Le Mans 24 hour 2003

After last year’s excellent trip down to Le Mans with TIPEC, this year I was determined to share the experience with some other Marcos owners. I started mentioning the idea to people at the CMI (Club Marcos International) rally in June and got a fairly positive response. People either said “Oh I haven’t been for years, it would be great to go again”, or “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to go”. Good! I was going to have some company then! A few months later and the emails were flying. We finally got a group of about twelve Marcos, with some Marcos groupies(!) tagging along in the form of a couple of TVRs and an Alfa. I had also discovered that this was going to be the largest group of Marcos to have gone to Le Mans, so I was feeling pretty pleased with myself – we were going to look great together, all in convoy!

Despite broadcasting to all and sundry that we were trying to get a group together for the trip down to Le Mans, a few people from the MOC (Marcos Owners Club) decided to go ahead and book their own thing. This was pretty frustrating, but rather than get wound up about it I decided to change our original campsite from Camping Bleu (great atmosphere) to Expo, where they were, just to keep the cars together. There were a few last minute changes-of-mind by people (both to come and not to come!), but all the tickets were booked before the end of 2002 (getting us a nice discount on the Chunnel!) and everything was looking good. The first quarter of 2003 saw someone drop out of sight whose tickets I had paid for (Cheers Bob), but after weeks of trying to locate him, I finally gave up and made the tickets available to newcomers. One day later they were sold! Heh! Heh! I shouldn’t have worried. Even better, they had gone to a V6 owner, so now we would have a nice old car along with us too, giving an even better range of Marcos models in the group. As the day of departure approached, activity on the Marcos forum reached frenzied levels, and not all of it was taking the piss out of me (which makes a nice change). Kit lists were discussed and revised. So were the arrangements, directions, cars (some people were still building theirs!) etc. Everything except the date and the destination in fact!

Determined not to be the source of any car problems for the rest of the group, I had had as much as I could afford (and then some!) fixed on my Mantis. New front and back suspension bushes, brakes all round, tyres all round and so on had made a big ol’ dent in the budget, but the car was running perfectly. In a bid to minimise the journey in France on the Thursday, a few of us had decided to travel down on the Wednesday and get as close as possible to the Chunnel. So it was that I met up with a nice maroon Marcos LM500 about midday in Cheshire, and we both set off for Ashford Travelodge. Six hours and some very unhealthy service-station junk food later we were there, having had a faultless trip. As it turned out this was lulling us into a false sense of security, but more of that later! A futile trip to Halfords to find a 12V hairdryer (what, you think the quiff stays up by itself? Yeah right…) was followed by some filling nosh at Frankie and Bennys, and quite a lot of Mexican beer. Later on we were joined by Marcos guru Dave Chivers and Mandy in their beautiful purple Mantis Coupe (one of three ever made). We had a couple more cheeky ones to celebrate Dave’s arrival, then hit the hay in readiness for some serious motoring the next day. Despite the beer I struggled to get to sleep, as I was already getting excited having seen the three Marcos together in the Travelodge car park – tomorrow we would have four times as many! Vroooooom!

A hurried breakfast (well, by me at any rate, everyone else had the full bollocks – troughing lot) and we were off to the rendezvous for 0830, which was the Services at Jn 11 of the M20. At least, it would have been had there actually been any services there… This is what comes of going along with other people’s suggestions you see, instead of just telling everyone how it’s going to be (I am too nice at heart). Eh? What blame culture? Heh! However, no harm done, and after a few hurried calls to some mobile numbers we all linked up down a sidetrack just off the junction itself. It was great to see all the cars there (even the TVR – that’s how excited I was by this point!!!). Sadly one of the LM500s had experienced clutch failure on the way there, but the owner was going to meet us in Le Mans in a second vehicle. We set off for the Chunnel and booked in without any problems. Lots of attention in the Chunnel car park set the scene for the rest of the weekend, with a number of Ferraris and Lambos being ignored in preference to us! And quite right too!

