Le Mans Classic 2023
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Le Mans Classic 2023

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Every time I talked to a motorsports enthusiast, I felt ashamed. I didn’t know anything about it, maybe a few basics but nothing more. Yet when you love cars, not knowing anything about racing is as sad as an Italian gourmet cooking pasta carbonara with crème fraiche. Fortunately, thanks to films like Rush and Le Mans 66, reports on Netflix, somes of YouTube shows and a few books, I’ve been able to improve my theoretical knowledge. As well as being able to shine in society, by bringing out the dates of this or that notorious event, it helps to appreciate the practical application. The one where you find yourself on the outskirts of a circuit, facing mechanical monsters, for the race or for the show, like at Le Mans Classic. It gives you something on which to base your assessment. And what better way to put it into practice than with an introduction to the world’s most famous endurance race in its centenary year?

No sooner had we arrived at the circuit than we were immersed in a kind of car festival. Before you get a glimpse of the paddocks and circuit, what strikes you most is the number of enthusiasts gathered here, often with their cars. Cars, yes, because here, from the visitor parking lots to those of the many clubs, from the campsite to the little streets of Arnage, you can feel that the leitmotiv is to drive a car that gives the maximum sensation of speed. It’s a pleasure, and I’ve never felt so well surrounded at a motoring event. Understand that every car you come across is exceptional, either because of its rarity, its technical specifications, or because it has been modified to meet the criteria of a classic car. And, understand too, that every time you come across someone, if you put your ear to the ground, you’ll hear about racing, engines, and other delicacies. Ooh, yes, it’s a pleasure, and makes your mouth water for what’s to come…

On this event, which is the biggest classic car event in the world [it’s French, not bad no, ndlr], what motivates the troops is to see the greatest monsters of the 24H du Mans. The great thing is that the paddocks are open to the public! So you can walk around and observe each car, but above all take part in some great mechanical moments. These included last-minute fine-tuning and warm-up operations, as well as repairs such as the one carried out on one of the BMW M1s entered, which, having blown its engine, underwent major surgery during the weekend. Really, the atmosphere is great.

Every time you pass someone, if you put your ear to the ground, you’ll hear about racing, motors, and other delicacies.”

If you’re a technical enthusiast, don’t hesitate to chat passionately with the teams, who always stay close to the hoods that are raised, turnkey. The paddocks are a kind of landmark for mechanical geeks. It’s always fun to put the speed and power of vehicles of any generation into perspective, and compare the engineering choices used to make cars roadworthy at high speeds, reliable and, above all, ahead of the competition.

In fact, the Le Mans Classic does not follow the same format as the 24-hour race. Although the endurance circuit is open, which only happens twice a year, the event is more like a mass than a race. The cars are grouped by year into several trays, six in all. Three “bonus” grids feature Group C cars from the 90s, Porsches and Le Mans legends. Each set runs for one hour per session, with one period following another almost non-stop for three days. The great thing is that all visitors, whatever their generation, will find what they’re looking for, and will be reminded of an era they either knew or fantasized about. These explanations are the perfect transition to what is most exciting: the race.

The race. Some drivers are winning and putting on a show behind the wheel of priceless cars. It’s superb. The best moments are surely those spent just a few meters from the track. These are privileged moments when you’re blown away by a GT40 in 4th gear, a Porsche 917 at full throttle, a Sauber C9 spitting flames, or a Bugatti type 35 grumbling at every downshift. The evolution of cars over the last hundred years is impressive, and we can’t help but be impressed by the skills that mankind has employed to become faster and faster on land.

I’m just as in awe of the engineers who manage to launch rockets to the moon, as I am of those who build rockets capable of completing the 13.6 kilometers of the circuit in under 4 minutes, and that for an entire day. If you can, take part in the experience with a friend, who will be able to guide you and share anecdotes about the drivers, the cars and the important moments of a race: you’ll feel like you’re in a living museum, and the experience will be all the more powerful. [merci Paul ndlr].

Maybe it’s generational, but the Group Cs are the cars that have impressed me the most. Porsche has established its dominance and continues to write its history thanks to this category, but it also illustrates the return of Peugeot with the magnificent 905 or other myths such as Mazda’s 787B or Jaguars’ crazy V12 XJR-9s. The sound of these cars, with their naturally-aspirated engines, blasts your eardrums and forces you to wear headphones if you don’t want to bleed. It’s brutal. Compared with the cars entered over the weekend, these are the most modern. But they date from the early ’80s to the ’90s; today’s cars are over 35 years old. Antiques, yet their cornering and top speeds are impressive. Even in broad daylight, you can see the brakes blushing and spitting sparks through the magnesium rims. The rubber leaves traces on the ground during both acceleration and braking. Material is torn away, as if the car wanted to lighten itself to go even faster.

“The sound of these cars, with atmospheric engines, hits your eardrums and forces you to wear headphones if you don’t want to bleed. It’s brutal.”

When we think of blushing brakes, we inevitably think of night. And a lot happens at night. The hunt for the BMW M1, for example, was a target for the Machinistic team. To do this, we had to walk for long minutes along the Hunaudières safety rail, camera set to try and capture these ferocious beasts, howling and tearing up the sky as they passed. The silence and total darkness of the forest surrounding the straight are almost frightening, but not as frightening as the atmosphere created by the Porsche Kremer, Ferrari BBLM and other 70s cars in their path. You feel a hot breath warming your back, you’re suddenly as if in broad daylight, illuminated by the flames coming out of the exhausts, and the silence is blasted by the sound of burning engines in fury. It’s as beautiful as it gets, and as the sun comes out, a few tears roll down our cheeks. The emotion is palpable.

For the show, a Le Mans-style start is organized once during the weekend. This tradition was abolished for safety reasons in 1969. Not least thanks to Jacky Ickx, who walked to the start of the ’68 edition as a sign of protest. Cars from the ’30s are given pride of place: old Bentleys, BMW 328s and Bugattis are parked on the pit straight with a din that only old in-line 8-cylinders can produce. During this demonstration, it’s not hearing that’s most put to the test, it’s the sense of smell. Blue smoke is trapped between the grandstands, the air suddenly thick with unburnt oil; it smells delicious and plunges us into a bygone era. The pilots are on the other side of the runway, facing their proud steeds, and at the pistol shot they run to their seats to take off, trying not to run over any latecomers. It’s spectacular, dated and, above all, fun to watch.

It’s a phrase we often hear from those who live a great experience: you have to live an event like Le Mans Classic once. Firstly, because you can learn a lot about a particular aspect of motor racing, but also because of the atmosphere and the people you can meet. Vintage racing is back with a vengeance, because it recalls times when you had to be crazy to dare defend your place on a track at speeds far too high for the techniques employed and the risks taken to win. We can’t wait to go back next year, and also to attend the 24H du Mans to discover the current counterpart of what we discovered that weekend.

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