Le Mans Spectator Guide

So after all the months of uncertainty, while the sniping went on between motor racing's governing bodies FIA/FISA in Paris and the Automobile Club de L'Ouest in Le Mans, the great race will go on. Not that most people ever seriously doubted that it would. Too much was at stake for it to be cancelled on the whim of a transitory bureaucrat in Paris. The fact is the Sarthe regional economy and indeed the French national economy relies too much on the annual influx of cash that Les Vingt Quatre Heures brings, to allow it to be summarily destroyed. Therefore it was inevitable that the French government would become involved at some stage and that a classic compromise would be reached to save the faces of the parties involved. Most of the face-saving had to be done at the Paris end of the dispute. The FIA & FISA had set themselves to gain almost total financial control of the race — TV rights, catering rights etc.

Extraordinary as it seems now, they honestly believed that the lure of being allowed back into the World SportsPrototype Championship would be a sufficient lever to force the ACO round to their way of thinking. Naturally enough the ACO were not having any of that — and made it quite clear that they were not about to give up their control in any way, Le Mans could survive quite well outside the championship. It slowly dawned in Paris that despite what one of their officials had optimistically stated as fact the previous year, FIA, FISA and the championship needed Le Mans much more than Le Mans needed them, such was the marketability of the race, which is what the argument was all about in the first place of course.

Things started to get confused and not a little nasty at this stage — with claim and counter-claim, insult and counter-insult being thrown around. FIA/FISA said it would ban sine die any driver who took part in any future renegade 24 Hours to be organised. They also arranged for the withdrawal of the circuit's license — on the grounds that a quickly introduced, and previously unheard of regulation required that no circuit should have a straight longer than 2 kms — Oops, sorry! there goes the Mulsanne Straight — we're taking our ball away, so you can't play anymore — this is the point at which 'safety' became part of the dispute.

The ACO for their part continued to thumb their noses and called for help in the higher echelons of the French government. Jean-Marie Balestre was reputedly summoned for an interview with the Minister of Sport — and meanwhile some unpleasant little skeletons were dusted off and started being dangled in front of the press . . . .

In the meantime the major manufacturers started to make it known that they were not amused by the continued assault on the future of the jewel in sportscar racing's crown — and a few made it known that Le Mans was actually the reason they put up with the rest of the rather lacklustre and under-publicised championship, such is the cachet attached to winning at the Sarthe — which is what the argument was all about in the first place of course. In the end the ACO lost its Mulsanne Straight in the interests of 'safety' — though it will be interesting to hear the views of the drivers after about 23 hours of racing this year. Despite their claimed hatred for the Straight, most used it as a place to relax physically for a short while on every lap. It is also a fact that most mechanical failures occur whilst a car is under cornering and braking loads. So overall, when the drivers and cars start to get tired, we will be surprised if the two new chicanes don't feature far more incidents than the old straight ever did.

Of course, Le Mans still also remains outside the sportscar championship — but on past experience this is hardly likely to be regarded as a great big deal by the folks at the Circuit Permanent de la Sarthe. They have, however, effectively retained control of the event — which is only as it should be. All monies accrued still flow into their coffers — including the highly desirable television rights — which is what the argument was all about in the first place of course.

Despite the ludicrously superficial appearances to the contrary, the arguments have never been over the question of safety at all — though the finger can be justifiably pointed at the Sarthe event for weaknesses in some areas, particularly the antiquated pits complex and the lack of three layer armco round most of the circuit. Certainly because of this, the race is not terribly popular with some professional racing drivers. Having said that, for every driver that hates the place, you can find another that loves it — and they certainly keep coming back every year with their sponsors' cash to try and get a drive. To this end the ACO have committed themselves to a huge programme of improvments to the track generally, quite separate from those on the Mulsanne. For instance, this will be the last time we see the present pits — they are being rebuilt to modern standards to include a widened pit-lane road. With work commencing in July, the new complex will be ready for the 1991 race. Other improvements for this year are a safer approach into the existing pits, and extra camera posts round the circuit as well as the long awaited rebuilt and enlarged motor museum by the main entrance.

All this investment has to be taken as an admirable act of faith by the Automobile Club de L'Ouest and their loyal backers, because the long term future of the race can be regarded as in no way secure. The arguments will rumble on. The mandarins of the FIA have only called a truce for the moment and it will be both fascinating and aggravating for those of us that love this most British of French motor races, to see the machinations used by Paris in the coming months to bring the errant ACO back into the fold — and with it of course, all that lovely money!

Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that Le Mans has survived virtually unaided — and usually outside any prevailing championships since its inception in 1923. Long live La Ronde Infernale!

Tickets

There are two basic types of ticket access into the circuit, both of which can be purchased on arrival, Enceintes Mulsanne Arnage (about £14) and Enceintes Generales (about £27) both of which are valid for the whole week's circuit activities. The former will only allow you into the enclosures at Mulsanne and Arnage — so unless you are really short of cash it would be better to purchase an Enceintes Generales ticket — which will allow access into every public enclosure — as well as into the paddock and pits balcony, two hours after the start of the race.

