LE MANS CLASSIC 2023 CENTENARY RACE WEEKEND
Volume 48 Issue 14
Jul 22, 2023
The Le Mans Classic follows the famous 24-hour race. Former antagonists get to compete again throughout the day and night. Maybe not continuously but it still is a competition of endurance.
Three weeks after a record 325,000 spectators attended the 24 Hours of Le Mans centenary race, 235,000 gathered to watch Le Mans Classic’s own centenary edition. Both were extraordinary and unforgettable.
The centenary special edition of Le Mans Classic June 29-July 2 was always expected to be memorable, and the attendance figure is the first sign that it was: the 200,000 spectators record of 2022 was blown away with an attendance this year increased by a full 35,000 spectators.
If you want to understand the sheer impact in Europe and around the world of Ferrari’s return to Le Mans in the top class, and improbable epic victory first time out, add the Indy 500, the World Series and Super Bowl together, and you will begin to have a sense of the historic magnitude of what took place on June 10-11, 2023, in the Sarthe. This indubitably also contributed to the event’s massive success.
Automotive history does not get any greater than that of Ferrari’s return in the top category after 50 years absence. The first Ferrari win in 58 years since Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory in the NART 250 LM in 1965, and all happening during the centenary edition of the greatest race in the world!
Former winners present were plentiful, such as two-time winner Gérard Larrousse driving the Le Mans 1971 long-tail psychedelic/hippie design Porsche 917 at 83 years of age.
Five-time winner Derek Bell was present as a Bentley ambassador in the Benjafield race catering to early Bentleys only.
Henri Pescarolo, a four-time winner with a record thirty-three participations was there with one of his eponymous prototypes, a C60 in the endurance racing legends race. A car also driven by Eric Helary, a former Le Mans winner for Peugeot in 1993.
Emanuele Pirro, another five-time winner was busy racing several cars in different grids.
Eric Van de Poele, a three-time class winner at Le Mans including third overall in 2001 for Bentley when the team famously sent the boys to the podium in 1920s driver suits and leather helmets. He was competing in one of the many GT40s in grid 4.
Brian Redman was driving a Porsche 908 LH (long tail) in Grid 5. Former Ferrari F1 driver, Rene Arnoux, was present in a rather humble steed: a tiny Renault 4CV 1066 from 1953 in Grid 2!
A huge effort had taken place for over two years to gather as many Le Mans winning cars as possible, approaching manufacturers, their museums, private museums, foundations, and collectors who of course overwhelmingly answered favourably.
Where to put them? It was decided to close and entirely empty the Le Mans circuit’s museum and store the permanent contents elsewhere, thus making room for the Le Mans winners. The result was a gathering of 80 cars, 60 of which were former winners.
A parade with many of these former Le Mans winning cars took place with the likes of former Ferrari F1 driver, Stefan Johansson, in the 1997 winning TWR Porsche WSC 95 he shared with his late Ferrari teammate Michele Alboreto, and the future record winner of Le Mans, Tom Kristensen, for the Dane’s first win.
The François Perrodo 250 GTO also joined that parade.
Among the former winners was the 250 P S/N 0816 which according to recent research actually won Le Mans twice; in 1963 with Scarfiotti/Bandini and in 1964 with Guichet/Vaccarella.
Le Mans Press Office photo
It was sold to Major William Cooper in the USA in 1965 for three seasons of local races with minor results after which Luigi Chinetti acquired it in 1968. The US importer had it raced at Sebring 1969 by Pedro Rodriguez and Chuck Parsons, but the old beast by then very long in the tooth did not finish.
He then sold it to Pierre Bardinon who kept it in his Mas du Clos collection until his passing in 2014. In 2018 via RM Sotheby’s it was sold to William Heinecke of the UK and Thailand, and months after that to Brandon Wang.
A popular winner amongst those driven in the parade was the Rondeau in which Jean Rondeau and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud won Le Mans in 1980, defeating the might of the Porsche factory, still the only driver to have won Le Mans aboard his own car, a true David versus Goliath contest.
Winners from Peugeot, Jaguar, BMW, Mazda (watch your eardrums) Porsche, Audi and the best sounding, the Matra, were driven in what was surely the ultimate gathering of legends we will ever see in the Sarthe.
As always, entries are divided in six groups by era, and this time, the grid including the oldest Ferrari in Grid 2 (1949-1956), with the 1955 750 Monza S/N 0510 M of Americans Tazio Ottis and Ace Robey in its USA livery of white with a blue triangle on the nose.
Sold new to Texan Allen Guiberson, it was driven by Phil Hill and Carroll Shelby to second overall at Sebring that year. Hill won the Pebble Beach road race later in the year before Jim Hall bought it that fall.
