It’s a little known fact that Le Mans has its own Alps. I’m not kidding. They are called the Alpes Mancelles (pronounced à la Nigel Mansell) and are to be found around 35 miles to the north of the celebrated motor racing city. For those who enjoy linguistics, Mancelles is the plural form of females from Le Mans (the men are known as Manceaux) and for some reason an Alp is a feminine word.
Still, as we passed through a village called Sainte-James (the e on Saint meaning a feminine saint), these things can get quite confusing…
This being the Formula 1 summer break, I spent my time off enjoying pottering about on road trips to visit places I didn’t know and meet up with relatives in various places, which was a pleasure. This was the perfect antidote to Formula 1.
I didn’t fire up the computer more than once in the fortnight and I didn’t read emails to any great extent. Some folks seem to think that the word “holiday” does not apply to journalists and continue to send out things that they want the world to know. They didn’t have much luck with me, I’m afraid. A break is a break. You cannot have half a break…
Given the F1 calendar these days it is absolutely necessary for those who still travel to all the races to use the opportunity wisely, and spending leisure time with family is never a bad idea. And once we get going again next week the plan is to cram 12 races into 15 weekends. And then, as if by magic, it will be Christmas.
At one point I had the idea of going to the unique NASCAR/IndyCar double-header weekend at Indianapolis in mid-August as this would be an unheard opportunity to meet all the big players in the sport in one place at the same time – and consequently to promote US motorsport around the globe. I thought this was a very good idea, which would also allow me to see my long lost son, who could have flown from his home on the West Coast to meet up with his father after two years during which we have only seen one another electronically.
At the moment the US has a policy of not allowing many people in on the basis that they don’t need any more COVID-19 than they already have, although they seem happy enough to ship out their nationals to be tourists elsewhere. In order to get through Homeland Security one needs to be vaccinated, have a suitable and valid visa, and have something called an NIE (a National Interest Exemption) which means that you have to show that your presence in the US is absolutely essential for the future of the nation. Apparently being a racing driver qualifies as a good reason, but being someone who promotes racing globally does not.
Anyway no-one managed to reply to my application, which was made weeks in advance, until the day after the event was finished. I hope that they will get themselves sorted out a bit more by the time we have the United States Grand Prix in the autumn. In any case, I wrote not one word about Indianapolis as a result and went to Macau instead.
Now you may think that this is strange given that the FIA has recently called off all its events at the Macau GP because of a 21-day quarantine that the locals insist upon, and you’d be entirely right, except that there is another Macau you might not have heard about, which is to be found in the Médoc, where the big thing is wine, rather than racing cars. It’s true that one of the most famous wine-making establishments in the region (one cannot call it a winery) is Château Mouton Rothschild, which is just up the road from Macau. This has been very famous for a very long time but it is a global icon largely thanks to Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who was a pretty impressive fellow in lots of respects, including being a rather good Grand Prix driver, using the pseudonym “Georges Philippe”. If you ask Professor Google you will discover that “Georges Philippe” finished fourth at Monaco in 1929 and scored some other notable results before his family found out what he was doing and pressured him into doing something a bit more sensible and so he went back to being a vigneron, became a film producer, a screenwriter and a yachtsman as well. Sadly, the old fellow died in 1988 and so I never had the chance to meet him, although there is a splendid book about his life called “Milady Vine”, which was written by his companion in later years, the celebrated theatre producer Joan Littlewood.
I would drink his wine every day if I could afford it…
Macau is close to Chateau Margaux, which for some reason always reminds me of Margot Laffite, the multi-talented daughter of F1 driver Jacques Laffite, who races herself while also being one of the presenters of the Canal+ French coverage of Formula 1. Sadly, for her, she is not related to Château Lafite Rothschild, which is one of Mouton’s biggest rivals and neighbours – but is owned by a different branch of the Rothschild family.
