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As dawn broke I shifted slightly in the seat to stretch my legs a bit more and slowly surfaced. It had only been a few hours since we had gone to sleep in the car but I felt remarkably refreshed. The high pitched whine of the racing cars only 100 yards behind us was an instant reminder, as if we needed one, of where we were.
Quietly I got out of the car and stretched. Richard, my co-driver, was still asleep so I wandered off into the "village" in the middle of the circuit in search of breakfast. Le Mans is a strange event. Everyone turns up for the start and then goes off and has a 24 hour party and then comes back for the finish. Remarkably few people actually watch the racing. Still - it is one hell of a good party!
In the village I found a great place that served Grand Marnier Crepes. Huge crepes filled with sugar and Grand Marnier - but the best bit is that they leave the bottle on the counter so you can top up the crepe with Grand Marnier until it is really saturated. Two of those and a huge cup of French Cafe au Lait is the ideal way to start the day!
I sat in the rays of the rising sun sipping coffee, licking Grand Marnier off the crepe and contemplating the week that had just finished, life the universe and everything... you know, like you do.
The week had been spectacular. Full of incident and fun. The cars had all behaved brilliantly despite the heat which had on occasion been excessive. Poor Ken having a disaster with his gearbox on the M20 and having to continue in the Volvo. The tunnel with 10 cars all lined up together in formation. Meeting up for coffee at a filling station half way to Rouen and the expression of surprise on the faces of the couple running it as, over about half an hour, more and more of these crazy cars pulled in. People on the side of the road waving and clapping as the cars went past. The cheer as Ken finally arrived at Rouen with the chase cars and joined us at dinner. Being woken up at half past two in the morning by loud banging coming from two guys working on the gate of the hotel. Finding out in the morning that the luggage trailer had been chained to the gate so the hotel had to get the Police to cut it free so they could shut the gate - and this was just the first 24 hours!
The high spots for me were Val de Vienne and the parade in Le Mans on the day before the race. There were low spots too. At Tours when we were driving in convoy and all took the wrong turning so we ended up going the wrong way on the right road through dense traffic in the heat of the day and hitting a red light every 100 yards. We were confused, lost and very very hot. Our lunch melted and how the car didn't boil I will never know but, bless her, she kept going with the temperature almost off the scale.
The other low spot was the last day when, driving quietly along at 3,000 revs just before lunch, an ominous clatter came from the back. We stopped and took off the rocker cover to discover that the end had fallen off a push-rod. We took out the push-rod, removed the rocker and drove another 100 gentle miles on seven cylinders but then the lifter popped out and we lost oil pressure - end of journey. The RAC were brilliant, they had a truck there within 45 minutes and we ended up at home in Surrey just after midnight.
But back to the highlights - The Val de Vienne circuit was not the best for GT40s. It was very tight and twisty with virtually no straight. It was also very very hot. As a result the car never got cool, you were always either standing on the brakes or on the throttle and all the time you had to drag the wheel from side to side round one 180 degree corner after another. It was like driving on a go-kart track in a sauna. I don't think anyone stayed out for more than three or four laps at a time - doesn't sound much like a high spot so far!
Well - it so happened that a lady in a red Westfield turned up while we were there asking if we would mind if she joined us on the track. Enter the long arm of coincidence - she and her husband were English and they owned the local hotel. Her husband was a racing driver who was in England but he owned - you guessed it - a GT40 replica. She had with her a photographer who was doing publicity pictures for the hotel. She asked if we would all like to come back to the hotel afterwards for a drink and, by the way, the hotel had a pool...
The hotel was beautiful - a definite stop for next year - the drinks were excellent, but the pool was bliss! Great place - if you are ever south of Poitiers then don't miss it. The circuit is also hoping to attract Formula 1 teams to test there so they are talking about adding some straight bits which will make it much more fun.
