Held in 2002, the inaugural Le Mans Classic was universally acclaimed as the event of the year. Two years later the next Le Mans Classic was slated for the last weekend of July 2004. To step up the hype, they added even more race clubs and cars. The nearly 400 cars entered lined up into six separate grids for the 24 Hours race. Le Mans' legendary status ensures an entry list with important racers from around the world.
Starting at the traditional time of on Saturday afternoon, cars from each grid raced three 45-minute rounds within the 24 hours. The first round of every grid began with a traditional driver foot race Le Mans start. For safety reasons, this was just for show. The official start was from behind the pace car after one formation lap. At 4 pm on Sunday, the classic endurance came to an end. We were there from start to finish and have compiled a brief report on the grids' most importantcars and two 100-shot slideshows, covering grid 1-3 and the Christie's auction, and grid 4-6 and the cars on display respectively.
Grid 1 (Cars from 1923 – 1939) In 1923, the first 24 Hours of Le Mans was just one of many long distance races, but slowly grew to the legend it is now. The first decade of Le Mans history can be divided in the Bentley era and the Alfa Romeo era, with both manufacturers winning the race four years consecutively. Both marques were represented by various well-prepared examples. The Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monzas were top contenders for the overall victory, which was ultimately held by a BMW 328. Bugatti was also admirably represented by various types, including the Type 35B and the tragic Type 50, which was withdrawn from the 1931 race after it was deemed un-safe. High profile entries included the Mark Knopfler (lead singer of Dire Straits) and Alain de Cadenet (racing driver and TV-host) driven Invicta.
Grid 2 (Cars from 1946 – 1956)
The first 24 Hour race held after WWII, in 1949, was won by the newest team in the paddock, Ferrari. In 1954 the Italian manufacturer won again with the 5-litre 375 Plus. One of those works cars was entered in the Classic race. Ferrari made for some worthy competition, however the Jaguar C-Type and D-Type racers dominated this era. Included among the classic entries were the oldest existing C-Type, driven by ex-F1 pilot Johnny Herbert, and the D-Type that finished second in 1954. Briggs S Cunningham entered various all-American racers in the first half of the 1950s. His brave efforts were represented by the Cunningham C4-R, which finished third overall and first in class in 1954 and subsequently dominated American road racing. Three time Le Mans winner and 1964 Formula 1 Champion, Phil Hill drove the ex-Juan Manuel Fangio Alfa Romeo 3000 CM.
Grid 3 (Cars from 1957 – 1961)
A clear highlight of the third grid was the Aston Martin DBR1 s/n 2, which is the actual 1959 winning car, then driven by Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby. It was the single most successful racing chassis constructed by Aston Martin. It was piloted in the Classic race by Peter Hardman and the company’s current CEO Dr. Ulrich Bez. Another noteworthy entry from the British manufacturer was the DP212, originally entered in the 1962 race, where it proved quick but unreliable. Ferrari dominated this era with the various 250 TR derivatives, but unfortunately none where entered in the Classic. Ferrari’s closest entry was the Dino 246 S of 1960, which is fairly similar in design to the TRs, but is fitted with a V6 engine. Driven by owner Harry Leventis and motoring journalist Tony Dron, the Dino proved sufficiently quick to fight off the competition.
Grid 4 (Cars from 1962 – 1965) Ferrari continued to dominate throughout this era as well, but growing competition from Ford and Ford-backed entries slowly ended the Italian’s reign. The American’s first success occurred in 1964, when the AC Cobra Daytona Coupe driven by Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant took the victory in the GT class. Forty years later the winning car and Bondurant were back to once again roar over the track’s long straights. To take on Ferrari for the overall victory, a new prototype racer needed to be built. Having no experience in that form, the American manufacturer commissioned Lola to build a winning car based on the Lola GT of 1963. One of these rare Lola racers was also present. The three rounds of this grid were dominated by the many Ford GT40s present. Highlight of these was the gold Mk II, which crossed the line third in 1966, behind two similar cars. Ferrari's last overall victory was scored in 1965, with a 250 LM of which an example was entered, livered in the Ecurie Francorchamps yellow.
Grid 5 (Cars from 1966 – 1971)
After two previous unsuccessful attempts, Ford won the race four years in a row from 1966 to 1969. In this grid again many GT40s were present, bringing the race’s total to well over a dozen, not including the cars on display. Various French prototypes were however the big crowd pleasers. These included the sole surviving Ligier JS1, the unique Ligier JS3 and various Alpine racers. Three examples of the 25 Ferrari 512 sports cars were entered. The Penske run ‘Sunoco’ 512M proved its worth by taking pole position in the 1971 Daytona 24 Hour and Sebring 12 Hour races. Equally special was the 512’F’, which was modified by Scuderia Filipinetti with a new rear-wing and fitted with a slimmer Porsche 917 windscreen.
Grid 6 (Cars from 1972 – 1978)
New for this year’s classic running, the sixth grid allowed more modern racers to compete. There isn’t a historic championship established for the 1970s racers, so this represented a great opportunity for the owners to race them. Various versions of the Porsche 911, including the 934 and 935, made up the bulk of the field, but the highlight from the German manufacturer was the 936 entered. This was the sole customer car, built especially for Joest and raced in the 1980 race, where it finished second, behind the winning Rondeau. Under the name of sponsor ‘Inaltera’, Rondeau’s first car was entered in 1976. Designed and built in less than seven months, this GTP racer picked up a class victory at its first attempt. Of the three examples constructed, the class winning car was driven by Jean-Claude Andruet, who recorded various class wins in the 1970s and 1980s. After a decade of attempts, resulting in many class victories, Alpine finally picked up the overall victory in 1978. One of the four Alpine entrants was present, driven by rally-ace Jean Ragnotti.
Auctions are an essential ingredient of today’s major historic race events. On Friday Christie’s held an auction in the old museum on the infield of the track. A large number of previous Le Mans racers filled the catalogue. Highlight of the sale was a Bentley Speed Six, which finished second in the 1930 Le Mans race and continued winning many races, building a stunning record. This successful Bentley racer was estimated to sell around €2,500,000, but sold for a record breaking price of €4,188,250, the highest price ever paid for a Bentley at an auction and the highest price ever for a car auctioned in Europe. Of the 67% sold lot, the €1.3 million 1957 class winning Aston Martin DB3S was another highlight.
Cars on display
Five of the six grids were sponsored by a manufacturer, Alfa Romeo (Grid 1), Aston Martin (Grid 3), Ferrari (Grid 4), Ford (Grid 5) and Porsche (Grid 6). Ford used this event to present to the crowds the new GT. To underline the connection, it was lined up in the paddock next to a GT40 racer and the GT40 Mk III road car. Porsche unveiled the ‘new’ 911, with two 997 Carrera S models present. In between the rounds of racing, the new cars from the five manufacturers were driven around the track to entertain the waiting crowd.
With more than 50,000 visitors and filled grandstands throughout the weekend, the 2004 Le Mans Classic was without a doubt a big success. Joining the race cars were thousands of club cars which were parked on the infield and along the Bugatti track, but in order to concentrate fully on the race and the race cars, we did not have time to shoot any of them. This brings up the question; is bigger, better? Although some of the greatest sports cars were entered, the entry list unfortunately lacked outright winners, with the exception of the DBR1. The first Le Mans Classic was named by us and many other media as the best event of 2002 and this year’s running is definitely again among the best of 2004.
We would like to thank the organizers of the event and the owners of the cars for their assistance. For more information and the full results, please refer to the official website: www.lemansclassic.com. Report and images by Wouter Melissen.