From the ridiculous to the sublime
Mechanical disaster and a mercy-dash to Paris were all part of our man’s story as he made a dramatic entrance at Le Mans
Writer Ed Foster
People say that motor racing is 80 per cent hard graft and 20 per cent fun. Not as far as I’m concerned. The ratio’s more like 99 per cent pain and one per cent pleasure. At least that’s what it felt like when Motor Sport went to compete in the 45-minute, two-driver Le Mans Legends race on the morning of the 24 Hours. Almost everything that could have gone wrong did, from clutch slip to missing HTP papers. Was it worth it? In hindsight, yes, but if you’d asked me that question the night before the race I would have replied with a resounding ‘no’. This is our story, from the day that we were granted the privilege of racing at La Sarthe to the end of the race, via the lows of wondering whether we would actually make the grid after months of preparation.
Tuesday, March 19
4.48pm An email lands in the inbox from Motor Racing Legends. It begins: “I am pleased to confirm that your MGB has been accepted for this year’s Le Mans Legends race.”
4.49pm Telephone co-driver Paul Latimer to tell him the good news.
4.50pm Momentary elation is replaced with mild panic – how much do we need to raise in sponsorship?
4.51pm Who cares? We’ll be racing at Le Mans on the morning of the 24 Hours.
Thursday, May 9
8pm Fly to Scotland (where the car is kept) to start work on it. The 1964 works MGB (BRX 855B) has been sitting idle for two years, but has undergone a recent engine and gearbox rebuild. How much work is really needed? Can’t be much.
Friday, May 10
9am Discover seat, seat belts and fire extinguisher are all out of date, there’s play in a front-right suspension arm, the Dunlop Historic tyres passed their best in 2009 and there’s a small fuel tank leak. Ouch.
Saturday, June 1
11.30am All work on the car completed.
Monday, June 10
4pm Car leaves Scotland for the Essex base of Andy Prill, who will be shipping it to Le Mans and looking after us.
Friday, June 14
5pm Leave the office in a borrowed, limited-edition Land Rover Defender LXV. Drive to Prill’s to pick up the MGB and head to MG Live! at Silverstone to test the car. The Defender is a simply awesome towing machine. When loading the MGB I realise I don’t fit in the new seat.
11pm Arrive at Silverstone and make a bed in the back of the (short-wheelbase) Defender.
Saturday, June 15
6am Wake up with a foot hanging out of the driver’s window. The Defender works better as a towing vehicle than it does as sleeping quarters.
9am Practice/qualifying. It’s soaking wet and very slippery, but the car’s working well. The seat is so narrow that it’s very uncomfortable and I can’t brake properly. Bit of an issue.
10am Buy new seat (that I fit) from Grand Prix Racewear at Silverstone. Phew.
10.30am Vow to punch the person who came up with the design for fitting a race seat. Unless it’s a brand-new GT car, the process is a nightmare.
12pm Seat finally fitted thanks to the help of another MGB racer Bob Luff. Thank you, Bob.
12.25pm Start the Thoroughbred Sportscars race. By lap two the clutch is slipping. I peel off the track as I realise something is seriously wrong.
4pm Drop broken MGB off at Gary Davis’ GD Motorsport workshop for emergency repairs. The car is supposed to be leaving for Le Mans in little more than 48 hours.
Tuesday, June 18
12pm The car is fixed! Having had to take the engine and gearbox out to get to the clutch (thanks for that design, Abingdon) it turns out that the release-bearing carrier was too long and wasn’t releasing the clutch properly. Engine and gearbox back in and all seems to work. Unbridled joy.
Wednesday, June 19
6.30am Leave for Le Mans in a loaned Ferrari FF. It makes the journey to Dover and on to Le Mans a (very fast) pleasure.
9pm Prill talks us through a lap of the track. Neither Latimer nor I have ever set foot on the circuit and we’re trying to absorb as much information as possible. “It’s flat through there. Flat there. Flat there.”
10pm The hotel we’re in has a PlayStation. I choose one of the slowest cars on the game and try La Sarthe. Crash at Tertre Rouge (it’s not flat), but post a 4min 58sec lap. That was set under the influence, however. I will not be so brave the next morning.
Thursday, June 20
9am Ready for scrutineering. I have stupidly brought a copy of the car’s HTP papers and not the originals. The British scrutineer (John Hopwood) just happened to do the papers for our car all those years ago, so lets us off.
