Memories are the essential part of Le Mans Classic. They create this event, soak it with fuel and make it one of the most beautiful celebrations of classic motoring in the world. Welcome to a French feast!
To Le Mans: by Mazda
I love the endurance challenges. In 2021, together with Śniadanie & Gablota, we established the official record for racing around the borders of Poland by car. The enthusiasm for long-distance racing was one of the many reasons that gave rise to the concept of this project. Therefore, when representatives of Mazda Bołtowicz suggested that the Śniadanie & Gablota team should hop into the car again and go to France at a rather brisk pace – we did not hesitate at any moment! 1500 km of roads, four drivers, one Mazda CX-5 – destination: France, Le Mans! We hadn’t even arrived at the venue of the event yet, but we had already begun to appreciate the off-road capabilities of our car: all the parking spots had been taken long before the event, so we had to act wildly, in the truest sense of the word, by creating alternative solutions that were both legal and socially acceptable. We were able to get to the suitable spot close to the entrance after overcoming a few curbs and rough field ditches.
The proximity of the parked car turned out to be beneficial, because the Le Mans Classic is kind of huge! Every day of our adventure included an extra 30 km of walking – who says you can’t be both a car enthusiast and health-conscious? Dotted along the 14 kilometers of an asphalt track are numerous exhibitors, dining points, paddock tents and various stands. This year’s exhibitions included Porsche celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the Carrera 911 2.7 RS and Mercedes presenting their extensive racing history through some of the most iconic machines from museum warehouses.
This crucible of engineering is a real treat for every car enthusiast. After only the first few steps, you can experience a stunning array of flavors, smells and sights. Taking our seats in the audience, the roar of the engines made the plastic chairs beneath us shiver in fear. Each of us made their debut at this event, so for the first hours we felt like children in an amusement park wanting to enjoy every attraction. We didn’t even know where to start, only that we didn’t want to miss a single thing. Strolling along we marveled at every other Ford GT40, Ferrari Daytona, Jaguar E-type or Mercedes 300SL. These were certainly not garage queens!
Celebrating automotive life
But there are moments that show the event from a slightly different perspective. Once we cooled down from the first thundering impression, other pictures began to pop up. Just a few feet away from the track, zones have been designated with extensive parking with plenty of space for clubs representing lovers of different brands. We went there at the end of the day, when the sun slowly went out over the courts, and there was still a roar of rival cars coming out of the track. At that point we understood that Le Mans Classic is everywhere, it surrounds you and you should take it all in. It’s not only about watching cars on the track.
How can you not be captivated by a view of dozens of classic Porsche, small tourist tables and car enthusiasts feasting with a glass of wine and a baguette in hand around them. You do not need to be in the grandstand to celebrate this beautiful festival of motoring. I really liked it when one time while visiting the paddock, one of the Jaguars coming off the track came up to it. Immediately, a champagne cooler and snacks appeared on the hood. The driver barely had time to take off his suit, and he was already indulging in little pleasures reporting the situation from the track. A beautiful life with simple pleasures!
The paddock never sleeps
Thanks to my buddy Tomek aka Jagman, we spent a great deal of time at the aforementioned paddock. Professionally, this 26-year-old resident of Łódź is the team leader and head technician for Nigel Webb, a well-known and esteemed Jaguar collector. Privately, he is a fan of Mazda, especially the perfectly balanced MX-5 and the legendary 787B, and on a daily basis he drives his family’s Japanese “six”. Tomek explained the benefits and drawbacks of working as a service technician for vintage racing vehicles, emphasizing that it is a very tough profession owing to continual pressure and the never-ending travel required because after each finished series of racing, another one awaits. After each ride, when the 1952 Jaguar C-Type serviced by Tommy leaves the track, he thoroughly checks the car, because as he told me – there will always be a screw to tighten.
Interestingly, this is the same car that Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1953. Talking to Tomek about all this, I could see drops of sweat running down his forehead. It was extremely hot and muggy in Le Mans that evening. He told me that during the last qualifying session a stone must have fallen through the front grill and damaged the radiator. Replacing it was out of the question because doing so would have required disassembling half the automobile, and there was plainly no time for that. It needed to be temporarily soldered, but it worked. In the end, the group finished fourth in their division.
