"Brits Abroad" - it conjours up a number of images. Union jack shorts. Paled skinned lardies. Lots of lager. Well luckily for us, theres another scene which we can be more proud of - The annual outing to the Le Mans 24 Hours Race.
Every year 60,000 Brits invade France in convoys of the most wonderful cars ever to hit the road. Despite the UK's most oppressive motoring laws and the most expensive motoring regime, we love our cars more than any other country on Earth.
Invasion points from Calais to Caen see groups of the oldest Bentleys to the newest Lamborghinis roaring off to Le Mans. The gendarmes also come out in force to admire the machinery and to reclaim recently acquired Francs from the unwary.
The direct routes south soon fill with the mobile motor show, whilst the numerous sweeping back roads are enjoyed by new and old sports cars alike. Where else in the world would you see three Aston Martin V8s driven at full throttle out of sleepy villages, only to be followed by a gaggle of E-Types.
Camp Le Mans
By mid-Friday the vast camp sites at Le Mans are half full. Advance parties have ambitiously marked off large areas. Gangs of Caterhams file in. Elises buzz through the gates. Jaguars purr onto the site and TVRs burble toward their resting places.
Its at this point that we see the best of British ingenuity. Up go the union flags. Tents, marquees and all manner of construction take shape. Fully stashed bars emerge from the backs of trucks. Makeshift swimming pools are filled with water. Showers and even urinals are attached to trees and plumbed in. Pool tables are levelled out and dusted down. You name it - someone, somewhere brought it with them.
Those that have settled, head off to the circuit. The paddock and pits host the 200mph banshees that will wail through the following night. Even the highly polished Corvette pace cars seem to fit in with the Euroland atmosphere.
At the opposite side of the track, the famous Mulsanne straight has yet to be closed to the public. In scenes that wouldnt look out of place in a Police Stop! video, drivers of some of the most powerful road cars on the planet are goaded into wheelspins and powerslides that Austin Maestro joyriders can only dream about.
Amongst scenes that would have the British Police calling for the SPG, the gendarmes cruise past in their Clios as if it is just another quiet day on Le Manor. Come 4 Oclock though, exactly 24 hours before the race is due to commence, they get serious. Anyone left on the Mulsanne straight gets booked. No more Monsieur Nice Guy.
Back on the camp sites the first barbecues are lit and the foundations of a thousand beer walls are laid with petite beer bottles. Before the weekend is out these will grow into immense towers, walls and of course mere piles of bottles.
Saturday is greeted with the howl of a car out testing on the track. As the groggy faces peer out of their tents, theyre greeted with the sight of every spare space on the campsite now filled with even more tents, cars and paraphernalia. The morning is passed cooking breakfasts. 4pm looms large in everyones day.
Just before 4pm, with a noise that has to be heard to be believed, the cars perform a parade lap. The hour ticks over and then from the opposite side of the track you can hear the cars hammering down the Mulsanne straight at over 200mph. One by one they scream by at a deafening volume. The front engined Panoz steals the show - looking just like the Batmobile, with a noise to match.
For hour after hour they pound the circuit, whilst the crowds mill around, eating, drinking and drinking. Even 12 hours later, with the drunken Brits staggering around the campsites, radios blaring, singing at the tops of their voices, helicopters buzzing overhead, the cars can still be heard in the distance.
Noise, lights, dust, noise...
Up beyond the grandstands, the famous funfair lures thousands of punters. In the darkness, its like a scene from a post apocalypse movie. Dust hangs in the air. The only lights are from the sideshows and rides. Throngs of people crowd around the shooting galleries, video arcades and dubious strip joints. And all the time in the background are the relentless screams of the cars, one by one battling through the night.
After a few hours sleep the campsite once again wakes. Breakfast a quick update from radio Le Mans and a couple of hours at the side of the track give time to shake off the shakes. The sides of the tracks are littered with people and trash and trashed people.
As the last minute dramas ensue in the race, the first campers drop their tents, pack their bags and head off to avoid the jams.
For the next 24 hours the roads back to the coast are once again saturated with the best of British cars and more. The French park up at the sides of the roads just to enjoy the scene. They and many of these wonderful cars will be right back there in one years time. Less than one year to the next 24 hour. The Le Mans 24 hour - its a ritual. A British ritual.