Le Mans Classic

I’ve been a lucky boy this Summer. In June, I contested the world’s most famous endurance motor race for Jota Spot in a cuffing-edge Zytek LMP2 powered by a 450bhp Nissan engine. A month later I was back at La Scuffle, this time pedalling not one but two priceless Jaguars of 1950s vintage at the Le Mans Classic.

The cockpits of the delicate pastelblue Jaguar D-type, and creamy white E2A (the unique and scarily valuable prototype Jaguar built between the D and the E-types) couldn’t bear less of a resemblance to that of the Zytek. The former are more Lancaster bomber (in fact the dials and switches in E2A were the same as those used in that very aircraft). As for the Zytek, it’s more NASA Space Command. Out on track it doesn’t take long to appreciate how the discovery of downforce has changed our world. Turn 1 at Le Mans is barely even a corner in the Zytek. It’s easy-flat in fifth, with sufficient grip to demolish the brake pedal liffle more than 60 metres beforeturning in to the Dunlop Chicane. In contrast, both Jaguars demand soft but lengthy braking long before the right sweeper, before a delicate waft of throffle through its apex to balance the resulting slide. Then it’s hard on the brakes to negotiate the 90-left-90right flick, and here it’s the old-timers that win in the fun stakes. Broad slides and armfuls of opposite lock prove the most efficient way to manage the rapid direction change, while the Zytek devoid of downforce at these low speeds ploughs through each apex with clumsy understeer.

Down the hill and into the Esses, the lower grip levels and rolling speeds of the Jaguars require moderate braking and a single downshift for the cambered left-hander, rolling in with as much speed as you dare. The Zytek is the same, just at higher speeds. The desired line over the brow on the exit is the same for old and new, but inevitably the Jaguars prove more vulnerable to the laws of physics, with E2A dancing lightly on her feet over the crest, with an objection of oversteer that pulls her uncomfortably close to the Armco just feet away. Through Terke Rouge and the profile of this deceptively quick corner challenges Dunlops, both treaded L-section and slick alike, such that the resulting slide bullies the classic and contemporary machines well over the rumble strip on the exit, and to within a gnat’s whisker of the tasteless ‘bagueffe’ kerbs that lie beyond. Onto the Mulsanne Straight and bizarrely it’s here, and on the later run between Mulsanne and Indianapolis, that I notice the most dramatic differences. Surely a straight is a straight, right? You just sit there, ‘harry flatters’, admiring the scenery before the next corner, don’t you? Well, in a modern prototype, absolutely you can even take your hands off the wheel and tighten your belts if you need to. But in a classic Jaguar it isn’t so simple. As the car builds to its impressive top speed of 180mph, the nose lifts dramatically, doubling the already significant free play in the floaty steering mechanism.

Like a speedboat at full tilt sitting right up on top of the water she stands high up on tip-toes, darting from bump to gulley, and tram-lining at will. In the dry this is perfectly manageable with a counter-intuitive but finger-light grip on the steering wheel which allows her to wander at will. But in the wet, at night, with headlights about as powerful as a couple of candles, it’s borderline terrifying. More than once I wonder how the heroes of yesteryear held their nerve for lap after nail-biting lap.

Into the chicanes now that punctuate the long straight and, along with Mulsanne corner itself, no section of the lap highlights more clearly the astonishing advances in braking technology. Both the D-type’s drum brakes and E2A’s early discs demand nearly 250m of delicate ‘gentle-then-firm’ application of the anchors; the Zytek, meanwhile, still thumbs its nose and calls you ‘chicken’ with just less than 90m of brutish retardation from 190mph.

The kinks that run from Mulsanne to Indianapolis are nothing but mere 160mph landmarks in the Zytek, even in the rain. But with a glistening track, it’s a brave soul who keeps his foot buried through those in a sports car of significant vintage.

Indianapolis itself separates the men from the boys, regardless of era. The blindingly fast right-hand entry would possibly be flat in sixth in any modern prototype, were it not for the fact that it is met by a tight, second-gear lefthander immediately after. In the Zytek, it’s a 180mph game of dare: how late do you lift for the right to ensure you’ve enough time to slow for the left? In the Jaguars, the answer is more straightforward not only should you lift long before the right, but you should brake. And brake hard.

Having negotiated the woefully slow Arnage corner, the apex speed of which I suspect is similar in cars both old and new, it’s another blast through the countryside before the breathtakingly fast entry to the Porsche Curves… breathtaking at least in the Zytek, which funnels into the single-lane bends, flat in fifth, with complete disregard for the proximity of the concrete walls that line them. With nothing then but a lift of the throttle to negotiate the tighter of the Porsche Curve’s notorious twists, it’s a far cry from the Jaguars which demand a long squeeze of the quiet pedal well before turn-in. But while they can’t come close to the Zytek’s neckwrenching, mind-boggling capabilities through here, the Jaguars offer fun of their own kind with long, high-speed drifts for those able and willing to induce them.

Into the final sequence of chicanes ending the lap and the frolics continue. Impossibly late on the brakes in the Zytek before pitching it in and dancing the rear through the direction changes while keeping the weight on the nose. The technique in the Jaguars is astonishingly similar, just more lethargic. Get it wrong, though, you’ll be pulling the gravel from your teeth. Get it right and you’ll be grinning as you start another lap.

Sam Hancock