It is held that one of the clearest signs of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome. If that is true, then I am in trouble...big trouble.
Every June since 1984, I have made the trek to a small French city about 120 miles to the West of Paris. The motivation behind this annual lemming-like migration? The answer is simple, an event known locally as Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans... or to those of us in the English-speaking world, the Le Mans 24 Hours.
To those who follow this celebration of speed and endurance it is the greatest race of them all. In fact there are many who wouldn't miss the annual trip to Le Mans for the world, but it's the only race of the year they go to (hmmm...sounds kind of like how some treat American football's Superbowl). So how did the obsession for this race develop, and where did it come from?
In my long history with the race, I suppose I would lay blame on a combination of Porsche and Ferrari, Hollywood and Steve McQueen... and we can't forget the FIA (originally known as the CSI). Would be racer and contemporary superstar of the screen, Steve McQueen, entered a 917 for the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1970, to be co-driven by none other than Jackie Stewart.
Studio bosses had different ideas, so McQueen had to make do shooting a film "Le Mans". At the time, the film was an epic flop, especially in the financial sense. Over the years however, "Le Mans" has been rehabilitated - largely driven by a generation of petrolheads with an endless capacity to watch the amazing track footage. Age has proved to turn the turkey into a golden goose.
Steve McQueen's "Le Mans" film was certainly part of the reason that I found myself at the event for the first time. It was 1978 and my role in the proceedings was as a spectator. Six years later and I was trackside, a fully fledged member of the media. OK perhaps that overstates my role as the lowest level of the fourth estate, but I WAS there - complete with armband and vest, I had arrived.
Now with the sounds of my 30th race in a row subsiding, it seems like a good time to look back at a few of the highlights I've encountered along the way. As with most things, significant "firsts" tend to stick in the memory longer than subsequent episodes - whether those recollections are accurate is open to question, but so legends are born...
"Half remembered names and faces..........but to whom do they belong?"
The start of the race in 1984 taught me a few lessons - the most important of which was not to go partying till the early hours the night before the event got underway. Excessive heat and noise are not a good combination for those feeling delicate. The other lesson well learnt was to ensure that the idiot in front of you does not stick his arm out as the cars are accelerating towards you.
I was mighty keen back then, so no sleep (that was for wimps). In my delicate state I hauled a tripod around and by guesswork tried time exposures...some were actually usable (this before the advent of digital cameras).
Adrenaline is a mighty thing, and this natural high of my first Le Mans as media kept me scampering around for the best part of two days. Up until the flag fell and I found myself in the Mazda tent with the crew and my first Le Mans legend, Yojiro Terada. Holding the record for number of appearances at Le Mans, 29, he is now retired and continues on as the same modest and friendly man he was back then.
Speaking of greats, the man in the cap is one of the legends of both Mazda and the Rotary engine, Kenichi Yamamoto. Head of R&D for Mazda during the period when the engine was developed for mass production and the old problems of excessive oil consumption and rotor housing durability were solved. As a result of his success he was promoted to be President, and later Chairman, of Mazda. It is safe to say that without the engineering skills of Yamamoto and his team, there would be no rotary engines in use today. Here the two legends share a drop of Bubbly in celebration.
The early years of the '80s were dominated by Porsche but by 1986, just when I was beginning to be an "old pro", the success of Mazda attracted both Nissan and Toyota - heralding the love affair between Japan's motor industry and the race that persists to this day. Currently Nissan is an engine supplier to the LM P2 class as well as a sponsor through their GT Academy project.
Toyota have really caught the Le Mans bug bad - but the affair is somewhat unrequited. Now in their fourth serious attempt at an overall victory, the podium's top step has eluded them since arriving nearly 30 years ago.
1986 also saw the return of Jaguar as a factory team - determined to repeat their glories of the 50's when the men from Coventry won four times. With backing from Silk Cut cigarettes and run by Tom Walkinshaw Racing, the V12 Jaguars attracted fanatical support from the hordes of British supporters.
After two disappointing attempts at a win, Jaguar were determined to come out on top. Standing in their way was a crack-squad from Porsche possesing the final factory development of the 962 that had triumphed at La Sarthe during the previous six races. This manufacturer rift was getting personal for me too, as I had managed to get the agency I worked with hooked up with the Jaquar team. We were also going to be flat out...
For once the contest lived up to the hype! With the two factories going at each other hammer and tongs, it eventually came down to one car from each side at the head of the field.
Somehow the trio of Jan Lammers, Andy Wallace and Johnny Dumfries maintained their small advantage over the Porsche to come home just 2 minutes 36 seconds clear after 24 Hours of fantastic racing. The whole place erupted as the crowds took to the track in celebration...it was a complete madhouse!
Another two years passed and the Jaguar fever was even more virulent. However the reality was that Jaquar were scheduled to play second fiddle to Nissan, easily the strongest outfit of that time. Le Mans has a way of disrupting even the most cunning of plans though...so from the high of a record-setting pole position, Nissan's challenge fell apart even before the race got underway. As one car retired with transmission failure, Gianfranco Brancatelli collided with the leading Toyota. Warned of this calamity by Radio Le Mans, I was in a position to capture the moment for posterity as the Nissan staggered by.
One by one the Nissans encountered problems that year, leaving the Jaguars running at the sharp end. In fact they never actually finished the race...the rampant Jaguar supporters invaded the track before the last lap was run, it was even madder than the previous win! These antics inspired the French Government to pass a law which threatened to imprison anyone who interrupted sporting events. The rabble were described as "facteurs de trouble et aux recidivists" (which sounded pretty hip to me). Of course, when the French won the year or so later running a Peugeot, these rules didn't seem to apply...it was merely showing patriotic fervour.
The Peugeots arrived with their Formula One technology and dominated while Jaguar, Porsche, Mazda and Mercedes Benz headed out the door, leaving only Toyota to continue chasing after their maiden win in vain. With the World Championship collapsing under the combined attack of FIA mendacity and wholly disproportionate costs, it was back to the roots of the world's greatest race for the '90s.
Continue reading in Part Two...