Le Mans Classic 2004: Deutschland Uber Alles!
© Derek Fritz
off to Spa got in the way of posting Derek’s report from Le
Mans last week.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
*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
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.