A mere three weeks after 250,000 people made the pilgrimage to western France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it was time for another army of petrolheads to invade. This time 100,000 turned up at the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe track for the sequel: Le Mans Classic.
Think of it as the ITV2 spin-off show for the main event, but good. In fact, bloody brilliant.
As well as the hordes, there were 650 cars spanning from 1923 to 1979 at the bi-annual event, letting punters round the track warp back in time and get a flavour for what racing would’ve been like in ye olde times. By all accounts, terrifying… yet incredibly captivating.
The cars are split into six groups where they, and the 1000 drivers piloting them, compete in three 43-minute races throughout the 24 hours. This means that everyone gets a bit of action when the sun’s up and down.
Each grid features 75 cars, and the first three all complete the old ‘Le Mans’ start. If you’re too young to know what that is - it’s a race before the race.
It works like this. All the cars are lined up on one side of the track, drivers on the other. When the flag drops, everyone legs it across to their car, fires it up and scoots off in a cloud of tyre and exhaust smoke as fast as they can. Bad news for those who are fast on the track but who enjoy a good lunch, yet succour for slow qualifiers who were good at the egg and spoon race at school.
The groups are broken up like this.
Grid 1: cars from 1923 - 1939
Grid 2: cars from 1949 - 1959
Grid 3: cars from 1957 - 1961
Grid 4: cars from 1962 - 1965
Grid 5: cars from 1966 - 1971
Grid 6: cars from 1972 - 1979
This means that within the space of a day you witness cars from pre-war times, all the way up to the golden turbo era, thrashing around the full Le Mans circuit rain or shine. And though some of these Le Mans legends are practically priceless, the racing is real around an oil-slathered track.
Having been at this year’s tech-heavy 24-hour race a few weeks earlier, the Classic is very different, and no less impressive. Watching goggled drivers hustle pre-war - and disturbingly understeery - land yachts round the circuit in near-impossible conditions commands huge respect. Mark Webber isn’t lacking minerals to quad-stint his Porsche 919, but this vintage lot have their work cut out.
Yes, 2014 LMP1 cars are going imponderably fast in extra terrestrial hybrids, but the drivers at the Classic are hacking at a steering wheel the size of a hula hoop (the hip-twirling kind, not delicious salty potato-based snack), being battered by the elements down the 3.7-mile Mulsanne straight, and in constant fear that the wicker suitcase that was strapped on the back of the car when they started the race has come off at Playstation Chicane. Webber and his crew are kept dry in the cockpit, can pull the gears from a paddle in, not outside the car, and he’s got the pleasure of a seatbelt. Luxury.
And then there’s the noise. Oh, wow. Pity anyone who marks the small towns of Arnage and Le Mans as home on their census - especially when Grid 5 (which holds the GT40s, Lola T70s and Porsche 917) blasts round. The raucous orchestra of 75 big-engined brutes singing out loud at night as they power through the forest with nothing more than jars with glowworms in as headlights is effin’ fabulous. It makes the muted world of F1 seem incredibly dull.
With 650 cars, 24 hours and a pretty special event to cover, we’ve increased the gallery size to an XL Whopper. So tell us which of the cars is your favourite in the comments below. And if you want to try and name them all, go ahead. We dare you.
Words and Pictures: Rowan Horncastle