Then came the first of a series of events that was to make the trip down to Le Mans, um, a little more eventful than one might have wished. Our train was delayed for about half an hour, then when the cars (er… and us!) had been loaded there was a further delay of about forty minutes. This might have been a bit more bearable if the air con in our carriage had been working, but it wasn’t. It got sodding hot in there, and was bloody uncomfortable. Eventually the train moved off, and half an hour later everyone around us was speaking a foreign language – we were either in France or Birmingham! A mass stopover at the Elf garage to fuel up confirmed it was the former (you can tell by the petrol prices you see…). This was followed by a practice convoy to a car park (OK, the lead car got lost), then we set off in earnest for Le Mans. Within minutes the convoy had got sliced ‘n’ diced by other cars, and with the group being foolishly light on French maps (guilty as charged y’r honour) it was only a matter of time before a serious split occurred. This happened before we had even left Calais, and seven of us ended up on the road to Paris. While this is a route to Le Mans, it wasn’t our route to Le Mans, so it quickly became apparent we needed to turn round. Quickly, but not quickly enough to stop us overshooting the last junction before a bloody great stretch of the road with no turn offs. Arse! A whole hour later we had managed to retrace our steps and met up with the rest of the group who were looking slightly bemused, but had had a chat and a break. Which was nice. For them.

So, together once more, we tanked it down the toll roads towards Rouen without splitting again, with lots of other cars slowing down to check the convoy out (which pissed off a lot of the local drivers, so it wasn’t a completely wasted day). The weather was great for driving, with a mixture of bright sunshine and light cloud cover; and the roads were smooooooth and lurvely! I was having a great time! Although my pal Si, who was ahead of us somewhere in a Porker, had phoned earlier to mention that the southbound tunnel in Rouen was closed, he had only experienced an extra fifteen minutes on his journey. Alas, the delay on the Chunnel and heading off to Paris cost us dear, as we hit standing traffic way outside of Rouen, and started to get grief with the older cars. The V6 was struggling with the heat and a dodgy starter, and one of the Mantula’s was having problems with the electrics on the fuel pump. The group fractured again as some people stopped to bump start the V6, and others helped the Mantula off the road in Rouen itself. A good ninety minutes later we were the other side of Rouen, but not together, and time was slipping by as it was mid-afternoon by this point.

I made the decision to stop at an Elf garage just south of Rouen, on the last major turning before the run straight down to Le Mans. Somehow my group had managed to leapfrog the others, but eventually we all met, having lost more time hanging about for each other. People were starting to get hungry and tempers were fraying as it became obvious we were not going to make the campsite in good time. “Can you remember how to put that tent up in the dark, huh? Hmm… thought not! Me neither”. Wonder how Big Issue sellers do in France? At this point it was becoming obvious that my dream of getting a convoy of Marcos to majestically cruise into Le Mans just wasn’t going to happen, and I began to feel a bit disheartened. It was decided that people should get down to LM at their own speed, and we all set off. The troubled V6 quite rightly decided to just go for it. The rest of the group soon polarised into the heavy-footed ‘See ya!’ brigade, and the rest of us who had decided to stick with the cars whose owners had expressed some concern at taking their cars over eighty. This was pretty frustrating to be honest, but I felt responsible having organised most of the people in the latter group, so off we trundled.

We hit Alecon about 2200 hours, with Le Mans heavily signposted. A bit too heavily for me as it turned out, being the lead car at the time, when I made the wrong choice at a roundabout showing two possible routes to LM, and we unknowingly set off eastwards rather than south. Aaaaargh! An M3 and an Ultima shot past us, lending some undeserved credibility to the route, and it was only some twenty minutes later that we pulled over to check the map when I was informed that we were on the wrong road and should’ve taken a different exit at the roundabout. Doh! And double Doh! Pretty much everyone was getting a little touchy by now; most people ‘cos we were ‘geographically misplaced’, and me because (with a few exceptions – thanks to Mark and Dave) no-one was prepared to take on the responsibility of navigating. At the back of my mind a little voice was wondering why I had bothered to distribute walkie-talkies to the group, when most people weren’t using them. and someone might have mentioned that we were off track a little sooner than they did. Oh well.

