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Le Mans 2004

I've never been to Le Mans before, but had spoken about it with my wife's boss a few times. He goes every year with a bunch of friends, and had suggested I join them. So this year I did.

This page isn't complete yet, it'll take a time ... still got some pics to add Wed 23rd June


Wednesday 9th June

Off today to my mate's near Oxford. Fortunately booked the day off work so could take my time on finishing touches to the car and packing my stuff ... not that I could take a lot!

Jobs included some final polishing, a quick tweak to the nearside headlight alignment, check tyre pressures and oil etc. Good job I'd booked the day off - I was too excited to get any work done anyway!

Left at 4pm and headed off down the M4 on the 160 miles which went very uneventfully. I was taking my time sticking within a few mph of the speed limit as it would spoil my weekend if I got nicked on the way down there!

Arrived at Richard's before 7pm and we nipped straight off to the pub to show some of his mates the car. They'd all heard about it, but I think when they'd heard 'kitcar' they'd made some assumptions and had clearly never seen an Ultima before :-) Spent a pleasant 40 minutes or so there showing off the car and having a pint before heading back for dinner and an early night.

We had both packed most of our clothes in small grip bags which stashed behind the seats OK. This left the luggage containers for tools, toilet bag, documents (tickets, V5, insurance stuff etc). To be honest we didn't really need any more room, we both reckoned we had enough clothes for the trip. All we needed to do in the morning was grab a quick cup of tea, get in the car and get going. A few beers and some wine helped me get to sleep.

Thursday 10th June

Early start today, quick slurp of tea before hitting the road at 5am. We need to get round the M25 so would rather allow plenty of time. As it was it was fine in the direction we were travelling, busy the other way! Stopped at Clackett Lane to swap seats with Richard for him to have a drive. I'd stuck him on my insurance for the duration of the trip partly so I didn't have to drive all the way, partly as I knew he'd enjoy a play and partly in case I became unable to drive as a result of either illness/injury or les gendarmes! I think he was pleasantly surprised - he's a good driver and drives a 993, and to be honest the Ult's a doddle to drive ... in the dry anyway!

Once we got past London we were seeing more and more cars obviously en route to Le Mans. We weren't really excited at all. Honest. A few miles before the tunnel we spotted something orange in the mirrors, and it turned out to be a nasty, garish, orange Lamborghini Murcielago. OK, so it looked stunning actually. Turned out we'd be seeing a bit more of this car over the next few days ...

As we got out of the car at the Eurotunnel terminal we were greeted by Joe who organises the trip, and we soon met up with the other guys. I already knew 2 of them but had never met the others. We were to be 17 in total.

I was still vaguely worried about getting the car on the train, but needn't have. There are 2 entrances, the first takes you onto a ramp up to the upper deck, but they were waving all the low slung cars onto the lower deck and the ramp was virtually level. We pulled up behind a nice Ferrari, but as he drew forward to his final parking space the Ult stalled - I'd left the aircon on and it pulls the idle speed down. The bloody thing wouldn't start so we pushed it forward the few yards required and I spent the next 35 minutes fretting about whether she'd start OK at the other end. The journey was a sociable affair having a look round the other cars and chatting with their (mostly mental!) owners.

Parking up behind Ferrari on Eurotunnel (click for larger image)Parked up behind Ferrari 355 on Eurotunnel. Lots of red cars on board! (click for larger image)Lots of red cars on Eurotunnel! (click for larger image)

Arrived at Calais, got back in the car and crossed everything before turning the key. Started no problem, so off we went out of the train to meet the other guys at the petrol station a mile or so down the road. It was a fairly select group of cars - Joe was in the orange Murcielago, the other cars included a Testarossa, 911 cabrio, a couple of Mercs and a Chrysler Crossfire. Unfortunately the Murcielago was playing up, seems one of its numerous ECUs had decided there was a problem with the cats and was sticking it into limp home mode on just the 6 cylinders. After over an hour at the petrol station on the phone to Lamborghini UK the ECU in question was duly unplugged and it ran on all 12 cylinders again. Have to compliment Joe on his composure throughout!

Fixing the Lambo at Calais (click for larger image)

By now half the convoy had gone, so we set off with the Lambo, 911 and the Testarossa. The weather was pretty awful, there was loads of spray. We ended up at the rear of the convoy and I have to say it was memorable by its awfulness! We spent the first hour maintaining a steady pace through plumes of spray at a speed that probably wasn't terribly sensible. Since the Ult's only just over 1000kg and has super wide tyres (335s at the rear) the risk of aquaplaning was on my mind the whole time. We only really hit one pool of standing water and although we did aquaplane a bit there was no drama.