Officially, there are no seats remaining in any of the Tribunes in the start/finish area, but you may be able to purchase cancellations by contacting the ACO's Service de Location offices by phone on 010 33 43 725025. If you don't speak French, get a friend who does to ring for you — or you may end up with the wrong tickets! The ACO can also be contacted by fax on 010 33 43 726983 or on their telex number of ACOUEST 720637. The Service de Location will also sell you any reserved parking spaces which are still available. If you are lucky enough to obtain tribune seats, remember that you still have to hold an Enceintes Generales pass to get into the circuit. If you can only obtain a general enclosure pass, don't despair, because Le Mans is still the world's finest spectator circuit and all enclosures will give excellent viewing opportunities. One important tip though — all enclosures are controlled by the use of a 'pass-out' system. When you leave any enclosure to go into one of a lower category you must obtain a pass-out ticket and keep it. When you wish to return to that enclosure you will have to surrender the pass-out and show the appropriate entrance ticket as well — if either is missing you won't get back in. So if in doubt demand a pass-out and keep everything secure in a zip pocket, don't use one of those trendy plastic pass holders around your neck, as "grab and run" theft is quite common during race week, as is accidental loss due to strings breaking or knots coming undone.

General Information and Emergencies

There are a number of first-aid posts around the circuit and contrary to belief, the police on duty are generally helpful. However, if you have a general query — or if all else fails In an emergency — contact the information kiosks situated in the main foyer of the Citroën Tribune or the 'Welcome' Chalet next to the Main entrance to the Tribune Enclosure. We have always found that the ladies staffing these offices are invariably patient and courteous — and if they do not speak English they can usually locate someone who does.

Viewing Points

Fortunately for the majority of British spectators, who will be arriving at the circuit without their own transport, Le Mans has a good choice of viewing points which are easy to reach on foot, accessible from the pits and start/finish area.

The Pits and Start/Finish Area. Immediately in front of the tribunes on the start/ finish straight are the terraced spectator enclosures, these offer a spectacular view of the action both in the pits and on on the track — and naturally it has to be the place to be for the start, especially if this is your first visit to the Sarthe. The atmosphere as the last minutes tick away before the start is quite unique and unmatched by any other race in the world. Particularly recommended after dark — when the crowd thins out and the race drama unfolds in this vast illuminated auditorium. Michael Frostick once wrote that this was "for one night a year, the most glamourous place on earth" — hardly, but stand and watch and you will get some idea of why it might be so. Be warned though, at the start and finish of the 24 hours, this area can get very crowded and hot so you might like to consider the altenative views to be had.

Dunlop Chicane and Bridge. An excellent area for photographers, formerly known as the Dunlop Curve, the chicane was built a couple of years ago, to reduce the speed of the cars as they approach the blind brow immediately under the bridge. Until 1988 the cars would accelerate from before the pits until the braking point at the start of the Esses — and it was regarded by the organisers as an accident that was bound to happen eventually. The Chicane is not popular with the drivers, but it's super-safe, with huge amounts of kitty-litter in all directions. The famous bridge itself is in fact a pedestrian access to either side of the track and is currently in its third incarnation, having previously been sited at the end of the pits straight, until being rebuilt in the Sixties on the present site and replaced in the 1970s by the larger structure you see today.

The Esses and Terte Rouge. A walk down the other side of the hill from the bridge takes you to the complex of three corners that seem to have become known generically as Terte Rouge (Red Hillock). The cars thunder down past the funfair on the outside of the track (which is not really a place to take any children you have in your party incidentally — very tacky!), to the tricky left and right of the Esses. They then swing gradually out to the outside rumble strips to get the correct line for the entry onto the Mulsanne Straight at the real Terte Rouge corner. This is as far as you can get on foot out onto the Straight. Incidentally, there are lots of pine woods here which become a temporary nocturnal home for Le Mans' transient population — so watch out you don't tread on anyone after dark!

The "Technical Section" towards White House. The old disused White House section can be found a hundred yards to the west of the new section of track bearing its name and is worth a look if you have your own transport. The White House is still there on the outside of the track — and has now been modernised into a private residence but the old peeling advertising hoardings that remain along here give it an eery atmosphere — and make it hard to shake off the feeling that the wraiths of the brave men that teetered along this narrow road at night in the rain in their over-powered, narrow-tyred monsters still haunt the place. What replaced it is really rather boring from the spectator's point of view — lined as it is with Silverstone type catchfencing. The fencing has proved very necessary, however, with several pilots having tried to jump the armco along here in recent years. Flat, featureless, but extremely high speed and taxing for the man behind the wheel — particularly in traffic. You will, however, probably find some time at the Ford Chicane at the end of this section very rewarding.

