I very nearly went to Le Mans this year. Three years ago after attending 20 consecutive 24 hour races, I promised myself I’d not go back until something other than a diesel could win. Not being able to see cars at night was one thing, not even being able to hear them was something else. But this year I really wanted to see (and hear) the Toyotas, watch Brundle & Son and support Marino Franchitti and the DeltaWing crew. In the end I only stayed away because I was already committed to the Le Mans Classic three weeks later.
Still I’m convinced I made the right choice. The Classic is not without its issues: the officialdom is heavy handed and often bone-headed and the prices charged for alleged trackside refreshments leave an even worse taste in your mouth than the refreshments themselves. But just to see a Porsche 917 or 936, a Ferrari 512S or LM howl up the pit straight and arc away towards the Dunlop Bridge offers more pure theatre than the fastest of today’s diesel prototypes. Multiply that by six grids of approximately 70 cars taken from 1923 to 1979, that by the number of heroes taking part (Derek Bell, Brian Redman, Jean-Pierre Jabouille and so on) and that by the number of fabulous viewing points around this 8.4 mile circuit and the result is one of the most intensely enjoyable motor racing experiences there is.
It also serves to remind why most people fell in love with racing to begin with. I think for most of us it started with an image of a beautiful car, or the sound of an engine, or the personality of one or more drivers. I really don’t think any of us were, nor ever will be inspired by how little fuel a racing car can use in a 24 hour period, or how clever are its energy recovery systems. Yet this is what’s driving the future development of Le Mans cars.
The argument that this is motor racing putting its most environmentally responsible foot forwards is nonsense. The only way for any form of motorsport to be environmentally responsible is to cease to exist. Nor do I buy the line about developing hybrid technologies for road cars: the capacitors used by Toyota cannot hold a charge long enough to benefit anything likely to be of use to you or me, while the most likely road-going application of the Williams flywheel in the Audi is not in cars at all, but huge and heavy buses.
But back to the Classic. Another of its many charms are those who choose to go to it. The sizeable contingent who to travel to the regular Le Mans for a weekend of drinking, vomiting and zero spectating are notably absent. In their place come knowledgeable, passionate lovers of racing and racers. And they come in tens of thousands from the channel ports and all over Europe in surely the largest and most eclectic assortment of classic cars to assemble in one place. You could probably quite happily pass the entire weekend in the car parks.
All of which leaves me with a problem. The next Le Mans Classic will be in 2014, the same year the Porsche factory team returns to Le Mans, and an occasion I will clearly be unable to miss. I fear the only answer will be to do both.