Le Mans with Elan

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Julian Balme describes what it was like to race the RH Specialist Division sponsored Shapecraft-bodied Lotus Elan at Classic Le Mans.

The Bizzarrini wwas struggling to keep up with the Elan through the chicane before the Dunlop Bridge, and fell even further behind on the new downhill section to the old Esses. But once clear of Tertre Rouge and onto the Mulsanne Straight the V8-powered projectile eased past the diminutive Lotus.

Under braking for the chicanes the rear of the Italian racer grew larger, and by the straight’s end it still hadn’t disappeared from view. The reason for this wasn’t evident until well past the 200-metre board on the approach to the 90deg right at Mulsanne Corner, which is where the brakes were applied for the first time. The car pitched right then left. I was passengering an oil slick-induced tank-slapper at just over 7000rpm in top — a conservative 125mph. At this point I’d like to say that I had the presence of mind to flick the car into a spin to scrub speed off rather than use the brakes — I’d be lying, it just looked that way as I entered the comer backwards and eventually found some Tarmac that wasn’t coated in hot GM oil.

In the blink of an eye a number of things flash through your mind. The Shapecraft-bodied Lotus Elan was by far the smallest car in the grid of 61, so the initial thought was, ‘Is this going to hurt?’ The second was, ‘If this is going to hurt me, what’s it going to do to a car which has been so beautifully rebuilt by its new owner Malcolm Ricketts? How am I going to explain that one?” Then there’s the thought of braking the news to co-driver, Don Hands, that he won’t be needing his race gear for the rest of the weekend, and of confessing to team sponsor, Alan Mitchell from RH specialist car insurers, that his logo adorning the side of our car was now perched on top of the tyre wall on the outside of one of endurance racing’s most famous corners.

Er… back to the race. As an E-type slithered into view, I managed to fire up the twin-cam motor again and set off in its pursuit, past the stricken Bizza parked a quarter-mile down the road and onto Indianapolis. By Arnage my confidence had returned in both myself and the track, and I quickened up the pace on the run to the Porsche Curves — to be greeted by a sign notifying me that the safety car was out. It was time to give the car back! Don took over, and when he returned it was dark. We had survived the first leg of three, 28th on scratch and sixth on Index of Performance.

The second outing was at 04.00. Still pitch black, and with patches of fog sat on parts of the circuit. The unpredictability of the surface filled me with dread, and by the time I took over I was only prepared to drive to survive, adding nearly half a minute to my best lap time. Although terrifying, the night race did provide some memorable images, in particular the Ford GT4Os belching flames on the overrun and the mist of unburnt fuel left in their wake. The main thing, though, was ensuring that we would start the final leg at just gone 12.30 on Sunday.

For the first time Don and I could treat the 45-minute race as a sprint, and our lap times subsequently tumbled. Hustling a French film star in his Ferrari 275GTB to the point where he waved me by — at least I think that’s what he was gesturing — raised a smile, along with almost pushing a GT40 through the Chicane named after its manufacturer.

The final result? Twenty-third on scratch — it should have been 19th, but I’d stupidly picked up a penalty for what we suspect was speeding in the pitlane — and fourth in the Index of Performance. Julian Balme

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