British petrolheads Carry on Camping at Le Mans race

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A bright red 1973 Ferrari Dino is the kind of car usually seen parked outside a luxury town-house, not by a pop-up tent in a muddy campsite peopled by beer-swilling revellers.

But British Ferrari lover Catherine Flatt wouldn't have it any other way. Flatt is one of tens of thousands of British motor racing enthusiasts who every year flock to Le Mans in central France to enjoy the city's mythical 24 hours endurance race.

Camping a stone's throw from the roar of the race rack is a part of the Le Mans experience, she says.

"It's the most amazing atmosphere. There are so many people, so much fun and so much beer drunk, but I've never seen any hint of trouble, it's just one massive party," Flatt told AFP.

All over the campsite, bedecked with red and white English Saint George's Cross flags and United Kingdom Union Jacks, classic car lovers are doing the same thing as as Flatt.

The proud owners of Jaguars, Porches and a variety of other better and lesser known vehicles are busy pitching tents, unrolling bed-mats, lighting barbecues, brewing cups of tea and downing impressive quantities of alcoholic beverages.

The campsite itself is on a patch of scrubby land wedged between the race track that will host the '24 Hours' and the runway of Le Mans airport, ensuring an unremitting level of decibels for the duration of the festivities.

"If you're a petrol head, that's what it's all about," smiles Bill Nissel, a squash teacher from the British city of Tring who has driven down to Le Mans in an open-toppped red roadster.

"A lot of it is about the sound of the racing cars. You can't really see them, they go past in seconds," he adds.

Many French observers seem bemused at the idea of people who own such expensive vehicles opting for the low-cost accommodation offered by what is undeniably the most rudimentary of campsites. But for the British car lovers the answer is obvious.

"What's the point in having a hotel if you're going to be at the circuit for 24 hours?" asks Nissel.

And then of course there is the famous atmosphere.

"When we got here we had no beers and the chaps next door immediately gave us some. I'm sure if I went and asked them for anything, they'd say no problem," says car mechanic David Dodd, who drove to Le Mans with his adult grandson in a gleaming silver kit car he built himself.

British car enthusiasts have had a love affair with the 24 Hours since the race began in 1923.

"Bentley was involved at the outset and British spectators have always come here," says Daniel Poissenot, the Race Director.

Poissenot estimates that between 35,000 and 40,000 British fans come to Le Mans every year out of a total of between 250,000 and 260,000 spectators.

He also insists that while there is no doubt that UK visitors to Le Mans thoroughly enjoy themselves during the race weekend there is rarely any of the kind of aggressive 'lager lout' behaviour that British sports fans abroad are sometimes accused of indulging in.

"The British spectators have an extraordinary reputation here. The atmosphere at the race is very important and that's thanks in a very large part to our British guests," the Race Director added.

Saint Saturnin, a small town on the outskirts of Le Mans, is so enamoured of the UK fans that it has set up an entire side event called the 'Great British Welcome' where petrol heads can meet to admire classic cars, speak English or French, listen to music and of course drink the inevitable litres of beer.

"We are the last town on the drive down to Le Mans for many Britsh visitors, so we had the idea to set up this event," says Nathalie Roisine, the President of the organising committee.

"The English are passionate about their cars and love to talk about them and share their experiences and it's a pleasure for us to welcome them and of course it helps local tourism and commerce," she added.

© 2010 AFP

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