Shelby drove it for Hall in 1956, winning at Pebble Beach, Dodge City and Eagle Mountain. He kept it for decades and showed it to me when I visited him for an interview in his west Texas base in 1998.
In 2016 it was bought at auction by Patrick Ottis, the famous vintage Ferrari engine rebuilder. His son Tazio races it for him.
Grid 3 (1957-1961) included the 250 GT SWB of Clive Joy/Simon. The Breadvan driven by Lukas Halusa, son of owner Martin, along with the man in charge of running it, Englishman Alex Ames. This is actually the clone, a tool-room copy made to preserve the real one as is now common in historic racing. It is the same one, not the original which had been crashed hard last year in the first chicane of the Mulsanne Straight.
Another 250 GT SWB was bought by Swiss Remo Lips.
Belgian Vincent Gaye would not miss LMC for the world in his silver SWB with yellow stripe, the national livery for France’s northern neighbour.
Two British SWBs extend the list, one driven by three siblings of the Jack family and one with a famous name, Newey shared with London dealer Joe Macari. It wasn’t Red Bull F1 star designer Adrian though, but his son Harrison.
Frenchmen Bally and Leseur entered yet another SWB.
Grid 4 (1962-1965) featured a 250 LM in handsome French blue livery owned by Brit Clive Joy and shared with veteran French journalist Jean-Pierre Malcher. This is actually a continuation/replica, call it what you like, but better seeing this than no car at all.
Another 250 LM, also a continuation, was brought by Dutchmen van der Lof/Buurman.
Grid 5 (1965-1971) included the Daytona of German Stahl, a modified road car.
Another Daytona, albeit a genuine comp Daytona owned by Swiss Arnold Meier, was driven by veteran David Franklin.
A further Daytona was entered by German Rittweger, with Brit Hancock, and a final Daytona by South African Cavalieri and Italian Bianco.
Jaki Scheckter among the drivers is the nephew of 1979 Ferrari F1 World Champion Jody and the son of his brother Ian, also briefly seen in F1 between 1974 and 1977.
Finally, two 275 GTB were part of this grid, a bit outgunned, a 4-cam entered by Dutchman Gijzen and a 2-cam driven by Spaniards Delso, de Miguel, and Basagoiti.
A people’s favourite in this grid was one of the four Howmet TX turbine cars built in Texas in the mid-1960s which, driven by Xavier Micheron, woos the crowd with its...woooshing sound.
Grid 6 (1972-1981) had two 512 BB/LM entries, one for Swiss Haechler and one for Frenchman Breittmayer.
The endurance racing legends was a fertile field for Maranello entries as it features GT cars and prototypes from the 1990s and 2000s.
There were several 333 SPs entered, the star car being chassis 019, winner of the Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours in 1998 with the MOMO team of Giampiero Moretti. Driving it during Cavallino at Moroso in 1999 for a Cavallino article remains an unforgettable memory for this author.
Christophe Jouiaux photo
It is now owned and driven by German Christian Glaesel. The other 333 SPs were entered by Frenchman Julien Canal and third car by his compatriots Lecourt and Narac.
No fewer than four 550 Maranello Prodrives were present, one driven by Dutchman Peter Kox and Czech Tomáš Enge who shone in them when new. Kox shared a second one with owner Remnant while the other two were brought by Frenchman Joffre and German owner Roschmann.
A 2003 360 Modena N-GT was also present with owner Clive Joy and journalist Malcher. A 360 GTC was brought by Hungarians Santa/Santa while three 430 GTC Evos completed the grid, one of them driven by pro driver Toni Vilander from Finland.
Two Maserati MC12 GT1s were also entered, one by British dealer Joe Macari and another by Frenchman Vercoutere with German Müller.
To be thorough, there was also a Group C grid with zero Ferrari presence of course as no group C was ever built by Maranello during that deprived era. The only Ferrari related entry in those years were the Ferrari powered Lancia LC2s but none were entered this year.
Porsche Classic Le Mans race with an entire field of classic cars and the oh-so-British Benjafield’s Le Mans Centenary Race for old Bentleys...indeed, old chap.
The lap time spread at LMC is always amusing. The slowest car to qualify in Grid 1, a 1930 Bentley Tourer, ran at a leisurely, not to say stately, pace to qualify in 8:18.573.
In contrast pole in Grid 6 was achieved by Maxime Guenat in a 1976 Lola T286 storming the Sarthe at 4:09.281 coincidentally in exactly half the time!
The lowest top speed was another Bentley Tourer at 136.2 kph, barely enough to qualify for a speeding ticket by the gendarmerie on the autoroute network with its 130 kph speed limit.
