Le Mans Postcard

Driving down the Mulsanne Straight on Friday lunchtime, in my road car I hasten to add, I came across a traffic jam. It always gets a bit busy around the famous bar and restaurant halfway down, as dozens of British fans stop off for a beer or a bite to eat. The cars back up as people cross the road, try to find a parking spot, or simply take a look at the classic machinery that congregates in the area

Le Mans Postcard

This time it was different, and as I got nearer I discovered the reason for the delay. Despite steady rain, standing on each side of the road were a pair of smiling punters, each carrying a perfect life size replica of a belisha beacon. There was also a lollipop man, complete with 'Stop Children' sign, and even a cardboard cut out of a British bobby. They hadn't quite got round to painting a zebra crossing on the track, but a few more beers and they might just do it...

I apologise if some of our overseas readers are getting a bit lost here, but let me assure you that this was a fine example of the droll humour of the hardy, channel-crossing Le Mans fan. This is not just a race, but an event of epic proportions, to be enjoyed by all.

Le Mans will always be special event for me, if only because my career in this business started there, back in 1985. Straight after finishing my university exams I made my way by train, ferry and bus to the circuit, talked my way in to the paddock, introduced myself to the editor of Autosport, gave him a CV, and asked him for a job. I don't know if it would work now, but it did back then!

I covered the race for the mag until 1995, but since then the Canadian GP has been my priority, although I did make it to the test weekend a couple of times. This year for some reason Bernie Ecclestone slipped up and failed to arrange a clash with Canada, so I jumped at the chance of going back.

Heading down the A11 from Paris on Wednesday, I couldn't help smiling as the words 'Le Mans' began appearing on the road signs. It always gives you a buzz; I got the same feeling the first time I saw 'Indianapolis' when driving down from Chicago for my maiden visit to the 500.

The routine on arrival is always the same; take the road from the autoroute to the track, find Terte Rouge, and head on down the Mulsanne. That's when you really start to feel the magic. With six or so hours to go until first practice the roads are still open to the public, but the final touches are being put to the barriers and the marshals' posts, and the place is starting to come to life.

The straight is not quite as much fun as it used to be. The chicanes are blocked off so you can't drive through them, and ironically the public road is split up by a couple of roundabouts, so you can't really claim to be following the track. But from the second chicane to the Porsche Curves you can do just that, and it never fails to impress. New this year is the 'shaved' hump just before Mulsanne Corner, and a sea of gravel on the left just before Indianapolis, previously one of the most dangerous parts of the track.

Back in the paddock it was a strange mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar. Audi, Cadillac, Chrysler, MG and Bentley are all newcomers since my last visit, but all over the place there were familiar faces and friends from a decade and a half ago, amongst the drivers, mechanics, engineers and team managers.

The latter are the real heart of sportscar racing. Guys like Richard Lloyd, Jeff Hazell, Hugh Chamberlain, Ray Mallock and Dave Price have either stuck with the category through the wilderness years, or had a sabbatical in touring cars, but now they're back and reaping the dividends as this form of racing reaches a state of rude health. In fact being a sportscar team boss seems to have its benefits. How else to explain why Reinhold Joest and Walter Brun, both approaching pensionable age, still have shiny jet black hair? Or maybe they have clever barbers...

The bad news is that paddock paranoia has reached new heights. Toyota's army raised the stakes in 1998, and now the pits of top teams are surrounded by unhelpful security guards, and it's hard to get anywhere near the action, even with a media pass. Audi has built a roof over its trucks and now effectively have a spares warehouse that extends 30m into the paddock. Believe me, it doesn't even happen in F1.

My last sight of sportscars was at the 1998 test day, and even since then there have been huge strides. You see it around the paddock in the quality of the trucks and motorhomes; none of the scruffy old buses that were around even in the early nineties. And the quality of the cars is phenomenal. If you want to know about the level of technology involved, just consider which car won the last Grand Prix, and what won Le Mans two years ago. Both were Williams-BMWs, and give or take some electronic gadgetry, the degree of engineering expertise was identical. The detail and presentation of the works cars is top notch, and most of the customer prototypes look good.

The only downside is that few of the cars would win a beauty contest. The detail may be great, but thanks to current trends in aerodynamics, you can't really describe them as pretty. Take off the rear wing and you can hardly tell if the Chrysler is coming or going, and I had better refrain from commenting on the er, 'distinctive' lines of the Panoz...

Having said that, the Cadillac is a great looker, and the enclosed Bentley is absolutely stunning. It's a reminder of the latter days of Group C, and the Peugeot versus Toyota contest that we enjoyed in 1992-'93.

That's the one thing that's missing from this year's race. Le Mans is at its best when there are two or more major manufacturers who slug it out, and neither can afford to lose. This year Audi has a clear advantage, and while there are some good names on their tail, most programmes are new and relatively modest (no five car entries these days), and have an eye on the future. They can only win if the German express is derailed, so the tension comes not from who will be quickest, but will, by some miracle, the Audis hit problems?

Nevertheless, I suspect that the race will be more exciting than last year. Having only two works entries this time means Audi will come under real pressure should one car hit an early problem, and the two customer cars will be pushing them hard, something that didn't happen last year. And there's always a chance that rain will liven things up...

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