Biggest historic race meeting ever: 2023's blockbuster Le Mans Classic

Le Mans News

A record crowd of 235,000 fans packed grandstands for the 2023 Le Mans Classic, celebrating a century of the legendary endurance race, with more than 800 cars providing the evocative entertainment

Ferrari 512 BBLM at 2023 Le Mans Classic

Roland Hächler in 1981 Ferrari 512 BBLM leads Patrice Lafargue's 1974 Lola T292

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

The numbers said it all: 24 races with an average grid size of 70 entries and a total of over 800 sports racing cars in action.

Well over 1000 drivers pulled on their crash helmets to race in this year’s Le Mans Classic, among them past winners including Andy Wallace, Emanuele Pirro and Yannick Dalmas. They were bolstered by such Le Mans luminaries as Derek Bell and Henri Pescarolo taking part in a repeat of the stunning winners’ parade that preceded the 24 Hours three weeks ago.

2023 Le Mans Classic sold out signEach entrance at Le Mans had a sign, tellingly in French and English, which said “sold out”. You could not buy a ticket. Over the three days that amounted to a record crowd of 235,000.

Quite simply this 11th running of the Le Mans Classic – held, of course 100 years after the first Le Mans 24 Hours – was the largest historic race meeting ever held. Anywhere. Ever.  More cars, more people, more action. The racers didn’t let the spectators down, for there was tense and close racing action on the track but there were remarkably few incidents – perhaps just three seriously expensive accidents.

The entry is purely made up of sports cars, almost to a vehicle and certainly to a type, of cars that have raced at Le Mans in period. They race in groups, known at Plateaux, based on a period in time, starting from 1923 and ending in 1981.  Each group competes in three 45 min races over a period of 24 hours which means a Saturday afternoon/evening race, a night race and then a Sunday morning/early afternoon race.

The cumulative time of the three races gives the overall result although annoyingly the organisers aren’t able to show this on timing screens. Commentator chaps like me thus have to do some quick arithmetic. Add to this the fact that a team can run as many as four drivers through a rotation. Pitstops are mandatory but a driver can do all three races, or switch drivers at the pitstop, or a car can have a different driver in for each of the three races. No one official seems to be keeping a record of who is actually driving at any one time which leads to your reporter not only learning hundreds of helmet designs but also rushing backwards and forwards between the collecting area and the commentary box.

Running start for 2023 Le Mans Classic

A running start to Plateau 2 race

Damien Saulnier / DPPI

So to the racing. Plateau 1 embraced the early years from 1923 and 1939. The pre-race favourites and winners in 2018 were the wonderful Talbot AV105 ex-factory cars headed by the pair of Gareth Burnett and Michael Birch with the most obvious opposition coming from last year’s winners the Martin Halusa/Alex Amess Alfa Romeo 8C 2300. American Rob Kaufman had the similar car which actually won Le Mans in 1934.

Team Talbot had a last-minute drama which meant that Burnett and Birch, instead of driving separate cars, finished up sharing one with Burnett starting each time and Birch taking all three chequered flags.They headed home the sister car of Mark Sowerby and Daniel Balfour with Albert Otten’s later 1939 BMW 328 Roadster a distant third after some spirited dicing with Alex and Shirley van der Lof’s 1936 Delahaye. As for the Halusa/Ames Alfa, the engine let go half way around the first lap.

The terrific continuation 1930 Bentley blower driven by Stewart Morley and journalist Andrew Frankel was troubled with over-heating and missed the first race. Although winners in period, the best Bentley came home 11th.

Bugatti T35 leads in 2023 Le Mans Classic

Bugatti T35 B of Arnaud Graignic and Philippe Brunner heads a Plateau 1 group

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Plateau 2 for cars from 1949 to 1956 eased the pain for the Halusa family. Niklas and Lukas drove their very early Jaguar D-type, the second to be built, to victory in races one and three although in the night the older C type of Chris Ward, on top form and owner Nigel Webb headed them home in race two. So on combined times it was the D-type from the C-type with Richard Bradley and owner Richard Wilson third in the latter’s 1957 Maserati 250S. Derek Drinkwater’s re-creation of the 1950 Le Monstre Cadillac Type 61 put smiles on everyone’s race while the father and son Carlos and Mathias Sielecki from Argentina were an honourable fourth in the ex-works Aston Martin DB3S.

