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Marc Sonnery

Volume 43 Issue 15

Jul 21, 2018

The ninth edition of Europe’s pre-eminent vintage race weekend took place July 6-8 on the legendary Sarthe circuit under bright sunshine.  A record 135,000 visitors increased attendance by 10% compared to 2016.

    The ninth edition of Europe’s pre-eminent vintage race weekend took place July 6-8 on the legendary Sarthe circuit under bright sunshine.  A record 135,000 visitors increased attendance by 10% compared to 2016.

    Organizer Peter Auto and the ACO (Autombile Club de l’Ouest), owners of the circuit and organizer of the “modern” 24 hours of Le Mans, really surpassed themselves this year. It must be said that having this event in early July as Europe begins its summer vacation means that the event benefits from not only great weather but also a festive holiday mood.

    Having missed the 2016 edition it was obvious on Thursday that the event has grown significantly. Even on the day before practice, villages and country lanes near the 13.6 km circuit (8.4 miles, non-permanent, made of roads closed off for the occasion) were packed with classics from France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and the UK.

    Maranello cars were everywhere: an F40 arriving from Paris stopped by the media and VIP reception hall to retrieve accreditations, or a Dino-engined Lancia Stratos used for shopping at the supermarket.

    Other brands of sports cars were everywhere including rarely seen makes such as TVR, Noble, and Wiesmann. Even the circuit’s campgrounds held many Ferraris with British, Dutch, German and French plates, glamping (glamour camping) in style. The nearby villages such as Arnage were filled with fans having beers and meals at cafes while watching the cars go by.

    Instigating a period dress code however has not worked despite such suggestions in the website and the event program. The summer heat makes it difficult; people are in a holiday mood and it is not really in the French mindset to go out “in disguise.”

    At the core of it all is the on-track action, with no less than 700 race cars put through their paces. The races feature cars from the very first year of Le Mans from 1923 to 1980 taking part in six plateaus or grids by era (covering an average of seven years).

    Nine former Le Mans winners took part including  Derek Bell and Romain Dumas fresh from setting the all-time Pikes Peak hillclimb record a couple of weeks before.

    Each grid would get two practice sessions on Friday and then, starting with grid 1 at 4 PM Saturday, each grid would get three races each in succession: grid 1 then 2 then 3, etc., starting all over again after grid 6 which gave the teams several hours between to fix any maladies, temper tantrums or mood swings the dear old cars may experience.

    Grid 1 and 2 did not feature any Ferraris as they preceded the company’s birth but we should salute some Alfa Romeo entries in grid 1 such as the 8C 2300 Monza and two 8C 2300 Zagatos, similar to those raced in period by Scuderia Ferrari. In grid 2 a mighty Maserati 450S, a first at Le Mans Classic, and absolutely awe inspring on the track. Grid 2 also hosted two hilarious cars: the Cunningham entered Cadillac 61. Big as a cruise ship seemingly ready to trip over tiny Lotuses and a recreation of the Cadillac 61 Le Monstre, with that radical body Cunningham created. It looks like a giant bathtub on wheels.

    Plateau 3 hosted the oldest Ferraris, all of them 250 GT SWBs but the star entry was the Breadvan S/N 2819 GT, owned by Austrian Martin Halusa and raced by son Lukas, it is a very popular car at Le Mans ever since its return ten years ago. People like its renegade history as much as its extreme body. Lukas qualified 6th overall.

    Fast Brit Clive Joy lined up tenth with his SWB S/N 1811 GT. Interestingly his qualifying lap time was nine seconds slower showing just how much faster the Breadvan is thanks to Giotto Bizzarrini’s brilliant ideas for the Camionette as the French nickname it.  Next up was Vincent Gaye in 13th and Dumolin in 16th while Arnold and Diego Meier lined up 25th.

    Plateau 4 was dominated by a freight train of Ford GT40s followed by Shelby Cobras so the quite outgunned 250 LM S/N 5907 of Clive Joy co-driving with Spencer Trenery, Norman Nato and Emmanuel Collard could only qualify 25th.

    The 275 GTB/4 of Guzen qualified 48th, the 275 GTB of Desplaces/Bois 52nd and the other two-cam of South Americians De Miguel/Steuer/Steuer 64th out of 76 cars running.

    Le Mans is a power circuit first and foremost and cubic inches speak. One should note the presence of no less than three Bizzarinis as well as an Iso Grifo A3C Competizione.

    In the paddock one of the wonderful surprise displays was of a complete Bizzarini fantasy factory team: a period van and transporter all painted in factory colors with one A3C and a rear engine Bizza on the truck while another A3C sat in front, an amazingly evocative display where every detail was just so.

    Plateau 5 was ruled by numerous Lola T70s which breathe particularly well but engines are not verified for period correct specs and some owners are a bit misguided by their egos.

    The first Ferrari lining up ninth after qualifying was the 512M of Carlos Monteverde co-driving with Smith and Gary Pearson. This car is not S/N 1002 but a full-blown replica with many genuine parts liveried in the colors of S/N 1002.

