First Le Mans '24Hr' retro meeting voted a big success

Classic Le Mans

A sense of the surreal abounded at Le Mans in September, as a truly spectacular array of historic racers took part in the inaugural Classic Le Mans event.

Designed to recreate past glories of the famous Vingt-Quatres Heures, the weekend was the brainchild of Tour Auto organiser, Patrick Peter. Working closely with circuit owner Automobile Club de l'Ouest, his months of preparation and hard work, not to mention huge enthusiasm, produced as fine a recreation of yesteryear Le Mans as you're likely to see.

The format of the event meant that cars — many of them with serious Le Mans pedigree — were split into five classes which each raced four times during the 24-hour period.

Class One was for the oldest cars — 1923, the year of the very first Le Mans 24 Hours, up to 1939, the last race before a decade of interruption.

Class Two spanned 1946 to '56; Class Three '57 to '61; Class Four '62 to '65. Class Five, for the 'big boys' of the meeting, was for the '66-75 period. That there was something of interest to spectators of all ages and levels of enthusiasm only added to the appeal.

The organisers were sensitive to the financial and historic value, as well as the relative fragility, of many of the cars, so races were limited to 35-minute sprints.

A handicapping system, based on the old Index of Thermal Efficiency rating, gave competitors the chance to race for team glory, too.

At 4pm on Saturday, then, more than 60 cars from the 1920s and '30s headed out on the daunting eight-mile Circuit de la Sarthe for the first of their four races. The traditional Le Mans 'start', where cars were lined up at an angle to the pitwall awaiting their 'sprinting' drivers, was much in evidence, and produced an incredibly evocative sight. A quick reshuffle on the Mulsanne Straight put the cars back in grid order.

The 1936 Alfa 8C of marque specialist Paul Grist, joined by his son Matt, won all four heats, chased hard by the Talbot 105 of Gareth Burnett. Smiling Grists in Paddock One set the scene for the mood throughout the whole event.

Class Two was a masterclass in the four-wheel drift by former Jaguar Le Mans prototype ace, Win Percy. Hustling the ex-Hawthorn/Bueb Le Mans-winning D-type, Percy vanquished the challenge from fellow Jaguars — C- and D-type — as well as that of beautiful Maserati 300S and 450S models.

The little Lotus 11 of Neil Davis took the handicap trophy in this class, having covered the same distance as the dominant Percy.

The 1957-61 field produced some stirring battles. The Flavien Marçais/Nick Linney Lister-Jaguar diced with the 1959 Le Mans-winning Aston Martin DBR1 of Peter Hardman/Harry Levantis, the 'Birdcage' of Hartmut Ibing/Hans Hugenholtz and the Jaguar E-Type of Frederic Puren. However, a consistent performance meant the trophy went the way of Nick Whale/Ian Guest in the ex-Dick Protheroe E-Type. Whale was robbed of an outright win in race four by a puncture.

 It was Class Four which gave the large crowd the biggest dramas of the event. Two accidents — one at the first chicane in which a Renault-Alpine was gutted by fire, and one involving three cars at the super-quick Indianapolis kink — delayed the race by 90min during the night. Drivers were unanimous in their fears over the combination of spilt oil and darkness around the whole circuit.

Despite this, there was another dominant class performance, from ex-Group C2 sportscar champion, Ray Bellm. The ex-McLaren Le Mans racer took his 1965 Ford GT40 — freshly rebuilt after its outing in the Spa Six Hours — to four consummate wins. Fellow endurance veterans François Migault and David Piper offered some opposition in their AC Cobra and Ferrari 365P2 respectively. Nick Mason/Mark Hales won the class on handicap, however, their Ferrari 250GTO driven superbly all weekend.

The fastest cars of the event, the 1966-75 grid, gave spirited performances each time. Honours were shared between the Porsche 917 of Bobby Rahal/Brian Redman, the Lola T70 of Carlos Barbot/Jonathan Baker and the wailing Alfa Romeo T33 of Jon Shipman and that man Hales. The 3-litre V8 Alfa, second in the 1971 Targa Florio, was the deserving group winner since it had finished in the top six each time.

Some fabulous cars, driven with plenty of flair by pros and part-timers alike, helped make the inaugural Classic Le Mans a memorable event. With minor teething problems ironed out, its place in the top echelon of historic motorsport fixtures is surely assured.

More than anything, it was a celebration of arguably the world's most famous race. For that reason alone, the 2004 Classic Le Mans cannot come soon enough.

It's going to be a long 2003. Henry Hope-Frost