A view from the pit lane

Kindly supplied by James Pitt, part of the Surrey Sports and Classics Historic Motorsports team

It was not all that long ago, that if you wanted to see genuine historic racing cars you needed to go to a museum. If you were really lucky you might see one of these cars doing a parade lap between races at a major meeting. But all that changed in 2002, when the Le Mans Classic was launched. Now visitors can see the very best historic race cars from around the world, compete in a series of races over 24 hours at the famous 13.63km Circuit de la Sarthe just outside Le Mans in France.

Even in these times of economic uncertainty, the organisers were swamped with applications from teams wanting to take part. For these Teams, it is the highlight of the racing calendar. A chance for them to race the cars at the actual circuit on which many of the cars had originally raced 30, 40, 50 years ago. For the drivers it is an ultimate opportunity to race the best cars, against top drivers on the most famous circuit in the world.

The highlight for many of them is the night race, around a circuit where only a few key corners are lit. Without wishing to sound too clichéd, it is the ultimate test, with some cars reaching speeds of over 170mph in almost total darkness. It demands total concentration and very strong nerves to race at these speeds, wheel to wheel against other cars, when you can only see a few yards ahead of you.

I am lucky enough to be part of Surrey Sports and Classics Historic Motorsports team, which has competed at every one of the Le Mans Classics, as well as several of the support races at the modern Le Mans 24 hours. We run one of the truly iconic British built Le Mans cars of the post war era. The BMC works entered Le Mans MGB, driven to 11th overall and 2nd in class by Paddy Hopkirk and Andrew Hedges in 1965. The car has been owned by MG racing legend Barry Sidery-Smith since the early 1970’s and he never misses an opportunity to return the  car to circuit for which she was specifically built.

Barry’s MGB Racing at the Le Mans Classic 2010
The logistics for the Le Mans Classic are quite mind boggling, and on a completely different scale to any other event. The cars are divided into one of 6 “Plateaux” dependant on their age. Each Plateau takes part in three forty minute races, spread over 24 hours. With one of the races held at night. The maximum number of cars in each race is 68, each with 2 drivers. This works out at 408 race cars and 816 drivers. And that is not including up to 7 reserve cars per Plateau and their drivers, who are allowed to join the two practice sessions but will only take part in the races if any of the other cars fail to make the grid.

For the teams involved it’s a lot of hard work to run the cars such a long way from home. Our team was very privileged, as our car and most of the equipment was taken over from England in the back of the magnificent 1950’s BMC race transporter belonging to Doug and Loraine Samuel. Fortunately for us our friends at Travel Destinations are very experienced at coping with our teams travel needs and had no problem booking ferry crossings for the race transporter, 2 large 4×4, an estate towing a trailer and 1958 MG Magnette, as well as several other assorted vehicles.

Racing in the heat at the Le Mans Classic 2010
It is difficult to describe to anyone who has not been there before, the scale of things at the Le Mans Classic. You get a better sense of the events popularity, when you go onto the Bugatti circuit. Here you will find the members of 160 different car clubs from all over Europe, with their cars all parked together proudly on display. It truly does cater for every taste, from Alfa Romeo to Zagato and everything in between. You could spend your entire weekend just wandering around this area, but this would be a shame because the Le Mans Classic has so much more to offer. One area that grows bigger and better each time is the sprawling tented village of trade stands, restaurants and displays. After three days at the circuit, I don’t think I managed to see half of what was on display.The heart of the event is the tented Paddocks, one for each of the plateaux, where the cars a kept throughout the weekend. It is here that you will find the teams preparing the cars and battling to keep them running. At most modern race meetings this work would be done away from the gaze of the public, but the opposite is true at the Le Mans Classic. The crowds are given unprecedented access the paddocks, over the whole weekend. This provides plenty of opportunity for them to get right up close to these historic race cars and talk to the teams and drivers. Our team always tries to ensure that we have at least one person available to answer questions and talk about the car. The bustling atmosphere in the paddock also helps create a great feeling of camaraderie amongst the teams. Many of the teams go to great lengths to help those struggling to keep cars running, with the lone of equipment and spare parts. A great example of this is when we sold our spare MGB alternator to a very grateful team, who were desperately trying to fix their Aston Martin DB4 GT before the next race.

One of the main problems facing both teams and spectators at the 2010 Le Mans Classic, was the heat. With France gripped by a heat wave, and temperatures hitting 42 degrees, it was difficult to escape the heat. It was even worse for the drivers. Imagine what it must be like to be wearing long fireproof underwear, a three layer race suit, a balaclava and a crash helmet. Then think how well you would cope if you had to wear all that while racing a car, with no ventilation, flat out round Le Mans. Finally try to put yourself in the shoes of our cars owner/driver, Barry Sidery-Smith, who is doing all this at the grand old age of 74.

With such intense heat, it was not long into the first practice session that some of the racing cars started to run into problems. I stood in the pit-lane and watched as the Mike Hawthorne’s 1955 Jaguar D type came in after its first lap, smoke pouring from the seized brake calliper on the front off-side. My team’s car did not fair much better, cracking the cylinder head during the first qualifying session. Without a suitable replacement, things were looking grim. However all was saved when Travel Destinations customer Mick Loynes kindly volunteered the use of the cylinder head off his fast road MGB, in which he had just driven down to Le Mans. In record time, the team stripped the part off Mick’s car and installed it on our race car. Much to everyone’s relief the car worked faultlessly after that, running competitively in the middle for the pack for all three races. We tried to convince Mick that the extra Le Mans provenance we had just given his cylinder head would double his cars value. But I am not convinced that he believed us. And in case you are wondering, yes we did bring Mick’s car back to England and rebuild his engine for him.

The Le Mans Classic truly is a unique event that holds a special place in affections of all those have been part of it. If you have not been yet, I suggest you start planning now for the next one in 2014.

See you there,