France their England
Le Mans has an atmosphere all of its own, largely, it must be said, because of the British fans who have been faithfully going there over the years, and more so in the last few years because of the presence of the Silk Cut Jaguar team.
The enthusiasts’ excitement, knowledgeable banter and particular brand of charm pervades not just the 24 hours, but the whole week leading up to the race, starting when you board your ferry and building to a crescendo in the last hour of the race. This year, not just the two remaining Jaguars but also the gallant surviving Aston Martin were cheered all the way to the finish line.
Porsches may have dominated the event for almost the last two decades, and Sauber Mercedes this year, but the Sarthe retains a special place in British hearts, a place carved out by the Bentleys in particular before the war and Jaguars, Aston Martins, Lolas and Ford GT40s since, as well as by a plethora of individuals and private teams. Tim Lee-Davey, who bought his new Porsche 962 on a standard hire-purchase scheme and completed the 24 hours this year in one piece, is just one individual who has brought a touch of British club racing, with all its easy-going camaraderie, to the international sports-car racing scene.
Naturally there is a rowdy element in the crowd, but on the whole it is in a minority and does nothing to detract from this great British weekend which just happens to take place in France.
It would be difficult to imagine a rumbustious but goodhearted crowd of youthful Germans singing Deutschland Uber Alles to Peter Sauber and the Mercedes team two hours after the event, if they had only finished fourth, but Tom Walkinshaw was the subject of a lighthearted chorus of God Save the Queen. Can you imagine the German flag being carried around the paddock after the race by Father Christmas in full garb, in the heat of June, collecting the signatures of the Mercedes or indeed any other team? The Union Jack was!
Another interesting aspect of this unique event is the variety of cars in which enthusiasts are prepared to travel, most of them on British plates: we saw little Austin Sevens, the usual group of Bentleys and Aston Martins, a Lagonda LG45, post-war cars ranging from a scrubby little Spitfire painted in Silk Cut colours to the usual parade of beautiful E-types, Porsches, Ferraris, modified Mark II Escorts and Triumph Dolomites plus a fascinating selection of kit-cars, without really looking. Few of the drivers were there to pose, but were using their cars for the purpose of visiting the motor racing equivalent of Mecca.
One should not become too nationalistic about these things, but again, it has to be said that the character of Le Mans holds a magic attraction for everyone involved, because of its Britishness.
God bless the French for providing the venue, the occasion, the fund— and just for being French. God bless the Germans and Japanese for providing such sterling competition. God bless the drivers of all nationalities for being so foolhardy as to compete. God bless all the mechanics, marshals and organisers for putting on the show. But above all, God bless the British enthusiast for making his annual pilgrimage to Le Mans and helping to make this race one of the greatest sporting occasions in the world.