They say you never forget your first kiss.
For me, it was 1967, on the minibus to St Joseph’s Convent, Lincoln but as for the lucky girl – fortunately for her, the name is lost in the mists of time. Still, we were only six!
Some first loves do endure, however and for me 1983 marks one such. It was June and once more, buses played their part – this time transporting me to delights previously not expected… my first trip to Le Mans.
Leaving the office in Teddington on a Friday night, we caught the train to Victoria and boarded a Page & Moy coach. Onto the night ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, then an early morning coach to Le Mans, stopping to change into shorts on the roadside just after dawn. Well, we WERE on holiday!
Little snapshots of the weekend habitually reappear and I can never travel through Alençon without recalling my first trip. Stopped at a set of lights by a square, we spotted an old Frenchman, in blue serge and beret, Gauloises hanging from his lip, taking his early-morning constitutional. He was holding a lead and as he passed an opening in the knee-high box hedge we expected to spy a little yappy dog. He seemed surprised that an entire coach-load of people were staring and pointing, just because he was taking his cockerel for a walk.
We met our colleagues at the pub by the gates of the circuit, grabbed entrance tickets and, after a liquid breakfast, adjourned to the champagne stand between the village and the Esses. Heady stuff to start my first Le Mans.
Of course, it was race morning, so after a Croque Monsieur and Frites, we made our way to bag viewing points for the start. We ended up on the banking outside the Dunlop Curve (no chicane in those days) and began an excited hour’s wait. Seeing the whole field rolling slowly past served merely to heighten the tension. Spotting the Porsches, checking out where the British entries were (aided by our copies of the Autosport guide) and generally soaking up the electric atmosphere…
As we triple-checked our watches, the French voice on the tannoy tested our O-level comprehension but from the restlessness of the crowd, we all knew just how close the field was…
And then it began…
The roar came swelling towards us and now, 26 years later, I confess I can’t remember whether it was the roar of the crowd or roar of the engines which reached us first. Either way, as the first cars charged, flat-out, through the Dunlop Curve for the first time, I knew that only someone long-dead would not have had that prickle on the back of their neck.
In a rush of noise, flashing colours, dust and debris, my first Le Mans started. I remember trying to pick out a number of cars as they flashed by in a long angry, snarling pack, before – all too soon – they were gone.
The Tannoy raged excitedly but we had no ears for it. Excited chatter broke out, silenced only around 5 minutes later when the train flashed past us once more.
And so it went on, for a couple of hours, before moving further along the track towards the Esses and finally Chemin aux Boeufs, to watch them depart onto the legendary Mulsanne straight.
A pause to listen to the speakers at half-past the hour, Bob Costanduros updating the positions and then we headed for refreshment and the fun-fair.
Sometime long after dark, I zipped up my coat and lay down on a patch of grass, falling easily asleep with the roar of the cars ever-present. I awoke with rain on my face and simply rolled under a nearby car, before crashing out again.
Dawn found me stumbling blearily into the village for a Café Crème and another Croque, browsing the shops (the first of many Le Mans t-shirts purchased) before heading back towards the track, walking back past the Ford Chicane to the end of the run in from Arnage.
By the time the sun was high in the sky, I had bumped into a number of equally-bedraggled colleagues (no mobile phones, of course, so we either met each other by chance… or we didn’t) and we gravitated towards the pits straight to enjoy the final few hours before the finish.
It was the first time I had invaded a track and it felt slightly odd to be doing so but since I was just one of many thousands, I figured it wouldn’t do any harm. My first trip to La Sarthe ended under the podium, cheering as the champagne sprayed down like a misty drizzle.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have little recollection of the trip home. Doubtless, we made the coach before it left at 6pm, crossed on the ferry and rattled back from London on the train. I do recall just how long Monday felt in the office, though. Probably not quite as long for us as for the people in the adjoining offices, though, as we were loud, over-excited, over-tired and probably over-smelly.
Since that life-changing trip, I have made the pilgrimage almost every year. Travelling with friends or strangers, by coach or car or plane or train, camping, sleeping rough, in motorhomes or hotels, working on radio or TV or looking after guests. Every year is different and yet every year is the same. Echoes of that first trip always return and sometimes all I need to do is think of it and I’m right back there – 23 and in awe.
Two nights ago I once more dragged out the seminal ‘Le Mans’ DVD and yet again, it struck me how little has changed since 1971. Sure, the cars are faster, the pits are larger and the crowds are even bigger. But Le Mans remains Le Mans.
We’ve had our rough patches but it’s still the greatest motor race known to man and I love it more and more every time. I’m aching to be back there…