Le Mans '95: how a piece of McLaren history slipped through my fingers (CAR+ archive 2006)

Published: 19 January 2016

► A classic Mark Walton column from September 2006
► Why carbonfibre fragments beat an autograph, any day
► 'All we need is for someone to crash! Heavily!’ 

I’m not usually into souvenirs. Oh, I’ve had my chances alright – a 1999 Monaco Grand Prix programme that Jacques Villeneuve almost signed; or a scrunched-up napkin that David Coulthard once left on a hotel breakfast table after he’d wiped the stray Cheerios from his wide, muscular jaw. And Michael Schumacher once dropped a pen right in front of me. Yes, my job has brought some golden opportunities for high-class keepsakes.

But I’ve always resisted. I mean, what do you do with all that stuff when you get it home? You either keep it in a box, and wait for one of your friends to ask the right question at a dinner party, just so you can get it out of the loft and go through it like a lucky dip (‘… here’s a discarded earplug, complete with Colin McRae’s actual earwax!’); or you end up sticking it on eBay, for some quick and sleazy pocket money (‘For Sale: Mark Webber’s autograph on an Esso petrol receipt from the A43 near Kettering. Happy Bidding!’).

I like to think I’m above all that. But once – just once – there was a souvenir that I really wanted, but missed, through lack of courage. It was Le Mans, 1995, when I was writing a story about the McLaren F1. The then-untried McLarens finished one-three-four-five at their first attempt. I spent the whole 24 hours in the Gulf team garage, yet the overwhelming recollection I have is of that lost souvenir.

One of the Gulf cars crashed into a wall and limped back to the pits, where I stood and watched as the mechanics ripped off the entire front end and tossed it out the back of the garage. I remember looking at that jagged piece of carbonfibre in its iconic Gulf livery, trashed and forgotten. This would be the coolest thing anyone would ever hang on their office wall. In fact, forget the office – I could put it up above the dining room table. Then my dinner party friends would have no choice about asking the appropriate question.

But I couldn’t do it. I came over all coy about how insensitive it might seem, just as the Gulf team’s race strategy went belly-up.: ‘Hi, guys! Look, I know you’re busy right now, but could you help me… load this into the back of my car?’

I’ve regretted my lack of spunk ever since.

Aston Martin Le Mans 2006

Which is why I was so pleased to be invited to Le Mans again this year, with Aston Martin. Tackling the Le Mans GT1 class for the second time, after the marque’s return to sports car racing last season, I felt sure this team was iconic enough, the DBR9s sexy enough, and the potential win historic enough, to make up for that missed opportunity. Now all I needed them to do was crash – heavily.

It’s a close-knit outfit, Aston Martin Racing, and as the race got underway there was a lot of positive vibes zapping between all those green shirts in the garage. I decided to cash in on the buoyant mood, so I tackled Aston’s Sarah Durose: ‘It means a lot to me, witnessing this historic movement and all. How moving it would be to take away a small piece of it! Maybe a torn bumper or a smashed door. I guess all we need is for someone to crash! Heavily!’

Sarah laughs. She doesn’t seem to think I’m serious.

The race starts well for Aston, and Darren Turner streaks away. Then, just four laps in, I hear on the radio he’s had a problem. I rush to the pits, trying not to rub my hands together with glee. Turner’s hit a kerb, damaging the sump. It’s a terrible start. And what am I going to do with a few aluminium shavings?

Dawn breaks, and the Astons are battling hard, with 007 up from 46th to 10th overall, and 009 now in the lead. It’s an agonising wait for me.

Then with just three hours to go the unthinkable happens. With Aston heading for a momentous class win, 009 cruises into the pits with clutch problems. Oh, the sickening feeling in the pits! The car is fixed and back out in 45 minutes, but the lead Corvette is through, and the win has gone. Everyone looks deflated, but how do you think I feel? Who wants to take home a clutch?

In the end, Aston finishes second and fifth in class – a magnificent comeback, but not the result anyone was hoping for. ‘This is the second successive year this has happened and I’m fed up with it,’ says team chief George Howard-Chappell.

You’re fed up? I got home and discovered my only souvenir of the whole weekend was an earplug at the bottom of my bag. And the earwax on it was mine.

Buy it on eBay shortly. 

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast