Le Mans Classic: What it's really like to compete

Photography Credit: Joris Clerc

Story by Mitch McCullough

The lightweight French prototype stormed down the Mulsanne Straight as I shifted into fifth gear and slammed the throttle to the floor. Auberge des Hunaudières, the mustard-yellow restaurant legendary among Le Mans drivers for its festive atmosphere, blurred by at 130 mph. 

For a moment, I recalled sitting inside two days prior, enjoying a burger with Dijon mustard from Dijon and French fries fried in France. It was our first visit to Le Mans, and we were savoring the sights and culture of the ancient walled city.

That happy thought was dashed as I approached the first chicane. I steeled myself to keep the power down past the 200 marker, then braked medium. Even on slender Dunlops, the lightweight, mid-engine sports racer shed speed more easily than expected. 

Too soon,” I thought. “Again.” 

Coming off the brakes of our Alpine prototype racer, I steered right as I got back on the gas, skimming the edge of the curb on the right. I brushed the brakes again just before hugging the roundabout’s inside curb, then pressed the throttle back to the floor while steering right. Then I was back onto the Mulsanne Straight, cars just ahead, cars just behind.

Flying down the Mulsanne is almost surreal. It isn’t so much the speeds attained as the length of time spent in top gear with the throttle to the floor–all while steeped in the history of the 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. At times it felt serene, until the speed jolted me back to reality.

It took about five laps for the leaders to lap me. Approaching the Porsche Curves, a Ford GT40 blasted by, displacing enough air to necessitate a minor steering correction. Immediately behind it was another GT40, requiring another correction. 

Then I leapt in my seat when a Ferrari 250GTLM shrieked past, even though I’d glimpsed it coming, so shrill and urgent was its V12. I took a deep breath and concentrated on staying on the racing line and keeping my foot to the floor as much as possible. 

I was taking 5:50 to get around the circuit, whereas GT40 stars, like Ford Motor Company President and CEO Jim Farley, were doing it in only 4:37. I was topping 130 mph, they were hitting 160. A half-dozen GT40s were racing up behind me, followed by a handful of Cobras, then a herd of E-types.

Speed disparity has always been part of LeMans, and it remains so at the Le Mans Classic, a brilliant recreation of those bygone days. The race cars–more than 750, including four support races–are gridded by year. 

Our grid, Plateau 4, included nearly 70 cars from 1962 to 1966. That meant powerful Ford GT40s, Cobras, Ferraris, Jaguar E-types and Bizzarrini sharing the track with MGBs, Alfa Romeo Giulia TZs, Lotus Elans and the first Porsche 911s. 

Early mid-engine, fiberglass prototypes peppered the field. Seven Porsche 904s were gridded. There were the two bright-blue French prototypes with 1100cc engines, a Peugeot-powered CD SP66 with wild vertical tail fins, and our Alpine.

The Proper Pedigree

Alpine M64 chassis No. 1711, our mount for this year’s Le Mans Classic, won the 1150cc Prototype class at Le Mans in 1964, finishing 17th overall with drivers Roger de Lageneste and Henry Morrogh. At the same time, it won the Index of Thermal Efficiency, averaging 21 mpg for 292 laps–or 2436 miles. 

The victory was pivotal for Alpine and Gordini: It achieved the goals of both the small automaker and the engine builder, and it helped them secure motorsports support from Renault going forward. A tiny model of Alpine M64 chassis 1711 sits on a tiny pedestal in the 24 Hours of Le Mans museum–a must-see.

Photography Credits: Maurice Louche (historical photo), Kim McCullough (model)

Just a few weeks after the win at Le Mans, the same drivers piloted the Alpine to first in class at the Reims 12-hour race in July 1964. The car then competed in four hillclimbs, followed by the 1000 km de Paris in 1964. 

In 1965, it completed the Le Mans test weekend in April and started the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but expired in the 15th hour after struggling with an experimental suspension. It went on to run the 1965 Reims 12-hour and the Trophèe du Cognac, the latter with Italian Mauro Bianchi at the wheel.

At the end of the 1965 season, the car went back to the Alpine factory at Dieppe, where Alpine fitted M65 rear bodywork featuring dramatic vertical fins. Alpine was at the time developing the M65, which became the successful A210. Thus, M64 chassis 1711 is now referred to as the M64/65. Given its history, it had to return to Le Mans.

Rarities and deep cuts are welcome at Le Mans, with this very Alpine M64 taking a class win in 1964. This summer, it returned for another engagement. Photography Credit: Joris Clerc

Weighing just 1280 pounds, the Alpine M64 uses a spaceframe chassis similar to that of the Lotus 23 sports racer. Its mid-engine design mounts the screaming four-cylinder Gordini longitudinally, with a Hewland Mk6 behind it, all easily viewed through a large plexiglass backlight. The 1149cc Gordini redlines at 8500, about 115 horsepower, though I was shifting at 7000.

The M64/65 is surprisingly stable, given its mid-engine layout and 90.6-inch wheelbase. Maybe it’s those perky tail fins. 

The steering is crisp, and it turns into corners sharply. After coming off the brakes, the front end lightens and floats into the corner, a wonderfully addictive feeling. The Hewland Mk6 shifts crisply, though first-gear downshifts for Arnage, the Ford Chicane, and the Dunlop Chicane were tricky. 

We were geared for 160 mph and were hitting 135-140. We are thinking lower gearing, along with additional seat time for the driver, may help.

Into the Deep End

We shared a two-bay garage with the Peugeot-powered CD SP66, and the pair of French prototypes with wacky tail fins attracted a lot of interest. More than 200,000 spectators reportedly attended this summer’s Le Mans Classic, and throngs of pedestrians competed for space on the paved infield paths with all types of scooters, golf carts, ATVs–and race cars. People crowded around the cars everywhere they went.

The event began Wednesday with load-in, paperwork, driver’s gear check and a drivers meeting. It was not a jovial drivers meeting with pros offering driving tips because there is none of that at Le Mans. This is the deep end of the pool. 

Procedures for slow zones, pit lane speeds, the Le Mans start, and rolling starts were reviewed quickly with complicated maps flashed onscreen. About the time I figured out which corner was on the large projected screen, they flipped to the next topic. Thursday was scrutineering, a humorless check of the car to ensure everything matched the Historic Technical Passport.

I dove into the deep end Friday. My first outing on the Le Mans circuit began with a 43-minute qualifying session. That evening included a 43-minute practice session that began at 10 p.m.

Nighttime brought a whole ’nother dimension to the experience. The permanent portions of the circuit–the Porsche Curves, the start-finish area, the Dunlop Curves and the beginning of Tetre Rouge–are well lit. 

Photography Credit: Joris Clerc

The public roads that form the most historic portions of the circuit are not lit at all. Our period-correct Marchals and Cibies were the hot setup in 1964 but weak by today’s standards, and they were pointed at odd angles. The Mulsanne and other sections are crowned, with a solid white line in the center and dotted lines on the edges–the opposite of what I was used to. The edge of the road is difficult to see, and you don’t want to confuse the edge for the middle of the road on a foggy night.

If forward visibility was challenging, rearward visibility was worse. The only lights on the back sections of the circuit are spotlights shining down the road from behind. Our plexiglass caught these rays, giving the impression in my poorly positioned rearview mirror that a car was coming from behind. 

It was difficult to discern a GT40 closing in fast from an MGB gaining ground slowly. These considerations came to mind when changing lanes at 130 mph to set up for the Porsche Curves in a fiberglass-wrapped spaceframe made of finger-size tubes. 

Jim Farley put my mind at ease. The faster drivers are good about flashing their lights when overtaking, he said. And that proved to be the case.

I quickly learned to trust the corner marshals, who did an outstanding job. They’re the same men and women who flag the 24-hour feature race. I met some of them and they were very friendly. Lights in matching colors at key points trackside supplemented the omnipresent flags. Blue flags and flashing blue lights were displayed any time a car was coming up from behind.

Each of the three races requires cars to come in within a window of time for a mandatory 1-minute pit stop. A pit lane speed of 60 kph was enforced. Slow zones–yellow-flag caution sections–mandated an 80 kph speed limit, no passing. 

Race cars seldom have speedometers, so a sticker on the steering wheel was required stating the rpm and gear needed to maintain those speeds. Vintage cars don’t typically have buttons to maintain those speed limits, so vigilance is required to avoid a penalty for speeding. Go too slow, however, and you risk the ire of the driver behind you.

By the Numbers

The Le Mans Classic races started 4 p.m. Saturday and ended 4 p.m. Sunday, with cars racing throughout the 24 hours. Each car competes in three 43-minute races during the 24-hour period. 

My first race started at 5 p.m. Saturday with a Le Mans start, and it was hot, the sun still fairly high. My second race started just after midnight, pleasant but dark. My third race started around 8 a.m., with perfect weather. By 10 a.m. Sunday we were drinking beer, eating crab rolls and watching the other cars race.

To prepare for driving at LeMans, I hooked up a PlayStation4 and a Thrustmaster T150 steering wheel to our TV and spent seat time with “Project Cars 2,” the popular racing sim. It quickened the learning process because it taught me which chicane went which direction and which lane to be in when–especially important in a small-displacement car.

Photography Credit: Kim McCullough

Last fall I drove the Alpine for 80 minutes at Monticello Motor Club without stopping to prepare for the 43-minute sessions. I ran a couple of VSCCA races in the spring at Lime Rock to stay tuned up. I practiced a Le Mans start at our campsite the day before the race, running to the car and getting in with a helmet on. Perhaps the best way to prepare would be to run a night race, like NASA’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill. 

Our experience at Le Mans Classic was–well, it was classic. It was like 1964 all over again. 

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J.A. Ackley
J.A. Ackley Senior Editor
12/19/22 9:53 a.m.

This seems to be a great way for getting a true taste of Le Mans' glory days.

californiamilleghia UltraDork
12/19/22 11:23 a.m.

I wonder what the budget would be to ship a car from the USA ,  do the race and ship it back home , 

I know that doing the Historics at LagunaSeca  can get pretty expensive .

tolyarutunoff New Reader
2/21/23 3:54 p.m.

a couple times i drove my car from oklahoma, drove the historics, and drove it home; similarly with the pittsburgh race.

LanEvo Dork
2/24/23 11:02 p.m.

In reply to californiamilleghia :

Shipping prices vary greatly. If the car is street registered, then you can use a "ro-ro" service. That's about half the price of shipping in a container. If you're flexible about which ports you use and no time constraints, you may be able to find a better deal.

Many years ago, my dad shipped his car to Europe. We were going to be living in Italy. I remember he shipped from Elizabeth NJ to Antwerp Belgium because it was maybe half the price of shipping directly to Italy. He flew to Belgium and drove the car to Milano.

People in Europe think that kind of thing is crazy, but it's maybe 500 miles: about the same distance as getting to Mid-Ohio from northern NJ!

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/26/23 6:49 p.m.

Possibly the coolest event that I have ever attended. The year I went, I saw a real Shelby Daytona Coupe run la Sarthe, almost got run over by Le Monstre, and saw like half of the entire GTO (not Pontiacs) production.

6/10/23 4:10 p.m.

Heading over in a couple weeks to support Cobra Daytona coupe #18 ; 2 Americans running in Group 4. Stop in and say hello ! 


ktisdale New Reader
6/16/23 6:28 p.m.

You can't have too much fun!!

911brian New Reader
10/8/23 11:19 a.m.

Seems like renting a seat is the way to go. Has to be some teams wanting to sell a fraction of the ride to offset costs.

Question is how to find them..



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