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Le Mans 2003 - The Tourists' Story

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Le Mans 2003 seemed to come around more quickly than usual this year, which wasn't all that surprising as I'd been lucky enough to go to the Le Mans Classic in September 02, so I only had 9 months to wait!  

The Tourists' trip to France started earlier this year than ever before as we made our rendezvous in Southampton at midday on the Thursday, intending to catch the 2.45 p.m. Portsmouth Express to Cherbourg.  This meant that for the first time we would actually be staying in France on the Thursday evening.

Our transport for the weekend was once again a minibus, although slightly younger than the bus we used for the previous two years.  Those of you who were surprised to see a football club bus from the south coast either at Le Mans or on the way to or from France - that was us!  

It is Thursday, 12th June and the Tourists pack the minibus ready for the trip to la belle France!

We were soon on that familiar stretch of road to Portsmouth and before long we were admiring the superb machinery parked in the ferry terminal waiting for the ferry.  Bentleys, Jaguars, Lotus, all the usual cars were there.

I couldn't resist this shot of a splendid Bentley waiting for the ferry.  I hoped it was a good omen for the weekend's race.....

The fastcraft to Cherbourg was marvellous, getting us to France in about two and a half hours and we were soon on the road for the short distance to our overnight stop at the Hotel de France in Isigny-sur-Mer.  By sheer coincidence, this was the same hotel as I stayed in when I went over for the Le Mans Classic last September.  

We did however, have a minor mishap as we were approaching Isigny - we ran out of fuel!  We'd been putting off stopping and Robert was sure we had enough fuel as the low-fuel light hadn't come on - unfortunately, it seemed that our bus didn't have one!   We were lucky that we came to a halt only 200 yards or so from a petrol station and we pushed the bus there without any problem.  The next problem was that the unmanned petrol station wouldn't take any of our plastic!  A nice French miss came to our rescue using her card for which we exchanged the cash. After a few anxious moments when the bus refused to start again, we finally made it to the Hotel de France!  A good meal was followed by a wander up the road for a drink or two and, several calvados later, we got to bed at about 1.00 a.m.  

We had a fair journey to the circuit ahead of us on Friday so it was all up for an early breakfast and then back on the road again.  

The Tourists take their breakfast in the Hotel de France, Isigny-sur-Mer.

Leaving the running out of petrol aside, it was on this journey that we suffered our worst setback of the weekend.    On the run from Isigny to Le Mans, we decided to stop for a coffee and chose a typical small roadside bar at Montrée, called the Bar L'Etrier.  Remember the name well.  We had our coffee and were about 10 minutes down the road when Martyn realised he didn't have his bumbag...... which contained all his Euros, Sterling, passport and credit cards.  We went back and Martyn re-appeared from the bar with the bag.  Sighs of relief all round, from Martyn in particular.  

Name and Shame time.  The Bar L'Etrier in Montrée where Martyn was separated from about £300.  If you must stop there on route to Le Mans, hang on to your cash.......

Thinking all was OK, we set off again, but a couple of minutes later, having checked the contents of the bag, Martyn realised that ALL of his cash, in both euros and sterling was missing.   About £300-worth, if I recall correctly.  Not surprisingly we returned to the bar again, and the staff denied all knowledge of the missing cash.  Funny that.  Funny how an opportunist thief would have had the chance to rifle through the bumbag, find the cash (which was in a separate wallet inside) and then make off with it leaving the bag behind - all under the noses of the staff?  Well, we'll leave you to draw your own conclusions - perhaps they'll be similar to ours.....  Whatever, it left a very sour taste in the mouth and meant that Martyn's Le Mans trip was going to be significantly more expensive than he'd thought.

Our journey having been delayed somewhat, with nothing else we could do, we pressed on to the circuit.  Having managed to get into the garage rouge (having assured the garage marshalls that we didn't intend to set up a (semi) permanent camp there for the weekend, we made our way into the circuit and were soon basking in the sunshine in the pitlane.

The Bentley pits were inevitably the centre of attention, particularly for the Brits.  A good qualifying performance on Wednesday/Thursday saw them 1-2 on the grid for the big race.    Well I guess its a matter of personal opinion, but for me, the Pescarolo Courages were the  best looking cars at Le Mans.  That green and blue colour-scheme looked superb - better even than the Bentleys.  (In my opinion, the 2001/2002 Bentleys were actually better looking than this year's cars).

I only had an hour to dash up and down the pitlane (trying to get at least one shot into every pit garage), before rejoining the Tourists who would by that time no doubt be thinking of their stomachs......

    If the Pesca Courages got my vote for looks in the LMP classes, the TVRs won hands down as far as the GTs were concerned.  The striking black and yellow livery (familiar of course from last year's Morgan) was very effective.  But would we be seeing it for long........?        Looking up the pitlane towards the Audi and WR pits, its easy to forget that the teams still had plenty of work to do in preparation for 24 hours of serious business during the following day and night.  (But it would have been nice to see just a few more drivers out there to meet and greet the fans.......)

