To be a racing driver is definitely for most boys – and some girls – a childhood dream. But many are called and few chosen! Historic motor racing gives them the opportunity to fulfil their dream. Furthermore, Le Mans Classic offers the ultimate experience: to compete on the long 24 Hours of Le Mans layout, facing the world’s most famous straight… the Mulsanne Straight.
As the aim is to offer spectators and entrants equally-matched fields in terms of performance and historic pertinence, the 500 racing cars are divided up into six grids, each of which corresponds to a particular period. The cars selected are those that have taken part in the Le Mans 24 Hours between 1923 and 1981. Priority is given to cars that have actually raced in the event in their particular era. For each grid 10 reserves take part in the day and night-time practice sessions to be ready to fill a place left vacant by the withdrawal or retirement of another car. A Le Mans-type start as used between 1925 and 1969 will be given for grids 1-2-3-4. Flying starts will be used for the others.
Les Pionniers et la poussière, puis la domination des 8 cylindres en ligne
C’est sur un long circuit (17,262 puis 16,340 km) non goudronné que les Bentley Boys prennent l’avantage sur Chenard & Walcker. Par deux fois devancée par Lorraine Dietrich, la marque britannique garde tout de même la suprématie grâce à des cylindrées qui augmentent au fil des années de 3 à 6,5 litres.
Sur un circuit qui passe en 1931 à 13,492 km, les 8 cylindres en ligne ont le vent en poupe. Alfa Romeo, avec ses 2,3 litres à compresseur, détrône Bentley et continue sa moisson, relayé par Bugatti qui ne laisse ensuite que deux occasions aux 6 cylindres de Lagonda et Delahaye.
Le record de participation est battu en 1935 avec 58 voitures sur la grille de départ.
Mais en 1940, l’heure n’est plus au sport automobile. Le canon gronde et pendant dix ans il ne sera pas plus question des 24 Heures du Mans que des autres épreuves sportives.
Grid 2: 1949-1956
The greens are back!
At recovery time, many makes have disappeared, leaving the track to newcomers. In fact, a brand new manufacturer, Ferrari, wins this first post-war race.
Nevertheless, the ’50s are beyond a shadow of doubt the Jaguar years with the help of the C and D Types. Talbot (1950), Mercedes (1952) and Ferrari (1954) come out ahead.
A terrible accident casts a tragic shadow over the 1955 event.
New installations, a wider and shortened track welcome the 1956 edition which, for the first time since 1924, is not held in June.
Grid 3: 1957-1961
The red years!
After enslaving the 1000 Miglia, Ferrari impresses Le Mans with seven victories from 1958 onwards, a year when 15 hours are fought in the rain and three in an impressive flood…
In 1959, confirming their success at the Nürburgring, Aston Martin manage to slip in with a first and only victory at Le Mans. The British firm does not repeat the following year despite the remarkable achievement of two of its cars being among the 13 survivors out of 55 entries…
In 1961, Ferrari equals Bentley and Jaguar with a fifth victory.
Grid 4: 1962-1965
Ferrari at the front and america at the throttle…
In 1962, Ferrari monopolises the podium and becomes the most titled manufacturer in the Sarthe; whereas, after four victories in eight participations, Olivier Gendebien announces his well deserved retirement. This same year, eleven GTs are among the first 13.
Le Mans discovers the turbine in 1963 with a BRM/Rover which will be back in 1965. The victory goes to Ferrari, but Ford and a Lola GT make a notable entrance on Le Mans turf coming back the very next year with three GT40s and 2 Cobra Daytonas. Phil Hill gives Ford a new track record!
Even though Ferrari takes their ninth victory in 1965, it was an American one since the 275 LM was from the N.A.R.T. team (North American Racing Team)!
Grid 5: 1966-1971
A Ford Victory, but Porsche copes!
No later than 1966, the mid-engine takes the lead. Ford strikes the Cavallino down with a spectacular fight, keeping the whole 1966 podium for itself.
1967 sees the 24 Hours of the Century, with the most breathtaking grid ever. This year, also of all the records, leads the Sporting Authorities to regulate the prototypes’ capacity.
The American giant is back with more of the same in 1968, then again in 1969. The GT40 star has earned its stripes…
Then Porsche shifts gear and begins a series of records still to be equalled (24 hours with a 222.3km/h average speed).
Grid 6: 1972-1981
Ford confirms, Matra stands out, Porsche takes off…
In 1972, a change of regulations put the 917s out to pasture. The Matra V12s were built and took over with three victories for Henri Pescarolo and then they too were gone…
1975 was the year of the Gulf Mirage (1st & 3rd), which allowed John Wyer to join the very exclusive Endurance Masters Club. This was also the first of Jacky Ickx’s consecutive triple wins, which put the Belgian champion equal with compatriot Olivier Gendebien for the record of victories. The record was broken in 2013 by Tom Christensen with nine victories.
In 1978, it was France’s turn to stand out on home ground. Renault was ever present, winning hands down. Firstly, the Alpine driven by Frenchmen Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud held off Porsche from start to finish. Meanwhile, another French driver, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, broke the track record.
The following year the circuit was modified just before the Ferrari BB LMs and BMW M1s turned up and Porsche strung together a collection of triumphs, which is yet to be equalled.