Le Mans 1999. Oh, the horror…


‘I’m going camping…’


I lived, at the time, about six miles from Plymouth and was doing agency work during my summer off from university. I knew I had a full week’s paycheck coming in. All I had to do was fill a rucksack, pick up my pay, pootle down to the ferry terminal and I’d be off and running.

Bad Move Number One.

So, I made the six miles into Plymouth (on foot as I didn’t have the bus fare) carrying only a rucksack (badly packed, containing little I actually needed and a fair amount that I didn’t), a travel blanket, one change of clothes and a day’s supply of food. Yep, no sleeping bag, no tent, no race ticket, no camping permit and no clue as to the mission I was actually embarking on.

With a small house on my back I staggered the six miles from home, picked up my pay (only about 140 pounds to last me until I returned home) and staggered down to the ferry terminal. I arrived looking like I was about to die, feeling like I might and smelling like I just had (I had made a six mile march, in June, with a full pack after all.). On arriving at the ferry terminal with only about an hour until boarding and about fifteen minutes before check-in closed, with people already checking in as I arrived, I spent  almost a third of my entire (woefully inadequate) budget on a return ferry ticket from Plymouth to Roscoff. It turned out that buying a return ticket was about as close to sensible planning as I got for the rest of the trip.

The ferry journey was pretty uneventful. I left Plymouth at 3pm UK time and arrived in Roscoff at about 9pm French time. Now I was faced with securing a lift to Le Mans from the ferry terminal. Rather unwisely, I admit, managed to blag a lift with a stag party in their van. I thought I had anyway. Unfortunately for me, I’d done nothing of the kind.

Being a stag party, it’s obviously a tradition that the groom is left in some wild, out of the way place to make his own way back as best he can. For some reason my traveling partners thought that doing this to me, rather than the groom, would be far more amusing. I found myself left on my own in the city of Nantes. At 1am. With the vanload of idiots who left me there having reversed over my rucksack as they departed, laughing, into the night.

I spent about half an hour trying to get my bearing, before walking into an overnight car park and spotting, thankfully, a taxi. I toddled over, still figuring out how to carry a broken rucksack, and knocked on the window. The driver hurriedly dropped his rather explicit ‘gentleman’s literature’ and grumpily asked me where I wanted to go. To the railway station, obviously. That cost me another third of my total budget although, to be fair, I’d never have found the station on my own.

Arriving in Nantes station at about 2am, I got a single ticket on the overnight train to Le Mans and had to lug all my kit from the station to the track on foot. The small problem being that it was a typically French June day (boiling hot), the track is several miles from the station and I didn’t actually know where the track was. Two hours later, feeling even worse than when I arrived at Plymouth ferry terminal, I finally found the circuit entrance,. Now another small technical hitch beckoned. I didn’t have enough cash left for a race ticket. A passing Brit noticed me thumbing through my money and obligingly relieved me of my remaining cash, bar a few coins, in return for his spare ticket. Now I finally got into the track proper.

Without a camping permit or a tent (both of which are actually quite useful when you’re supposed to be camping), I slept rough in the stands along the pit straight. I spent a distinctly cold night opposite the BMW pit, trying to sleep as what sounded like the Anvil Chorus kept me awake from the pits opposite. But I was there. I’d dreamt of coming to Le Mans since I was a small boy and here I was, exactly where I’d always wanted to be. Granted, with no camping kit, no food, no money to buy food and no money to get back to the station, let alone pay for a return fare on the train. But at Le Mans, nonetheless.

Race day dawned. I learnt the value of a pocket radio (I couldn’t follow French commentary), protection from the sun (I resembled a pillar box), a folding chair (I spent the entire race sitting on the ground in front of the main grandstand) and of actually bringing camping gear when I was supposed to be camping. I also heard tell of that mythical document called a ‘camping permit’ and overheard myself described by fellow race-goers in various terms, most relating to my sanity (or rather obvious lack thereof). But I was there and that was what mattered. Toyota battled furiously to wrest the lead from BMW and as Martin Brundle and Co pursued the race leader as best they could. I saw my first pit walk, my first live motor race. It was an experience I still remember clearly all these years later.

Now I was faced with the small matter of getting back to Roscoff for my ferry. So, I slogged it back to the station (by now smelling like a cross between the Bog Monster and the Creature From The Black Latrine, and staggered into the ticket office). At which point, having slept for maybe twelve hours in the previous four days, I fell asleep on a bench and awoke at about midnight. I sneaked onto an overnight train that stopped at Morlaix, fell asleep again, and finally woke up as the train reached its final destination. Unfortunately, its final destination was Brest out on the Atlantic coast. So, I begged, in my schoolboy French, to be put on a train for Morlaix and finally got there at about 7:30am. More begging secured me a seat on the local bus running daily between Morlaix and Roscoff. Another thirty-minute march with broken rucksack, in blistering heat, got me from Roscoff station (where the bus terminated) into the ferry terminal. All well and good, except that the ferry had already left.

Time for more semi-bilingual begging, obviously. I have to say that the Brittany Ferries staff at Roscoff (considering I smelt like a corpse, looked like a caveman and could barely make myself understood) were kindness itself. There was another sailing for Plymouth that day and that they would put me on it. Granted, I had to wait until 11pm that night, but I was hardly in a position to be difficult. Seeing as they put themselves out by letting me on board in the first place (non-paying health hazards who’d already missed their sailing and don’t have any money for a new ticket aren’t most enjoyable passengers) I was incredibly grateful to them for saving my skin.

Now, you’d think the Gods might have had some small mercy on me by then. They didn’t. I only had coins left in my pocket. French coins. French coins that the bureau de change wouldn’t change as they only changed notes. So, another half-hour stagger to the main bus station, telling a bus driver that I’d been robbed (technically I had, the price of the blagged race ticket was over the odds) and another (mercifully brief) stagger from the bus stop to home and all was finally over.

That was my first visit. 2014 will be my tenth..


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