Stopped for lunch and regrouped at a pub just past Rouen where the kitty was established and we got to know some of the guys a bit better. The sun was now out and things were looking pretty good. We needed fuel so made sure we knew where the next stop was (Beaumont sur Sarthe) so we could meet up again. The road was now the single carriageway N138 adn we were in a long procession of cars, which didn't stop a couple of idiots in a 911 turbo and a DB7 from overtaking us and pushing in the gap. We met them later after stopping for petrol, which was an experience in itself. I hadn't realised before setting off but for the next 5 days every time we stopped the car would be surrounded, photographed etc. Excellent!

Back on the road we found we had the 911 turbo and DB7 behind us again, and Richard was now driving. On a long straight he pulled out to overtake a lorry, booted it through a couple of gears to drop the 911 and DB7 then pulled in. We then spotted the gendarmes at the top of the next rise ...
They were out in the road gesticulating to pull over, which Richard duly did, with the 911 and Aston close behind by now. I was confident we'd been comfortably more than 50kph over the speed limit putting us into potential 750 Euro fine and losing licence territory. As we pulled to a standstill the gendarmes seemed particularly agitated at the other cars and simply waved us on! We didn't hang around. A few expletives and a high five later and we worked out that they hadn't pulled us in for speeding - the other cars had stayed on the wrong side of the road where the white line had become solid, whereas we'd just overtaken and pulled back in while it was still a dashed line. We did keep the speed down a bit after that though.

We made the mistake of going through Alencon rather than taking the bypass. It was very busy and very hot, and the Ult didn't like it. The water temp was getting quite worrying, well over 100, but we just got away with it and got onto open road again where it soon dropped back down to 85 or so. Left me with a few concerns for the rest of the weekend though.

Met up with the guys again in Beaumont where everyone had a good nose around the car, and I got in the driving seat for the last stint into Le Mans. Joe was leading, followed by one of the Mercs, an AMG 55. Joe never seemed to hang around much, and the driver of the AMG was seeing if he could keep up. At one stage they were a little way ahead of us as we came off a roundabout so I gave the Ult a bit of juice and by the time we'd got through third gear we were tucked under the AMG's bumper. Talking to him later it turned out he was able to keep up with the Lambo OK but wondered where we'd suddenly appeared from :-) All made sense once he worked out that although we had the same power as him the Ult weighs about half as much!

We were staying in La Centre de L'Etoile, which is a nunnery. Nice big secure car park, very basic rooms, fine for a tour like this. Quick shower and change and it was off into town for beer in the square, followed by very nice meal in a restaurant a few streets away.

Friday 11th June

After breakfast we went en convoy to a car wash in Le Mans. All the cars were pretty mucky cos of the first 100 miles or so in the wet the day before. Pity as I'd spent ages polishing the Ult before the trip! After a few minutes with the pressure washer she was lovely and shiny again, although the engine bay was still a mess. Must remember to take a chamois with me next year

Richard's been waiting all his life to hold fuel hose while refilling Lambo ;-) (click for larger image)The car wash (click for larger image)Woody's Testarossa (click for larger image)Joe's Lamborghini Mercielago looking cleaner (I'm the lanky one on the right!) (click for larger image)Ultima gets dried off (click for larger image)Lambo attracting a crowd (again) (click for larger image)

Then it was off to the circuit. This was my first experience of Le Mans, and doing it in an Ultima has got to be one of the best experiences! The car really does elicit a fantastic response wherever you go, but the closer you get to the circuit the more attention it gets. I was on my own in the car as Richard had blagged a lift in the Lambo.

After a wander round the place we headed for the go kart circuit. The go kart circuit there is pretty impressive, quite long and with about 20 karts running at once. I usually find that there are quite a few numpties who haven't got a clue and get in the way, but this time everybody was pretty competent and ultra competitive. I did pass quite a few (including Richard!) and nobody passed me so I came off pretty pleased. Good value too at 15 euros for 10 minutes.

Next was a wander up the pit lane. Seemingly endless array of garages all with lots of very expensive bits of kit hanging round. More 911s than you could shake a stick at! I know Neil Cunningham who was one of the works Morgan drivers, so had a look for him but no sign.

We had lunch booked at a restaurant in Arnage, so at 1pm we left the circuit. We didn't know the way so went en convoy again - Lambo, Testarossa, Ultima and 911. The road out of the car park towards Arnage was lined with folks just sitting watching the cars go by. The only occasion I've had more photographs taken was on my wedding day! Several requests for burnouts but I wasn't feeling terribly confident and didn't really want to end up embedded in the back of the Lambo, so I behaved. The centre of Arnage was pretty amazing - a mass of parked up exotica, did see 3 other Ultimas there. The streets are lined with petrolheads many of whom seemed pretty beered up! A lot of fun, and loads of attention again for the Ult.

