Back in Time at the Le Mans Classic

The first thing that strikes me as I push through the turnstiles outside the Circuit de la Sarthe is how different the atmosphere is. The sideshows and funfair rides are gone, there’s no pop music being blared out of hidden speakers, nothing to suggest that the greatest motor race in the world ripped through here like a tornado only three weeks ago.

There’s a lot more breathing space; the people milling around are more likely to have an auction brochure in their hand than a beer. I round the back of one of the stands, go through the tunnel under the track and emerge in the paddock, surrounded on all sides by racing fans laden with cameras and quietly discussing the intricacies of the sport.


Making my way down the road, past stalls dedicated to flogging their ridiculously priced leather wares, I arrive at the first of the ‘grid’ paddocks; Grid 1: 1923 – 1939. Arrayed in front of me are all of the oldest cars in attendance, stretching right back to the first ever running of the Le Mans 24 Hours. Bugattis in their blue livery, Bentleys in green, some beautiful old silver BMWs. Venerable and noble things, they sit in their garages looking as good now as they did then; lovingly polished and cared for, ready to go racing once again.

Everything about them was functional and mechanical, free from cables and sensors and LED lights. There are no jagged angles of carbon fibre; every panel hand beaten by a craftsman from generations ago. There’s nothing sanitized or commercial here, just the bare bones of racing and the smell of oil, leather and rubber rising in the dust. Every now and then you can hear a distant roar as an engine is fired up, high pitched whines and throaty rumbles.

On through the other paddocks, dodging mechanics on classic scooters and the obligatory French showers, ranging past 60 years of racing legend. Cars spanning the ages, zippy little GTs sitting next to multi-million pound prototypes, legendary names as well as tiny teams that built their cars in sheds. You can see the creep of sponsors into the sport, some of which are almost as iconic as the cars. Staff are handing out ear plugs, essential if you want to keep your ear drums intact when you’re standing feet from an uncovered engine being throttled.

Stroll further along, find a place to watch the races. Leaning on the concrete barrier and wishing that the catch fence wasn’t getting in the way as Jaguars, Ferraris and Porsches fly past up the home straight. It’s surprising just how quick they’re all going considering they’re driving such expensive and unique cars; but I see a Morgan sideways smoking its wheels, a Cobra losing it at the first corner, ending up inches away from the wall and a very expensive repair bill. The racing spirit is here in droves, every driver lapping up the opportunity to rag their beloved car round Le Mans.

Classic Corvette

I wander over to Dunlop Chicane, over the Dunlop Bridge and take refuge from another torrential downpour in the Dunlop Grandstand. I see the start of Round One, Grid 6, cars from the 70s that still look futuristic. The wet track made for slippery going, with Porsches slipping and sliding, a BMW CSL pirouetting and missing following cars by inches.

As darkness falls I head back down to the exterior grandstands as the early 50s cars rumble past. Most of these are open-topped so you can see the stony concentration in the eyes of the drivers, see them raise a hand to show their mechanics that they've seen the pit board. Wafts of hot petrol reach you as you watch the pits opposite; drivers coming in with worried faces, diving into and out of cars before their mechanics push them off.

Carry on to the Ford Chicane as Grid 3 set off; watching Listers battle with Lotus 15s all the way through the corners and up the pit straight. The next time they come around you see how fragile some of these racers are; seven straight into the pits, and a Ferrari 250 GT followed by plumes of white smoke, huge bangs and broken pieces of engine.


Some particularly insistent fans scale some catch fencing to my right, managing to grab a couple of shaky snaps before Marshal whistles blast and the track Gendarmes swoop down on them. When the chequered flag is waved and everyone’s back in the pits, there’s a slow procession of various stricken classics being towed back from further round the track; an MG A, an AC Ace, an Austin Healey. Every one that crawls past is greeted by glowing applause and cheers; the disappointed drivers gamely wave in acknowledgement.

Later at night I venture over to the Porsche Curves where they emerge out of the dark and into the bright lights round a corner that, for many of them, wasn’t here when they raced. It makes for a stark contrast; the multicoloured rumble strips and safety features of the modern track not really fitting in with the cars on show as they head off into the distance.

The 24 Hours is all about massive speed, being on the edge and the extravaganza of it all, with superstar drivers piloting technical marvels, but the Classic isn’t really bothered with all of that. It’s about tens of thousands of people getting together and remembering the great and good of the sport, and it creates a sense of quiet appreciation amid the roaring of engines. It’s something that you can’t really find anywhere else, with the combination of histories from both the cars and the track combining to make something uniquely exciting, uniquely Le Mans, and uniquely Classic.