Peter Brock | What makes the Le Mans Classic so special

Photography Credit: Dirk de Jager

This year’s Le Mans Classic, the biannual vintage racing event that attracts the ne plus ultra of the world’s most exotic and rarely seen GTs and prototypes, finally returned to the storied French circuit after a covid-forced moratorium of two years. 

Le Mans is hard to imagine if you’ve never been. The cars normally selected to race have actually taken part in the Le Mans 24 Hours between 1923 and 1972. But this year was even more spectacular, welcoming some 750 of the world’s best dating from the early 1900s to this year’s newly established class for cars from 1973 to 1982. That may seem like too short a time to describe something as “vintage” until you check out what was running back then. 

Fascinatingly beautiful in their own way but still as different from today’s machines as others in their specific eras that came before. Cars like the Chevron B36, Ferrari 512 and DeTomaso Pantera defined some of the best in this latest exciting grid. In every case they were a visual and aural treat, with many of the world’s most exotic and exciting prototypes even now bringing gasps of wonderment and disbelief.  

The Le Mans Classic runs for 24 hours starting at 4 p.m. just like the real 24-hour race did in the early 1920s. But the Classic is now divided into six different “grids” that feature groups of cars from specific eras, so they can race together as they did back in their own time. Each “grid” races for 3-hour periods, so drivers get to run multiple times at different hours and can experience what it was like to run at night or in the early morning hours, even when it might be raining. 

What I find most interesting about vintage racing as time passes is that the uniqueness of each class seems to increase exponentially with the realization that we’ll never again see the degree of innovation and unique solutions to the rules of the time. In every passing decade, the subtle technology that resulted in the increased surges of speed has also becomes less and less obvious because it’s always been more about minimizing lap times than outright velocity. 

The sounds over time have grown more distinct as rpm has increased. The drivers have become less and less visible as frontal areas have decreased and windscreen angles have shrunk. The kinetic art of speed from each era is as distinct in visual style as the great art that covers the walls of the Louvre a couple of hours northeast in Paris.  

As speeds increased from the early 1900s to the latest of the ’80s and ’90s, the difficulty and responsibility of keeping both drivers and spectators safe has compounded most on those responsible for maintaining the event’s tenuous security: the long-experienced veterans who define and refine their rules. They’re constantly faced with the immutable laws of physics, which demand reduction in outright speed, as their clever opponents, racing’s best designers and engineers, keep innovating new technologies to make cars quicker if not faster. 

Those ACO officials who govern the Sarthe circuit always keep in mind the horrendous disaster of 1955. They’re constantly challenged to establish ever more stringent regulations to prevent top speeds that could easily reach 300 mph on the Mulsanne if there weren’t that specter of an exploding silver 300 SLR hurtling over and through those who came just to see and enjoy what innovations had been created since the previous year. 

Dedicated fans of racing history in Le Mans are some of the world’s most knowledgeable. Because modern televised road racing has become so formulaic, the lure of past visions becomes ever greater–especially at the source where it all began.

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Panamericano
Panamericano New Reader
1/31/23 11:46 a.m.

"road racing has become so formulaic"  So true.  I dare say that very few could identify a maker if you painted every car on the F1 grid white and stood back 20 meters.  And they are not even a "spec" class, like NASCAR and others.  Unfortunately safety means more rules.  The more rules we have, the more the solutions are the same or similar.

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