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Plateau 3 covered the of 1957 to 1961 when the later D type and Ferraris did battle but Aston Martin won in 1959. Andy Wallace won at his first attempt at Le Mans in a Silk Cut Jaguar in 1988 and the Oxford man, who is now a development driver for Bugatti, is still winning in a Jaguar in 2023. He came home first after a spirited battle in the opening race with Gary Pearson, won the second race in the night. Fifth in the third race was enough to give him a clear win over the Ferraris 250GTs of Harrison Newey/Joe Macari  and fast young German Remo Lips. Five-times 24 Hour winner Emanuele Pirro with owner Hans Hugenholtz took race 3 but had endured earlier problems in the Dutchman’s Lister-Jaguar.

It was heartening to see the former Scuderia Serenissima Ferrari 250 GT “Breadvan” back after its big crash here last year but Lucas Halusa had problems with it and failed to finish. So three plateaux down, three British wins and two by D-types.

Ferrari Breadvan at 2023 Le Mans Classic

Ferrari 250 GT “Breadvan” didn't deliver a finish

Christophe Jouniaux/Peter Auto

Le Monstre recreation at 2023 Le Mans Classic

Drinkwater's Le Monstre recreation

Bruno Vandevelde/Peter Auto

Plateau 4 covered just the four years from 1962 to 1965 and surely would be very much Ford GT40 territory. It was. Portuguese race series organiser and racer Diogo Ferrao was defending his win a year ago from Ford Motor Company President Jim Farley. This year Farley had hired former Grand Prix driver and Bentley factory Le Mans driver Eric van der Poele to share with him but it all came to nought when the car’s door flew off in the opening race.

From the archive

Ferrao won races two and three, both time from Belgian Emile Breittmayer – the first by a scant 0.7sec in the dark of Saturday evening, the young Belgian with the pop art helmet having finished third last year. Another young man, Chesterfield’s Seb Perez, usually seen at the wheel of a classic Porsche, won race one in Christian Gläsel’s GT40 but the car had later problems. This left the door open — but unlike Farley, not literally — to Shaun Lynn who took third on aggregate. France’s Oliver Galant was the best non-GT40 in fourth place with a Daytona Cobra.

The penultimate tranche covered 1966 – 1971, so think 7-litre Ford GT Mk4s, Porsche 908s, 917s and even the Howmet turbine car and indeed examples of all were racing – including the magnificent Kauhsen “hippy” 917. Lola T70 Mk3s raced at Le Mans in period with little success but these days they are much more competitive and dominated Plateau 5.

Britain’s Steve Brooks was the surprise winner of race one in his genuine ex-Sid Taylor Racing example but races two and three and a third place in race one gave Rotterdam’s David and Olivier Hart the win over Brookes and Christophe Gadais. Oli Bryant should have been challenging in the Valvoline T70 but lost two laps in the first race.

Porsche 908 03 of Henrique Gonperle and Marc de Siebenthal at 2023 Le Mans Classic

Gemperle/De Siebenthal 1971 Porsche 908/03

DeTomaso Pantera in 2023 Le Mans Classic

Von der Liek/Kelleners 1979 De Tomaso Pantera

The final plateau covers 1972 and 1981, a period when the Matras and later the Porsche 935s were winning but also saw quite a few Formula 1 Cosworth DFV-powered cars emerged including Alain de Cadenet’s machines.. De Cad would have loved the fact that the McCaig family had commissioned Chris Fox Motorsport to rebuild the 1977 Lola-based car. It was completed just in time for a quick Donington shake-down before heading for the Sarthe. Early brake problems for Alasdair McCaig put him on the back foot but he salvaged fifth in the end.

Sadly none of the screaming Matra V12s were racing – we saw them in the parade – which provided a win by Equipe Europe boss Max Guenat in his ex-Otford Group Lola 298-DFV which raced in the British Thundersports category in period. He won two of the races the, other going to Cincinnati-based Swiss Yves Scemama in the gold TOJ-DFV but ignition problems halted his quest to repeat his 2018 win. Second was a man who came close to winning the 24 in 2008 for Peugeot, Nick Minassian in a 2-litre Lola and Henry Fletcher was an admirable third in his Chevron B26.

