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Marc Sonnery

Volume 47 Issue 15

Jul 23, 2022

Marc Sonnery goes to Le Mans for classic races. Several eras race in classes that replicate the feel for what Le Mans is known. The noise, sight and feel of 24 hours of racing is all replicated in the Classic.

    Rarely has an event been anticipated with so much longing. Because it is only held every two years and because of Covid, it had been four years since the last Le Mans Classic took place.

    Already on Friday the attendance, energy and expectation was massive, with classic cars from all over Europe filling the club enclosures, no less than 8,600 of them through the weekend, which took place in perfect hot balmy weather.

    The last LMC had a record attendance of 195,000...this year exploded that statistic reaching 200,850 spectators! Only 30,000 less than the modern 24-hours usual figure.

    It is nothing less than the largest classic car event on earth, vastly outgunning Monterey or the Silverstone Classic and Goodwood events. It is not just about quantity; the quality is there too, very much so.

    You could feel the joy, the power of passion with  affluence from all over Europe and quite a few Americans among drivers and spectators.

    In the paddocks, pitlane, and on track, 1,000 racing drivers shared 750 racing cars built between 1923, the race’s first edition, and 1980, grouped in six grids by era, plus other support races.

    There were many outdoor displays including gatherings of old small-capacity French former Le Mans racers.

    One by Alfa Romeo with a 33 Le Mans car and remarkably Alfa’s stillborn group C racer, but never raced; very handsome, the only one in existence brought from the factory’s museum.

    All kinds of shops in tents or permanent structures sold models, memorabilia, vintage racing-oriented clothes, and art. You could get a sixties hairstyle in hair salons with period equipment; there was dancing to sixties tunes, and a vast choice of food and beverage stands with fare from all over the world including, of course, a champagne bar!


                   Kristo Vermeulen photo

    There was an outdoor theather showing ‘Back to the Future’, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and...what else: ‘Le Mans ‘66/Ford v Ferrari’ of course!

    Even the shuttles for the public were quaint old buses from the fifties: one owner had driven his from Switzerland.


                    Christophe Journiaux photo

    Various manufacturers had presentation stands with old racing glories on display but the most interesting was the trio of De Tomaso P72s displayed. They were very clearly inspired by 330 P3; so very handsome, inside and out. They sounded fabulous when going for hot laps between the races; a serious effort.

    How does Le Mans Classic work? There are six grids by era which each have two practice sessions on Friday and then three forty-minute races each between Saturday and Sunday.

    Grid one races then grid two, etc. Then after the grid six race it starts from one again. So, eighteen races which, with transition times, add up to roughly 24 hours.

    Grid 1, 1923-1939, precedes the birth of the Ferrari company but featured some Alfas of Scuderia Ferrari’s early days.

    Grid 2 featured the 250 MM, S/N 0298 MM, of Swiss Arnold Meier which he has campaigned extensively for twenty years.

    It faced an amazingly varied opposition from an Osca to the one-off Cadillac Le Monstre, from a Czech. built Aero Minor Sport 750, to a Maserati A6GCS brought all the way from Argentina. Also a Frazer Nash, a Jowett Jupiter, and more common fare such as 300SLs.

    Grid 3 included five 250 GT SWBs including the Breadvan, S/N 2819 GT, returning to the scene of its debut 60 years later.

    It was driven by Martin Halusa, its owner, and Lukas, his very son, with Alex Ames, its caretaker.

    Much raced SWBs were entered; those of Belgians Vincent Gaye, S/N 2069 GT, and Dumolin, S/N 3401 GT, a car he had invited Alain de Cadenet to race at Goodwood Revival in 2021.

    Of course, the sad news of the passing of the top-notch TV presenter, former team owner, racer and bon vivant came on Saturday of the Le Mans Classic causing great sorrow.

    Other SWBs were entered by Arnold Meier: S/N 2111 GT and S/N 1917 GT, entered by Brit Roderick Jack.

    Grid 4 had two Ferraris though they were recreations; one a 250 LM made by famed Dutch bodyshop Roelofs. It was driven by Van der Lof, Van der Lof and Buurman.

    There was a 250 GTO/64 there, one of my absolute favourite designs. I had not the time beforehand to investigate which cars were entered so I asked a gentleman there if it was owned by Lord Bamford.

