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.
|Tiff Needell in the IBEC, entering the pits straight|
|Bell in the winning Porsche at Tertre Rouge early in the race|
(All photos copyright from my private collection)