    The next Ferrari, lining up in 54th place, was that of Pierre Mellinger/Tomasso Gelmini, 512 S S/N 1004. The 365 GTB/4 Gr.4 S/N 16717, distinctive in its fly yellow livery, driven by Rittweger /Hancock /Georgi lined up 65th.

    This grid also hosted the best sounding V-12 in Sarthe that weekend but it was a Matra 660 and none of the Ferraristi present would disagree. Its howl was just beyond belief, truly soul stirring like a wail honoring the Gods of speed.

    Plateau 6 included six Boxers, five of which were 512 BB/LMs and one 512 BB in a class dominated by all-out sports prototypes.

    Lining up fastest of the Ferraris in 22nd was the 512 BB/LM S/N 28601 owned and raced by a Frenchman using the nickname “John of B” sharing with pro driver Soheil Ayari. A car which I saw take the start in 1980 in pouring rain, the first time I went to Le Mans or any major race. I was 16 and it made a strong impression, all red with Italian colors stripe looking like a factory car. It was entered by Fabrizo Violati and his co-driver was called Spartaco Dini so I wondered if he would drive it dressed like Spartacus the gladiator! Alas, Dini was no hero at all and crashed the car early on.

    It was later displayed in Violati’s San Marino museum before being bought by François Degand in 1999. He raced it extensively in the Challenge before selling it around 2007 to the current owner.

    Next in 33rd was the 512 BB/LM S/N 35523 of Arnold Meier sharing with Lips, the only BB/LM raced in white.

    Right behind it on the grid was S/N 32131 driven by Lucchini Pescatori, a car sold new to Paul Pappalardo which never raced and was in the hands of various US collectors until it passed into Lucchini’s hands. Pescatori was one of the pro drivers for the JMB 333SPs in the 1990s.

    Lining up 35th was the 512 BB/LM S/N 33647 driven by Bourachot/Jean, new to Chinetti used as a spare car at Le Mans and never raced.

    In 56th position was an earlier version of the racing BB: S/N 35525. It was sold new to Germany as a standard road car, received the racing kit in period but only competed in minor events such as airfield races and hill climbs. It was in plain red livery, driven by owner Bratke von Bergen and Louisoder/Praller.

    Finally, starting 67th was the Rittweger/Hancock 512 BB/LM S/N 34445 with a good sponsor on its bodywork, the Ferrari Market Letter is still showing. It was sold new to Ron Spangler in 1981 who entered it at the Daytona 24 Hours 1981 to 1983 and the Sebring 12 Hours in 1982 but with DNFs each time. It was then owned for years by John Goodman who raced it in the Challenge before Rittweger bought it in 2016.

    Before the races began Saturday at 4 PM several parades and races took place including everything from a vintage bus parade (these are used to ferry the public from remote parking lots) to one for Porsche for their 70th, several parades for various clubs, etc.

    Then there were Jaguar only and Porsche 911 only races on Saturday morning, before the big dogs came out to bark: the stunningly fast Group C cars introduced in 1982. This was a class ruled by the Porsches 956, 962 and with victories by Mercedes and Jaguar but also Lancia with its Ferrari powered LC2. None took part this time even though a couple usually take part in that series.

    To bring to life history after the time span covered by the youngest grid (1972-1981) another group of cars was corralled for demonstration runs. Baptized the Global Endurance Legends, this field had lots of Maranello hardware; fifteen of them.

    The 333 SP S/N 034 of Michel Lecourt led, bringing back memories of seeing them race at Le Mans. In the 1990s after the factory lifted its veto it was too late to be competitive.

    Other notables were the F40 LM of Daniel Sebag, the 575 GTC of Jean Guikas and the 550 Maranello driven by Max Girardo and James Cottingham.

    The rest were V8s including the 355 Challenge Evo, 360 GT/LMs, 360 GTC, 360 N-GT. If you think there were too many versions for various championships and that it was silly not to consolidate, you are absolutely right, but rival series could not agree so politics get in the way. F430 GTCs and a 458 GTC, the youngest car present, concluded the Ferrari entries.

    There were three MC12, two GT1 racers and one Corsa track-only car, which is ironic as they had been created specifically to win Le Mans, bending the spirit of the GT rules and thus, by decision of the ACO, had not been allowed to take part. By the time one was allowed to participate, the leading Vitaphone team had lost interest.

    Ironically the top category set to be anointed at Le Mans in the future after LMP1 hybrids disappear, appears to be a hypercar format...just like the MC12 or FXX.

    The last event before the start at Le Mans Classic is traditionally Little Big Mans. A play on words it is a race for motorized child-sized replicas of cars having competed at Le Mans. A popular body shape is that of the 275 P but there were also entries replicating Dino 246 street cars and one impressive 512 S long tail with a roof which most don’t have.

    At least fifty children do a traditional Le Mans running across the track to the cars, start and drive a few hundred meters with parents shouting along. This cleverly ensures there is a next generation of cars enthusiasts, not a given in an era when kids show more interest in computer games.