In contrast the highest top speeds were achieved by the Group C and Endurance racing legends grids, both at just over 330 kph (Porsche 962 and Dome S101).
The guest star official starter this year was none other than tennis superstar Rafael Nadal recuperating from his latest injuries. Rafa got huge ovations which was predictable as he largely built his fame during his ultra-dominant streak at Roland-Garros, the French tennis open grand-slam tournament.
To mark the moment, Grid 1 did a mock Le Mans start with drivers running to their cars. This was not the real start as they stopped on the Mulsanne Straight to properly fasten their belts and then had a standard flying start at the end of that lap.
In Grid 2, Otis and Robey qualified 16th, a decent result considering the competition which included the pole winning Cooper T38, Maserati 250S, Jaguar D Type, Allard J2X and such more amusing, if not quick entries, as the Cadillac Le Monstre ( a recreation made in the UK but with help of the Collier Museum), a Jowett Jupiter, Talbot Lago T26 and some Oscas.
Our pair came 14th in race one, 12th in race two and 11th in race three, in a grid dominated by Jaguar D and C Types.
In Grid 3 qualifying, the Breadvan did well to line up third with Lukas Halusa and Alex Ames while Remo Lips qualified 8th and Newy/Macari/Hore 9th.
Alas, in race one “La camionette” (the little van as it is nicknamed in French since its birth) had trouble and retired after four laps, however the Newey and Lips SWBs finished 4th and 5th behind winner Andy Wallace, another former Le Mans 24 Hours winner taking part in a different Jaguar this time, a 1957 D-type
In race two it was Lips ahead of the Newey car they did even better finishing 2nd and 3rd behind the untouchable Wallace. The Breadvan did not take part.
The third and final Grid 3 race was won by Hans Hugenholtz and Emanuele Pirro, the latter a multiple Le Mans winner and both of them often seen at the wheel of various Ferraris in vintage racing.
This time the Newey car came 2nd ahead of Lips, completing the podium in the intra SWB battle. In the aggregate classification this is how they finished with Belgians Dumolin and Thibault finishing 10th in their SWB.
The Breadvan clone did just one slow lap in the third race but clearly was not running right and was retired.
Alex Ames, one of its drivers and in charge of the car, explained: “It was a miracle it actually got to the event, 2 weeks and 4 days from bare shell to built car, we treated the event as a test session because we just ran out of time to test.
“We were suffering with a brake over-heating issue, now back in the workshop we have fixed the problem. The next stop for us is the Goodwood Festival of Speed next week.”
Unsurprisingly the tip of the grid, after qualifying, looked like a GT40 cup with ten of them clustered at the front. The van der Lof/Buurman 250 LM replica qualified 19th, the Joy/Malcher entry 45th.
In race one won by the GT40 of Glaesel/Perez the Joy/Malcher car finished 43rd while the van der Lof entry retired after one lap.
In race two won by Diogo Ferrão driving his GT40 solo, Joy/Malcher did much better coming 21st. They could have done even better if they could find a hole behind a herd of larger engined cars such as Shelby Cobras, Shelby Mustangs and Bizzarrinis on a track as fast as Le Mans.
The Dutch 250 LM continuation did not emerge from the paddock again.
Race three saw Ferrão win again while Joy/Malcher came 24th.
Pole was earned by the Lola T70 driven by owner and former Lotus F1 team owner Gérard López and former Le Mans winner Éric Hélary.
Several T70s monopolized the top of the time sheets. In a grid with several dozen sports prototypes such as Lola T210s and Chevrons but only a few GT cars.
The Suth African Daytona of Scheckter/Cavalieri/Bianco lined up 42nd. The Daytona of Rittweger/Hancock 51st and the solo driving David Franklin 55th. The final Daytona was the “Mr Steel”/Vilander entry in 67th.
The 275 GTB/4 of Dutchman Jan Gijzen lined up just behind. There were actually no less than 85 cars in this grid (yes, there is space for such a large grid, remember the track is eight miles long, double the length of Elkhart Lake, for example) and down in 84th was the very leisurely driven Spanish 275 GTB of Senores Delso/de Miguel/Basagoiti.
In race one won by the Lola T70 of Steve Brooks, the South African Daytona climbed up to 34th, while David Franklin got busy passing a lot of people to finish 36th.
Gijzen finished 46th in his 275 GTB/4 while our 275 GTB Spaniards finished 64th and were lapped three times by the leaders, 8 laps to 5.
Le Mans Press Office photo
The Steel and Rittweger/Hancock Daytonas did even worse, completing only four laps to finish 69th and 70th respectively.
Race two, won by the Hart brothers Lola T70, saw the South African Daytona finish 34th, Jan Gizjen 49th, Rittweger/Hancock and David Franklin 62nd and 63rd.
