Part 2: The Preliminaries.
Jimmy and I left from Newark for Paris on June 10 on our Air Canada flight. David used frequent flyer miles and travelled business class from Philadelphia. We met up at the CDG Airport car rental counter while awaiting our car. Per French customer service protocol I completed the paperwork at the counter, and was told to sit down and wait.
An hour later, I politely enquired about the status of my car. Hearing that it had not yet returned, I walked out to the lot to see for myself. Yup. Pretty much empty. The customer rep. claimed ignorance of the situation, but pointed to a large vehicle (the last one on the lot) and offered it to us with a shrug. Serendipitously, we ended up with the best possible car for our trip, a 9 passenger VW transporter. It had a diesel engine so our mileage would be good, and with three row seats, we each had our own “bed” for nighttime at LeMans! My original reservation was for a station wagon, but this suited for our purposes perfectly. We dubbed it the “Chateau Volkswagen”. (Later during our trip, on the Autobahn, we got our “Chateau” up to 104mph!) LeMans is about 125 miles southeast of Paris. I set the Garmin, and we were off!
Porsche had spent millions marketing its return to LeMans, under the banner of “Mission 2014 – Our Return”. We could see the evidence: forty miles from LeMans on the main Auto-route an Esso gas station had been transformed into a wraparound billboard for “Mission 2014”. We knew then…we were in for something special.
After dejeuner, we arrived at the Rouge parking lot just before 3:00 PM. On-track activities started at 4:00 PM for Wednesday and Thursday’s practice and qualifying runs, with sessions going until midnight. The Mulsanne straight is the main highway between LeMans and Tours and it is kept open for public traffic until an hour or two before the race cars start practice. We oriented ourselves and headed over the Dunlop pedestrian bridge to the Village. The Village has a number of restaurants, stores, and manufactures’ showcases. All the marques had displays, including Porsche, who had a tent with models of its significant LeMans winning cars. Unfortunately, it was underwhelming and overpriced.
We returned to the Dunlop curves in time to watch the first practice session. All was good until one of the three Audi’s crashed heavily and caused a red flag situation. By then, we had wandered down to Tertre Rouge corner for a glimpse of the start of the Mulsanne straight. Then, being jet-lagged and hoping to preserve our stamina for the next 24 hours, we set back to the hotel. An hour later, in Laval, we managed to check in and find our rooms despite the “sans-Anglais” front desk clerks. After a great French dinner at a nearby restaurant, we returned to our rooms, drew the electrically operated light-dimming shades, and retired for the night.
Those shades worked so well that we slept until noon when housekeeping knocked on our door! We each thought it still was the middle of the night. Our sightseeing plans for the day were shot, so after a casual riverside lunch at an outdoor café we headed back to LeMans, first for the Indianapolis and Arnage corners. The Village of Arnage was hopping with race fans, and it took us another hour to reach it. During practice the big TV screen across the track showed the two Porsche 919s in first and second place. The Arnage corner brought back memories of the sputtering Toyota in 1998 and the pass for the lead by Mc Nish’s Porsche. Our hopes were high!
All the seats were open during practice, so we got some great views looking directly down into the pit boxes. We also discovered the main grandstands on either side of the pit straights create a noise tunnel that amplifies the roar of the engines as they speed down the straight, shrilling loud enough to cause hearing damage.
Our highlight that evening was dinner at Grand Marnier crepes. It was outstanding and “tres Francais”, with huge bottles of Grand Marnier for self service! We ate our fill, then watched qualifying until dark, and then headed back to Laval. As I passed a truck on the Auto-route I was stunned by a flash of light! Yikes! I was snapped by a speed camera…at midnight. (Subsequently, I received a letter from the car rental company informing me I was speeding and that the “French Authorities” would be in contact with me. Six months since, I have yet to be advised that I was exceeding the 130 km/hr. speed limit.) We settled in, but made sure to set an alarm for the morning.
By tradition, Friday at LeMans is different: There are no on-track activities, except the evening “Parade of the Pilots” in the City of LeMans. So we skipped out, heading north toward the Normandy coast. Our first stop was Mont Saint Michel, an abbey dating back to the eighth-century, located on an island within a tidal estuary, and is one France’s most popular tourist attractions.
After a quick tour, we drove to Bayeux to visit the Normandy “D-day” Beaches. We met our guide Phillip, a young Brit in his late 20’s, scruffily groomed, in shorts and tee-shirt. Phillip started out acting like he had a 2-3 Red Bulls kick-start, but eventually settled down and was unexpectedly informative. We went to Pointe du Hoc, the site of a German artillery battery atop a 100 foot cliff. It was here that the US Rangers had to scale the cliff under fire, battling out the German position, thus enabling the allied troops to reach shore. We trod the awe-inspiring Omaha Beach, and saw the American Cemetery.
Part 3 will be the 24 Hours of LeMans