Every 2 years, around the start of July, the NMR platoon groups together for the migration to the hallowed ground.....Le Mans. A good compound of seasoned veterans and Le mans newbies made up the 2016 ensemble, with a good variety of cars to represent the mountain rescuing capabilities of mountain-less norfolk.
04:30 Wednesday 6th July 2016, the meeting place, a service station on the outskirts of Norfolk, the rendezvous point for everybody to meet, 2 per car, and begin our 450 mile descent into France and our designated basecamp for the weekend, the grounds of the luxurious Chateau de Chateloup complete with swimming pool. The initial goal however was to make it over the toll bridge before 06:30 when the toll charge applies, looking after the pennies and all that!
The convoy consisted of 7 cars in total all crammed with a selection of mainly camping gear, the odd pair of clothes and other camping essentials such as swimming shorts (did I mention the Chateau had a pool?) Navigation and pace were controlled by a Porsche 911 turbo up front and a 1984 Ford Capri 3.0 bringing up the rear and making sure all the in-between 'ducklings' were in tow. The rest of the convoy consisted of a BMW M3 CSL, Seat Leon Cupra R, Alfa Romeo Brera, Triumph TR6 and BMW 1 series.
Having defeated the toll charge, the next destination was Dover to board the awaiting ferry. Our first thought as we arrived was 'it's a bit busy' then it dawned on us, we'd decided to travel to France during Euro '16........balls! No matter, we'll just rely on the efficiency of UK border control......balls!
The ferry ride was as can be expected and once we'd all regrouped, with the Porsche being put on a different ferry, we ventured into French territory! Having previously relied on the truly superb french toll roads in previous years, we decided it might be nice to avoid toll roads and try the scenic route and discover what else France had to offer. Imagine UK B roads but with incredible scenery and no cars, the roads were nowhere near as smooth as the tolls but by no means in poor state of repair. Towns are a challenge in a convoy and the use of walkie-talkies made things easier, it even prompted a few laughs when trying to manouvre through towns. Good fun was had by all and following a good 10 hours we arrived, chucked the tents up and headed straight for the pool, had a bite to eat, a couple of a drinks and called it a night.
We had decided to arrive a day early to ensure we had time to get food for the weekend, a chance to enjoy the on-site amenities (did somebody say pool?) and discover other France's rich history, including a Chateau offering it's lawn to a variety of car clubs.
Friday welcomes the qualifying of all classes, from the 1920's bentley blower where cornering is simply dictated by throttle input and the size of the drivers' cahunas, up to the mid 80's flame throwers which provide plenty of ooooh's and aaaaah's, not to mention plenty of opportunities for budding photographers, including the occassional "hang on, is that a f*****g nascar"
Each class has a daytime and nightime qualifying session. The daytime is interesting because, well it's Le-Mans but the nightime is where you want to be. We'll come back to on the nightime shortly once we've touched on a fantastic event hosted by the owners of our base, a garden party. The theme was Silver and White with one of our tribe, a 1984 Ford Capri 3.0 graced with a spot on the parade. Everybody has a vote for their best car and is followed by a chance to let off some steam with a good howl by all willing cars, a great way to keep the nighbours on side, or not! Our highlight was a Noble M12 boasting 700hp and one hell of an antilag system which decided to destroy his intake manifold in a plume of smoke. I hope he had plenty of duct tape for that one!
Having eaten, adored the selection of cars and congratulated the winner, we all bundled in a few cars and headed for the notorious Arnage corner. The surrounding woodland acts as a perfect acoustic trap and sets the stage for assortment of cars and drivers to test their limits and wrestle for the front of the Le-Mans start. We arrived at the start of Plateau 4, which boasts the best of the best from Ferrari, Ford and Lola, with the introduction of the illustrious Ford GT40. Grid 5 is very similar to Grid 4 with the domination of Ford but slowly gets shadowed by the most successful manufacturer in Le Mans history, Porsche. The final grid of the night is Grid 6 and lays claim to the damn right mad, with a flurry of Porsches in a medley of guises. Just sitting here writing this now, makes me want to get in the car and run back there. I'm not sure what it is, if it's the smell, the atmosphere, the heritage or maybe us petrolheads are simply a flock of birds, migrating to the rich spoils awaiting us, call it instinct.
Saturday is race day. 4pm signals the start of a 24 hours of action, only interrupted to change plateau and chuck a few PR cars round. However, before this, Le Mans offers an wealth of stands, exhibits and even an auction, just in case you see the racing and think "yeah, I can do that". Far too many hours were spend dribbling over cars we can only dream of and soon enough; 4pm rolled around. We gathered at the start/finish straight and watched as the first plateau of cars slowly assembled in, what's probably known as, the most famous starting formation in history. The cars one side, the drivers on the other, waiting eagerly for their signal, a whistle.
The next 24 hours were a blur of racing, mega heat and friends and before we knew it, we were watching plateau 6 finishing at the start finish. There had been a mixture of daytime and nightime racing experienced from various locations, although the mulsanne parking is a bitch to find so it was mainly dunlop curves, arnage and tetre rouge. Below are a few of the best photos.
Before we knew it, the race had finished and the migration of disciples flock to their next destination. For us, the next destination was home. Sunday night was spent finishing off the remainder of the food, drinking the resevoir of beer. Monday morning was a quick hustle to make sure all of the kit fitted back into the cars again, albeit a bit more care-free than on the descent.
I'm not sure what it is about a convoy but you develop a feeling of camaraderie and pride that non-petrolheads possibly don't understand. There are always holiday blues when leaving a venue that offers as much as Le Mans but the drive home certainly helps to dissipate any of those feelings. It doesn't matter what you drive, supercar to family car, you develop a sense of family in a convoy. A family which was tested to its limits when approaching Calais. Due to the influx of traffic trying to board the ferry back to Dover, the gendarmerie decided to close the road with no warning of tailbacks to unsuspecting drivers. What happened next can only be described as a miracle when our leading car noticed this tailback over the crest of a hill, was forced to perform an emergency stop and caused a backward travelling wave in which nobody collided, although our TR6 member was forced to change lanes to avoid collision. Having avoided a catastrophe we were subjected to about an hour of gridlock until the road was finally re-opened. This is the only time in my lifetime I can recall standing in the middle of a motorway eating Jaffa Cakes. What a way to end a holiday eh?
All that's left to say is a big thank you to a group of friends who made the trip what it was and to say Goodbye f now to Le Mans, see you soon old friend.