Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Le Mans 1981 - personal recollections

In October last year, I posted some recollections of the first race I ever attended, the 1967 Race of Champions. With Le Mans 2011 fast approaching, I thought readers might be interested to read memories of my first trip there to see the fabled Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans in 1981. I was already a keen follower of motor-racing, having attended Grands Prix at Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Austria and Monaco, as well as other races at most of the UK’s major circuits. On the endurance front, I first went to the BOAC 1000 at Brands Hatch in 1972, and had seen quite a few 1,000kms and six hour races at Brands and Silverstone after that. I was also able to visit the 1,000kms at Monza in 1980 (won by Alain de Cadenet and DesirĂ© Wilson by just a handful of seconds).

I remember that a friend of mine from university, Steve Davison, had suggested a couple of times that we should go to Le Mans together, and finally we agreed to go ahead and do it. At the time I was living and working in Redhill, Surrey, and a work colleague of mine at that time, Malcolm Gimblett, also decided to come along.

So we booked ourselves a ferry (Portsmouth to Le Havre), got some tickets and set off; the three of us, with a tent each, in my Alfasud, heading for the White Panorama campsite. We left in the morning of Wednesday 10th June, with me driving, and Malcolm (who had longer legs) alongside advising on whether it was safe to overtake or not. I felt his indecisiveness and caution were slowing us down, though, so after a stop for fuel, we squashed Malcolm into the back seat, and Steve (who had ‘navigated’ for me on some University-run treasure hunts in the past) took over as co-driver. Most of the road down from Le Havre was quite clear - a couple of helpful locals flashing headlamps to warn of ‘Gendarmes ahead’ - and we made good progress. Even so, night was falling as we sought out the ‘Parking Blanc’ signs, which we reckoned we needed to follow, and finally we found our campsite just after 10pm. The plots were marked, but un-numbered, so we found a good-looking flat-ish plot, parked the car and decided that, as we could hear practice in full flow and the fact that it was due to continue until 11pm, we’d find the track and put the tents up later, despite Malcolm’s warning to us: “do you really think that’s wise?”

As it was so late, the gates were open, so we didn’t have to show our tickets, but simply scrambled up a bank and found ourselves on the outside of the circuit, just past the Dunlop Bridge. It’s one of those memories that has remained clear in my mind ever since. The image of cars having just crested the rise, appearing from underneath that famous bridge and thundering away from us, downhill toward the Esses has not faded. That final half-hour or so of practice; my first encounter with the narcotic that is Le Mans, was truly intoxicating. They were fast - so fast - and they were spectacular - headlights illuminating the way and turbo-chargers flaming out as drivers lifted off the throttle before the Esses. All mighty impressive.

After practice ended, we put the tents up, and on the Thursday morning Steve went off to buy himself an admission ticket. I can’t remember the details now, but I think I had sorted the camping and entrance tickets for Malcolm and me (probably through ‘Just Tickets’), but Steve hadn’t. No worries, we thought, until Steve came back, complaining mildly that he had had to pay rather more than we had for ours. So we compared them and discovered that his was “Enceintes General” and ours “Enceintes Virages”. We went back and established that this meant that Steve could get into the start-finish area in front of the main grandstands, but that Malcolm and I could not. This would only apply for the race itself, though: for practice this evening we would be able to go anywhere.

Lancia MonteCarlo - note token barrier to keep crowd out!

At the time, I didn’t think much about the fact that we could get pretty much anywhere we liked during Thursday. The paddock in those days was spread out behind the pits, which were not the sophisticated and well-equipped garages of today. The teams were camped under awnings, where they worked on the cars between practices sessions and the cars had to be pushed round into the pit lane, to sit in front of the pit boxes, at the start of every practice session.

As a result spectators could wander around the transporters, awnings and motorhomes practically at will, and cars could be easily seen as they were being worked on.

We went up onto the top of the pits to watch practice for the support race (Renault 5 Turbos), then through the tunnel to the outside of the circuit to watch final practice (which was from 6pm to 10pm).  

Tiff Needell in the IBEC, entering the pits straight
Then it was down to the funfair, located on the outside of the Esses in those days. Although I had been to funfairs in England before, I wasn’t expecting the sheer size and variety of things on offer at Le Mans. And the range of folk that were there was simply astonishing. It seemed to me that some were there specifically for the funfair, who found the car noise somewhat distracting, others whose high-heels and furs prevented them from leaving the relative safety of the ACO ‘Welcome’ building and still more dedicated race-fans like myself, trying to get the most from every experience.

I was reminded of Epsom Downs on Derby Day (when it used to be on a Wednesday), and the infield of the racecourse was open to everyone, and people turned up in their tens of thousands, not all interested in horse racing, not all honest, but every one contributing to the atmosphere of the event, making it something unique.

On Friday we went exploring into town to buy provisions. We drove round the track, at least as far as you could, we had a beer in the Restaurant des Vint-Quatre Heures, and then we went back and looked around the paddock some more, taking photos.

Derek Bell - can you imagine him allowing himself to be photographed like this nowadays?

Brian Redman
Saturday morning was bright and sunny - in fact the whole weekend was a scorcher. Armed with his ‘posh’ ticket, Steve went off to the grandstand area to watch the startline jollities; Malcolm and I trudged over the Dunlop Bridge and went down to watch the start from the outside of the first part of the Esses - on a well-inclined slope, looking straight at the cars as they descended the hill from the Dunlop Bridge towards the Esses.

