Two events, three weeks apart, at the same, familiar venue: they are similar in spirit, yet in many ways could hardly be more different
For the first time in a long while, I attended Le Mans twice in the space of just a few weeks: in mid-June for the 24 Hours, then again in early July for the biennial Le Mans Classic.
This makes me happy, for I’ve always had a fascination with the Circuit de la Sarthe. It’s a uniquely magical place. So much so that just seeing the name Le Mans on a road sign when I happen to be driving through France sends a small squirt of adrenaline through my system.
My connection was forged through books, magazines and films, then intensified by my first visit to the 24 Hours during the early Nineties. In those days I couldn’t even dream of racing there because, then as now, it was the exclusive preserve of career professionals and wealthy gentlemen drivers. As I was neither, the closest I could get to that fantasy was to make the annual pilgrimage and stand at the foot of the Dunlop Curve or sneak out into the woods along the Mulsanne in the dead of night and drink it all in.
For one weekend every June this was my temporary reality – a dream in itself – and I couldn’t get enough of it.
This year’s 24 Hours was always going to be a slightly strange affair, thanks to the absence of Audi and Porsche’s LMP1 teams and the presence of Fernando Alonso in a Toyota. I’m not sure you could ever describe the Japanese factory squad as an underdog, but Toyota’s unflinching dedication to winning Le Mans – despite appalling luck over the years – has fostered a certain affection for the team among the racing community. I’m pleased I was there to see them – and Alonso – win, but I’m sad the battle was reduced to that of an intra-team tussle. They – and we – deserved better.
The blinding speed of the Toyotas never ceased to amaze, but there was more excitement to be found in the LMP2 category, where the largely bullet-proof nature of the cars and the blend of youth and experience among the drivers ensured relentless and uncompromising battles up and down the class. I just think it’s a shame they all run the same Gibson engines.
Diversity came in the GTE Pro category – the most road-related class – with the impressive sight of factory Astons, BMWs, Corvettes, Ferraris, Fords and Porsches. There was some epic door-handling between the Porsches and Fords, but the latest BMWs suffered reliability problems, while the new Astons were well off the pace and the Corvettes and Ferraris were a little subdued. Teams complained of having their strategic options limited by new and restrictive maximum stint regulations, and there were the usual mutterings about imbalances in the Balance of Performance, but as a fan it was fabulous to see (and hear) the retro ‘Pink Pig’ 911 RSR and its Rothmans-liveried team-mate slug it out all race long.
Watching the 2018 Le Mans 24 Hours has revived my appetite for the modern race, but where its popularity and relevance remains largely at the mercy of manufacturer whim, the Le Mans Classic – in which I took part a scant three weeks later – only seems to get bigger, better and more spectacular.
This year was no exception, with bulging grids, blistering sunshine, huge crowds and a certain football tournament bolstering the party atmosphere to fever pitch.
More than 700 cars competing in a variety of classes, including the half-dozen core, era-specific ‘Plateaux’ spanning the 1920s to the 1970s, plus the ever-popular Group C. There was a special Porsche-only race to celebrate the marque’s 70th anniversary, and a spectacular array of Nineties and Noughties GTs and prototypes took part in the Global Endurance Legends demo sessions. Wandering around the paddocks and watching trackside was an absolute feast for the senses.
Factor in the presence of more than 1000 drivers, plus a weekend crowd of an estimated 135,000 people, and its stature among the greatest of all motor racing events is beyond question. I would never pretend that actively participating in the Le Mans Classic is any less privileged a pastime than the modern race. That this year marks the fourth LMC I’ve contested – I was lucky enough to race a Ford GT40, Lotus Elan 26R and Lola T70 Mk3B – is a continual source of wonderment to me as I still feel like that lad at the Dunlop Curve.
Whether you’re a driver or a spectator, the wider experience at the Classic feels infinitely more accessible. Contrast the modern race’s closed-door policy to that at the Classic, where you can stand next to a Porsche 917 when it’s fired up, or peer into the open cockpit of a Blower Bentley and inhale its heady aromas, and it’s clear what makes historics in general and Le Mans Classic in particular so much more engaging.
Of course, whether you’re in the crowd or one of those fortunate enough to be in a car, the main attraction is the unique thrill of seeing the most significant endurance race cars of all time driven in anger on the world’s greatest and most exclusive endurance racing circuit.
The sheer scale of the road closures and marshalling operations is mind-boggling, and the administrative effort required to manage so many entries makes my head spin, even just thinking about it.
The Silverstone Classic, Spa Six Hours, Goodwood Revival and Daytona Classic 24 meetings are all immense undertakings, but even compared to the Monaco Historic Festival – another biennial event held on an iconic closed-road circuit – I think the Herculean efforts of Patrick Peter’s Peter Auto organisation makes Le Mans Classic the most ambitious, spectacular and coveted event on the historic racing calendar.
If you haven’t yet been, make sure you go in 2020. It’s sure to be one of the finest four-wheeled spectacles you’ll ever see.
Dickie Meaden has been writing about cars for 25 years – and racing them for almost as long. He is a regular winner at historic meetings