Next year, it will be twenty-five years since my debut on Radio Le Mans, although the radio station itself first broadcast in 1987. I didn’t have a driving licence at that time, but my good friend Paul Coombs drove me over in his VW Scirocco, and we camped in the ‘Camping des Tribunes’, on the inside of the newly-installed Dunlop chicane. Paul was not really a motor racing fan – what brought us together was a shared passion for real ale and curry – but a mutual friend of ours was also going (in his Lotus 7), and I think their plan was to spend some time visiting some chateaux in the Loire valley.
I knew Neville and Richard Hay well enough, and I knew that, following a broadcast of the PA commentary on a local FM transmitter in 1986, and some success running similar ‘special event radio’ at Brands Hatch and Silverstone, a chap called Anthony Landon was planning to broadcast a dedicated English language commentary on a transmitter at Le Mans. Neville had said that he was sure that the team would want to use me in one way or another, so if I was going to be there anyway, then I should come and find them.
The caravan that served as the Radio Le Mans studio was easy enough to find, and I duly showed up on the Wednesday afternoon, only to be told, politely, that with Neville, Richard and Bob Constanduros, there wouldn’t really be any need for me. Instead, I went and found myself a job helping John McNeil, who was running the abdex-sponsored Dune Tiga that Neil Crang, Duncan Bain and Jean Krucker were driving.
Landon Brown (the company that did the deal with the ACO to run the station) obviously judged 1987 a success, and in May 1988, at the Silverstone 1000kms meeting, Ian Titchmarsh and I sat down with Anthony, Harry Turner and Jim Tanner to discuss whether we’d be able to provide a ‘Silverstone-style’ PA commentary for the twenty-four hours of Le Mans. Without quite being sure what we were letting ourselves in for, nor what we’d be starting, we agreed, and arrangements were duly made for me to travel over with Steve Ancsell, an accomplished radio presenter with BBC Radio Solent (or was it South Coast Radio? – the memory fails). Other members of the team were Andy Smith, BBC Radio 4 sports correspondent, and Janice Minton, an experienced press and PR lady. Harry Turner, from Landon Brown, was also going to be joining in where necessary and Neville Hay and Joe Saward were providing expert analysis from the studio, albeit with no view of the track. The idea was that Ian and I would be in the grandstand opposite the pits, while Janice, Andy and Harry would patrol the pits with radio microphones, bringing driver interviews and updates.
In those days, of course, the pits were far more rudimentary than they are today. There were no permanent garages, and the cars were prepared under awnings in the paddock, then wheeled into position in front of their pit stalls before each practice session. Communication to the signalling pits at Mulsanne corner was through fixed line telephones – each of the pits had a handset in the back linked to a handset around 4km away, in a row of concrete huts on the inside of the corner.
The media centre was a temporary structure as well. It was a simply a large canvas marquee containing a few rows of trestle tables, each row with a single power point which those journalists who had electric typewriters had to share. Phone sockets were in even shorter supply – some brought portable fax machines with which to file their copy, but the major titles were phoning in and dictating their reports.
It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that technology was non-existent: the race was being broadcast on live TV and there was electronic timing being displayed on screens around the circuit. The cars were not equipped with transponders, though, so the timing was dependent on the timekeepers (positioned just at the entrance to the pit lane) identifying the cars, and matching each car to a signal from the timing beam on the start finish line. Inevitably, mistakes were made, and delays in updating the screens were common.
TWR’s solution was to bring over a team of RAC timekeepers (led by Eric Cowcill, who is to this day a director of Timing Solutions Ltd), who timed the race and displayed ‘live’ timing to the Jaguar pit. Although it was completely unofficial, and the timing ‘line’ was in front of the Jaguar pit rather than on the official start line, it was usually more accurate than the data that the organisers were providing. Mercifully, Ian and I were also able to get a line to this system, and thus were able to keep ourselves up to date with the positions.
I maintained a lap chart through the race as well as I could, although I knew, from experience working with various teams over the years, that keeping a traditional block chart wasn’t feasible. So at some point it turned into a list of positions and a record of significant pit stops as they occurred. At some point during the night, Ian went off for a break and the radio station played a few songs, interrupted every now and then for an update from the pits or from me to report on position changes. I felt that it wouldn’t be possible to pick the chart up again if I took a break, so somehow, I just carried on through the night.
The commentary booths themselves were just a row of glass partitions with a view of the start finish straight, but open at the rear, where a corridor ran along the back. At the start of the race, as more than twenty commentators from all nations described the 55 cars crossing the line, you had as close as you could imagine to the biblical story of Babel. As the night wore on, fewer commentators remained – although most would reappear at points during the race to provide updates to their listeners.
Simon Taylor was reporting for BBC radio, and kept his vocal chords moist in-between his broadcasts with boiled sweets of various flavours. He was positioned next to Ian and me, and being the generous chap that he is, kept passing sweets to us. I found it rather awkward to suck a sweet and talk at the same time (although Ian managed perfectly well), so I left each sweet on the ledge that supported the glass panel on either side of the booth.
Bizarrely, when Janice Minton came up to the commentary level in the grandstand on Sunday morning to watch the race for a while before going on her next shift in the pit lane, she saw the rows of brightly coloured boiled sweets on either side of my commentary booth, and became convinced that it was my method of keeping track of which car was where on the circuit. It’s an idea that I’ve tried several times since, but I just can’t make it work, so I’ve stuck to pen and paper ever since!
It was a momentous race, as the Jaguar of Andy Wallace, Johnny Dumfries and Jan Lammers managed to stay ahead of the works Porsche of Derek Bell, Hans Stuck and Klaus Ludwig, and there are so many parts of it that stick in the mind. In the early stages, after Lammers had managed to sneak past the Porsche to take the lead and was heading the pack through the Porsche curves, was Ian’s remark: “…the sight – and we hope it won’t be a brief one – of Lammers in the Jaguar going into the Porsche curves – they’ll have to rename them – leading the race.”
Then there was Klaus Ludwig in the early stages, coughing back to the pits on the starter motor, having tried to go too far than the Porsche’s fuel would allow.
Janice’s description – I think it was the Mazda team – who had dismantled their gearbox and the bits were strewn over the pit lane: “I remember I took our toaster apart once, and it looked like that… it never worked properly again.”
The WM team, turning up the boost on the Peugeot engines, and exceeding 400km/h down the Mulsanne Straight.
Hans Stuck, on Sunday morning, as rain began to fall, exhibiting his legendary car control in his pursuit of the leader.
Derek Bell admitting, with less than an hour to go, that even though the Porsche and the Jaguar were still on the same lap, the gap was too big for Stuck to close.
And of course the release of emotion at the end of the race, when the number 2 Jaguar took the chequered flag; and it seemed for a while, that the whole region became British.
Then there was the drive home. Steve Ancsell had left on Sunday evening, so the plan was for me Andy Smith to give me a lift home. Smith had an Alfa 75 and Ian Titchmarsh was in his 164, and the plot was hatched that we would stop off in Rouen-les-Essarts on the way home for some lunch. I rode with Titchmarsh for the first part of the journey, and how Smith managed to keep up I’ll never know. No toll roads in those days, and for the most part, no dual carriageways either.
And a few weeks later, back in England, Autosport editor Quentin Spurring complained to Ian Titchmarsh and me: “it’s all very well you going on the radio and telling everybody what’s going on, but you’ve ruined the atmosphere in the bars and cafés – people all used to talk to each other, but now they’re just listening to their transistor radios.”