Anyway, this explains, in a round about way, how it was that I found myself heading up to Le Mans on the day of the 24 hours, having realised only the day before that my return trip would coincide with the race, and that the route would take me past Le Mans. It seemed a strange thing for a motor racing journalist to be driving past one of the biggest motor racing events of the year… with no intention to get involved.
There was a time when having a permanent FIA Formula 1 pass allowed one access to any big event without question but I had heard from colleagues in the period before the summer break that the Automobile Club de l’Ouest was not being very helpful with passes (nothing new there, then) and so the idea of going to Le Mans was soon forgotten.
But when I found myself on the old Route Nationale 23, renumbered by some bureaucrat with no understanding of romance, heading in the vague direction of Le Mans, passing through places with vast chateaux and pretty rivers with evocative names like Seiches-sur-Le-Loir, Huillé-Lézigné and Durtal, the great conductor in the sky waved his baton in the vague direction of the string section of my heart and there was a scramble to hit the right notes to create harmonious sounds. This happens now and then when I find myself thinking about experiences I have had in that wonderful and wistful foreign country known as the past, where things were done differently. These intangible and unreliable memories are of places where one recalls the good times and forgets the painful bits.
Normally one would whizz up the motorway and around Le Mans on its ring road but this being a Saturday in August this was not a good idea because the race coincided with a day on which millions of Parisians were turfed out of their holiday rentals and headed grumpily home, converging on the capital from all directions to return to normal life.
For a brief period I remembered previous visits to the Le Mans 24 Hours, a race which I reported on several (three or four) times in the 1980s, They were nostalgic thoughts of what a fine old time it was, commentating with the very first Radio Le Mans and other such things. The race is not usually in August and so it has never been on the radar since those days when Saubers were looping loops on the Mulsanne and Rothmans were sponsoring Porsches. Even if there was a vague longing to return, the idea of watching a Toyota procession was not that interesting a thought and so I turned my attention to finding a way of avoiding the inevitable traffic jams ahead and so found myself going cross country from Angers to Alencon, initially on the old RN23 and then on smaller roads to Sablé-sur-Sarthe and Sillé-le-Guillaume, which is how I stumbled upon the Alpes of Le Mans….
The F1 world’s news (worth reporting) over the break consisted of Renault having parted company with the head of its motorsport engine division, the F1 financial results for the second quarter (which were not bad), the cancellation of the Japanese GP and the sale of another part of the McLaren empire, with some of the money raised being used to gain control of the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team. Other stories include Mercedes’s withdrawal from Formula E being announced, a messy murder story involving the CEO of Spa Francorchamps, George Russell doing a tyre test for Mercedes and Alfa Romeo running a 2019 car for the promising Theo Pourchaire and unpromising Mahaveer Raghunathan. Dan Ticktum’s topsy-turvy career continued with the news that his role as Williams test driver had been terminated with speculation that this related to remarks he made during a online gaming session about Williams race driver Nicholas Latifi. The other points of interest were an announcement in Brazil the governor of Sao Paulo has requested a change of date for the Sao Paulo GP from November 7 to November 14. This opened the way for a double-header in Austin, while also making it possible to have an end-of-season triple-header with Qatar joining Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. It’s still all being sorted out as nothing is simple when it comes to international travel at the moment.
The Formula 1 group did however indicate that it hopes to produce a calendar (for next year) some time in September with the revelation that the new race in Miami will take place in May. This was an odd thing which suggested that F1 is planning to have three distinct trips to the Americas in 2022. That does not make sense in the short term but once the teams have done it once, they won’t complain in the future and so there is the potential to add double-headers in place of single events, which could open the way for two more US events: one twinned with Miami in the spring, and another with Canada a few weeks later. The race in Austin is already twinned with Mexico. So for me this looks like the US expansion plans are beginning to heat up – and that we should watch out for activity in Las Vegas (in particular).
This week we’re off on the marathon that will take uo to Spa, Zandvoort and Monza on consecutive weekends…
It’s good to be going racing again…