My guilty Le Mans secret
By Mat Oxley
Le Mans is over for another year, but not for bike racers. Motorcycling’s Le Mans 24 Hours happens on September 21 and 22. I’ve never been to the car event, but I imagine the two aren’t dissimilar: a raucous mix of petrol-head nirvana and bacchanalian excess. I’m certain of one thing, however, that the canapes are better in June than September.
Endurance racing was my main business during much of my racing career. A friend — the late, great Howard Lees — ran Britain’s (possibly the world’s) best privateer endurance racing team, for which I rode for nine seasons, making a total of 24 24-hour races, including nine at Le Mans. That’s an awful lot of skin off the palms of your hands.
As privateers we were always fighting an unequal struggle against the factory teams entered by Honda, Suzuki and the others. Usually we stood no chance of beating them because they had bigger budgets, better bikes and (let’s be honest) better riders.
Le Mans 1984 was the exception. That year we ran a superbike-spec Honda VF750, which looked positively pedestrian alongside the latest factory exotica flown in from Japan. But the bike was something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Honda Britain had quietly lent us a couple of their 860cc factory engines, which Wayne Gardner had used to win the previous year’s British Formula 1 title. Meanwhile some factory teams were running 750s, in preparation for the new 750cc World Endurance Championship.
The 860 was wickedly fast, so we were going okay in the race, working our way into fourth in the darkness, though some way behind the leading factory Honda R5750 of Patrick lgoa and Gerard Coudray.
At about 10pm Coudray came round the outside of me as we accelerated onto the start-finish straight. I expected him to disappear into the distance. But he didn’t. We were shifting gears, side by side, all the way up the straight, the Frenchman on his hand-built factory missile, me on what looked like a standard street bike. As we hooked sixth before swooping into the flat-out Dunlop Curve (no chicane in those days), he glanced across and was stunned to see me still there. He probably had no idea I had 110cc on him. Through Dunlop, over the brow, front wheels in the air, we plunged down towards La Chapelle hairpin, still side by side.
At this point I began to think the unthinkable. Coudray was on a factory Honda, I was on a bike supported by Honda Britain, so he was the senior rider and I never considered myself worthy of actually racing him. But at that moment I thought, what the hell, I might as well have a go at out-braking him.
As we approached the hairpin we were rapidly catching a backmarker. I hit the brakes and went for the inside. As I dived past the slower rider he panicked and lifted up, then as I rode through the corner I heard a big crash. I realised to my horror that Coudray had collided with the backmarker. They both went down in a big heap. I carried on as if nothing had happened, but when I returned to the pits at the end of that session I went and hid, in case the Honda people came looking for me.
Coudray and lgoa lost several laps and never recovered the time I cost them. With one less bike to beat, my team-mates — Lees and Vesa Kultalahti — and I worked our way into second, to finish behind Dutch Suzuki pair Henk van den Mark and Dirk Brand. Coudray and lgoa joined us for the riotous podium celebrations, having gallantly fought their way back to third. I made sure I didn’t catch Coudray’s eye throughout the ceremony.