Those of us who still had the remnants of that morning’s enthusiasm soon came up with a route to get us back en route to LM, and we turned off at the next junction, headed south. I don’t know what was going through other peoples’ heads as we travelled through dusk into darkness, but the roads were empty (Hey, it was dark and we were lost, of course it was empty! Who’d be stoopid enough to be on that road at that time?) and the sunset was beautiful. Headlights came on and we streamed into the outskirts of Le Mans, V8s growling away, hoods down, with an ‘almost there’ feeling! But… what’s this…. only ‘almost all of us’ were ‘almost there’! An incoming call revealed that our mechanic on his Honda Firestorm had run out of petrol as we entered the town, and his pal in a Mantis had dutifully stayed with him. I decided to get people into the campsite first, then send a single car back with a jerry of fuel for the bike. Obviously that car was going to be me, but hey-ho.

Finding the campsite in LM was farcical for my group. At least I was relieved to learn that the rest of the group had all made it there ahead of us, including the V6 (who beat us all I think!). However it didn’t seem to matter which route we drove into the circuit, the signs for Expo just stopped in the middle of a car park. In heavy traffic the remaining five cars in our group circled the campsites for over an hour, until finally one of the others walked down to the campsite entrance and guided us in. The solid stream of cars exiting the single-lane gate had convinced us that it was an exit-only, and we had come within feet of the entrance at least twice in the preceding half hour. An insignificant little annoyance, but on top of everything else it seemed like the last straw. Actually, it was the penultimate straw(!), ‘cos when we got to the area the others had camped at, another group had (understandably I suppose) taken the space and there was nowhere to put tents up. The team whining reached a crescendo, before the deafening silence which ensued when I asked for a volunteer to come with me when I went back out again to take petrol to the stranded bike and Mantis on the outskirts of Le Mans. The two guys had been pretty patient for the last three hours, but I was guessing the novelty was starting to wear off! In the end I left my chick to put the tent up (which she cocked up, I’d like to point out. Had to do it again at 0200 hours on the Friday morning!) and got on with things. I finally found a volunteer to guide me round a darkened LM in the shape of the legendary Normski, owner of a NOS’d-up Mantula, and absolutely mad as a hatter. Now having arrived the previous day, Norm had had a drink or two, and his confidence in guiding me to the marooned bike was only mildly dented by us getting lost about 500 yards from the campsite exit. By now I had taken a philosophical approach to things, and found the whole days (we were into the following day by now!) events fairly amusing. Therefore I quite happily followed Normski’s wild directions, only once remarking upon the fact that we had better turn round, as all the road signs were starting to mention Paris again! Eventually we spotted the missing twosome at a petrol station, morosely staring at a pump which was full of petrol, but required some bizarre French fuel card to extract any. It is a good thing we came along when we did as I think they were plotting to do bad, bad things to the petrol station! Anyway, we gave them the petrol can, they wisely refused our offer to guide them into the campsite, and Normski and I set back off to Expo for some sorely needed kip. Suffice to say that twenty minutes later we were entering Mulsanne village and were well and truely lost. Well, it just seemed like on of those things, you know? Inevitably I was lost again. Normski was still pissed. But the hood was down. It was dry. I was in my Mantis, in (well, near) Le Mans and life just didn’t seem so bad.

Eventually we got back to the campsite. Normski had shown me a sneaky side entrance which we waltzed into, no worries, and, apart from having to put the tent up again, I was soon crashed out, wondering how long it would take to get to sleep with five very pissed blokes chatting away less than a foot from our abode (I told you there was nowhere to put the tents!). We were well into Friday by now. Oops! Well, it had definitely been an adventure getting down here! Oh yes…

