sight, it was the sound I remember: the twelve cylinder Jags, eight cylinder Nissans, six cylinder Porsches, four cylinder Toyotas – straight, vee and flat formations – they were all there and that was just in the top C1 category alone.

I remember too just how desperate everyone was for Jaguar to win or, perhaps just as fervently, Porsche not to win. There was no disrespect intended, but Stuttgart was going for its eighth win on the trot, had abandoned the entire championship to focus on this one race and had built an incredibly special car for Messrs Bell, Stuck and Ludwig to go and win it. Even the French, not always the first to break into song for the British, could be heard chanting ‘Jyagwah, Jyagwah, Jyagwah!’ up and down the pit straight as the cars lined up.

Shamefully I don’t remember as much of the race as I should, but I was in the pits when that ultimate factory-built Porsche 962C came into the pits powered by nothing more than its starter motor and half the Porsche pit crew too. And if you think there was cheering at the start… But it had merely run out of fuel and was soon back in the fray, its world class drivers trying to cut the deficit while held back by the strict fuel allowance of the Group C era. It could close the gap no problem, but only by winding up the boost. Problem…

I remember the night in the Le Mans village, the funfair, catching the keys of the Campus as they fell out of my breast pocket while suspended upside down on some ride, seeing a stage show with a denouement I did not expect – I’ll spare you the details and say merely it was a single person show who turned out to be not as advertised – and I remember the Grand Marnier pancake tent. Those pancakes. You’d queue up, get your pancake which had already been anointed with a generous measure of orange liqueur, pay and, as you departed, you passed the biggest bottle of, well just about anything, I’d ever seen. Above it was a sign proclaiming ‘Arrosez vous-meme votre crepe’ which I took to mean ‘help yourself’. So I did. You could have showered in Grand Marnier were you so minded. Instead I just drenched said crepe, and consumed it while queuing up for another.

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I was of course, going to stay up all night, and intended to do so right until the moment I felt so cold, tired, drunk and ill I had to sleep. So Mark and I somehow folded ourselves into the Campus and passed out.

We woke feeling, if any, even colder and more unwell. I was aware also of the requirement at some stage to drive the Renault back to Paris, so instead of returning to our revelries, we spent the rest of the race actually watching the race, witnessing what turned into a last lap thriller develop as the rain came down, allowing the Porsche to run unrestricted. Little did we know the lead Jag was also suffering near-terminal gearbox problem.

Near, but not quite. When Jan Lammers brought what was left of that Jaguar across the line with the lead Porsche less than a lap away there was absolute bedlam. Feeling a little better now, I saddled up the trusty Renault, drove out of the circuit and into my new life as a motoring journalist. Thirty-five years later, I have not looked back.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

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