The walkabout is, for me, one of the Le Mans essentials.  I'd love to be able to do it on race day itself, but I'm far too stingy to pay the whopping price for a ticket to join the pretty people (and the Hawaiian Tropic girls.....!).   

By this time, my French pal Fabrice ("Fab" from the forum) had sent me several text messages to say he was nearby in the pitlane and I was on the lookout for him.

Hugh Chamberlain was in his usual masterful "patron d'equipe" form -  this year not only looking after the two TVRs but also Mr. Kondo's Dome.  Hugh is without doubt one of those people who are inextricably linked with the great race.   

Before long, I had managed my goal of a picture in every garage and with only 10 minutes or so before my scheduled rendezvous with the rest of the Tourists, I was keen to find Fabrice.  And there he was, still wearing the now infamous self-destructing Aysedasi's Le Mans t-shirt from 2002.  (I do hope you changed out of it some time between Le Mans 2002 and Le Mans 2003 Fab?!).

Not only did I find Fab, but he was kind enough to take this shot of yours truly enjoying himself immensely in the sun in the pitlane.  (Note the bumbag which I NEVER take off, Martyn......!)

Fab and I then left the pits to track down the other Tourists.  Paul had come to find me in fact, as, surprise, surprise, they'd all adjourned to a nearby bar for a beer and some frites!  After introducing Fab to the team, he departed, telling me that he was going home to cool down in his pool (lucky wotsit!).

Back in 2001, Stoffer (who was unable to come to Le Mans this year due to a wedding commitment), and I tried in vain to locate the cars which would be running in the Legends race on Saturday morning.  This year, however, the team was successful.  I was slightly disappointed with the turn-out of cars, I must admit, but I suspect that's because I was spoiled by the Classic event the previous September.

There's something about a 917, isn't there?  David Piper's green and white car looked splendid, and I was looking forward to seeing in run on Saturday morning.   

I was actually on the look-out for the yellow Zapata  Ligier which Willie Green was to drive again (having driven it with Nicolas Zapata (the car's owner) at the Classic).  I soon found it and after chatting with the mechanics, confirmed that Willie would be driving it solo in the Legends race.

And lo and behold, who appeared on the scene at just that moment - Mr. Green himself.  

Willie Green, driver of the Ligier in the Legends race, chats to Tourists Martyn and Paul.

Having taken in the sites and sounds of the Legends paddock it was back to the bus for our journey to Le Grand Lucé, where we would once again be staying at the Hotel Restaurant Le Cheval Blanc.  In fact, we did a lengthy detour into Le Mans town to try and report Martyn's theft from earlier in the day, but after waiting at the police station for over an hour without being seen by anyone, Martyn realised that unless we hit the road we would miss our evening meal.  

I've now lost count of how many times over the years since we first went there in 1990 that we have eaten at Le Belinois at Moncé-en-Belin but it must be close to a dozen times.  This year I was particularly looking forward to the evening, as the Tourists had a special guest joining them.  I had met Paul Truswel, who most of you should know as one of the Radio Le Mans commentators (since 1988, I should add), back in 2001, but we contrived to miss each other at last year's race.  This year however, we arranged that Paul would take dinner with the Tourists.

Paul Truswel of Radio Le Mans escapes from his lofty perch atop the ACO grandstand to join the Tourists for dinner.

Needless to say, we had a good meal and I picked up a lot of information from Paul about the race and Radio Le Mans (in confidence, of course!).

After our meal it was back to Le Cheval Blanc for some sleep, ready for race day.  (That didn't stop some of the Tourists seeking out a local bar which was still open for a nightcap!).

We knew we needed to be up bright and early on Saturday as we were all (well, most of us, anyway!), keen to see the Legends race which started at 10.00 a.m.  We managed to find ourselves a good spot on the tribunes opposite the pits, from where we could not only get a good look at the cars as they lined up opposite, but also a good look at the sky which was clearly promising some rain.  

Willie settles into the Ligier, 10 minutes or so before the start of the Legends race.

We were treated to a very good race, particularly between Willie's Ligier and the beautiful Nick Mason Ferrari driven by Mark Hales.  Although it was a shame when the Ferrari retired, it did give Willie a nice easy run to his first win at Le Mans!

After the Legends race, anticipating rain, we moved across into the Village and, thinking ahead, managed to secure not only some beers, but a seat under cover in the hostelry just inside the Village (after the underpass).  

I'd wanted to be around here as I was due to meet with Fab and the other members of the Ten-Tenths forum at 12 noon.  Well, by the time 12 noon arrived, it was raining - hard enough to tempt me to stay where I was.  But, eventually it eased and I went off in search of the forum members.

Fab and Ayse meet again at Le Mans!      Time for the members of the Ten-Tenths forum to actually meet the people that until now most had only known "electronically"!

The meeting was great fun and the French and Spanish wine was flowing very nicely.  I've already lost count of the names of some of those present, but they certainly included (as well as Fab and myself), Liz, Nordic, Javi, PascalLM, AllonFS, rdjones and Bernard B.  (As and when I remember the names of the others, I'll add them in!).