    He answered no, “I am the owner.” So then I understood and asked if it was the car made by Roelofs in Holland. Yes, he answered, “I am Piet Roelofs”.

    After I congratulated him on his work I asked for the chassis number but he declined to say, stating he was tired of the controversies.

    He did confirm it was made from a 250 GTE. It was raced by Nicky Pastorelli, who contrary to what his name might suggest is actually Dutch.

    The pattern seen at numerous events of more and more replicas is unfortunately unavoidable due to the rising values which make owners ever more reluctant to risk their cars. This either keeps them away from the track or they build tool room replicas.

    One well-known 512 M owner does just that. While another did also, but when he sold his real car Ferrari ordered the replica destroyed which was duly done, whilst preserving the engine and genuine parts.

    The Goodwood Revival for example, is replete with copies and has been for years. This is the new normal.

    That grid included Cobras, early GT40s and everything from Lotus Elans to Shelby Mustangs.

    Grid 5 had six cars listed but only five showed up, the absente being the 512 S of Pierre Mellinger though he was present in grid 6 with a 512....BB/LM.


                    Christophe Journiaux photo

    The 312P S/N 0872 owned by Swiss Arnold Meier was the star Ferrari of LMC, as pleasing to the eyes as to the ears.

    It was raced in Berlinetta form as is correct for Le Mans, the body it used in period (it can be switched to open configuration with alternate bodies).

    It was decorated not in its 1969 livery, but in its 1970 LM guise with number 58 –though it was 57 then- and even featured a bump as raced 52 years ago by Tony Adamowicz and Chuck Parsons.

    This year it was its second driver, Swiss Remo Lips, who is quite tall and needed the bump while the car’s regular driver veteran David Franklin shared duties with him.

    I had met David numerous times; he is always pleasant and welcoming but I had never met Remo whom I found very interesting.

    Unsurprisingly, he loved the car and explained that to counter understeer they were using slicks on the front only. With that he felt the car had found the right balance. He explained that to keep it on the pace you had to stay between 7,000 and 11,500 rpm; below that there was no power, hence it takes very skilled, experienced drivers to get the most of it.

    There was a lone 275 GTB/4, S/N 09247, of Dutchman Jan Gijzen, which he has owned since 1992.


                    Marc Sonnery photo


    Three Daytonas were entered, S/N 16717, a well-known Group 4 conversion with its yellow and red livery, owned by German Alexander Ritweger. He shared the wheel with Brit Sam Hancock.

    Another Daytona was driven by Nicky Pastorelli, splitting duties between several cars in different grids as the luckiest and busiest tend to do for an exciting, but sleep deprived, weekend.

    A final Daytona was entered for the son of Philippe Lancksweert and van Riet, both from Belgium.

    Grid 6 featured several 512 BB/LMs such as Rittweger Hancock in S/N 34445.

     A personal favourite was S/N 28601 of Frenchman “John of B”, a car I was fascinated by at Le Mans 1980 the first time I attended. It looked so good in its red livery with Italian flag stripe.

    It was owned then by Fabrizio Violati’s Scuderia Bellancauto and driven by him with Spartaco Dini and Maurizio Micangeli.

    S/N 26685, one of the two decorated in the famous birds and clouds livery, was entered by Pierre Mellinger sharing with Tommaso Gelmini.


                    Christophe Journiaux photo

    Another BB/LM was driven by the same Micangeli, Quiros and guest star Emanuele Pirro, who enjoys historic racing for the fun of it.

    As Patrick Peter, the event organizer said, some former stars would not fit the event because they take any racing too seriously, are desperate to win and might push a car too much leaving the owner with a ruined engine or worse.

    Emanuele just loves it and is very generous and courteous with the fans giving a lot of his time; a perfect gentleman.

    Finally the Ferrarelle S/N 35529, rebodied with a smoother body by Fabrizio Violati and his engineer in period, was a no show.

    Famous drivers racing included a slew of former Le Mans winners such as Emanuele Pirro, Éric Hélary, Eric van de Poele and Jürgen Barth. Rally star in a 308 GTB Gr4 Michelotto and 512 BB/LM racer Jean-Claude Andruet, former F1 Ferrari driver René Arnoux in a BMW M1, Marco Werner in a 935 and the Crown Prince of Denmark in a GT40.