    At 4 PM the honorary starters were ex-Ferrari F1 driver Felipe Massa and rally mega-star nine-time world champion, Sébastien Loeb.

    Each of the first three race grids also had the start of their race imitate the historical Le Mans start as drivers run across the track, jump in their cars and speed off. This was cancelled for safety reasons after 1969 as many in the day did not fasten their belts or harnesses.

    To solve this safety matter the starts at Le Mans Classic are false starts and all cars a minute later stop on the Mulsanne Straight where a safety car awaits, long enough for belts and harnesses to be fastened, before the field follows the safety car to the start finish straight for a rolling start to the race.

    As noted the Lola T70s which were behind 512 S and 512 Ms in 1970-71 are now in front, what might have brought that on, on such a power circuit?

    Yes, the Ferraris have mostly correct, legal spec engines whereas the US V8s much cheaper to tune, have all been comprehensively “massaged”. The problem is that in vintage racing, organizers need cars and cannot demand that competitors remove the heads of their engines at tech inspection...and ultimately what is less important than the result of a vintage race?

    What matters is to enjoy the show. Likewise some replicas are appearing since owners don’t want to risk real cars which are becoming priceless.

    There was good news, wonderful news in fact. The Breadvan was born from the infamous falling out between Count Volpi and Enzo Ferrari in 1962 and was not seen with a positive eye by the powers that be in Maranello. In 1962 it had shown amazing speed racing ahead of all other GT cars before a propshaft failure took it out.

    It had returned to the Le Mans Classic in 2008, its first visit back in the Sarthe where it was treated like royalty. This year the Breadvan, very well driven by Lukas Halusa was the star of the show: in race 1 it started near the front and one by one picked off its opponents, stayed out of trouble and after fighting past the agile Lotus of Wills/Clark...won!

    This was a very sweet moment as the story of S/N 2819 GT has now come full circle. I can’t wait to inform Count Volpi, he will be delighted and feel very good about it.

    In race 2 Halusa came in 4th while the Brits in the Lotus won ahead of an identical Lotus XV. Hans Hugenholtz seen in Ferraris in the past was in a Lister Jaguar Costin.

    In race 3 Halusa led away and had quite a lead but the Lotus slowly reeled him in and, try as he might, he could not compete. The Lotus got by him, you could tell he was trying everything but lacked the pace to get back in front and finished 3.2 seconds behind; a very tight duel. Hugenholtz came third again.

    There is a lot to see off the track as well. Nowhere else is there such a large gathering of sportscars as the club enclosures at LMC which use the grass verges and runoff areas of the shorter permanent Bugatti circuit.

    You will see everything that exists there: Iso Grifos, de Tomasos, TVRs, about 1,000 Porsche 911s –if you don’t feel seeing two is enough - Gordon Keebles, early Lamborghinis, everything.

    The Club Ferrari France enclosure included a 348 made into a Barchetta with much work and a big rear wing ala F40.

    There is so much space and there are so many cars, more than 8,000, that I missed something almost unmissable. The 400 Club held an amazing gathering with about 30 cars, from 365 GT4 2+2 to 412, and I never saw it; well done to them.

    Ultimately Le Mans Classic is overwhelming in two ways: for the sheer size and scope of the event and for the combined passion of so many who take part as drivers, media, team owners, club members, spectators. Over and over you see huge smiles on countless faces because the event truly brings to life the history of perhaps the greatest race in the world.

    It is an incredible feast for the senses, visually, aurally, and yes, emotionally, one as large as the 8.4 mile circuit and its almost 100 years of history.

    Giant screens show reruns from decades ago, wonderful footage, the atmosphere is very relaxed and pleasant. There is dancing to 1960s tunes, bands circulating in huge 1950s Cadillac convertibles, hair salons that style ladies in the look of that decade, a vendor village with books, models, art, memorabilia, a concours of cars having raced at Le Mans, yet more displays honoring manufacturer could not ask for more.

    Racing at 4 AM at the Indianapolis and Arnage curves, the most period correct part of the circuit; even though there are fences and huge runoff areas, you are still on this narrow, winding, but very fast road, in a vast forest.

    To feel the approach of the pack on the Mulsanne Straight almost a kilometer away before you hear it, to hear the engines before you see the glow of the headlights, to then see the leaders arrive impossibly quick (about 300 kph) on the long straight that follows the Mulsanne corner, to view the whole pack of seventy cars storm by, brake into Indianapolis, rush down to Arnage, brake hard and blast off towards the Porsche curves is pure joy.

    Whichever the grid, it is just an amazing experience because you are really in a time machine. The past magically comes to life in front of your eyes and this is Le Mans where a strong sense of motorsport history seems to ooze from the ground everywhere you go...very, very special.

    2020 will see the tenth edition of LMC and there is no doubt that Peter Auto and the ACO will surpass themselves again.

Bonus Photos!






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