Pace lap - Mass ahead of Ickx in the Porsches
We split up soon after the start… I continued to walk up to Tertre Rouge - watching from the inside, then through the tunnel there to the outside of the circuit. This was the first year that a pace car was used to neutralise the race, and I remember several incidents which required its deployment. It was only on Sunday morning, when I bought the newspaper, that I learned of the death of Jean-Louis Lafosse in the Rondeau. And only on the ferry back did I discover that a marshal had also been killed in separate accident earlier in the race. Such was the way of things in those days.

I headed back to the Esses, on the outside of the circuit, ignoring the dubious pleasures of the funfair while there was a race going on, as darkness began to fall.

Around 2am, I must admit to snoozing on the bank on the outside of the circuit, just before Tertre Rouge… it was completely dark and hard to see the numbers on the sides of the cars. I kept my notebook with me though, and had an appointment most hours (on the half-hour) to listen to Bob Constanduros give his English language update over the loudspeakers.

As dawn broke, I decided it was time to visit other parts of the circuit, so started the walk from the Esses, down to the Dunlop curve and out onto the service road behind the grandstands (not forgetting my ‘contre-marque’). Not being allowed into the ‘tribune area’ I continued the walk until the point where holders of the “Virages” ticket were allowed back in. I watched the cars braking for the Ford Chicane and followed the track as far as the spectator enclosure went, in the direction Maison Blanche, which in those days was not very far. Then it was back onto the public road (aware that this used to be the track, before the Porsche Curves were built) all the way to the crossroads (now a roundabout) where the road to Arnage leads off to the right.

This was the road I took, conscious that I was headed away from the track, but plodding on with determined resolution. Over the level crossing, I turned left, following the sign to Virages Arnage and Mulsanne. It took me the best part of three hours, as I remember, and the merguez at Arnage when I finally got there was very welcome indeed. Arnage was wonderful in the morning sunshine - the marshals had a stork in the infield area, I remember.
I found a man selling Le Maine Libre and spent some time sitting on the bank overlooking Arnage corner. This was one of the few places where you could hear the loudspeakers and see the track at the same time, as the cars were off the throttle and not quite so loud. This enabled me to piece together some of what had been happening during the race and to recover after my long walk.

I then felt strong enough to continue my trek around the track, walking up to Indianapolis, then found a path leading into the trees, which seemed to be heading in roughly the direction of Mulsanne Corner.

The path quickly petered out, but the cover of the trees provided a welcome respite from the heat of the day, which was building rapidly. I could see Armco barrier to my left and the flash of cars going past, through the trees, but the forest was too dense to get very close. There were a couple of rolls of barbed wire to hop over, I remember, but a couple of people way ahead of me, who seemed to know where they were going encouraged me to persevere. Then a few houses came into view, and eventually I came out at a large woodshed, and was able to find my way back into a proper spectator enclosure at the exit to Mulsanne corner.

From here I could see the signalling area, and a suddenly gained another fascinating insight into how Le Mans works. One car actually stopped and the driver had an animated conversation with the signallers, before heading off again. Throughout it all, the Porsche 936/81 of Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell was running like clockwork and was getting further and further ahead of the opposition.

Bell in the winning Porsche at Tertre Rouge early in the race
I managed to find my way back to Indianapolis on the public road designed for such a journey - which saved me having to stumble over any more tree roots and pine cones, but deprived me of the view of the cars through the trees - and I watched the finish of the race from Arnage. By my watch, the flag marshals started invading the track waving with their flags a minute or two before four o’clock, which by my reckoning meant that the cars were still racing, which didn’t quite seem safe somehow. On the other hand, to watch the drivers respond, slowing down and acknowledging the marshals, stirred the emotions in a way that I wasn’t expecting. The sheer fatigue, shared by everyone, provided a huge sense of achievement. It brought a new angle to the meaning of “endurance”, more than just the achievement of winning the race, or a class, but just being there at the end, that even today I find difficult to put into words. As the cars passed on their final lap, the public was able to come onto the track as well, which gave me an ideal opportunity to walk back to the start-finish area on the track (a mere 4 kms), rather than going the long way round. Then it was back to the campsite, and I’m sure we must have gone out for a meal somewhere, but I remember only getting very grumpy with Malcolm and Steve. Not their fault, more the fact that I was unused to dealing with sleep deprivation.

We drove back to Le Havre on Monday, taking a night ferry back and arriving in Portsmouth on Tuesday morning. And to start making plans to revisit in 1982.

(All photos copyright from my private collection)


  1. Wonderful insights, thank you very much!

  2. Thanks for posting this, it's taken me straight back to my first time at La Sarthe! I started going in '99 when the brake discs still glowed (note the use of wheel covers/disc covers has taken much of this away)and the cars still spat large flames and made your ears hurt. I recall finally passing out on the outside to Tertre Rouge, waking every 3 minutes as the Panoz went past!

    Covering large distances at night, on foot, beer in one hand, earplugs tuned to Radio Le Mans, stopping to watch the cars at Ford Chicane, Porshe Curves, back to the grandstand etc. is all part of the magic of race night. I still really fancy getting through the woods to be Mulsanne side one night, but a night in a French prison doesn't appeal!

    Thanks again for such a great post. I've sent the blog onto all the LM regulars to watch, they'll love it. Great to meet up last year Paul and hopefully catch up again for a coffee this year.