The other real highlight was the parade on Friday. A lot of people, myself included, were not planning to attend because we knew that it would be long, slow and hot. However, when I checked the official Le Mans program I read that the Grand Parade through the middle of Le Mans would be opened by "14 GT40s from England." When everyone saw that we knew that we had to go.
We went in convoy to the centre of town where we were directed to a huge reserved parking area. Over the next couple of hours nearly 50 vintage cars arrived and lined up alongside us. The parade was due to start at 6 but was late starting as not all the drivers turned up. While we were waiting the English played Boule much to the amusement of the locals.
The parade was actually led by the Le Mans trophy carried in an old Rolls Royce followed by 48 vintage cars, each carrying the three drivers of a Le Mans team. In the end only about 2/3rds of the drivers turned up so some of the cars were empty. They were followed by a Guards band, three London Double Decker buses and then the GT40's led by a Porsche pace car.
It took us half an hour to get out of the car park - then the Porsche took a wrong turn and we had to turn around and go back the wrong way up a one way street to get back to where we should have been. Turning the car around in the middle of a crowd of people when you can't see the edges of the road or the other cars for people is quite fun!
Eventually we ended up back in the right place and proceeded to inch our way through people packed right across the road with just a thin gap in the middle which wasn't really wide enough to drive through. Each time we stopped, which was every 10 feet, the crowd would close in around us and clamour to shake our hands, wish us luck (I think most of them thought we were driving in the race next day) and even ask us for our autographs. They kept asking us to rev the engine and applauded wildly when we did. Such enthusiasm! It was quite fantastic. After nearly an hour of inching forward, stopping and starting the engine and getting hotter and hotter we got a fuel vapour lock and had to pull off to the side only a few hundred yards from the end to let her cool down.
As luck would have it, we stopped outside a bar with tables and chairs on the pavement. While the crowds gathered round the car we went and had a juice to cool off and sat outside the bar enjoying the crowd.
By the time we finished our first orange juice, the cars in the parade had not even moved - so I called the waitress and told her to get a tray with bottles of juice. We walked down the line of cars offering juice to the overheated drivers. Only the Rutherfords and their Mk III remained completely cool and unfazed. Soon after the cars moved slowly on and we sat back in the bar and relaxed.
About half an hour later, just as we were getting ready to leave, a man drove up in an off roader and asked if we were OK. He explained that he was from the parade security and did we need any help. We explained that the car was fine now that it had cooled down and that we were about to leave. He asked where we were going and when we told him he offered to escort us out of town. He took us all through the back streets - missing all the traffic of people going home from the parade - and escorted us all the way to the motorway. Brilliant service!
We couldn't get over the enthusiasm of the people - not just in Le Mans, but everywhere in France - from small children, from young men and women who would turn their cars around and stop to look at the Fortys, from old ladies dressed in black who would smile and clap in appreciation. The atmosphere and the reception all through the trip was unbelievable.
As I sat eating my second Grand Marnier crepe I reflected on the fact that thirty years before the GT 40s had won here at Le Mans for the first time. I can clearly remember sitting at home with my parents and watching reports of the race on the news. I was 19 at the time and looking forward to celebrating my 20th birthday in September.
Mental arithmetic has never been my strong point but even through the haze induced by a certain lack of sleep, the noise of the cars on the track next to me and the feeling of well being induced by two massively alcoholic Grand Marnier crepes, the thought dawned - 30 plus 20 is... now don't prompt me... nah! its not possible... I can't be... its silly, I don't feel it!
OK - face it. Its true. Now... how to celebrate?
During the trip we all talked about having a re-union sometime soon to talk over the times we had and also to see - and purchase - copies of the video that Ron Farmer slaved over throughout the trip. Ken suggested that we should hold it at the Kit-Car Action day at Castle Coombe on September 21st. Ken and I got talking and the result is that we will combine the two events.
Come to Castle Coombe on the 21st September for the Kit Car Action Day - See you there!
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