I was driving so just had one beer followed by water, but the non drivers had a couple of beers followed by what looked like some rather nice wine. The drive back to Le Mans town through Arnage was even more entertaining than before - people jumping out in front of the car with cameras etc. We were trying to follow the group but my navigator let me down and we took a wrong turn at a roundabout (seems the wine wasn't bad!). By the time we turned round they were gone so we just followed the signs for the town centre. It was late afternoon and very hot, and the water temp in the Ult was starting to climb and I was getting a bit worried about it. We then spotted one of the group and tucked in behind him, pleased that we were no longer lost. We soon realised that Charles was completely lost as well and seemed to be trying to find his way back using Satnav which was a problem in the one way system! Also it seems that the new Bentley GTs don't have functioning indicators ;-) We ended up in a maze of streets with the water temp over 100 as it was pretty busy and stop start all the way. In the end Richard and I reckoned we were pretty close, so I pulled over to leave the car have a rest and cool down a bit while we asked for directions. After 10 minutes we set off again and soon found our way - interestingly we got back before Charles!

Once back a quick shower and off on foot into the square for beer followed by more beer and a bit of nosh in the bar. The square was pretty amazing on Friday night - after the drivers' parade it was just a procession of cars right past the bar we were in with the assembled throng trying to get everyone to burn out. Looked pretty dangerous really, with folks holding cars down while the drivers gave them stick, the air filled with the smell of burning rubber. Absolutely amazing atmoshpere. By the end of the night a lot of alcohol had flowed and people started shinning up the flagpoles - mad.

Saturday 12th June

We apparently had an appointment at the champagne tent at 12.30 so I didn't drive. I didn't fancy leaving the Ult there overnight. This time I blagged a lift in the Lambo. Very impressive, and sounded great. Have to say it doesn't have the instant grunt of the Ult, needing a few revs to really get going, but a seriously impressive piece of kit. We arrived just in time for the practice session, so we went into the grandstand to watch that. These cars have to be heard to be believed! Most of them have an incredible howl, with a few exceptions - the Corvettes were a much more traditional V8 sound, as was (I think) the Lister Storm. Also the diesel engined Lola Caterpillar which in addition to being strangely quiet left a characteristic trail of black smoke out of the corners.

Next we went to the MRI marquee and sat through their pre-race brief. The highlight of this was Perry McCarthy (last year's The Stig on Top Gear) who was extremely entertaining. In addition to his well informed commentary of a lap round the circuit he was quite a raconteur and had a few amusing stories. I think the moral of most of them was don't ask him to take you out in your own car!

Next up was the Motor Racing Legends Group C race with lots of the fabulous cars from the 80s. The Ultima is styled very much after these cars and wouldn't have looked out of place on the track. We heard later that they'd detuned one of the Silk Cut Jaguars down from 1200 to about 800 bhp to look after the engine!

We then made our way around to the champagne tent where the kitty seemed to take a fairly serious beating throughout the afternoon - we only left when it was time to make our way back to the grandstands for the race start. I won't give a commentary on the race, but the start was seriously impressive. Within a few laps though the leading cars have caught the tailenders so you have a constant procession of cars going past without having a clue as to who's in front of who! We had little radios with headsets but you couldn't hear a thing cos of the cars constantly passing. We were in the Maison Blanche grandstand, overlooking the Ford chicane and watching (and hearing!) the cars accelerating through the gears going up the start finish straight.

The evening was spent back in the bar in the square, followed by a meal in the same restaurant as on Thursday. About midnight we then got the bus back to the circuit. The cars seem even faster in the dark, we went to the end of the start finish straight where they were braking for a corner. We wanted to see glowing brake disks and weren't disappointed. It was amazing to think that these cars had by now been racing continuously since the start about 10 hours previously! We wandered around the circuit, over the Dunlop bridge to the funfair which was very lively. We watched the cars coming out of the chicane and up the hill under the Dunlop Bridge, looked very scary in the dark to me! One of the cars spun as we were watching and ended up in the middle of the track sideways on under the bridge. How the following car missed him I don't know.

We were pretty cold by 2.30 so made our way back to get a bus back into town. Hit the sack at 3.30. Good day out :-)

Sunday 13th June

We headed straight in to the circuit when we got up and had a cooked breakfast in the MRI place - wasn't perfect but it hit the spot. Next job was catching up on the race which was fairly easy in the MRI marquee as they had live TV monitors and the Radio LeMans commentary over loudspeakers. Perry McCarthy did appear for another briefing but we were busy scoffing breakfast outside.

