As in previous years, the biennial Le Mans Classic’s fifth showing was another huge success. Based on a simple objective, the festival aims to recreate the glories of the world’s oldest sports car endurance race, the legendary 24 Hour of Le Mans. Specifically, the idea is to host races with the same models or car types that competed at Le Mans between 1923 and 1979.
But this poses a problem: how do you get a such a wide ranging throng of vehicles (470) competing against each other fairly? The organisers’ solution? Firstly, split the cars into six designated sub-eras (or ‘grids’), so that each sub-era races against cars from the same period.
Secondly, to avoid having hundreds of cars on the track at any one time (clearly logistically impossible as well as financially ruinous, with some vehicles worth millions in any currency you can think of) the organisers invite cars to compete against their peers in three, 45 minute races.
The three contests are held in the morning, the afternoon and the evening to recreate the 24 hours of the original endurance race. So whilst the cars themselves aren’t on the circuit for 24 hours, effectively Le Mans enthusiasts can see non-stop action day and night for two days.
To get a car through to qualification, integrity is key. Any change of engine, brakes or all other makeshift repairs can disqualify a car. And it’s this attention to detail is that makes the Le Mans Classic grids so exceptional for both drivers and the public alike.
JD Classics was there and privileged to have three cars competing. Alex Buncombe drove a 1952 Jaguar C-Type (once owned by the Argentine racing sensation, Juan Manuel Fangio). Wil Arif took the wheel of a 1954 Porsche 550 A 1500 RS. And our managing director, Derek Hood, was in the Ex-works 1950 XK120 (originally driven by Leslie Johnson and Bert Hadley at Le Mans in 1950).
However, the eagle-eyed among you might have noticed that all three cars were from the same period. This of course meant that they would be competing in the same three races, Grid 2 (1949 – 1956). This made a lot of work for us in the pits to try and successfully negotiate qualifying and get three cars on the same starting grid. Then there’s all the activity of the race proper, with the pressure of getting timings and signaling right for our three cars in a large field of 74.
Drumming up a performance
Grid 2 marques from this post-war period included old foes like Maserati, Ferrari, Porsche and Mercedes. But as far as Le Mans was concerned, the fifties belonged to Jaguar, with C- and D-Types dominating proceedings. This augured well for our C-Type, although we weren’t overly confident as it was fitted with drum brakes (in keeping with its original spec). And many of our readers will appreciate that drums aren’t as efficient as the longer-lasting disc brakes because, during race conditions, drums struggle to dissipate all the heat they generate, which affects their performance.
So you can understand that we were very satisfied but not over-excited when the C-Type finished sixth during the day’s qualifying session and climbed to second by the end of night-time qualifying. There was a whole lot of racing yet to come in the relentless summer heat. And those brakes would be sorely tested on this circuit.
As for the Porsche, a 46th place finish during daylight was improved to an excellent 18th place. Meanwhile the XK120 did well too, climbing from 22nd to 20th on the grid – well ahead of several competing XK120s.
Come the first race on Saturday morning, all of our cars put in pleasing performances. The C-Type did especially well and held its qualifying position, finishing second (behind a D-Type, complete with disc brakes). The XK120 made inroads on the field, finishing in 15th place (as the top XK120 by a comfortable margin) whereas the Porsche only just failed to maintain its qualifying position, finishing in 19th. But for a car of just 1500cc in such a large field, this was still very commendable.
Who turned the lights out?
A car’s finishing position in a race determines its starting position in the next. But by the end of Saturday evening’s race, only our Porsche was heading in the right direction under the floodlights, climbing to 12th spot. The C-Type, however, had effectively dropped like a stone to 57th!
Halfway through Round 2, Alex Buncombe was again handling the C-Type well at the top of the race. Unfortunately though, a slower car weaved and bobbed across the track and pushed Alex off the straight and into swathes of surrounding gravel.
With that much aggregate lying around, the risk to the engine was too great. We had no choice but to pull the car from Round 2 and take the lowly position on the chin into the final round.
But worst yet, the XK120 didn’t even start the race! During routine servicing between the first two rounds, we were horrified to find an irretrievable problem on the oil pump drive. Unforeseeable and irredeemable.