Getting my sorry arse out of bed on Friday morning, I stuck my head out of the tent, only to appreciate that we had squeezed a lot of Marcos into not much space. And then put tents in the gaps! Any of the early arrivees were going to have to ask around a bit if they wanted to take their car anywhere, that was for sure! A trip to the Carrefour was soon organised, and we emerged sometime later with a little beer, and a lot of cheese. Last year, when I did not take the wench, it was the other way round. This tells me something… Anyway, after various others decided they too wanted to discover the delights of the supermarket, we finally got most of the drivers together about 1400 hours (having aimed for 1200 – hah!) and we went for a cruise to Arnarge corner. First of all, of course, we would have to run the gauntlet on the road adjacent to Camping Bleu (a great place to be a spectator, an ‘interesting’ place to be a driver!!!). There is no doubt that I got off lightly here, due to Normski lighting up his tyres in front of me, and Richard P snaking all over the shop in his gorgeous red Mantis behind me! It’s hard to explain to seven hundred pissed Englishman that you’ve just shelled out eight hundred smackers for a brand new set of rubber, and would they mind awfully if you didn’t render them useless in the space of a few seconds ‘cos it looks cool?!? Er… so I didn’t, I just drove through the smoke from the Mantula’s tyres. If I couldn’t vaporise the tyres, at least I could put on a respectable turn of speed, and we were doing an impressive seventy by the time we exited the short stretch of road, and at least got a cheer of approval from the next group as we screeched round the corner doing a slightly cavalier rate of knots. Unfortunately when we got to Arnarge Corner, the police had blocked it off and were not allowing any more civvies to even park around there, never mind get on the circuit. Christian, who had joined us from Germany in his nice yellow Mantula (Good effort!) and was leading us, made a cunning attempt to approach the corner from the other end, but we were thwarted here as well. We decided to make the best of it and headed off for Arnarge village. There were, I think, fourteen Marcos in the convoy (maybe one or two more?), and I can safely say that we have accounted for a goodly amount of 35mm film and video footage, as we dominated the route between the track and the village. You won’t see that many Marcos on the road together anywhere outside the annual rallies in the UK, so it was something special to be a part of, and it certainly felt like it. Again, I can’t speak for any of the other drivers, but all the previous days grief seemed worthwhile as we cruised along the country lanes to the snap and whirr of cameras. If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. Everyone, and I mean everyone, got at least one picture of our Marcos convoy. Ironically, I don’t believe any of us did (so if anyone out there wants to email me a copy, that’d be damned decent of you!), but just being part of it was enough at the time.

A lack of parking space splintered the group once we hit Arnarge village, and so I ended up spending a glorious Friday afternoon with the chosen few, sitting on the roundabout, drinking cold beer (them) or cold coke (me) and watching the amusing goings-on outside the Harlequin bar, where burnouts and waterpistols were de rigueur, and a good time was being had by all. Here we were finally joined by the rather fetching Mrs Morrison and her hubby Darren, who are excellent fun, in their nice Marcos LM500. They had been ringing me for the past two days, initially taunting me with how nice it all was out there (as I was still in the UK at that point), then to ask where the bollox we were, as I kept having to change the meeting arrangements as I struggled to get the group moving. Anyway, we made it in the end, and met up with Dave and Mandy in the purple Mantis Coupe as well. Eventually we got bored and drifted off back to the campsite, but not before we got a few more snaps of badly parked Marcos. That’s probably the reputation we have over there now – awesome cars, can’t park! Ah well.

Back at the campsite my pal Si and his Old Man, Fritz, who were gracing the rather nicer campsite, Bleu, wandered over to say hello. I was pretty pleased about this as I was starting to appreciate that collecting a group of people together where the only thing in common was the marque of car they drove was inevitably going to result in a mixture of people I did and didn’t get on with. So, it was nice to see a friendly face, as it were. We grabbed some nice cold beers at the handy beer tent run by some Bentley supporters, talked complete tosh for a while then buggered off to our respective tents to grab some food. Some excellent BBQ was had, some beer drunk, and we finally started to make a dent in the mountain of cheese we had acquired. This was pretty much how Friday came to a close. I was shagged. Can’t remember anything else, sorry. Oh yeah – I think it rained during the night. Hope that wasn’t one of the lads…

Saturday the weather was great again. We legged it over to the grandstand (Tribune 4) to see what our seats were like and to watch the ‘Le Mans Legends’ race. This was cool and better than the actual race IMHO. The GT40s were beautiful. There were some great cars running, and because it was only an hour we watched the whole thing. The Legends race over, we went for a wander round the stalls, got impressively wet in a sudden cloudburst and legged it back to the tent to change into dry clothes and eat some cheese. We made it back to our grandstand seats about 1500 hours though, and watched the build-up to the start of the 2003 Le Mans 24 hour race. The view from our seats wasn’t quite as cool as last year, but still pretty decent, so we watched the race until about 1730, then went for another wander, some beers, and of course some more cheese. Saturday night my chick just totally wiped out, man, so all my plans of getting to Arnarge to see some night racing went to ratshit. Instead the nights entertainment was provided by one of our group back at Expo, who, having experienced the intellectual benefits of a bottle of cherry brandy, had a screaming domestic with his other half for a couple of hours. Me, personally I wish I had slept through it, but I didn’t, so you’ll forgive me if I say that the next day when he decided to go back to the UK before the race had even finished, I was not too gutted. Nice guy, nice bird, nice Marcos – shit timing.