One of the biggest shunts of the meeting came when American Chris McAllister crashed the 1972 Gulf Mirage M6, fortunately without injury. But the car will need an expensive re-build.

Toyota GT-One at Dunlop Bridge in 2023 Le Mans Classic

Toyota GT-One follows Pescarolo C60

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

For some, even the highlight of the whole track action is the races for Group C and the Endurance Legends sportscars – which raced here between 1996 and 2010. Traditionally these races are held on Saturday morning but this year, the Legends and Group C cars were given an additional 30 min Sprint race on Sunday.

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The biggest excitement here was the ex-factory 1999 Toyota GT-One, recently acquired by oil-drilling billionaire Francois Perrodo, who has proved himself no mean peddler in the WEC under the tuition of Emmanuel Collard, a veteran of 25 of the 24 Hour races. Making its first racing appearance since ‘99, it would hopefully run well in the Endurance Legends events.

The 45 min race which opened the racing programme on Saturday morning was delayed by over an hour after a heavy rain shower as the cars took the grid. There was plenty of room for jeopardy here with Collard in the Pescarolo-Judd C60 he raced to second place in the 2005 Le Mans 24 Hours. He went wheel to wheel in the early stages with Perrodo. Collard had also been part of the Toyota squad in period, so he knew the capabilities of the car, which should have won Le Mans back in 1999. Like playing golf with your boss, was he going to let Francois win? He’s a racer, he didn’t and won by 3.5 secs. Henri Pescarolo was in the pits to enjoy the moment. But come the Sunday Sprint race, which closed the complete programme Perrodo did take the win. On both occasions David Hart in the Cougar C60 finished third.

Darren Turner showed he had lost none of his talent coming home fifth in the Aston Martin DBR9 he raced for the factory in period.

Peugeot 905 in 2023 Le Mans Clasic sunset

Peugeot 905 Evo 1 Bis leads Group C grid

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

In Group C we saw a Silk Cut Jaguar 1-2-3 last year Not in 2023, as the Saturday race went to Erik Maris in a Peugeot 905 Evo, a sister car to the one in which Derek Warwick won the 1992 Le Mans 24 Hours with Yannick Dalmas and Mark Blundell. On Sunday first to the flag was another ex-Toyota factory driver, Ralf Kelleners in one of the many Porsche 962s.

There were also four support categories with massed grids of over 80 vintage Bentleys and for classic Porsches. Saturday’s Benjafield Racing Club event featured over 80 pre-war Bentleys but there was no surprise that Clive Morley’s 4.5 litre took a runaway win. There was a similar huge field in the Porsche Classic race with Frenchman Max Guenat making it a productive weekend by winning in a Porsche 935. But there was a remarkable performance by former Le Mans regular Johnny Mowlem, who jumped in in a 1974 Carrera RSR at the last moment and finished third overall and a class winner.

Amongst the field of all these races were great names re-capturing their glory days, but perhaps not going quite as fast as they had in period. The 1973 and ‘74 winner Gerard Larrousse, raced a Porsche 917, Brian Redman competed in a Porsche 908LH, and former grand prix winner René Arnoux was in a little Renault sports car.

Larrousse Porsche 917 at night at 2023 Le Mans Classic

LArousse/Pedrazi/Roddaro 1970 Porsche 917 LH

Damien Saulnier / DPPI

Everywhere you looked there was a car, a driver, a vintage bus or van even a tableau to raise your spirits and supercharge your memories.

Well over 200 car clubs packed 8500 vehicles into the centre of the track – everything from a Citroen DS19 stretched to bus length to form a racing car transporter to eclectic British and French marques such as Bond and DB Panhard. Hundreds of Porsches, all neatly grouped by model, year and even colour filled the Bugatti circuit infield. There were cars you had never seen before and will probably never see again and manufacturers such as Alfa Romeo, BMW, Bentley and McLaren with huge display areas.

Did I forget to say that car collector and 22-times Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal was the Grand Starter for a magical kiddy car “race” for electric and lawn mower miniature machines which covered almost 100 cars and 30 different models? By the smile on the tennis great’s face it made up for missing Wimbledon due to his current injuries.

There was also brief lip service to the future with a handful of cars, including some of the Bentleys running on synthetic fuel and a hydrogen-powered Le Mans car on display. But basically this was about nostalgia, about drivers and cars coming from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and Japan in celebration of this remarkable race and its glorious history.