The future of Le Mans
Le Mans, instituted in 1923 and once regarded as the most important sports-car race of all, is now being openly criticised, this year’s race being described as uninspiring or downright dull. This seems to stem from the quality of the entries, there being no “works” Ferraris or Alfa Romeos. It has caused a plea for a return to the “traditional” Le Mans, contested by “touring” cars having some similarity to catalogue specification, the type of race which brought Bentleys, HRGs, Aston Martins and Jaguars to the Sarthe.
This is paradoxical, for Le Mans has become one of those sports-car contests which have (with others at Buenos Aires, Daytona, Sebring, Brands Hatch, Monza, Spa. Sicily, Nurburg, Zeltweg, Watkins Glen and St. Jovite) outpaced F1 in driver prowess (and bravery), engineering techniques and spectacle, as we discussed in this space last month. The 1971 Le Mans race was won at a record 138 m.p.h., so it wasn’t speed which was lacking. With its splendidly-surfaced circuit, its permanent amenities, Le Mans is too good to ignore as a setting for the very fast modern sports/racing cars. With the organisers claiming 200,000 spectators (half that number would surely be profitable?) they are unlikely to want to drop out of the big-time stakes. All they have to query is why the “works” teams didn’t care about this particular round of the Manufacturers’ Sports Car Championship, with its testing hours of darkness.
Because, given these, the high speed of the contestants and the skill and bravery of their conductors will continue to act as a powerful magnet to the race-going public and, although the FIA may be hoping to abate such naughty things with next year’s 3-litre formula, it seems probable that GP machinery hidden under all-enveloping shells will ensure that the 1972 Ferrari, Matra and Alfa Romeo “Sports cars” are about as quick as the present fabulous 5-litre Porsche 917s.
In saying hands-off change at Le Mans and those other sports-car races, particularly the really testing 24 hours or 1,000-kilometre ones, we are not shutting our eyes to the possibility that races for closer-to-standard cars might be successfully reintroduced. We have advocated more Group I saloon-car racing to enliven Club meetings and we have praised the one-make races contested by that very excellent road-cum-rally car, the Ford Escort Mexico. But be careful! Could you really stomach two rounds of the clock at Le Mans for such cars, where our reporter complained that the Porsche 911s were “thoroughly boring to watch”? Or things like V12 Jaguars and Opel GTs battling for 1,000 kilometres round the Nurburgring?
What is wanted, perhaps, is not the substitution of more normal cars in the classic sports-car races but a new form of race for such cars. When Le Mans was at its Bentley-dominated height interesting replicas of it were held in this country, of which the Six-Hour Race and “Double-Twelve” at Brooklands were the most significant. Why not a modern 6, 12 or double-12-hour race of this kind? Bog standard cars would be dull to drive and to watch. Scrutineering them has always been a nightmare, from the quibble over the size of Caracciola’s Mercedes supercharger (a matter of a few mm.) before the 1930 TT to the bickering by today’s Mexico men. It was these twin thorns in the race promoter’s backside which took sports-car events away from production models towards less-standard types, until, by 1949, “prototypes” were allowed at Le Mans and all was changed irretrievably.
The present generation must find it hard to accept that once upon a time a Model-A Ford tourer ran alongside (well, momentarily!) 7-litre Mercedes and 6 1/2-litre Bentley in the Ards TT, that hoods had to be actually erect for some laps, that four seats were insisted upon for the bigger cars, and that after 1933 such an obvious racing-car device as the supercharger was banned from the Tourist Trophy. They are more likely to remind us that “catalogue-car” races didn’t last long. Wings (we don’t mean aerofoils} and other road-going clobber were soon dropped as dangerous. The aforesaid blower-ban was criticised; “the absence of screaming superchargers will deliver the death-blow to the TT”. Near-standard bodywork went overboard at Le Mans in 1937, although there was an attempt to reinstate something of the sort in 1950.
You cannot put the clock back completely and there would be no “open-wheelers” in a 1972 sports-car race, although these were part of the Le Mans scene as late as 1950, when mudguarded Talbots were first and second, a mudguarded Allard third.
What might be tried, preferably at Oulton Park, would be a race for cars departing no further from Standard than the bolting-on of such tuning aids as the soup-kitchens sell, or the equivalent. Numbers sold, not made or alleged to have been built, could be the basis of the type of car permitted. A handicap of some sort might be needed to enable Spridgets and Imps to feel as optimistic about outright victory as the Dinos—they had to do this in the days when it was desirable to level-up between Austin 7s and Talbot 105s and if you want to know how well or how badly it worked out, it’s all in the Blight Bible!
A long race would be desirable. Top drivers could constitute an attraction; remember Nuvolari in the TT, Bira winning the Donington 12-Hour for instance? (We leave to more erudite historians which was closer to as-you-might-buy trim in the latter sports-car race, Bira’s winning Delahaye or the Riley which Paul and Brackenbury brought home in second place….) The idea introduced by the late Gregor Grant, of ending such a race at midnight or thereabouts, to introduce some night driving, might be revived. And don’t forget Spa’s 24-hour saloon-car race!
If a race of this kind were organised, those who couldn’t actually afford a replica of the winning car should at least be able to find similar models on the used-car market. How many Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512Ms did you come across in the small advertisements in this month’s Motor Sport? But to reduce Le Mans to a high-speed tour instead of a race would be rather a pity. It was to safeguard against it becoming a GT crawl that experimental and prototype entries were permitted in 1962, the year that the 743 c.c. and 997 c.c. Lotus 23s, schemed to defeat little French devices in the Index of Performance, were, nevertheless, excluded at the last moment, as not conforming to the spirit of Le Mans.
A National Ford Side-valve Rally Day is to take place at Twickenham Rugby Ground (off A316) on August 21st, opening at 2 p.m., the main organiser being the Ford 100E OC. Expect a flood of Pops, Prefects and the older Anglias in the area that day! Good luck to ’em. Admission is 25p per car. No parking charge.