    There were also two car company presidents; Jim Farley, the Ford CEO, in grid 4 who actually drove his GT40 to a podium finish and Carlos Tavares, the leader of Stellantis (which groups Fiat, Peugeot, Citroën, Alfa Romeo, Opel, Jeep and Maserati among others) in a Chevron B21.

    Interestingly this major motorsport enthusiast and outspoken critic of the politicians’ blind lemming-like rush towards ultimately unsustainable and not so clean electrification was running his Chevron on synthetic fuel, one of four cars doing so at Le Mans Classic.

    This fuel was developed by Aramco and LMC, organiser Patrick Peter, hopes to have the entire field of 1950 and younger historic cars race on that fuel within five years.

    Around 4pm the first race started, though with some delays. It was done with a false Le Mans running start behind safety car for the beauty of it but later in the warm-up lap the safety car stops so drivers can fasten their belts or harnesses then he releases them in front of the pits.

    The grandstands were packed and it was just a joy to watch...and hear! So many had been missing this event very badly so after four years it was just pure joy.

    On Saturday night after more than 24 hours at the track I decided to take a break and have dinner in a nearby village in peace and quiet...well that backfired. Literally.

    I had forgotten that Arnage (after which the slowest corner of the 24hr circuit is named) is not only full of parked sports and classic cars and fans during race weekends, but there is a spontaneous burnout and engine-revving fest right past the restaurant terraces!

    So much for a quiet dinner! Walking afterwards in the park across the street edging the river Sarthe did the trick of providing some peace and quiet; I was eager to get back to the track again.

    Then, as if that was not enough, there were other supporting races: Group C.

    The Jaguars were crowd favourites particularly those with 7 liter V12s. A Bentley of the type that won in 2002, a Peugeot 905 of the type that won in 2009 and a mighty Aston Martin AMR1 were also entered.

    The Porsche 962C of Ralf Kelleners (son of Helmut who raced the Gelo 512 S of Georg Loos in period) and Ivan Vercoutere set the fastest time of the weekend in qualifying: 3:42.766 and would not have been ridiculous in the modern 24 hour race a few weeks before.

    Conversely the slowest car of the weekend (in grid 1 predictably) was a Riley 9 Brooklands 1933 which lapped in 11:30 even!

    A touching moment was when Kazuki Nakajima, Toyota factory driver, triple Le Mans winner 2018-2022 and son of Satoru, raced the Toyota 85C that his father had driven at Le Mans in 1985.

    To be thorough about the land of the rising sun the ear splitting Mazda 787B which won Le Mans in 1991 was back but only for a three lap demo run giving eardrums as hard a time as ever.

    To highlight the incredible variety of entries there were a couple of NASCAR cars. Yes, the likes of the late Gene Felton from Georgia actually tackled Le Mans in the early 1980s with Detroit-made monsters and while they were outgunned in the curves their bellowing V8s made them fan favourites.

    Another American car made a totally different noise: the Howmet TX. Built in 1968 and raced at Le Mans. There are four of them and this is the only one in Europe, campaigned by fast Frenchman Xavier Micheron.

    Why does it attract a crowd every time? Because instead of an engine it has a helicopter turbine: woosh there it goes and he was actually racing near the top of his grid, passing Lola T70s!

    The Endurance Racing Legends was a joy to behold simply because it included a 333SP whose distinctive wail had the crowd enraptured, as always!

    It was driven by Michel Lecourt and Raymond Narac, S/N 034, in yellow livery. It was sold new in Germany but never raced in period.

    There were also two Maserati MC12 GT1s and it was poetic justice to see them pound round le Circuit de La Sarthe.

    They had been conceived on the basis of the Enzo specifically to win Le Mans but were refused in period by the ACO, the club which rules Le Mans, as being too stealthy in concept; virtual Trojan Horses in terms of the rules.

    What few remember is, the very last year they ran they had actually been accepted for Le Mans but the teams still running them did not take part.

    The Porsche Classic Race Le Mans included everything made in Zuffenhausen from tame 2-liter 911s to full blown 935 K3s.

    The Jaguar Classic Challenge predictably featured mostly E Types.

    Now bear in mind each of these grids had about sixty cars; with an 8-mile long track, accommodating so many is not a problem.

    The one race, or rather exhibition, which had about 200 entries and caused the greatest ruckus though was the kids in miniature race cars, many of which looked like 365Ps.

    It was both amusing and concerning to see how the parents were taking this very seriously, some of them in a literal frenzy and you could hear them give advice in several languages on how their dear offspring should win.

