Le Mans Classic 2004: Deutschland Uber Alles!
© Derek Fritz

Dashing off to Spa got in the way of posting Derek’s report from Le Mans last week.

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The various Porsche clubs of Europe contributed more than 600 examples of the Zuffenhausen product to the vast array of enthusiast cars that carpeted the grass infield of the Bugatti circuit. Other marques, notably Lotus, Morgan and Renault were well-represented, but they were probably each out-numbered two-to-one by the German horde. Nevertheless, of the thousands of cars present, both classic and mundane, at least 50% carried British registrations. Similarly, the on-track competition eventually finished Germany 3, Rest of the World (UK & USA) 3 - but more of that later.

A measure of the prevailing spirit within the clubs is well illustrated by one short anecdote. During the parades that preceded the first racing start on Saturday a member of the Sunbeam Tiger Owners' Club - celebrating its 40th Anniversary, this year - suffered a blown cylinder head gasket. The club members rallied round and by 8pm the engine was back to full health, with a new gasket in place.

The figure of 50% appeared in different guises over the long weekend; three days of track activity against two for the first event, two years ago; the attendance was estimated to be 50% up on 2002; each race was due to be 45 minutes duration against 25 minutes last time. (OK, at least 50%!). It also seemed that the village had swelled significantly compared with the original version, and more than a few of the traders appeared to be doing good business.

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One enterprising improvement this time was the provision of classic Swiss buses to ferry spectators from the paddock area to the enclosures at Mulsanne and Arnage, and vice versa. A free half-hourly service was provided for all the qualifying and racing periods, except between midnight Saturday and dawn on Sunday.This service was additional to the on-demand transport by Jeep between the car parks and the six paddocks, seen at the initial event.

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After a morning of low key, but unfailingly rigourous, scrutineering the weekend fireworks started on Friday afternoon. Christie's auction, held in the conference centre that replaced the original museum, set a new open purchase record for a single vehicle in France. The Bentley Speed Six that had placed second in the 1930 race was the subject of an intense bidding duel lasting several minutes. The tension in the room was almost tangible as the ante climbed to dizzy heights. One million Euros brought a round of applause, then another at two million. Finally, the whole room erupted when the hammer fell at 3.8M Euros, excluding buyer's premium - £2.5M sterling or $6.75M US! The subsequent lots, including the third-placed Bentley from 1929 and the class-winning Aston Martin DB3S from 1957, at 1.5M and 1.2M Euros respectively, seemed little more than pocket money toys in comparison with the Bentley.

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Our avowed intention was to present the flavour of this unique event, not a detailed account of the racing. Nevertheless, one entry was chosen for close attention to obtain some measure of the joy or despair experienced during the weekend. The entry selected was from the pre-war grid. Rear Admiral USN (Ret'd.) Scott Ebert had brought his Bugatti Type 40 to Europe several weeks ago and took part in two rallies, one of five days based in Cheltenham, UK and another of three days at Lyon, France prior to reaching Le Mans. The car, with a four cylinder, 1500cc engine has an unusual history. Originally constructed with a vestigial wooden body for the 1930 Sahara Rally, it returned to Molsheim after that expedition to be rebuilt with the standard coach-built tourer bodywork that it retains to this day. Scott Ebert bought it in 1958 and used it for a while before selling it on. He later bought it back and commenced restoration in 1990. Since that time it has been raced extensively in America, with a string of class-winning appearances.

Having run like a train during free practice the gremlins arrived in time for qualifying, ensuring the Bug was in the bottom quarter of the grid. It turned out that the dynamo drive pulley had shattered, probably due to the extended periods of maximum revs on the long straights. Consequently the battery, deprived of its usual diet of volts, declined to fire all the spark plugs reliably. The problem was not identified until shortly before the first start; too late to do more than connect a slave battery for the pre-start assembly and manoeuvring. Inevitably the next demand, during the "Le Mans start", left the battery in a parlous state and it expired on the first racing lap. Recharging the battery and jury-rigging a supplementary supply enabled the little car to complete its night-time race and the Sunday race as well. This tale of minor triumph over adversity was repeated at various times and in various ways throughout the six grids.

dailysportscar.comThe 1955-winning D-type Jaguar, driven by Johnny Herbert, also suffered undisclosed troubles during free practice on Friday night and was withdrawn from Grid 3. By Saturday afternoon the Audi UK star had been recruited into the 1952 Jaguar C-type of Nigel Webb, to share the drive with Blaize Pearson in Grid 2.

dailysportscar.comA familiar, but sadly missed face was seen in the pits as the D-type's malaise was pronounced terminal. Seated on a contraption like motorised bar stool was none-other than Winston Percy!

