Sunday, July 11, 2010


Few races are as storied as the 24 Hours of LeMans.  Auto constructors have battled it out on this track in central France since 1923, in the oldest endurance race in the world.  Conceived initially not so much as a test of speed, but of reliability, efficiency, handling, economy, and safety, the innovations developed for a win at LeMans have eventually made their way into standard production cars.

The rules have changed over the decades; the famous 'LeMans Start', where lined-up drivers ran across the track to their cars at the drop of the flag, was dropped in the 1970s as too many injuries accrued from hasty unharnessed pilots on lap 1.  Limits on the amount of fuel have been adopted and dropped, as have the requirement for a passenger seat, a mechanic, etc.

The full circuit is 13km, with two long straights; the famous 'Mulsanne Straight' is one of the longest of any race circuit at 5km, with speeds of 250mph recorded during the race before a chicane was added to slow things down.  The aerodynamic experiments on LeMans cars began in the 1920s, with the Bugatti 'Tanks', and in general the cars look completely different to F1 or GP racers.  Parts of circuit are on public roads, meaning the surface isn't pristine, so LeMans cars need to cope with changes in pavement.

The race was made most famous perhaps by Steve McQueen, whose 'LeMans' was actually filmed during the race, with cameras on-board cars purchased from Porsche (917), Ferrari (512), and Lola (T70).  Due to the need to change film reels, the cars did finish the race, but not within an acceptable distance.

Since 2002, LeMans Classic has become a bi-annual sporting event to rival Goodwood in England, with many thousands of classic cars filling special parking areas around the track, and a 'dress code' in place to encourage period dress.  In 2008, the Porsche club alone brought over 1000 cars around the track in a demonstration parade.

This year, over 100,000 visitors were expected, and I managed to snag some passes for Friday's practice sessions, before the place was completely overrun with customers.  As a dedicated gearhead, the prospect of looking under the hood of a supercharged Bugatti was impossible to resist.

It was oppressively hot in central France, but I didn't see any helmeted drivers in their Nomex suits passed out on the grass while waiting for their track time.  The endless grass parking areas for classic car clubs were only part full, but it was clear how many were expected as every club had a space roped off.

While motorcycles have been raced on LeMans tracks in the distant past, they have never participated in the 24 Hour race, and are in short supply at the Classic, although of course, plenty of 'car people' love/own bikes, and I spotted a few.  A welcome change from the endless array of vintage Bentleys and Bugattis, Delahayes and Facel Vegas (a favorite of mine - sexy French body, big Yank v8), and row upon row of aerodynamic cars post-1960, Matchbox models of which are still packed in boxes from my boyhood!

Artcurial holds an auction of vintage cars on Friday afternoon, and while the tent was underventilated, the place was packed.  One motorcycle was included in the lineup, and the staff is hoping to have more next year - LeMans Classic was their first car auction, their next is Retromobile, for which they are lining up motorcycles already.

As at Goodwood, those caught out in modern duds can find something appropriate at one of the many vintage clothing vendors, or have a bespoke suit made, or have their hair done up in period style at one of the many coiffueriers on site.  Plenty of beer and champagne tents dot 'the Village', and of course, this being France, the food vendors are first-rate.  I ate well, if expensively.  Would I return?  Yes, but bring plenty of ice and shade.  I understand the sunrise with vintage cars blasting down the Mulsanne is really quite a sight.