Neither the Mr Steel Daytona nor the Spanish 275 GTB took the start.
The final Grid 5 race was again won by the Hart brothers T70, while the Rittweger/Hancock did much better in 29th and the South Africans came in 35th.
The Spanish 275 GTB had been repaired in time and came in 55th. Mr Steel’s Daytona was back also, but completed only four laps to finish 57th.
Neither the Franklin Daytona nor the Gijzen 275 GTB/4 took the start.
This is of course the grid where we would have liked to see a 512S or M as in past years, but their appearances are getting increasingly rare in vintage racing.
Note that there were three of their rival Porsche 917s but none were driven fast. Though, to see former winner (in a Matra) Gérard Larrousse, aboard the hippie-livery 917 long-tail was special.
Pole and fastest lap of the six grids was taken by Maxime Guenat in a Lola T286, one of many small capacity bland but very efficient and late-braking prototypes in this class. Which included a De Cadenet in 7th, a car built under the aegis of the late racer and commentator Alain.
Also present in this grid were Carlos Tavares, President of the Stellantis group (which includes Fiat, Citroën, Peugeot, Maserati, and Jeep, among others) 29th in a Chevron B21 with synthetic fuel, just behind the 512 BB/LM of German Oliver Breittmayer.
There were some interesting and nice sounding cars such as the de Tomaso Pantera Gr5 of Detlev von der Lieck and Ralf Kelleners, son of Helmut who raced 512S & Ms extensively in their time.
Prince Leopold of Bavaria, a Le Mans faithful was aboard a BMW M1 Procar shared with former F1 driver Christian Danner.
The 512 BB/LM of Roland Haechler ended up 72nd.
Guenat won race one in which Breittmayer finished 23rd and Haechler 55th.
Race two was won by the German-built TOJ SC304 of Frenchman Yves Scemama while Breittmayer’s BB/LM climbed up to 17th and Haechler finished 37th.
The final race of the weekend saw Guenat in the lead again at the checkered flag. Breittmayer finished 19th and Haechler 33rd.
But the Le Mans Classic is about so much more than the races.
The club area is the biggest gathering of car clubs on earth with cars coming from all over Europe and beyond. That record was blown away too as the 8,500 cars of last year were comprehensively bettered by the 9,200 this year.
If you attend the historic races at Monterey multiply the car count you will see there by about five and you will have an idea of the sheer scale.
Longest distance travelled award for a road car was almost certainly the Maserati Khamsin of my friends Paul and Glenys Halford who brought theirs from...New Zealand!
After the 100-day ship journey from the Antipodes to the UK they drove all over Europe in it and duly won longest distance travelled at my international Khamsin Cinquanta event near Geneva, Switzerland, two weeks prior amidst twenty-six Khamsins from eleven countries; truly grand touring in one of the best grand touring cars of all time: that’s the spirit!
The Ferrari club had no classics this year alas, just dozens of 1990s to current cars but the Ferrari 400 club showed an impressive line up of 365 GT4 2+2s, 400s and 412s.
In fact, there were cars everywhere you looked, a parking lot I saw from a shuttle in a remote closed area of the paddocks had well over sixty more current street Ferraris.
My favourite amongst the 9,200 road cars? A completely original Bizzarrini Strada with incredible patina, a true time warp. One of a small handful in that condition worldwide, so nice to see after so many have been over-restored.
The village was replete with booths selling car models, vintage clothing, art, and memorabilia, though there were no automotive booksellers.
The only regret but Brexit has made it impossible for leading British booksellers Hortons Books and Chaters Motoring Booksellers to come due to the required tsunami of paperwork involved.
Manufacturers’ exhibits were plentiful, Maserati and Bentley showing their heritage particularly well amongst their new models.
A drive-in theatre was showing old movies while several dance floors were at hand for those who wanted to dance to 1960s tunes.
The museum had a special exhibit with no less than eighty former Le Mans racers and, after a monumental effort, no less than sixty former Le Mans winning cars.
The megastar amongst cars on display you ask? It was of course the Ferrari 499P number 51 which won the Le Mans 24 Hours a few weeks ago after an historical and epic duel with Toyota in front of an all-time mammoth crowd of 325,000.
Le Mans Press Office photo
It had just paraded in the streets of Maranello a few days before with its twin, number 50. The entire town cheering the home heroes, the church bells ringing again as they did at 4 PM on June 11, the day of the victory.
Le Mans Classic will now remain an odd-year event which allows alternance with the other huge European classic race meeting, the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, taking place early May, with which it previously clashed on even years.
The 2025 edition of Le Mans Classic will take place June 26 to 30, 2025; it is not to be missed.
Bonus Photos from Christophe Jouiaux