Words and pictures by Maitland Cook
Exactly four weeks ago the silence descended on the Circuit de la Sarthe, as the dramatic Le Mans 24 Hour Race ended in triumph for Porsche, and heartbreak for Toyota. On 9th July at 16.00 the flag dropped again and the cars roared , but this time all the entries represented the history of the 24 hour race, bringing back the Bentley’s, Ferrari’s, Jaguars, Aston Martins, Fords, Porsche, Renault’s, that have won over the years. It is unique in that it is the only other event that ever takes place on the 24 Hour circuit, which includes large sections of the public roads that are linked together by the permanent circuit. This event is “The Le Mans Classic”, it was first held in July 2002. It takes place bi annually, this year being the eighth edition. It is a celebration of the history of the Le Mans circuit and the 24 Hour Race. However it has developed into an increasingly appealing and successful festival for spectators and participants alike, and is a marvellous spectacle.
Enthusiasts converge on the large site in huge numbers, the total paying spectators who watched the festival unfold over the 3 days of the first week end in July this year being 123000, eight thousand five hundred car club members arrived in their special cars to parade them, and talked car matters with friends and strangers alike. The numerous camp sites filled with visitors from all over Europe, and as usual the British car lovers were second only to the French in numbers.
The most important feature, of course, is the racing which takes place throughout the 24 Hours. As the circuit is over 8 miles in length, and the cars cover a period of over 90 years, they are divided into groups from the various era’s. 1923 – 1939, 1949 -1956( WW 2 interrupted the race between 1940 and 1948), 1957 – 1961, 1962 – 1965, 1966 – 1971, 1972 – 1981. Each group races for 43 minutes per session and 3 times within the 24 hours, the aggregate times deciding the winners. The classic car racing community gives enthusiastic support with a total of over 550 cars and a thousand drivers entered for the event. The British Bentley team, that had won three times running in the late 1920’s, was well represented by more than 10 cars in the class, alongside the Talbots. This year eleven former winners of the Le Mans 24 Hour Race, with a total of over 20 outright victories between them competed in the event. Emanuele Pirro won the race five times in recent years for Audi, but in this event he raced a 1969 Alfa Romeo,, a Lola form 1972, and a Lancia in the final group.Andy Wallace won here for Jaguar , and returned in a C type Jaguar that had won in 1953. The veteran French driver from Formula One and sports cars, Henri Pescarolo , who won with Graham Hill co driving in 1972 raced at this event sharing a car with Julian Beltoise, whose father Jean Pierre also drove in F1 winning the Monaco GP driving a BRM.
In addition to the racing the paddock area and spectator enclosures were filled with boutiques selling everything from motoring books to vintage clothes, travel agents offering historic car rallies in Vietnam, barbers offering classic hair cuts from any era one cares to mention. Numerous concerts took place throughout, competing in volume with the cars running alongside. Even a drive in cinema showed motor racing themed films for the 24 hours. A choice of bars and restaurants ensured the huge crowd was fed and watered, it was a festival indeed.
The whole weekend had an atmosphere of fun and celebration for the spectators although the teams worked mighty hard to keep their beloved cars working and in one piece. The whole weekend was blessed with glorious weather, and temperatures of over 30 degrees, a stark contrast to the wet, windy British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
This event has developed so much over the years. It offers a really fun weekend away for both the car enthusiast and also those who appreciate the joys of being in France for a long weekend. It is in many ways the best of all the Classic Car events.