The cars were still whizzing round the circuit when I woke up on Sunday morning – this was not unexpected. A breakfast of, you’ve guessed it, some cheese (washed down with cheese), was followed by an amble over to visit Si and Fritz at Camping Bleu. There was some quality eye-candy opposite his tent (of the two legged, rather than four wheeled variety, you understand) which added to the general pleasantness of the morning. Wish someone would make a Gonzo movie at Le Mans! Any road up, having had a wander round the other fields in Bleu to check out other people’s auto-hardware, we all sauntered in the direction of the grandstands about 1400 hours to get ready for the end of the race. I finally bought an official 2003 t-shirt, even though they don’t have the cred they used to, what with previous year’s shirts being resold nowadays. The race itself seemed to have been a bit less exciting than it sometimes is, and the winners were pretty predictable. Nice tussle between the Panoz and the Liegier on the last couple of laps though.

After the anti-climatic finish we legged it for a beer, only to discover that everyone had stopped serving as soon as the race finished, which was a bit of a bummer frankly. Subdued, we ambled off to the campsite in the forlorn hope that the local beer tent would still be serving, which they were! Huzzah! A couple of wet ones later even they were wrapping up, and we retreated to our tents for, well, some more cheese obviously, but some warm French beer, too. With the news that the shower block was about to be towed away there was a last minute frenzy of activity from a few people who are closer to God than the rest of us, but personally I was too sozzled to do anything complicated like stand under running water. In the evening a few of the guys went out to Arnarge Corner again in their cars, but no-one had mentioned it to me so I was waaay over the limit, and as I suspected, there was nothing and nobody about when they got there anyway. Meanwhile I had some more cheese and some beers with the top chappies who dwell in ‘Imelda Mansions’, an imposing but under-populated (apart from the motorbike!) twelve man tent which dominated our campsite. An excellent bunch of chaps who I had not met before, and found to be a good chuckle (but generally happier once they had petrol. Ho! Ho!) who had come along in a Mantis, the bike and the Alfa.

Sunday night was packing night, with an intended ETA of 0630 the following morning. The MOC guys were catching an early ferry and rose at 0430, so we feigned sleep for about three minutes, then admitted defeat and got up too. It’s impossible to pull off quietly in a V8! After a final nibble on the cheese, it was condemned and disposed of, and we set off. This time there was no attempt at staying together as a group (I had only wanted to arrive en masse, wasn’t fussed about going back). Ironically we managed it much better this time, only getting separated outside Rouen, where thanks to some inspired choices by my navigator (and of course some great driving by me; those traffic lights are tricky you know…) we got to the next Services a good twenty minutes before the others. A hastily co-ordinated exit from the Services was videoed by the every-handy Jay on his bike, and then we were off on our final run up to Calais. The group separated again after a few minutes, and we ended up as part of a convoy of three Mantis Spyders and the Mantis Coupe, plus Jay on the bike. We stayed like this all the way to Calais, and hopefully got some decent video footage for/of one of the Mantis owners on the way. ‘Cos we just looked goddam great. Yeah.

No problems with the Chunnel on the way back, with some people even making an early crossing. On the other side we chose to wait for Cazzer in his LM500, but with no means of communicating with him, after two hours we decided to make a run home anyway, and eventually got back early evening. It’s fair to say that I slept well that night, although I missed the cheese.

I assume everyone made it back in one piece. I haven’t spoken to many people, and the annual rally is only a couple of weeks away, so I will see most of them again soon. Looking back, I am glad I was instrumental in getting a decent number of Marcos owners to take their cars over to Le Mans, and I met some great people as a result of it. I hope some of the people who hadn’t been before enjoyed the experience as much as I did on my first trip. Next year I will take a slightly different approach and travel over with some chums, regardless of the car they drive. I hope to take some of this years fellow travellers with me. I won’t be staying at Expo.. Perhaps Camping Bleu, which has a nice atmosphere (and a good view sometimes!), but perhaps a little cottage a few minutes drive away from the circuit. With a swimming pool. Yes. That’d be nice…

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