The Ford Chicane. The approaches are lined with the same high fencing — but look out for the action as swathes of cars all try to get the same line through the complex. Slow and fast traffic do not mix — and it was never more apparent than here — particularly if the slower drivers fail to keep an eye on the mirrors. A great place to watch the first day's practice sessions, with the big teams on qualifying engines and rubber and the hotshoes trying to remove their cars' undertrays on the rumble strips on both sides of the tarmac — Hans Stuck is always a notably athletic performer through this part of the circuit. An excellent photographic vantage point is at the exit of the chicane, where there is no fencing and the cars are still moving fairly slowly under acceleration up the finish straight.

The Finish. As we previously mentioned, it is very crowded indeed here during peak times — but you really must bear witness to the annual suicide rites of the more lunatic fringes of the crowd who hurl themselves in front of the still-racing cars as they finish at four o'clock. You may even wish to join them — and there seems to be some scope for instant celebrity, as incredibly, no-one seems to have been killed so far — so it could be you! You may, however, have more modest ambitions to watch the remaining walking wounded wheeze in and out of the pits in the sometimes vain hope of qualifying as a finisher. There is also the unusual Le Mans magic which defies logic and means there is always a good chance that there will be a real motor race and therefore a close finish to be enjoyed — especially as the number of strong teams present, mean that the race should be the most competitive for years.

If you have your own transport and want to explore other parts of this large circuit a good first move would be to purchase a good large scale map of the area from a 'tabac'. The best one is the Institut Geographique National (IGN) Blue Series number 1719 Est — which takes in all of Le Mans and its environs including the circuit. Having said that, always follow the special ACO signposting and traffic control where it is in force (during all periods of on-track activity) and don't attempt to try and `map-read' and take what seems to be the short route to any of the following locations. You will be sent on circuitous routes all over the Sarthe landscape to travel even short distances — but don't try and beat the system, you will only be stopped by a grumpy looking policeman and sent back.

Mulsanne Corner (sign posted Virage Mulsanne). Once a classic corner, but now a shadow of its former self, emasculated to allow for the building of a roundabout scheme to ease access into a local shopping complex. With the building of the FISA chicane at the end of the Mulsanne, just before the kink reducing the approach speeds, it is likely that this will be just another corner and the challenge it once was, will be all but gone. Nevertheless the spectator embankments on the outside of the bend offer good views, especially at night, when the signalling pits on the inside of the corner are busy. Radio Le Mans is tricky to pick-up here though — so you may lose track of what is going on for a while. Plenty of free official parking about 800 metres from viewing areas — so expect a 10 minute walk.

Indianapolis and Arnage (signposted Virage Arnage). My favourite place to be on the whole circuit. If the weather is kind, this is a very pleasant and relaxing place as the shadows lengthen and the air cools on Saturday night — try taking a picnic out here — I've never got round to it, but the idea appeals! Never as crowded as other places (except at the start) and surrounded on all sides by pine forest. These two corners are now the only ones which remain from the original 1923 circuit in more or less their original form. Indianapolis is a fast sweeping right-hander followed by a slow second gear left, with a quick spurt up to the slowest corner on the circuit — Arnage. Much jostling for track space and Indianapolis is always catching out the unwary drivers. Lots of free parking immediately adjacent to the entrance of this enclosure.

Mulsanne Straight. Mulsanne will never be the same again — or that is the way it seems at the moment. Of course this ignores the fact that the chicanes that FISA have enforced on the ACO are temporary structures and the N138 still slices straight through both of them, who knows what could happen in future years? Nevertheless, we are stuck with them for this year — and to be quite objective, it is unlikely that they will affect the spectacle of the 24 Hours for most of us. What effect they will have on the weary drivers in the dark reaches of the night is quite another thing of course. The Mulsanne Straight was never all it was cracked up to be anyway and was accessible to spectators at two points only — and then only at the price of a meal. The first is the Restaurant de 24 Heures, which is merely an overpriced meeting place for raucous and inebriated British fans during the race. Before, you could sit within yards as the cars blasted past here at 235 mph, but now it will be on the braking area for the first of the new chicanes — les Virages de L'Arche, so it may even be worth visiting in future — or maybe not. Number two — and by far the better bet — is Le Ferme de Mulsanne Restaurant (tel: 010 33 43 420076) on the outside of the kink, further down the Straight. Regrettably, gone now will be one of the great experiences in motor-racing — standing in the garden after a meal at dusk, as the setting sun cuts through the pines and the scream of the engines and the flickering headlights warned you of the blindingly quick passage of the cars through the kink. The second chicane — Les Virages de la Florandiere has now been built just before the restaurant — but out of sight, so inevitably the spectacle will have diminished. Nevertheless, worth a visit and speeds should still be quite high, even though the cars will still be accelerating as they pass now. Reach the restaurant along a sign-posted track off the D140 Ruadin-Mulsanne road. To get to either of these establishments during race and practice, you have to be able to prove that you have an advance booking for a meal there, otherwise all access to the Mulsanne Straight is closed. IB