Why Le Mans Classic is not the most famous classic cars event in the world right now is beyond me. Think of it as a mix between Pebble Beach and Goodwood, except it involves actual, door-to-door racing and takes place at the legendary Le Mans track. Here’s what made my eyes cry, my ears melt, and my heart drown with happiness on this glorious weekend. Not to mention the blazing sun, of course.
Part of the experience is travelling there. For this 2016 edition, we arrived in style!
We got at the track early Saturday, and the place was still pretty empty. Not much was going on, but the Le Mans track was about to get much, much busier, with a record attendance of over 120,000 people over the weekend. About half of the 24hrs of Le Mans attendance, which is pretty mindblowing considering the much less mainstream nature of a not-much-advertised event dedicated to old cars.
The event in itself begins at 4pm Saturday, but some feature races before that make the most of the availability of the full Le Mans circuit, which is only opened for this event (once every two years), and of course the 24 Hours race.
Among those races takes place, for the first time in 2016, a Group C race:
Here they are, getting the cars warm and ready before the race. Bodywork (and accompanying noise) belongs to, some acute Jalops will have guessed, a Nissan R90CK.
The race was glorious. What’s not to love about Group C anyway? Here’s a short video I shot, otherwise you’d be missing the thunderous noise:
In typical fashion, the Nissan was leading the race by a good margin until it broke down in the last lap. The seppuku blade business must be going strong in Japan these days.
There was also a Jaguar Heritage feature race, with many E-Types, but also C- and D-Types along with XK120s and Mark IIs. Among drivers were famous names like Le Mans winner Andy Wallace, and Chris Harris.
“Little Big Mans” is one of the coolest thing to happen during Le Mans Classic: kids race in bespoke, very highly detailed, engine-powered scaled-down cars. The level of attention to detail on these cars is truly mindblowing. Because the event has gotten more famous over the years, the cost of entry (and of the cars, of course) has apparently blown up to unfathomable heights. Still, childhood goals right there. And ensuing jealousy.
Look at that kid in his perfect Matra, with his Pescarolo helmet. Feel the jealousy yet?
Soon though, it’s time for the main course.
To remain coherent and competitive, Le Mans Classic is divided in six grids, representing six different eras of Le Mans racing. The event goes through an hour of racing of each grid in succession, rotating three times.
The first to go is, appropriately, Grid 1, with all the pre-war cars (1923-1939).
It’s probably the less competitive one, with big pace gaps between some of the cars.
I had the opportunity to wander through the paddock before the race and take some potato pics. What an astonishing assortment of machines!
Between the races of each grid, manufacturers can book a lap of the big track. Jaguar, Ford and BMW got their VIPs (journalists, dealers, etc) to drive their newest cars around the full Le Mans track. And I have to say, even the thunderous Jag F-Type SVR was barely audible compared to the historic racers.
And now it’s time for Grid 2 (1949-1956)!
That’s the one with all the C- and D-Types, Mercedes 300SLRs, Aston DB2/4s, and some delicious French weirdness like DB Panhard. I think the class was won by a factory-backed Jaguar.
Here you can see the cars exiting the Pre-grid, located on the infield track (Circuit Bugatti):
I didn’t take many pictures of Grid 2, because at the time of that race I was busy walking around the track to get to see the awesome cars people brought to the party.
Porsche had an impressive display at their own “Porsche Experience Center”, near the Ford Chicane.
You could even check out the underside of a mint 356!
Alfa was on point as well, with the new Giulia and some older metal as well!
There also was an impressive “Le Mans Heritage” display, with some very varied beauties:
Back in time for the start of Grid 3 (1957-1961)! Thats the one with the Ferrari Breadvan and 250GTs, Lotus 11, Aston Martin DB4, and some very competitive Listers.
Each Grid gets to do a Le Mans style start once. Like in the oden days, cars are lined up on one side of the track, engines off, and the drivers are waiting on the other side.
When the flag drops, drivers have to run to their cars, start them and then drive off. Now, for safety reasons, these starts are just for show, and the cars are re-gridded on the Mulsane straight for a rolling start a few minutes later. But it can still give some interesting moments, as some cars fail to start and marshalls have to push them until they can get going.
I did take take a video of the deafening event, but sadly my potato fucked up and it wasn’t saved.
Time to walk around a bit more!
A very expensive sandwich and a life-saving Coke ingested, it was time to head back to witness the Grid 4 (1962-1965). This is the one with all the GT40s and the Cobras. That time the potato didn’t fail! Prepare to be blasted with glorious noise.
In a small Gulf-liveried Lotus Elan were Pierre Fillon, ACO (they organize the 24hrs and WEC) president, and brother François Fillon, former Prime Minister of France.
But as much as I love GT40s, I just couldn’t wait for Grid 5 (1966-1971), by far my favorite thing of the whole event. It’s filled with things like Matras, Alpine, a couple of Porsche 917s, two 908s (one spyder, one longtail), a super low Ferrari 312 P, a lonely GT40, Corvettes, and so on... The class was dominated by Lola T70s because they are less valuable and so more tunable, but that’s beside the point. One of them was driven by Peugeot-Citroen CEO, Carlos Tavares! He’s got nice hobbies...
I ran to get to them before they left the Pre-grid (which the public is free to access!). The light was perfect, cars incredible and the temperature was getting acceptable. Best moment of the weekend, hell, of the year so far!
It woudln’t be complete without the sound, would it?
Sadly, they I didn’t get to see them on track for very long. Somebody crashed in Tertre Rouge, causing a safety car. Shortly after it left, someone else crashed down the Mulsanne Straight, causing a redd flag and the end of the session. They ran again early sunday morning, when I was still sleeping (filthy casual, I know), and then their last race was towards the end of the event and I had already left, having to get home 5 hours from the track. But during the few minutes I saw them, it was pure bliss.
Some more off-track randomness before the last grid!
Owners clubs often get together and rent a bit of private parking, in the infield.
Lovely detail, VIPs and drivers are shuttled around in VW Type 2s, other personnels in Jeeps.
Another cool thing: after the races, the cars have to come back to their paddocks through the infielf roads, and so you’ll get small traffic jams of historic race cars going around!
Grid 6 (1972-1979) is the one with fastest, meanest, and scariest cars. You’ll see monsters like the Porsche 934, 935 and 936, Alpine A442, Ferrari 512BB, and also some BMW M1 and CSL.
It was dark and so my potato was rendered useless, so have a video someone else shot:
Those 935 look incredibly scary. They’re not the fastest or the loudest, but you could see drivers from smaller prototypes catch them through the Ford chicanes, but then WHOOOOSH they were just gone. Impressive.
Soon though, it was time to go back home. There’s a lot of very cool things I didn’t have time to see: the ever spectacular Porsche club, an exhibition with old racecar transporter trucks, the Group C paddock...
But still, one amazing weekend, that’s for sure. It’s run every two years, so I’ll have to wait a bit before I can experience the visceral beauty of Le Mans Classic again. But hopefully next time I’ll come with a real camera!