“Legendary” is a somewhat overused word these days – but not in the context of motorsport at Le Mans. So what happens when they stage an event for historic motorsport there? Well, I set my expectations high – and the Le Mans Classic delivered.
All of last week on ViaRETRO was dedicated to the Gallic and Francophile. This was largely due to Le Mans Classic. While the first two days of this week returned to none-French subjects, we clearly need to revisit for the main event: Our report from this years epic Le Mans Classic! But where to begin a report from something quite so spectacular – an action- and atmosphere-packed three day event attracting 135,000 spectators, 8,500 club cars and not least a 1,000 drivers in 700 race cars? Well, actually I know: How to get there – which I have already covered in the article C’est une Alpine! In a classic car amongst other classic cars as travel companions is definitely the way to go to Le Mans.
I understand there might be varying views on this, but for me it was truly an important part of going at all. Not least because I was in – well, an Alpine. I touched upon the importance of this matter in the travel report, but let me elaborate – as it also explains what is truly special about Le Mans.
It was in 1978 that a Renault Alpine A442 won Le Mans. That year, the team entered four cars in their third attempt at beating the almighty Porsches, and the Germans countered with as many 936’s. Those cars made up the front four rows and were expected to decide the race between them. In 1976 and 1977 the Renaults were fastest and qualified on pole – but not in 1978: Porsche do not rest on their laurels and the 936’s had the Renaults on pure speed in qualifying. To cut a long story short, it was a legendary battle which Renault won to standing applause from the French motorsport enthusiasts. In the process becoming – as all winners – part of the Le Mans legend.
Of course I already knew this specific legend, having read about it and the fascinating story of Renault’s relentless quest for making the turbocharger technology work in racing. And, actually, having reread it as I became a proud Alpine owner last year. But nonetheless: Forty years later I still hadn’t seen a Renault Alpine A442 – neither stationary nor one racing.
Well here it was. Or rather – they were. All of them. The winner. The fourth placed car. An earlier version. Three were proudly exhibited in a large tent dedicated to their quest for victory, but best of all – a fourth example was even racing and showing off its famous yellow/white/black livery out where it made history 40 years ago.
Is there any better way to show off a race car? Of course not. To say I was exhited is the understatement of the year. I was ten in 1978 and my interest for cars and racing was only in its early developing stages. Ten years later, I was deeply into motorsport and automotive history, but of course the A442 had been pensioned off by then. In fact, after the victory Renault Sport withdrew from endurance racing to focus on Formula One – another story, that is.
Being such rare cars, I had never dared imagine that I should see one race – but there it was. I must have snapped at least 200 photos of that car alone, and absorbed its splendour with all my senses: I now know precisely how the Le Mans winner of 1978 looks, sounds, feels and smells. I feel entertained, wiser and even deeply fulfilled. In fact I imagine the only thing to better this experience would be to actually drive it myself (ehrm… are you reading this, Renault Classic?!?).
This is in essence what the Le Mans Classic is. Exemplified via one car. And no doubt this was the car of the meeting for me – as you have probably gathered by now. It’s almost as if this single car and the trip there to see it was enough for it all to make perfect sense. To me, at least.
But then add to that – well, all the others! As already mentioned, a whopping 700 race cars. Enough for just about any enthusiast of any devotion to be able to experience similar feelings to mine – if not for the A442 then for some other fabulous piece of race car engineering.
Do you savour an Alfa Romeo 8C from the early formative years of Le Mans over anything else? Or perhaps a Mercedes-Benz C11 of the Group C era? Or that legend of legends, the widow-maker, the Porsche 917? All were there. Along with several others of similar magnitude. Gullwing? GT40? Birdcage? Cobra? Check, check, check and check.
In fact I could go on forever, but will let the gallery below speak for itself. Frankly, if you can’t find a historic race car to your liking at Le Mans Classic, it is quite likely you that is the problem, not the race meeting.
The reason the Le Mans Classic can attract so many high level cars, is of course the legend itself: Ever since that very first race in 1923, the Le Mans 24 Heures has always been one of the top races on every ambitious driver’s list of most coveted victories to take home. And still now, several years later, it still is. Such status draws a lot of drivers to the event – and probably a lot of them living out a life-long dream of racing on what can almost be regarded as the holy ground for a true motorsport aficionado. In the process, the Le Mans Classic manages to tempt both owners, privateers, factories and museums alike to dust off their most treasured cars and show them off were they raced when new.
