History takes to the famous Le Mans circuit
Roger Houghton reports on attending the 2018 Le Mans Classic 24-Hour race in France
The Le Mans Classic, a 24-hour event for cars which took part or qualified to race in the Le Mans 24-hour endurance races held from 1923 to 1981, once again proved immensely popular when the ninth of these historic events was held at the famous circuit in Sarthe, France, earlier in July.
The large turnout of spectators underlined the growing global popularity of historic motorsport events. The Old-Timer Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, first held in 1972, and Goodwood Festival of Speed, first run in 1993, have set the pace. Annual or biennial classic events are now held at circuits around the world, attracting a spectacular array of competing cars, many of them hugely valuable and unique.
A record number of about 800 cars were raced or paraded during the three days of the Le Mans Classic, with more than 1,000 drivers getting the opportunity to drive on the 13.6km circuit used in the 24-hour endurance race.
The huge number of drivers included 11 former winners of the famous race: Derek Bell, Jochen Mass, Jan Lammers, Klaus Ludwig, Henri Pescarola, Marco Werner, Stéphane Ortelli, Romain Dumas, Gérard Larrousse, Loïc Duval, and Jürgen Barth.
About 550 cars took part in the actual racing. The cars were divided into six groups, according to age, and each group had three competitive sessions, including one in the dark.
Each of the six groups involved in the series of races had a field of about 80 cars — the largest grids yet. The cars were impressive in appearance and performance, considering the oldest — a 1926 Bentley 3.0l, Bugatti Type 35, and Riley Brooklands — were 92 years old and the youngest — 1981 Ferrari 512 BB LM, Porsche 924 GTR and Porsche 935 — were 37 years old.
In addition, there was a 75-car grid for the 70th birthday celebration Porsche race, which joined the Jaguar Classic Challenge, which attracted 63 entries, the thunder of 51 sports-racers from the Group C era from 1983-1990 and the Global Endurance Legend demonstrations for 78 GTs and prototypes from 1992-2014.
The first four categories of cars had the original Le Mans start with drivers running across the track to their diagonally-parked cars before roaring off. The highly varied grids made for plenty of interest in each of the six categories.
Category 1, for 1923-1939 cars, saw diminutive Riley Specials up against Bentleys, Bugattis, Talbots, Aston Martins and Alfa Romeos, with a 1925 Excelsior towering over even the big Bentleys.
In Category 2, for cars from the 1949-1956 era, Jaguar C and D-Types faced up to Porsche 356s, Austin Healeys and Mercedes Benz 300 SLs, as well as specially-built racers such as the Cooper T39, various Lotus models, French Deutsch-Bonnets and a massive 1950 Cadillac streamliner named "Le Monstre", the shape of a brick.
Category 3, for cars made between 1957 and 1961, brought together Ferrari 250 GTs, Lister Jaguars, long-nose D-Type Jaguars, a Maserati Birdcage, and several Lotus Elites along with production sports cars such as Chevrolet Corvettes, Morgans, and later model Austin Healeys.
Category 4, for cars built between 1962 and 1965, had memorable racers such as the early Ford GT40s, Shelby Cobra coupes, Ferrari 250LMs, lightweight Jaguar E-Types with more common sports cars such as Lotus Elans, MGBs, Sunbeam Alpines and Porsche 911s.
Huge amounts of raw power were seen in Category 5, for cars from the 1966-1971 era, with later and more powerful Ford GT40s, a host of Lola T70s — one of them being the car David Piper raced in SA — besides Porsche 917s and Ferrari 365 GTBs. A surprise was the appearance of the Howmet TX prototype, powered by a gas turbine helicopter engine, which hummed around the track.
The sixth group, for cars from 1972 and 1981, had some wonderful machinery on the track, ranging from Ferrari 512 BBs, Porsche 935s, BMW 3.5 CSL "Batmobiles" to beautiful BMW M1 Procars facing a challenge from many Chevrons and Lolas which were quick despite having much smaller engines.
Many cars were available for sale at the Le Mans site. The infield areas have grown, with more clubs displaying members’ cars, and a village with vendors and entertainment.
Most of the service vehicles are period too, with Second World War Jeeps and military personnel carriers, as well as vintage buses used to move drivers and spectators. Citroen Meharis and immaculate 2CVs transported VIPs and drivers around the paddock area. Even the French police rode classic BMW motorcycles.
The Le Mans Classic is a must for the bucket list.