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2006 Le Mans Classic
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Introduction
Click here to open the slideshowHistoric racing has been popular for many decades, but in recent years an extra dimension has been added by combining the vintage racers with an equally historic location. For single seaters the Monaco Historic Grand Prix is the bi-annual highlight and since 2002 the Le Mans Classic offers the same and arguably more for sports car racers. On track it’s a 24 hour celebration of the cars that once competed in the world’s most legendary endurance race, whereas off the track in the vast infield area thousands of vintage vehicles are on display on the dozens of club stands. This year was the third edition and in setup varied only slightly from the very successful previous ‘Classics’; if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it! We were on site the entire weekend and have captured all the action on track and the Christie’s auction in the following report and 240-shot slideshow.

Christie’s
Housed in the old museum inside the track, Christie’s organized the official Le Mans Classic auction for the second time. Probably inspired by the unique location, the British auctioneer assembled a collection consisting mainly of French car and former Le Mans racers. Matching both these criteria was the Pescarolo that finished second in the 24 Hours race just three weeks earlier. Slightly more unusual was the turbine engined Howmet TX that competed in the 1968 edition. Sadly neither received bids that matched the reserve set. There was more interest in the two vintage single seaters on offer; the ex-Fangio Talbot Lago and the Maserati 4 CM. Especially the French Grand Prix car was high in demand with several telephone bidders driving the price up to €1,100,250. The Maserati found a new owner for €368,780. Another top selling ‘Maser’ was a more recent MC12 that changed hands immediately after the auction for just over €500,000.

Demonstrations
In the heart of the infield ‘village’ a collection of a dozen of former competitors was on display, including several winners. Ford took centre stage with an impressive celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the GT40’s 1-2-3 finish in the 24 Hours. All three cars were present with the second and third placed cars competing in the actual races. In the build-up to the four o-clock start the three cars took the track together for the first time in forty years. Much to the delight of the (French) crowd, Eric Helary took a Peugeot 905 out for a few demonstration laps. The screaming Le Mans winning V10 was one of the weekend’s aural highlights. Next year Helary will be back in a new works Peugeot, but its prospected V12 diesel should not be able to match the soundtrack of old.

The Races
One of the biggest changes compared to the 2004 edition was opening up the final grid from cars up until 1979 instead of the previously used 1978. This effectively paved the way for the inclusion of the BMW M1 and Ferrari 512 BB LM. The 400-car entry list was divided in six groups depending on age. From 4 pm on Saturday afternoon, all groups took to the track one by one for three 45-minute races, finishing at 4 pm on Sunday. In keeping with tradition, the first four grids featured a Le Mans style start with the drivers running across the track to their cars. For safety reasons, this was just a symbolic start with cars retaking their positions behind the safety car for a more conventional rolling start. In each of the races there was a mandatory pit stop to allow for driver changes. Many cars were piloted by the owner and a professional driver. Among the many big names, French heroes like Nicolas Minassian, Soheil Ayari, Stephane Ortelli, Eric Helary and Henry Pescarolo stand out. Other well known entrants included Dire Straights singer Mark Knopfler and Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. The times of each race were combined to create the final result. To complicate things somewhat there was a scratch result and an indexed result in an attempt to even the field out and give ‘slower’ cars a shot at the victory.

Grid 1: 1923 – 1939
In the first decade of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the race was dominated by Bentley with four consecutive wins followed by Alfa Romeo with also four wins. Of these Bentleys a wide variety was present, but sadly only two Alfa Romeos were present. There was particular strong French presence with striking Delahayes, Delages and Talbot Lagos joining the large number of Bugattis. Another highlight was the entry of three Lagonda V12s equipped with the striking and somewhat unusual roadster body. At the head of the field, Richard Pilkington reigned supreme with his Talbot Lago beating the chasing Talbots and Aston Martins. The index of performance was a prey for Ralf Emmerling and his little Riley Brooklands.

Grid 2: 1949 – 1956
Competition in the first post-War group was very close, although technical difficulties saw various top contenders retire prematurely. In the final race on the driver’s were truly tested when some rain made the track very slippery. At the end of the 24 hours both classifications were topped by a Ferrari; in the regular results Craig Davis and Rick Hall in a 750 Monza beat two C-Types and the indexed sheets were headed by Stephen Dudley in his highly original 166/195 S. Behind the top runners cars like the Allard J2X Le Mans and Skoda Sport grabbed our attention. A real highlight was Jose Fernandez’ Talbot Lago T26 GS, which finished second in 1951 and is very similar to the 1950 winner.

Grid 3: 1957 – 1961
Quality was particularly high in this group, headed by the 1959 Le Mans winning Aston Martin DBR1. It was driven for its owner Harry Leventis by Peter Hardman and Aston Martin CEO Dr Ulrich Bez. The British company was further represented by several DB4 GTs, DB3S’s and the unique DP212. Of the various Ferraris entered Paul Pappalardo’s alloy bodied and ex-Le Mans 250 GT California truly stood out. Porsche’s growing assault in this era was underlined with a fleet of silver painted open topped prototypes. Philip Walker was clearly not impressed and beat all the Le Mans legends with his very quick Lotus 15. As happened so many times in the past, a Porsche took the victory in the index of performance.

Grid 4: 1962 – 1965
In this era, Ferrari was joined at the head of the field by Ford powered racers; the Cobras and GT40s. The V8 engined cars were present in force and headed the time sheets in every session. Recently appointed by Red Bull Racing, Adrian Newey had a dreadful weekend with his GT40, which he eventually damaged severely in the last of the three races. Ferrari scored their last overall win in 1965 with a 250 LM of which three examples were present, none of which were able to stop the Ford armada.

Grid 5: 1966 – 1971
One of the most evocatively livered cars to ever race at Le Mans is the Porsche 917 and to the joy of all present Jean-Marc Luco took to the track in one of these legendary cars. The Swiss Porsche enthusiast did not take it easy at all and challenged Nic Minassian and Mike Jankowski in the Ligier JS3 for the overall victory throughout the 24 hours. As mentioned earlier, two of the 1966 podium finishers were present although Claude Nahum in the gold car did not have the best of times after he lost a wheel on the Mulsanne straight. Bill Murray was more successful with the Larry Miller owned blue second place finisher and took the indexed victory. The Brits were also strongly represented with a number of very fast Lolas and Chevrons.

Grid 6: 1972 – 1979
After the legendary battles between Ford and Ferrari and Porsche and Ferrari in the 1960s and early 1970s, the remaining years of that decade were somewhat disappointing. The global fuel crisis did not help much either. Nevertheless some very interesting machines were developed in this era. The French Matra and later Renault-Alpine teams dominated, although Porsche returned to winning form with the turbocharged 936. Examples of all of these were present with Jean-Marc Luco again showcasing his skills in a Porsche. Henri Pescarolo was out on track with the very rare Inaltera, which was the first of the Rondeau developed cars. The factory entered Renault Alpine A443 was surprisingly beaten by the Porsche 935 of Soheil Ayari and Jean Guittard. Classic Endurance Racing regulars Nick Whale and Ian Guest topped the indexed list with their BMW 3.0 CSL.

Conclusion
With nearly 400 racing cars, several thousand classic cars on display and a legendary location there is no equal to the Le Mans Classic in quantity. As for quality the bi-annual event is only matched by the Goodwood Revival, the Monterey Historics and the Monaco Historic Grand Prix. The only bad thing is that we now have to wait two years until the next Le Mans Classic. Not convinced yet? I am confident the 240-shot slideshow will.

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Report by Wouter Melissen and images by Pieter Melissen and Wouter Melissen for Ultimatecarpage.com.