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Le Mans with William 2015

As to not take William out of school in his first year, this was to be a flying visit. Adrian, James, Martin and Jim had left on Thursday night for a relaxed trip down with most of the kit, stopping off at the Pegasus D-Day Bridge. We left on Friday and this being the end of William’s exam weeks, there was thankfully no homework. We then picked up Ralph and his son Jacob near Guildford. Then we headed off to Portsmouth arriving in the rain far too early, but the DVD player and The Diary of a Wimpy kid kept them happy. Once on board, it was straight to the cabin which looked like it only had one sofa, but we flipped this around and found the bunks hidden in the ceiling. At midnight the boys were still giggling with each other, so 5.45 hrs came around swiftly for them.

We pulled over as soon as we offloaded and William had a couple of bowls of cereal, it then seemed like we had ended up at the end of a huge line to get out of the port, but found a lane empty and charged to the front, so un-British. The non-stop run down the dual carriageway and autoroute to Le Mans was uneventful and swift, costing about Euro 15 in tolls. It was 0915 hrs as we arrived at the petrol station by the aerodrome to fill up with fuel and coffee, it was here we first camped 20 years ago.

After a quarter of an hour sipping coffee and the kids buying sweets, we headed around the aerodrome to run behind the grandstands and down the tunnel for the new campsite in the middle of the track, but the off-ramp was loaded with cars. It took about 30 mins to crawl up this and the line went around a roundabout then parallel with the ramp we just came up, then was still solid way into the distance, which was rather demoralizing, given the good progress we made coming down. So once at the roundabout, I headed back down an old favourite, the Renault factory service road alongside the autoroute and up and into Arnage via the back of the aerodrome. Once into the village, there was nominal traffic until under the track, it was slow but moving. The new site was behind Houx and was meant to be marked out pitches, but when Adrian arrived on Friday they had all gone, so they went into the woods which was actually nice, it gave a feeling of not being so packed in.

Uncle Martin kindly met us at the gate, there was no way we would have found them if not. Parked up at about 1030 hrs and relaxed for a while, before the 8 of us headed to the track around midday. The campsite was on the other side of the Bugatti Circuit, so it needed a couple of tunnels before arriving at the Dunlop Bridge. I had brought a small alloy step ladder for William so used my cycle lock to leave it by a lamp post while we went towards the ill-named village, unlike most charming or quaint villages, this was made up of tented shopping opportunities and slick BMW-like units in a wide piazza, both heaving. William chose a toy Ferrari while Ralph bought Jacob some day-glo sunglasses, the dual distractions managed to split the group up. We were only told later that we missed a split in half Audi, one half being made of Lego. We also managed to miss the traditional Grand Marnier crepe too. So us half went back to the Dunlop Bridge, relocated the step ladder and lined up to enter the grandstand ‘Panorama’. As we did a chap arrived with arms full of red Audi T-shirts, so we managed to grab two, and so did the others. Some of the group sat behind each other and poor old Martin was trapped behind me, as my seat was broken( already before I arrived, honest) it threatened to amputate his knees if I leant back. The other chaps arrived just as the Audi PR crew came up to the stands with bundles of more T-shirts and vast quantities were snatched, we then realised, all around us were Audi’s guests. This meant a huge red flag was also passed over us to cover the entire grandstand, the kids were thrilled and we were chuffed at how much younger we looked in a red light. Audi then returned with water for everyone too. From Claude Olsen, in Kingston, I had brought ear defenders for William with an in-built radio, which we tuned to the British-run Radio Le Mans. This was a great success and he kept us posted on the race throughout the afternoon. It was the usual vibrant start with all the noise. Kids clearly found the atmosphere exciting and the big screen across the track kept their interest up when the pack were around the south of the track.

After 45 mins we headed east towards the Esses and it was obvious the circuit was a lot busier than in the past, with a few choke points. The step ladder came into its own here, I stood in front and he had his hands on my shoulders, with his head well above the crowd, perfect. We worked our way towards Tertre Rouge then came under the tunnel to the in-field near the new football stadium. Along this side, all the way back to the Dunlop Bridge, the banking has been landscaped, now with proper terraces, steps and ramps. They are better than the other side, although they are not as high. Many spectators including us, were intrigued to see Jim launch himself to the ground and go scrabbling on all fours to retrieve a 2015 celebratory Le Mans beer cup, much to all our amusement. We had now come around in a large circle and the boys were tiring, so most of us went back to the campsite for a rest and a cuppa. Needless to say, after five mins William was up again racing around and kicking his ball, while we blokes had a beer.

Our usual expedition was mounted to Mulsanne, but around 7 pm, much earlier than usual due to the boys. James with his top-down headed to the Arnage petrol station to stock up on beer, while we in the Bongo went to check out the state of play at our usual restaurant. A few well-oiled chaps were sat outside and showing each over their bottoms, so we took a table inside, concerned with how the viewings may progress. We had a nice meal, James and I had duck and William went for France’s largest choc mousse. At the bar sat a chap with his elderly pink hot pant sporting muse, who was a visual treat for all of us! So as a change, off we went earlier than normal, to the Mulsanne corner at twilight, perfect for photos. Smashing spot as usual and William thought it was the best viewing so far. Despite Ralph wanting to stay on, we went back early and had the kids in bed by 11 pm, William had a few minutes running his new Ferrari up and down the window sills, while I stuck on the Bongo screens and unpacked the sleeping bags. This reminded me of myself and how I used to play with my Corgi cars. Adrian had added by Khyam extension to his tent to create a large detached property, for Ralph and Jacob to also sleep in. Our chaps then spent an hour or two chatting under the dome with the roar of the cars in the background, they were not too loud and the evening was warm. 

