Though published on a Friday, I write this column on a Thursday which means it’s two weeks today that I shall saddle up and head to Le Mans. The ritual is always the same and just sitting here, I can feel the excitement building.
JUN 03rd 2016
Thank Frankel It's Friday – Le Mans' 5 Maddest Motors
My only sadness as I head south (or, I should say, Sarthe) this year is that so far as I can see, the entry list is peopled by entirely sensible cars, all of which on paper at least appear to have a chance of performing credibly within their class. This is clearly an error on behalf of the organisers and I’m glad to see they’re already in the process of correcting it by allowing next year a car to take part powered entirely by vegetation. I should however in passing mention the reason there is an perfectly plausible car in the famed ‘Garage 56’ this year is that one of its drivers will be the first quadriplegic ever to take part in the race. If you’ve not yet heard of Frederic Sausset and his determination to race at sportscar’s top level despite losing all four limbs to aggressive septicaemia four years ago, he is very much worth a Google.
But in the absence of any mad cars this year, I’m here to celebrate just some of those that have come before. Le Mans has always been a natural magnet for truly creative engineers because, unlike in Formula 1, the rulebook is as thin and theirs is thick. Even in LMP1 today, your car can be front, rear or four wheel drive, powered by petrol or diesel, front, mid or rear engined, with or without hybrid assistance. Like in the fine old days of Group C when you just got given an amount of fuel and told to get on with it, today you are provided with an amount of energy (which is not the same thing) and told to make the most effective, efficient racer you can.
So here and in descending order are my five favourites among Le Mans’s many truly mad motors.
5. 2015 Nissan GT-R LM Nismo
So many people hated this car, mocked it and were pleased when it failed so spectacularly. I was never one of them. Yes the concept of a front wheel drive, front-engined car with up to 1,250bhp seemed not a lot less fanciful than a flying police box, but its British designer Ben Bowlby (who also did the Deltawing that really should share this space) is one of most innovative, imaginative race car engineers there has ever been and I just loved the fact a company the size of Nissan put its credibility on the line and had a crack at it. In the event I think it did even worse than many imagined and was cruelly derided as a result but I for one, willed it on. It is cars like this, every bit as much as those that win, that makes Le Mans what it is.
4. 1979 Dome Zero RL
Car manufacturers often made cars specifically to do well at Le Mans even if it meant compromised performances elsewhere. Jaguar did it in the 1950s and even the 2001-2003 Bentley Speed Eight was designed with just one job in mind. But few took the unique high speed challenge of the race more to heart than the delightfully nutty Japanese Dome team with the 1979 Zero RL. With an appearance of a highly decorated slice of cheese, if it had gone as fast as it looked, it would have won hands down. Sadly a lack of pace and reliability issues meant it failed to realise its potential.
3. 1963 Rover-BRM
Actually this gas turbine powered car wasn’t crazy at all, and with more development could have shocked the world in the pre-GT40 era. Gas turbines are extremely efficient when asked to maintain speed and you spend more time flat out at Le Mans than at any other non-oval circuit in the world. It would have come eighth in 1963 with Richie Ginther and Graham Hill at the wheel had it not been in an invitational class of one. Even two years later, with Jackie Stewart replacing Hill it was still good enough for 10th overall.
2. 1950 Cadillac Le Monstre
Just look at it. You really don’t need to ask if there’s been an uglier racing car any more than you need to ask if there’s been a faster runner than Usain Bolt. It was the French who called it ‘Le Monstre’ when it turned up for the 1950 race. Actually it was quite quick and probably made excellent progress through traffic simply by frightening other competitors out of the way. It came a creditable 11th and would have made a top ten finish had it not had to be dug out of sandbank in the middle of the race.
1. 1955 Nardi Bisiluro
Theory and practice. If a Martian asked you to explain the difference, you could do no worse than show him the Nardi Bisiluro. The idea was pure genius: you create the automotive equivalent of a catamaran, put the driver in one sponson and an engine of approximately similar weight in the other. Perfect balance is achieved with minimal frontal area, so you fly down Le Mans’s endless straights to victory. In reality, using an engine displacing just 737cc was perhaps underestimating the task in hand, a mistake less serious than aerodynamics so directionally sensitive that the car got blown clean off the Mulsanne Straight by the bow wave of a passing Jaguar D-type. The history of Le Mans is full of failures, but perhaps none as heroic as this.
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