They say that every historic race fan should visit the bi-annual Le Mans Classic event. Run on exactly the same 13.6km circuit as the famous 24-hour race, it features cars and drivers that have, or could have, entered this iconic event. As so it came to pass that in early July 2014, I headed across the channel and took the road south towards Le Sarthe to witness the 7th running of the event. It’s not often that you get lulled to sleep by a combination of the gentle patter of rain drops with aback drop of 65 racing engines hurtling through the dark. But on the Friday night that’s exactly what happened. Magic.
The racing commenced on Saturday at 17:00 and continued until just after 18:00 on Sunday. The event was divided into six grids, or plateaux, covering the years from 1923 to 1979. And with up to 65 cars per grid, there was plenty to see, especially as each grid had day and night practice sessions as well as three races, which again covered day and night stints. It was the night sessions that added that extra ‘frisson’ to the proceedings. Parts of the circuit being floodlight whereas others were in total darkness. A driver of a ’50s Triumph, commented that after the he left the lit section, it was like driving into the unknown, he just hoped the road existed. Despite a mixture of sun, showers and drizzle over the weekend the crowd of over 110,000 enthusiasts enjoyed a feast of racing.
Plateau 1; 1923 to 1939
With a field of well known Bentleys, Lagondas, and Bugattis this started the proceedings with a proper Le Mans start. Drivers lined up opposite their cars, and at the drop of the start flag, raced across the tarmac, kept into their cars and zoomed off. The sight of such vintage racers passing under the Dunlop bridge brought back images of those glory days. Winners overall were Michael Birch and Gareth Burnetti in their green liveried, number 12, 1931 Talbot 105 ‘G052’ , with a second Talbot, in the typical ‘blue’ a 1939 Lago ex-monoplace décalée with Christian Traber at the wheel. The final podium place going to Albert Otten in a silver BMW328.
Plateau 4; 1962 to 1965
For many, the definitive era and car from the Le Mans races is the 1960s – and the Ford GT40. A time when the world was changing, new was ‘in’ and the previous years of austerity had been forgotten. With eight GT40s participating and a similar number of ‘old foe’ Ferraris, this looked to be a real humdinger. Add in Jaguar E-Types, Shelby Cobras. Stir in UK nimbleness with Lotus Elans and a Marcos Mini. Combine with European spice of Alfa Romeo, Bizzarini, Renault Alpines and the outcome is bound to be ‘interesting’.
As racing history proves, engine power is one thing, getting it to the tarmac and controlling it, quite another. As Saturday evening appeared over the horizon, so did darkening clouds and soon rain added to the drivers list of things to cope with. With the race looking decided in the favour of Dutchman David Hart in the Shelby Cobra 289, fate pointed its finger at the Ferrari 250 LM of Luis Perez Companc which laid an oil slick along the Mulsanne straight. Game over for that race. In the subsequent races the blue-with-white-stripe GT40 of Hans Huggenholtz took the honours, and overall victory.Shelby Cobra honours were restored with Michel Lecourt taking second place, and the driver pairing of Jean-Pierre Lajournade/Vincent Aubry in a Jaguar E-type 3.8 in third.
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Plateau 6; 1972 to 1979
With their races under a wide variety of conditions, with one under a heavy deluge necessitating the safety car deployment, these most powerful vehicles had the crowd waiting to the end for a final overall victory. With supporters of Porsche and Lola both anticipating victory, at the final flag it was the 1973 Gulf Mirage of Chris MacAllister that took the spoils. Despite a good performance as the early glimmers of sun broke through on Sunday morning Chris Barbot, in his Lola T280-HUV DFV, had to settle for second overall. Third place went to the Porsche 935 K3 of Nicholas D’Ietteren and Jean Lecou. The participation of American ‘muscle cars’ including Ford Gran Torino and a Dodge Charger, both from 1976, added to the variety.