Racing Lines

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In a change from my normal workplace (i e the kitchen table at Meaden Towers), I’m writing this month’s Racing Lines column from the paddock at Dijon-Prenois. Dressed in full Nomex. Never let it be said I don’t take my work seriously. 

Dijon is an inspiring place, both to write and drive. Thanks largely because the circuit has hardly changed since René Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve’s epic wheel-banging session in the 1979 French Grand Prix. If you’ve never seen it look it up on YouTube. If you have, watch it again. And then try to imagine how today’s FIA Stewards would have reacted to their warrior-like driving. I suspect Arnoux would still be serving his suspension to this day! 

The reason I’m at Dijon is for the Grand Prix L’Age d’Or, part of Peter Auto’s historic racing season. Like all the best historic race meetings, walking through the paddocks is to enjoy a journey through the golden eras of our sport: fabulous pre-61 front-engined Grand Prix cars; sylph-like pre-66 1.5-litre F1 cars; sports-prototype icons such as Lola T70s, Ferrari 512s and Porsche 917s; 1960s Endurance legends from Cobras, E-Types and Mustangs to Elans, MGBs and early
Porsche 911s. No matter how many times I see them all it still makes for a breathtaking sight. 

But there’s a wind of change blowing through the paddock. Sixties metal – for so long the staple of historic meetings the world over – is fighting for grid slots with more modern machinery. Here at Dijon that’s manifesting itself in the gathering of late-70s Formula 2 cars, Group C cars up to 1993, GT and prototypes from 1972 to 1981 competing in the second of two Classic Endurance Racing grids, tin-tops from 1966 to 1984 in the Heritage Touring Cup and high-speed demo sessions by GT1, GT2 and LMP cars from Jarrah Venables’ impressive Global Endurance Legends club; the members of which will form the backbone of the new Le Mans Legends series recently announced by Masters Historic Racing and set for launch next season.

If like me you’re a 30- or 40-something who remembers being at Le Mans watching these ’90s and 2000s cars race in period then seeing them in action once more really is a mouth-watering prospect. The shapes, sounds and memories are still fresh in the memory, and there’s the very real possibility that we’ll see great drivers from the relatively recent past coming back to race these old cars with their new owners.

That’s all good. What concerns me is as the cars get more modern, so the emphasis shifts from the kind of wheel-to-wheel racing and expressive powerslides we all know and love to something much more akin to current racing formulas. And as we’re only too aware, an excess of grip and downforce can often mean processional ‘races’ with little overtaking, less sense of cars being driven to their limits and bigger, more expensive accidents when those limits of adhesion (or talent) are exceeded.

It’s a tricky conundrum for the race promoters to tackle. There’s a duty and desire to offer spectators exciting and entertaining on-track action, but the truth is historic racing depends upon the continued enthusiasm of collectors and wealthy amateur racers to prepare, maintain and enter their cars in the increasing number of historic meetings held each year.   

Traditionally they campaign the Coopers and Listers, Astons and Cobras, Lolas and Lotus Cortinas we’re all familiar with. But as the historic racing scene attracts a younger group of owners and racers, so the focus inevitably shifts to periods more pertinent to them.   

What motivates these historic racers is very personal and, bluntly, almost entirely wealth-dependent. Those with extensive collections will commit to multiple championships held at the same meeting by the same promoter, then make one-off appearances in some of their other cars in other events and series. 

Some work to more of a plan, acquiring cars with the express intention of taking part in a certain event – the Le Mans Classic perhaps, or maybe the Goodwood Revival or Monaco Historic: a process that might take a few seasons to bring to fruition. What’s true of both groups is after a certain period of time, once they feel as though they’ve been there and done that, each will more than likely be looking to race a different car. One that offers them a fresh goal and new set of challenges. This generally means newer and faster. 

It’s this churn rate that keeps the paddock from stagnating, but with a finite space for grids across each race weekend and no small financial risk for the promoters when starting a new championship, it must be the devil’s own job to serve those who still adore the accepted legends of the distant past and feed the hunger for the up-and-coming icons of the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s.  

Perhaps the best examples of how to strike this balance can be found in standalone events such as the Le Mans Classic, Goodwood Members Meeting and Silverstone Classic: the former bi-annual event offering grids from all eras, from the Bugattis and Bentleys of the 1920s right through to the Group C cars of the ’90s; the middle extending Goodwood’s portfolio beyond its years of active racing to showcase everything from the SF Edge Edwardian race cars to high-speed demonstrations featuring moderns such as GT1 Le Mans cars and Group A Touring Cars; the latter cherry-picking the best series from a range of promoters to cater for fans of the ’50s through to pretty much the present day. 

As someone in the fortunate position of being both a fan and a driver, I get to see things from either side of the catch fencing. As a fan it’s fantastic to watch Group C and IMSA cars, but it’s a very different viewing experience. One that majors on the privilege of watching these cars running in anger rather than being treated to
the kind of edge-of-your-seat racing you get with the older cars. That’s to say anything at Goodwood Revival or the U2TC race for pre-66 under-2-litre touring cars at Silverstone Classic.

As a driver I’d love the opportunity to experience a Group C or GT1 car in a racing situation, but from the brief taste I’ve had of such machinery I’m almost certain the experience would be a bit too intense: the line between pleasure and intimidation too fine to tread; the margins for error too slim to risk racing as hard as you dare. 

Then again, perhaps these seeds of doubt are personal, prompted by my familiarity with and love for cars that oversteer and the particular skillset these wonderfully wayward cars demand. Practicing the lost art of racing beyond the limit is what I love most about historics. That’s why the pure fun and satisfaction to be had sliding from entry through apex to exit outweighs my desire for downforce and the contemporary driving experience it brings.     

That said, I suppose I’ll never know what I’m missing unless I try it. Which is perhaps how many of today’s historic racers and collectors look at it. There are wonderful cars to own and race from all eras of the sport – particularly the 1960s and ’70s – but if you’ve already got that particular T-shirt and happen to harbour the dream of driving the very Group C or GT1 cars you cheered on at Le Mans as a spectator, the pursuit of this pinch-yourself moment will be impossible to resist.

Whether these high-grip moderns are ultimately as much fun to race or watch as low-grip classics remains to be seen. Personally I have my doubts, but readily accept that the future of historic racing most likely rests on the two genres happily co-existing. It’ll be fascinating to see how things evolve.     

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