The Longest Day(s) : Le Mans 1996

Earlier this year a photo was published in VINTAGE RACECAR magazine . It was taken on the vintageracecarstarting grid at Le Mans for the 1996 24 hours race and was the first shot of mine from that event that had appeared in an English speaking publication. It only took 21 years.

I had a last minute press-pass for that event, so last-minute that I didn’t even have a passport at the start of the week. I only arrived at the track on the morning of the race .It was a searingly hot weekend, I had almost no sleep and I can’t recall feeling more knackered then when I got back home on the Monday afternoon!

My co-traveller was ace model maker Andrew Williams who’s exquisitely detailed work now graces display cabinets in the BRDC club house at Silverstone. At the time we had a large selection of his models on sale in the shop. The overnight ferry to Caen didn’t afford much chance to sleep – those reclining seats … I spent most of the crossing wandering around the boat, watching a group of patriotically inebriated truck drivers stood on the tables singing RULE BRITANNIA in the bar… that was memorable!

Once on terra firma the novelty (terror) of driving on the ‘other side’ of the road kept me wide awake. Andrew recalled his previous visit to the 24 hour race, hitch-hiking from the boat without a ticket, bagging a lift from a laid back Frenchman who promptly stopped off on route to pick up some weed from his dealer. After which he was, alarmingly, even more laid-back!

TWR Porsche pits Le Mans 96We arrived just as the morning warm-up finished and, having signed on and got our track passes and a bib for accessing the pits, we promptly got thrown out of the Porsche factory team pit where the team manager seemed to be in the process of a towering rant at everyone and objected to being observed in the process. Not a great start and it certainly didn’t make us root for the team. When they lost out to the unfancied Joest TWR Spyder (LEFT: making it’s final stop with Alex Wurz stood on the right) it was rather a satisfactory result.

The race build up lasted forever and the commentator wound up the crowd like a carnival barker as he introduced the bikini-clad “Les Girls Hawain Tropique!!!” as if they were the Spice Girls.  Somehow I could not imagine such a moment being repeated at the more sober Silverstone….even if they had been the Spice Girls!

The entry that year was fantastic, mostly from the ranks of the BPR GT series which was at it’s peak with Gulf , West, Harrods and FINA/BMW McLarens, LM 96 Riley and scott olds pre start sharper smlthe new 911-GT1 Porsches, factory Ferrari F40s, factory Marcos’ & Lister-Jaguars. Among the prototypes were two shrill Ferrari 333SPs and a thunderous Riley & Scott Olds from the USA (RIGHT) which was just as noisy as hell. You could follow it’s gear changes for most of the 8 mile lap. I thought it was just wonderful. RADIO LE MANS interviewed British TV personality Noel Edmonds at one point and he didn’t agree, in fact he suggested we get up a collection to bribe the team to retire the car early and preserve our hearing. Ironically Noel put some kind of TV deal together to cover the following year’s race which concentrated on the new Panoz GT cars which were, probably, every bit as loud!

There was also a Courage prototype driven by the one and only Mario Andretti, intent on securing a race win and thus equalling Graham Hill’s still untouched Triple-Crown of Le Mans, Indy 500 and F1 World Championship titles. Sadly for Mario the car was never a genuine contender and although he returned in  later years with a Panoz, the win continued to evade him. LM 96 Dunlop bridge McLaren sharper sml

Back in 1996 the track was still a bit rough and ready in some respects. It had the ‘new’ pits complex where the media centre offered us somewhere to cool off , store our gear and grab some free water. It was also where we witnessed two French journalists having a stand up wrestling match, cups of water being thrown, and curses exchanged until the formiable Madame in charge of the media centre sorted them out in the fashion of the  landlady in EASTENDERS. The one who’s catch phrase was “Get outa my pub!”.