    Amusing and ridiculous in equal terms but the good thing is that the boys and girls at the heart of it become a new generation of enthusiasts and some of them future owners.


                    Christophe Journiaux photo


    Then there were the classic cars driven to Le Mans from all corners of Europe and many from the UK on display in the club corral: only 8,600 of them! Using the short permanent Bugatti circuit within the non-permanent 24-hour course.

    The Porsche paddock had about 1,000 road cars 99% of them 911s.

    Then then there were several thousand British classics; loads of Jaguars, Triumphs, Astons, but also TVRs and every little obscure English production.

    There were about 40 Maseratis, a dozen Lamborghinis, most of them classics, a dozen Panteras,  and more modern supercars. Cobras, genuine or not, some cars that you would never see elsewhere such as Ligier-Maseratis, Marcos, Alvis, Bizzarrinis, GT40 road cars, one of the ultra-rare original ones and many replicas, etc., everywhere you looked. Think Laguna Seca paddocks and parking lots during Monterey but multiplied by four.

    Oh and 99% were driven there hundreds if not thousands of miles, not trailered such as a beater Countach, ratty, road rashed with six figure mileage.

    There were various concours and parades, the Ferrari one was quite good but featured mostly 1990s and later cars. Two cherry red SP3s leading the field, a third one, yellow, was also seen in the paddock.

    I never found the time to walk the entire club enclosure and find the Ferrari club home.

    During the parade there seemed to be about seventy Ferraris but many more could be seen here and there in the club corral, in the paddocks, in the parking lots, the nearby villages and even in the campgrounds. One Brit had driven over in his road legal 330 P3 replica; not much room for luggage!

    There was a small gathering of the 400 Club with 365 GT4 2+2s and 412s including a cut open-top 400 version.

    Ferrari Classiche had a display in the paddock with a Daytona Group 4 and a 512 BB/LM as well as current production cars.

    My little tradition during LMC is to spend part of the night in the most unadulterated portion of the circuit: the Indianapolis and Arnage curve sequence, where the circuit is unchanged from the old days; the perfect time machine spot.

    The atmosphere is magical as you are surrounded by forest under a cloudless sky. You can hear the pack miles away on the Mulsanne Straight; French name les Hunaudiéres.

    They arrive at the slow corner ending it and relaunch in the flat out narrow stretch that follows, also at top speed with slight kinks and suddenly they appear through the woods screaming away only to face the challenging approach to Indianapolis curve which necessitates braking while negotiating the last kink before the much slower curve itself.

    It is banked so they often pass two abreast, then reaccelerate for about 300 meters before slamming hard on the brakes for Arnage, the 90 degree right which at 50 mph is the slowest curve of the whole circuit.

    From there they accelerate to very high speeds again towards the Porsche curves more than a mile away.

    A sequence that is the perfect mix to observe with several hundred enjoying the sight standing or in their chairs, engines howling through the night like wolves; it gets to your enthusiast’s soul, I can tell you.

    I would rather see a perfect replica with its beautiful lines and gorgeous sounds go by full blast at 3am than a real one in an auction room. Some enjoy the somewhat obscene frenzy around values at auction; I would much rather be at the track.

    Actual race results matter little in historic racing but it was nice to see the 312 P and the Breadvan right up front in their groups. The 312 P was second in qualifying behind a Lola T70, then in race one it had some sort of issue and was 13th.

    In race two it managed second after a long duel with the very well driven T70.

    In race three however after earning lots of cheers it prevailed, driven very efficiently by Lips and Franklin, and won!


                    Peter Auto photo


    The Breadvan came third in its first race, 2nd in race two. Then came the only negative point of the weekend. It crashed hard in the first chicane on the Mulsanne Straight, the heftiest shunt it ever had but Lukas Halusa was unhurt and it will be rebuilt again; old racers never die.

    The best surprise of all is that instead of having to wait till 2024, the Le Mans Classic will be back next year in honour of the centenary of Le Mans: 1923-2023 and it is sure to be an occasion not to be missed. Rendez-vous in the Sarthe June 29 to July 2, 2023.

    This year’s edition was truly mind blowing and I will close with the best quote courtesy of my German journalist colleague, the spirited lady racer Gabi Von Oppenheim: “Le Mans Classic is Woodstock for petrolheads”. Absolutely!

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