And mind you – those treasured cars need not be winners of the past. In fact, I often praise the efforts of a group of hopeful optimists back in period when they deciced to race a – let’s say – Aston Martin DBS V8. Equally so today, when to-the-bone enthusiasts decide to bring that less rosetinted history alive again by racing the Aston in the Classic event as well. Or choose a technical tour-de-force like the turbinepowered Howmet or the early aerodynamic wonders from Panhard or the like as their weapon for the Classic.
Trust me: You’ll find something to wet your appetite. And if you don’t on the racetrack itself – well, merely venture into the massive areas full of club cars. An astonishing 8,500 of them would arguably qualify as a large enough attraction to attend the Le Mans Classic for that alone – although that would of course be truly odd. I will not go into choosing a favourite among those. Not least because I did not see all of them.
In fact, one of the very few negative things to say about the Le Mans Classic, is that paradoxically typical thing for the biggest meetings – it is almost too big for its own good: It is quite impossible to see it all and one has to choose. The track is long – from which vantage point do you choose to view which races? And if you insist of experiencing the club cars and some of the activities outside of the track – which races are you willing to sacrifice? And oh, maybe you’d even like to eat during the day? Not to speak of drinking: This edition of the Le Mans Classic was blessed (or cursed!) with soaring temperatures of over 30 degrees. And the big question: When are you going to sleep?
At most other race meeting you’d sleep at night, of course, but the Le Mans Classic honours the great tradition of the 24 Heures by also driving through the night: The racing starts at 16:00 on the Saturday and ends 24 hours later – as we know it from the contemporary racing. They’re not racing continously, though: Instead they are divided into six different grids each driving three heats of around 45 minutes. This ensures that all grids will see action through the night, and it is in fact a brilliant idea. It’s just, how do you – as a viewer – cover it all?
We managed – just – as I chose to focus on the race action and the open paddocks, as well as getting an almost full night of sleep. My logic was to ensure that I would experience every one of the eight different grids in action on the track at least once during the 24 hours. It nearly worked out too, but I had to factor in driving approximately 45 kilometers to and from the track – yes, that was the nearest hotel we could find at not-criminally-high rates despite booking as early as February. And even at that distance we could both see and hear the classic cars commuting to the event in a steady stream from the earliest morning. Lesson learned: This is a huge event and one must book as soon as the dates are published. Or (and?), as my wife and I are discussing already now: Stay at the track itself as several traveloperators also offer. One could even say that this would probably be more authentic. Maybe even in a tent? That would truly embrace the spirit of the good old days!
For me personally, actually in more ways than one: I have in fact visited the Le Mans Classic before, namely the first edition back in 2002. Those were the days when luxuries such as a night’s sleep and comfort meant nothing, and as I recall it I got neither on that occasion. And before you ask: Yes, of course I arrived in a classic car – a Triumph Spitfire at that time and travelling along with a friend in his GT6. We drove the 1,300 kilometers down there in one stretch – so clearly a few minor things seem to have changed since then.
But then, so has the Le Mans Classic, in fact – mostly for the better though. That is has now become so vast that one can barely take in all of it in just three days, is of course a bit of a first-world problem. It’s one which it shares with the Goodwood Revival Meeting, the Monaco Grand Prix Historique, the German Oldtimer Grand Prix and to a lesser extent with the belgian Spa Six Hours. There’s also not much a petrolhead can do about it – short of developing a way of surviving without wasting time on novelties like food, drink and sleep. Oh, and you might gain from bring a push-bike.
And now that I’m at it: Those five meetings are the only European historic motorsport events which manage to attract race cars of this caliber, and it would be relevant to ask which is the best? Which would of course be impossible to answer as it depends somewhat on your tastes. Personally, I love the brilliant show put on by the Revival the most – but as their cutoff date is 1966, they miss out on both the 917 and the A442. Furthermore, none of these two – the Revival nor Le Mans Classic – have the spectacular Formula One grids of the late Sixties and Seventies. Only the Spa Six Hours has the same spectacle of night racing – yet not (at night, at least) with the sports racing cars which wrote most of the history in this discipline. So overall I’d say the Le Mans Classic is right up there with the Revival – which is some feat!
So thoroughly great in fact, that we’re contemplating attending next time as well. That’s in 2020, and may I suggest you keep an eye out for the dates so you can book your hotel early? Oh, and make sure your classic car is ready by then as well: Should we perhaps apply for our own ViaRETRO Club parking which we could share with our readers?
Excuse me for the gallery below: More than one week after the event and I still haven’t sorted out all my photos, but I hope the below gives an idea of what you can expect.