10am The French scrutineer emerges from the passenger side of the car and declares the seat and seat belts to be out of date. I don’t want to say anything, but Hopwood politely informs him that he’s looking at the wrong side. All in order and we’re issued with a sticker.
2pm Drivers briefing. Stomach churns as Duncan Wiltshire, chairman of race organiser Motor Racing Legends, talks us through race start procedure.
4pm Head out on to the track. Driving out of the pitlane and under the Dunlop Bridge is the single most amazing moment of my (very average) racing career to date.
4.06pm Disaster. The clutch is slipping again. It’s the single worst moment in my (very average) racing career. Realise I need to post a time so do one timed lap (a slow 6min 02sec) and coast back to the pits.
4.15pm Latimer heads out to post a time as well. He can only use quarter throttle.
4.30pm We couldn’t have a worse problem to deal with. We leave the car to cool.
5.34pm Prill and mechanic Adam Lichtig have the car up on axle stands. There’s oil all over the bottom of the gearbox. This is really not good. New clutch? Oil seal?
6.30pm Gearbox is taken off the back of the engine – there’s enough oil in the casing to paint your house. Clutch and flywheel off. The rear main oil seal has gone. The clutch is covered in oil and needs replacing as well, despite being only two races old.
7.09pm TVR racer and generally amazing human being Colin Elstrop wanders over and tells us that he has a spare MGB engine (which he runs in his TVR) on the back of his truck. We can borrow the clutch off that. It won’t fit our flywheel, so he says we can borrow that as well.
7.22pm More people arrive offering help. MG Owners Club, Barry Sidery-Smith, the team running Gavin Pickering’s D-type and many more prove, once again, just how friendly a racing paddock can be.
7.30pm We need to find a rear main oil seal. Apparently it’s a standard size. We reckon we should be able to source one locally.
9.25pm Elstrop removes the clutch and flywheel from his spare engine and his mechanic Andy Phillips, of Road to Sea, lends us a lorry driver French phrase book that has ‘oil seal’ in it, ready for the morning.
Friday, June 21
10am Joyeau (a shop recommended by our hotel owner) doesn’t have the oil seal.
10.17am An automotive parts specialist down the road doesn’t have it, either. They call two other shops. No luck.
10.39am A Rover and MG specialist doesn’t have it, but calls other shops. Again, no luck.
10.41am Call the MG Owners Club asking for help. We have no idea where to turn next.
10.50am Tweet about our predicament. It’s retweeted 100 times, but no one has the right oil seal.
11.01am MG Owners Club calls back saying it supplies parts to a company in Paris called British Car International.
11.24am Call BCI. It has one remaining oil seal that will fit!
11.25am Leave for BCI – Ferrari FF to the rescue.
1.30pm Arrive and buy the oil seal for 13 euros. I would have paid 100.
3.30pm Return to paddock.
5.05pm Oil seal, flywheel and clutch fitted. Gearbox back on.
5.15pm Clutch tested and the new release bearing falls off inside the bell housing. Gearbox back off.
5.16pm Call home to explain to family that we won’t be racing. I don’t mind admitting it now, but I had a lump in my throat. In my notes I have written: ‘Mentally done, I’ve given up’.
6.20pm Return to paddock to find that the clutch is being bled and works!
7.10pm Top of the gearbox back on, but a small plastic sleeve, to keep the gearstick’s ball joint tight, falls into the gearbox.
7.15pm Gearbox oil is drained to find the plastic sleeve. It’s found. Gearbox oil back in.
7.45pm Starter motor won’t fit new flywheel so we leave it off. We’ll be bump starting. Lucky it’s a rolling start.
8.05pm I drive the car down the soaking wet dual carriageway and it all works. I’m so drained that I am not as happy as I should be.
Saturday, June 22
10.05am Drive out onto the track to take the start. It’s a miracle that I am here. Formation lap is chaos, but we start… We are racing at Le Mans!
10.10am The pedals are very slippery and I have a few ‘moments’ in the damp conditions. It transpires after the race that a gearbox oil seal went (I know – what are the chances?) and it poured gearbox oil onto my feet and the pedals. Not ideal.
10.22am Latimer takes over and brings it home 39th out of 61 and third (of three!) in class. I have never been so pleased to finish a race.
Was it all worth it?
It’s the question you always ask after such a weekend. In this case it was, without a doubt. The shivers you get as you pull onto the Mulsanne Straight for the first time, and drive the MGB faster than ever before, makes it all worthwhile. It was a privilege that I feel will be hard to match, a memory that will take a long time to fade.