The kitty was apparently still in good shape and the champagne tent was the meeting point again at lunchtime. I was driving so just had a couple of glasses.

We'd seen the 2 Ultima demonstrators parked up inside the circuit the day before, but no sign of Ted or Richard. Better luck today however, they were standing over the silver GTR and yellow Can Am they'd driven over. I had a chat about cooling, to which Ted replied that a different thermostat would solve the problem, and he'd send me one when they got back. Richard also asked about my idle speed, and reckoned 1000 was too high. I'd had it there so it would keep running when the aircon switched on, but he said to lower it to about 750 and richen the idle mixture. Richening the mixture would make it run a bit cooler, as well as strengthening the idle apparently.

All that remained was to watch the last couple of hours of the race. It turned out to be pretty exciting as Johnny Herbert in the British Audi R8 was only just over 30 seconds behind the leading Japanese Audi with about 40 minutes to go. Unfortunately he wasn't able to make it and had a spin on one of the Mulsanne chicanes. Finished second. After the race everyone spills out onto the track and congregates on the grid. Absolutely heaving down there, but a great atmosphere. We hung around a while as I didn't want to be setting off in all the traffic, it was a rather hot afternoon.

We got back to the Maison Blanche car park and found that there were indeed pretty big queues to get out, so I decided to bite the bullet and adjust the carb. By the time the car was getting up to temperature we were already surrounded - I was getting used to it by now! I'm not a mechanic and it took me a few seconds and confirmation from a helpful spectator that to richen the mixture you turn in the idle mixture screw. I soon had the idle down to about 700, and after finding the optimal point for each mixture screw I just turned them in until it started to falter a bit then backed off a bit. This seemed to do the trick, and while sitting in the traffic it got up to the mid to upper 80's but no further. It went a bit higher when we'd been moving a bit then stopped as the engine was then generating more heat, but never above about 92 so I was a happy bunny. So pleased in fact that when we were passing a bar with a crowd sitting outside clamouring for a burnout I felt I had to oblige! Very easy in the Ult - just let the car in front get away, let the clutch out and give it some revs, you don't need to drop the clutch in first to get wheelspin. Nor in second in fact as we'd found out on the way in to the circuit.

We were very pleased to find our way back to the Centre de L'Etoile without problems, and again it was a quick shower then off down to the bar in the square.

Monday 14th June

Long day ahead in the car, and the forecast was good. Richard and I woke early and decided to set off without waiting for the other guys. They were planning a breakfast stop in Sees, and Richard reckoned if we pressed on there was a good chance we could get on an earlier crossing than the booked 16:06. We shared the driving and were taking it steady, neither of us had any wish to part with large amounts of money in fines or lose our licence out there. There was one busy roundabout near Alencon, apart from that the roads were fairly quiet and we made steady progress.

As we got on the autoroute between Rouen and Calais I noticed the oil pressure was dropping under braking which I thought was almost certainly just due to having burnt off some oil. It turned out that was the case as we pulled over in the next service area to check. I stuck 2 litres in which sorted the problem.

The only detractor from the drive back was the heat - the aircon was only partially functioning, and was fighting a losing battle as the Ultima cockpit is like a greenhouse, you're sitting directly in the sun. Until it's a hot sunny day you don't appreciate how far up the side windows go. The helicopter vents work well, but the air coming in was pretty hot!

We arrived at the Calais Eurotunnel terminal just after 1:30, and they said we could go on the 14:06 train, which was a good result. The drive back to Richard's was pretty uneventful, and after a cup of tea there I set off on my own for the journey back to Wales. I stopped for petrol and stuck some more oil in - must have a chat with the factory about it when I get back. I was slightly alarmed at the amount of oil she'd used.

It was a really warm sticky day back in the UK, and it was a hot sweaty drive back. I got back home at 7.30pm, having driven 575 miles since leaving Le Mans just over 12 hours previously, not bad considering we stopped for lunch, petrol a few times and the channel crossing took about an hour.

So, I unpacked my stuff and reversed the Ultima into the garage. It had been an amazing 5 days - the car, the atmosphere in Le Mans, the company, the drinking, the food. Great to be with a great bunch of petrolheads. It was fantastic to have experienced Le Mans for the first time in the Ultima I'd built myself, highly recommended. Trouble is, now I have to wait a whole 360 days before I can do it again. Better get planning ...

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The Build (2003/4): June | July | August | September | October | November | December | January
Updates: 2004 | Le Mans | Sold | New Project
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