Win, who drove the 1955 winner in the first Classic, looked fit and pronounced himself confident that his back injury will be completely healed in due course. It can't be too soon.

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Another established endurance driver was spotted in conversation with Scott Ebert. Bill Binnie (above left) took time off from his ALMS/LMES duties to pedal his own Ford GT40. Although lacking the outright speed of pole-sitter Ray Bellm, also GT40-mounted, Bill maintained consistency in his three races to capture the overall win in Grid 4.

The only serious incident occurred during the first race for Grid 2, when another C-type, that of Simon Hadfield, crashed at full chat on the middle section of les Hunaudieres between the two chicanes. The luckless Jaguar hit the guardrail, demolishing a section, and overturned. The fuel tank is believed to have ruptured in the accident and the fuel ignited in the aftermath. Thanks to prompt action by the driver of a following car, who quelled the flames with his on-board extinguisher, Hadfield escaped with relatively superficial burns in addition to a shattered elbow. The clean-up and repairs to the road surface and Armco took almost two hours, but the programme was brought back under control by reducing the second races to thirty minutes each.

Mike Jankowski, patron of Creation Autosportif, appointed Bobby Verdon-Roe to share his 1971 Ligier JS3. They got off to a promising start, winning their first race by more than three minutes, but it was not to last. A mishap on the second lap of their night-time race brought an end to the Ligier's involvement in the proceedings.

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From time to time there appeared to be severe epidemics of red mist, resulting in intense racing and the occasional 'no prisoners' attitude when lapping slower traffic. The former occurred with dramatic effect during the final race of the weekend. Jean-Pierre Jaussaud and Jurgen Barth, in Renault A443 and Porsche 936 respectively, engaged in a veritable dog-fight until the eighth lap when, having re-taken the lead at the Dunlop chicane, the French veteran out-braked himself and visited the Tertre Rouge gravel - permanently!

Overall the outright winners of the grids were:
Prewar: BMW 328
1949-1956: Jaguar C-type
1957-1961: Lister Jaguar
1962-1965: Ford GT40
1966-1971: Porsche 908/3
1972-1978: Porsche 936

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The winning team comprised Bugatti Type 51; Gordini T24S; Ferrari 246S; CD LM64; and the two grid-winning Porsches.

The Index of Performance results were so obscure that they have little meaning, particularly as separate prizes were apparently not awarded; at least, not on the podium.

Snapshot memories

*Phil Hill hanging out the tail of the ex-Fangio 1953 Alfa Romeo 3000 CM
*The deep bark of the Chrysler Hemi in the Cunningham C4R
*Staccato explosions from each cylinder as the Cadillac Sedan passed
*Metronomic consistency of the Panhard flat twin engines powering the Monopole and both CDs
*Martin Walford producing the sort of performance that would have made the Allard J2R a winner in 1953, as he left the Jaguars and Ferraris in his dust.
*Crowds round the Inaltera
*Diaphragm vibration before the 7litre Corvettes or GT40 Mk4 were in sight, and after they disappeared
*Porsche's ubiquitous flat-6 rasping through the darkness.
*The ridiculously-decorated pink E-type Jaguar. Art for art's sake?
*Wonderful smoothness of car and driver: Ferrari 246S with Tony Dron

All things considered, the Le Mans Classic has become an event that no-one with an interest in the history of the great race can afford to miss. There remain a few rough edges and some misgivings. For instance, what would be the long-term effect of a wet weekend? However, the product from the ACO and Peter Auto is a firm base from which development can proceed. Roll on 2006.

 

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