The track layout at the time still boasted  the iconic descent from the Dunlop bridge into the esses (LEFT : The Owen-Jones McLaren GT1) which has long been obliterated by a new sequence of curves and there was still the opportunity to take my car back through the inner network of small roads and out towards the far reaches of the course with the right pass in the windscreen (which we had) .Ferrari 333SP Mulsanne corner LM96 sharper Four years later, the same pass didn’t get me and my then-wife, Wendy, very far before the marshalls turned us back. Much had changed. In 96 we wound up parking on the golf course on the inside of Mulsanne corner and spent a blissful couple of hours there with the sun dropping down , hanging over the fence where the old signalling pits had been, the bulk of the entry still in the race, screaming out of the corner and up the hill into the trees.  (RIGHT: The Belgian Ferrari 333SP at Mulsanne corner)  We also sneaked up to the barrier right beside the Mulsanne straight itelf for a few precious minutes (BELOW) – until a blast of shrill whistling and flailing arms from the nearest marshalls post indicated we were in the wrong place…. Never mind : Mulsanne straight? Been there, done that! Nowadays that blind brow in the right hand photo has been leveled so the view , like so many of them has changed completely.

LM 96 Mulsanne straight 1 sharper sml  LM 96 Mulsanne straight c sharper sml

Back we drove, through the sandy little lanes among the pine trees , past houses hidden away from regular spectators and TV cameras, before we ended up at Indianapolis corner. There followed another blissful spell of spectating at the track side on this historic spot which had been largely unchanged since the first 24 hour event in the early 20s. This was probably the highlight of the whole event for me, it was really a bit magical to be there with Ferrari 333SP Indianapolis corner LM96 sharperMcLarens and Ferraris howling past in the setting sunlight exactly as the Porsche 917s did in the 70s and the Jaguars and Bentleys did decades earlier.(LEFT: The Belgian Ferrari 333SP again,at Indianapolis . I really liked that car!)

The low point was at the finish. We had no idea the place got locked-down an hour or so before the flag fall, in order to keep the chances of a track invasion down I assume. Having gone out to try and watch the last laps from the final corner we found all the access gates locked and the gun-toting French cops giving us Gallic-shrugs when we pointed out our track passes.  No dice. So the finish was viewed from the rather detached and lofty interior of the media centre. It was cool and calm up there but the ultimate photo opportunity was lost.

The entire event did, later in the week, feel like something of a missed opportunity. I was so tired and ‘wired’ throughout that I seemed incapable of taking many decent photos. What came back from the lab was not what I’d hoped.I put it down to the exhaustion (so little sleep!) and overwhelming nature of the whole thing . But later, in my own darkroom I found that the lab hadn’t exactly been very careful with it’s focusing and the prints I’d paid for were less than spot on. The best ones did suffice and ended up in a technical magazine in Eastern Europe that combined motor racing coverage with articles about stripping down AK47s and product testing new VCRs. But it was only this year that one finally appeared with an English caption.

In this age of selfies and youtube it’s quite strange to find there are only two shots of me actually there at the track (unless I am in the background of someone elses of course), and not a second of video from the entire weekend. It was strictly 35mm stills back then and surprisingly few of those in retrospect, But it still cost a fortune to process the darn things! Digital is so much easier in every respect. Wish I’d had my current camera back then. Not that the whole adventure would have seemed any less exhausting, but I’d have had probabaly ten times the archive of images to draw on.

mclaren-f1-gtr-gulf-james-weaver-at-le-mans-1996-5305-p     LM 96 Si taking photos sharper sml

James Weaver. Gulf McLaren.                            Simon at Tertre Rouge corner

Porsche Wurz LM 96 ed     LM 96 Porsch 26 stop sharper sml

Alex Wurz, race winning TWR Porsche             Dalmas/Goodyear/Wendlinger Porsche

LM 96 Viper 48 dark pit sharper sml    Callaway Corvette Capelli Agusta Donovan Le Mans 1996 sml

Cobb/Dismore/Hendricks Viper GTS                Camus/Agusta/Copelli  Callaway

www.simonlewis.com

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