In all our years of historic racing, we had never experienced or even heard of this part failing trackside. And so, without a working oil pump drive up our sleeve, we reluctantly pulled the XK120 from the race.
To say we were gutted is an understatement. And there isn’t a delicate way of recording how our managing director responded to the news. Derek’s consistently been getting better and better results as the season’s progressed. So to have to pull out like this, in a car with such perfect symmetry to such a prestigious event, having showed considerable promise, wasn’t at all pleasant.
At this point, as far as we were concerned, it wasn’t just the night sky that had turned black…
As is typical of these classic races, Le Mans makes a special pull on the old heart strings. Early in its heyday, there really wasn’t a spectacle quite like it. It wasn’t long before the race became commonly known as ‘the Grand Prix of Endurance’. And by then, winning Le Mans became synonymous with manufacturing prowess; to build a car that can compete against the best the world can produce – and come out on top – would be the benchmark the marques aspired to.
The circuit, running on closed public roads as it does, was not only meant to challenge a driver to be quick, but also to succeed over 24 hours. To be competitive, this obliged car companies to devise innovations that not only improved reliability, but also fuel-efficiency (so that cars spent as little time in the pits as possible). In turn, this impacted on aerodynamics, building cars for greater and greater stability at high speeds.
In time, these innovations trickled down to manufacturers’ production cars, sealing Le Mans in history as not only one of the most prestigious but also one of the motor industry’s most important events. So to be trackside, let alone have a car competing on the hallowed tarmac carries special significance for enthusiasts, as well as anyone else involved in the motor industry.
Down, but not out
Which is why, by the time Sunday afternoon came, it’s safe to say the mood in our camp wasn’t quite at its best. But seeing as we still had two cars in the field (albeit with one of them in a very modest starting position) everyone knew we still had a job to do. So we were stoically resolute about salvaging whatever we could from the weekend. Nobody said as much, but given our rotten luck to that point, we didn’t want to set our sights too high.
Thankfully though, whoever was writing our script hadn’t finished with us, yet…
Alex had a storming start to Round 3 and somehow managed to overtake several cars from a standing start. Lap after lap, his pace was consistently impressive. So as the race wore on, he made up ground on several back markers, lightening our mood. We began to get excited about the prospect of the C-Type finishing mid-point in the field.
Meanwhile, Wil Arif in the 1954 Porsche had not only been consistent all weekend but had also been eating away at a few of the other competitors ahead of him. He eventually finished a very satisfying eighth in the field and took the honours as Grid 2’s leading Porsche.
But no-one, particularly Wil, knew what to think when Alex passed him too in the latter stages…
By now, there weren’t many laps left in the race. But our 1950’s C-Type was still gobbling up the field with a seemingly insatiable appetite. We were agog at what we were watching. But we had a race to concentrate on to make sure our signalling and instructions were spot on to give Alex every chance of doing as well as he could.
Soon, we were behind the Jaguar D-Type that beat us and took top honours in Round 1. Surely Alex couldn’t pass him, too? But pass him he did! In a 45-minute race, the C-Type had passed 54 cars… 55 cars… 56 cars! We were in the lead! Unbelievable!
But then from amongst our screeching tumbled lots of questions. Could we possibly hold on to first? Would our C-Type’s brakes hold out? Would the other cars come back at us? Would somebody somewhere please get a chequered flag out now?!
And there it was! We’d done it!! What an astonishing result!
No-one would have bet on a C-Type, complete with drum brakes, in sweltering temperatures, to steam through the field from 57th place to take first.
There we were, at the holy grail of sports car racing, delivering one of the most memorable results we’d ever seen. Black mood? What black mood?! You should have seen us in our delirium.
True, we might not have felt so elated had we not felt so disappointed earlier. But that’s why we take the rough with the smooth, because with experience and the right preparation, the chances are new highlights will most likely appear just around the corner.
Racing classic cars brings the richest of pleasures on so many different levels. And we work as diligently as we can and hope for lots of fun as well as the odd splash of glory to share with our clients. However, results like this never feature in our dreams because they’re not meant to be remotely possible!
And frankly, this isn’t something we’d like to try and repeat, preferring to start a little higher up the grid normally… But it’s certainly something we’ll treasure for many years to come.