Woke to find the Bongo stiflingly hot and then to find someone had nicked my wash bag from under the dome. Later an English chap from a nearby tent told us his tent has been slashed open and his bag of clothes taken, he was on his way back to the tent with a large roll of duct tape to make repairs. William fancied going on the Ferris wheel, which has been relocated inside the track at Karting at the Porsche curves, I’d never been on it before and it seemed like a good alternative to Arnage and Indianapolis corners where we usually take our chairs on Sunday morning for a gossip. It was around ten by the time we were ready to go, so the two of us headed off, William seemed chipper and had plenty of energy despite two late nights. The others headed off for the track. It took us just over ten mins to walk along the road. There was no line and it cost Euro 7/ p, we sat squeezed into a gondola with two other big blokes who didn’t speak a word, so we had no idea of their nationalities. The wheel did the odd full rotation, then stopped for a while as people were let on and off. It was not scary at all and we both enjoyed it, I think we were up for about ten mins which was enough. You got a very good impression of the car’s speed, as they shot below you and especially the disparity with LMPs and GT cars as they come out the corner, on the last straight before the pit lane exit. I was glad we went and enjoyed an experience that was new to both of us. Immediately below the wheel was a Marshall’s gate, which you could stand against and the cars came ripping past almost rattling the gate. I’ve never felt this feeling of speed anywhere else on the track.

The general enclosure area extended along (the now two) kart tracks to the back of the control tower and pits. So we passed plenty of hospitality areas exhibiting cars and the odd tractor that was sat outside the marquees, which we found interesting. We then nipped under the tunnel to view the pits from the outside, under the main grandstands, I had forgotten just how noisy the cars are from here, which made William wince. We then continued along the terraces until the end of the garages, but from this point on it was a forest of camping chairs, there was no way through, they were that squished tightly in. We then darted behind the grandstands and walked up to the main gate, then through the main tunnel and up to the Dunlop Bridge. We were cutting it but fine to meet Ralph and Jacob at 1230hrs, but made it for a prompt departure to the coast. This was a smashing morning and both William and I enjoyed each other’s company and discussing the things around us.

Our ferry was booked for a 1630 hrs departure, so to check in by 1530 hrs and with a two-hour drive, we needed to get off around 1230 hrs. Adrian, Martin, James and Jim had already gone back to the track and we left them with the impending rain, they returned on Monday evening. Having seen the finish and invaded the track, thereby getting closure. We didn’t find out the winner until the next morning

Again a slick and trouble-free charge north along the autoroute, the highlight was seeing a lime green Day-Glo Corvette get flashed by a Gatso as it sped past us, he he. The kids have eaten all the ham wraps and crisps, and we headed into a KFC. Ralph’s vague fingers point and requests for a bucket for Jacob, brought forth the surprise of a 22-piece party bucket and a large bill. Given that the wall was plastered with different bucket options, it wasn’t such a great surprise and it gave William and me a snigger, Jacob made a good effort to get through the bucket. Filling up with fuel near the port the petrol station had been converted into a wine shop selling to the Brits as they headed home. I bought some cider and Ralph 4 boxes of wine. While Ralph loaded it he overheard in French the chap running it, saying to another frog, that he sells to the British as they go home, little do they know they can buy it for half the amount at the supermarket next door, cheeky chap!

Next to the port on ‘Sword Beach’  there was a kite festival which was beautiful to watch, they even have two huge kites in the shape of whales, but they only flew a few feet off the sand. Once on the ferry, we sat on the sunny deck with a pint each while the boys played a puzzle, then raced off around the ship after M&M’s. After a shower (made even more necessary due to the loss of my wash kit) William and I sat in the bar, I with my eyes closed and him focused on the England-Slovenia football match. We then all retired to the cabin for a lay down while the kids watched a DVD.

Off the ferry smart-ish and to Ralph’s within an hour, so by 2230 hrs. I had a quick shufty at his Ford Anglia MK1 hotrod, then managed to get lost trying to find the A3. William was by then asleep in the back.  At Esher the A3 was shut, so we crawled along and through the High Street, getting back about 2315 hrs. William was tired the next day for school, so I drove him in and he soon perked up and was very chatty about how much he enjoyed the weekend.

It was delightful to have William around and see his face light up so many times. I know he enjoyed Adrian and James’ company too. It felt too short as I left to come home on Sunday lunchtime, but the duration was just about perfect for the boys, I felt I hadn’t had the usual social weekend around the campfire, but still enjoyed it immensely, both for the time with William and the buzz of the 24 Hours, the trust Bongo also looked after us well.