Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Passage of Time... where do the years go?

Although I have had it for some time, I have recently started reading Quentin Spurring’s latest book in his series in which he charts ‘the official history of the world’s greatest motor race’ – the Le Mans 24 hours. This is the fourth to be released, covering the decade from 1980 to 1989, and is the decade in which I started to attend the race myself, starting as a “mere” spectator in 1981, and by 1989 being part of the Radio Le Mans team (indeed, the year in which John Hindhaugh made his debut).

During those ten years the race became a highlight of my year, and much of its importance to me now derives from the impact that it made on me during that time. It was during the 1980’s that I began to get involved in commentary, and began to make contacts within the sport, allowing racing personalities and heroes to become acquaintances and even friends.

It was during those years as well, that acquiring a knowledge of the history of motor sport became more important to me, and I became rather envious of those people that I came across who were old enough (and in my eyes) lucky enough, to have visited Le Mans during the glory years of the 1950’s and 1960’s. As a young man approaching his 30th birthday, those people that I met who had actually seen the Jaguars, Ferraris, Aston Martins and Masaratis that had contested those races thirty years earlier were ‘elder statesmen’, people whom I respected as witnesses of the sport I loved and the race that I regarded as the ultimate test, when it was even more venerable and whereof legends were made.

As Group C matured during the mid-eighties, those days seemed a very long time ago indeed.

And yet.

And yet now, as I think of those young people whose own love affair with Le Mans is just beginning (and there are many – the place still holds a magical and a magnetic appeal) – how lucky am I that I was there during the eighties, that I look at the ‘historic’ Group C races and think how artificial they look?

Camping des Tribunes, 1987
After all, the time difference, in absolute terms, is about the same – thirty years. But surely the gap from the fifties to the eighties is bigger than that from the eighties to the present day? Not only can I remember the sight, sound and the smell of a Rothmans 956, but I can remember the drive from Le Havre to Le Mans, remember the taste of the first merguez of the weekend, and remember the queue for the toilets in the Camping des Tribunes – and they were the posh toilets!

And I still remember talking to Mike and Sue (ok, I’ve forgotten their surname, but if they’re still alive they’ll know who they are, if they’re reading this), in the “Portes du Circuit” bar, in about 1984, about their memories of Ferraris and Astons in 1958, and how things had changed – although it seemed the Portes du Circuit had changed very little, except for the toilet now being indoors!

But the 1950’s (to which Quentin dedicates another volume) were so long ago, weren’t they? Tales of cars being driven to the circuit from Coventry, and further afield; of drivers ‘going it alone’, or working to dig the car out of a sandbank – surely this was a different era? Good old Mike, who had been there, seen that and drunk a bottle of red with Mike Hawthorn – how fantastic must that have been?

And yet.

And yet I can look back to a Le Mans that I visited in the eighties: the paddock area (anyone remember the ‘Restaurant des Pilotes’ in the middle of the paddock?), full of marquees and caravans; the signalling pits at Mulsanne Corner, a restaurant on the Ligne Droite des Hunaudieres in which you could have a meal while the cars screamed past the open window, and a race track on which damaged barriers were protected by straw bales.

A Le Mans surely very different to the one that we see today, and one that, in another thirty years will seem as lethal as that earth bank opposite the pits in 1955.

So I guess it’s not all bad, growing old. Although of course I yearn for the energy of youth, I must consider myself privileged to have lived through the Group C era, through the battles between Peugeot and Toyota that followed, the triumph of Paul Lanzante’s McLaren in 1995, and the simply stunning entries that characterised the races of the final years of the 1990’s, before the millennium and the years of Audi domination.

For the folk who cannot remember a race without an Audi in it, I feel sympathy in a certain way, for surely Le Mans has a depth beyond what Audi has done. And it is, to me, not unimaginable that Audi will cease to play a role at Le Mans in the future. The 24 hours of Le Mans has survived worse upheavals, let’s face it.

Derek Bell - Le Mans 1982
And that is the beauty of Quentin’s books. Not only do they chart the many upheavals over the years, but they are a minefield of fascinating facts, potted with marvellous photographs: familiar and unfamiliar, predictable and surprising.

I suppose I should confess at this point that I do know Quentin personally. At the time that I was learning how to do a lap chart for a 1000km race, Q was editor of Autosport, and would occasionally use my lap chart to check the accuracy of his race report. But that is an indication of the thoroughness of the man. Despite our acquaintance, I have paid for all four of the books with my own money, and begrudge not a single penny. I know there are a lot of books out there these days, but these I thoroughly recommend!

(All photos from my private collection)


  1. Andrew Muggeridge22 October 2013 at 22:43

    Completely agree Paul, these are marvellous books and worth every penny. Group C was my favourite era of sportscar racing and I attended many of the races at Brands and Silverstone as well as Le Mans in the 80s. I loved the old pits at Le Mans and the lack of fences around the circuit that enabled you to take good photographs with relative ease. I loved the army of Porsche 956s/962s and the wonderful Silk Cut Jaguars - beautiful tobacco liveried, big engineered, loud brutes without a diesel or a hybrid in sight. Those were the days indeed...

  2. I have the '80's book and it is a truly fascinating read, really bringing to life the Group C cars, which sadly I missed out on first time. Indeed my first trip to La Sarthe was 2003 and Bentley's win.
    Do you know if there be a book covering the 90's? Would love to get this one, if not will work backwards into the 70's.

  3. These are all great books and I am looking forward ti having all 8 in my collection. With this in mind I emailed Haynes asking when the other 4 will be published
    This was the reply I received
    "Unfortunately at present we do not have any plans to print any more within this series.
    Unfortunately the company is going through major structural changes and a lot of books have been dropped from the future schedule. It may be that the company decides to start the series again in a few years but they have decided to focus on the key area of manuals at present.
    We apologise for the inconvenience caused."
    So lets hope Mr Spurring gets a new publisher.

    As an MG fan I have only been attending since 2001 so a new boy really, one year I was taking to my friends mother in law who was working at Mulsanne when the MGB had to be dug out in 1960's. She was so keen to tell me all about it even after 40 years

  4. Yes, all 4 books definitely recommended. Shame to hear about Haynes not doing the rest.
    My first year was 88, and I remember you on Radio Le Mans that year, Paul. And I have the video with you on to prove it :)