Just a couple of weeks ago I was in Poland for Ultrace 2023, photographing street cars drifting rings around shiny show cars with wonky wheels. Now, I’m buckling myself in for a total contrast.
We’re going time traveling, baby. Precisely 100 years, all the way back to 1923.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘That’s not a DeLorean!’ And, you’d be right to call it out. It’s actually a Škoda Fabia saloon in cosplay with a load of watches taped onto it, but it sets the mood for what’s going on here. Our mode of transport, whilst having matching difficulty reaching 88mph, is a little prettier.
Meet Lewis, the man who owns this beautiful 1987 E28 BMW 518i. He’ll be piloting the 100bhp (or less) of fury all the way from London, UK to France for the biennial Le Mans Classic.
We’re doing this 800-mile round adventure on a bit of a whim. Our usual events of choice involve TE37s and Air Lift Performance suspension – two things that don’t really scream ‘1923’. But, we know the reputation Le Mans has, and it’s one we simply can’t resist.
Le Mans is all about endurance racing. It’s the sexiest, most prestigious motor racing event outside of F1, designed for the gentlemen driver. It’s an opportunity for manufacturers and independents to test their bond of man and machine in front of an audience of equally mad spectators who choose to sit through the night to watch the drama unfold. 2023 marks Le Mans’ centenary.
The Le Mans Classic is contested every other year, and is arguably madder. It’s an opportunity to experience race cars from the past doing exactly what they were designed to do.
During the journey, we bumped into a number of cars making the pilgrimage from the UK.
After a relaxed five-hour stint from the French port city of Calais to Circuit de la Sarthe, we made it to the campsite. Instantly, we were hit with a festival atmosphere. I’ll be bringing you a whole other story from the campsite as it really deserves its own post.
For now though, I watched Lewis and Henry put up my nylon hotel before we all hunkered down for a night’s rest.
Looking For The Soul
With the morning came excitement and the stark realisation we had somehow set up camp as far away from the track’s entrance as humanly possible.
It would be about a 40-minute pilgrimage from my living room (the tent) to the Porsche Curves. But, being the plucky bunch that we are, we simply used this as an excuse to spend the entire day at the race track taking it all in. The moment we entered we realised this wouldn’t be difficult.
Being a 13km-long track means there is plenty of space on the inside of the track for what can only be described as a whole town. Circuit de la Sarthe has its own ecosystem of shops, restaurants, garages and most importantly, the people involved in the operation. Everyone played a role, and there were a lot of people there to fill a lot of roles.
Firstly, you had the show-goers like myself. We were there to take it all in. A simple, but noble responsibility. You then had all the marshals and ground keepers. These people stopped traffic to let you cross the road, they managed cars coming in and out of the track and paid attention to every moving thing inside the track.
These moving things tended to be an endless list of vintage cars and motorbikes, often used to ferry about staff and drivers as well as visitors. Check out the old buses used to get people from one end of the venue to the other.
Once you got off the bus you’d be greeted by the paddocks, where you see and smell all the cars and energy of the weekend. The paddocks are the soul of Le Mans, the place to be in between races, and the place to feel like you’re part of the pit crew.
The race was divided up into six grids, starting from the ‘Blower’ Bentleys that raced in the 1920s, heading all the way up to the more contemporary endurance Le Mans legends, such as the Aston Martin DBR9. Each grid had its own paddock.
An unsung hero of the paddocks were the little trucks used to ferry around wheels and race car parts. I could write a whole piece about how interesting the relationship between these little vans and the pit crews is. But, the real energy of Le Mans would come from the racing.
Finding The Heart
Amazingly, one of the Bentleys from the original 1923 race took part in the 2023 race. These cars opened the event with an iconic foot sprint start, kicking off a crazy 24 hours. Each grid would take turns racing around the iconic circuit, with the Endurance Legends field scheduled for final 30-minute stint.
The format gave you a taste of Le Mans’ greatest hits. We had 300 SLs from the ’50s, Porsche classics from the ’60s, and BMW M1s from the ’70s. The list was endless.
A core memory was making our way down to Arnage Corner at 1:00am to see the 1970s grid rip the track up in the dead of the night.
This was easily my greatest photography challenge to date. Not only being up in the middle of the night on no sleep, but shooting over a crowd of hundreds of people under a pitch black night sky.
It wasn’t hard to stay awake through it all, seeing as these cars had no volume limits. They are of course are from an era before noise restraints were a thing, being so loud that they’ve engraved themselves into my brain forever. I can still hear them now.
The most surreal aspect of the Le Mans Classic is the intimacy you get to encounter these race cars at. This is the closest you’ll get to being in the cars, without having an actual chance to do so.
I’ll never, ever forget walking back from the Bugatti Circuit (yes, a race track inside a race track) when the 1950s grid of race cars casually drove though a crowd of event attendees after their half-hour qualifying stint. The marshall on a moped, in his little orange high-vis jacket blowing a whistle to get everyone out the way, immediately followed by a 40-car line up that would scramble your brain.
But, this is the Le Mans Classic – it’s simply what happens here. It’s the nature of the event, and I walked away from the whole experience feeling super-fortunate for what I got the chance to see firsthand. Twenty-four hours of racing madness packed into a long weekend with the racing car world. I can’t wait to do it again.
Look out for that campsite post coming soon, but until then there’s a huge gallery of extra images from the event for you to scroll through below.
Credit : Source Post