No one gives up
Tomek’s work is also heavily burdened with responsibility for the effectiveness of the vehicle and the driver’s safety. We’re talking about reaching 240 km/h while piloting a 70-year-old automobile on a track! During the Le Mans Classic, no one gives up, moreover everyone insists that it is all about having fun. Drivers make the most out of their vehicles, and mechanics are equipped to handle even the most difficult situations. In the Cadillac “Le Monstre”, the complete engine was swapped out in a flash. Everyone comes here to experience true racing, and occasionally that results in accidents. When the renowned Ferrari, nicknamed “Breadvan” crashed into one of the bends, we witnessed it ourselves. The driver was unharmed, but the distinctive, modified Ferrari 250 GT SWB will now need to undergo a lengthy refurbishment before onlookers can once again enjoy it.
It’s not what you think
It should be made clear at this point that the Le Mans Classic is not a 24-hour race for the classics. Yes, during the event, drivers race on the original 13.63-kilometer line of the Circuit de la Sarthe, but the competition is divided into stages. Only cars competing in the main race are allowed in the original 24 Hours of Le Mans from 1923 to 1981. The qualified cars are divided into 6 classes representing different historical eras. First, the drivers take part in qualifying, and then in three races, at different times of the day, to best reflect the climate of long-distance competition. Each such session lasts approximately 40 minutes. In addition to the main event, there are other races throughout the weekend, such as the Endurance Racing Legends, where you can see much newer cars, such as the beautiful Bentley Speed 8, which triumphed on the circuit in 2003, or the Maserati MC12 GT1. In addition, there are various parades and numerous occasional trips. If you are planning a trip to Le Mans Classic, you should immediately buy a supplement called paddock access. This will enable you to move around where real automotive icons are at your fingertips.
Never stop challenging yourself!
The main goal of our trip was to meet face to face with the unique personality of Group C and one of the stars of this year’s edition… Mazda 787B! The 787B is a symbol of the Japanese tireless fight for victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours. This is a mechanical monument to commemorate the heroic path leading to the dream success of the 24h of Le Mans that began in 1970. The next decades were followed by ups and downs, but the Japanese never managed to win the most precious trophy. Until 1990, the specter of an irreversible defeat hung over them. It was a season in which the decision was made to eliminate power units other than the 3.5-liter V-engines from the competition. For Mazda’s Wankel engine, it would be a forfeit. Other bands’ sluggishness in adapting to the new circumstances proved to be their downfall. The organizers could bend or not fill the start list. However, the choice was obvious. In 1991, the last time Group C went to the Circuit de la Sarthe in full profile. After a heroic fight and problems with other teams, the Mazda 787B with the starting number 55 won the coveted victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans ’91. Interestingly, three Mazdas took part in the competition. However, there were the drivers of the car with number 55, consisting of Bertrand Gachot, Volker Weidler and Johnny Herbert, who received the guidelines – to drive as if it was a sprint competition, not an endurance competition, i.e. as if tomorrow never comes! So it happened. The car was led across the finish line by Herbert, who overpaid the heroic success with dehydration and was literally pulled from the orange-green car, and immediately taken to the hospital. This is how the long-standing struggle for the dreamed first victory of the Japanese team at Le Mans ended.
The Japanese star shines again
This year’s return of the Mazda 787B to the legendary track was of symbolic importance. In 1991, Herbert sat in his hospital bed and observed his teammates’ achievement. In order to recognize his achievement, Mazda planned a unique showcase for him in 2011. In 2021, the Mazda team should have celebrated the 30th anniversary of its victory, but those plans were thwarted by a pandemic and they were only brought to life this year. After three decades, the Wankel engine came to life again at Le Mans. It is no wonder that the team stand was very popular. We managed to get closer to the 787B for a while thanks to the kindness of Masato Miura – a car caretaker who knows every millimeter of it. The mechanics opened, or rather dismantled, the car in front of our eyes so that we could literally touch the huge piece of beautiful history. Yojiro Terada, also known as Mr. Le Mans and a 29-time competitor in the Le Mans 24 Hours, piloted the 787B during the two demonstration runs. He unquestionably acknowledged that the first run was a nice run after it. This level of transparency, intimacy, and relationship-building with viewers is exceptional and fantastic. Terada even had time to sign a few postcards featuring the 787B. One of these is on display in the Mazda Bołtowicz showroom.
Hotel de France is fast to sleep at!
There is no denying, though, how physically demanding it is to move from paddock to paddock. It was challenging to locate the Mazda 787B since Group C stationed them far enough away from the entrance. The 24 Hours of Le Mans, on the other hand, are not related to unwinding or enjoying a luxurious hotel bed. We got the chance to spend two nights at a seemingly ordinary hotel that has become a legend among enthusiasts of motorization and motorsport history. The hotel is located in the village of La Chartre-sur-le-Loir which is about 50 minutes away from the track de la Sarthe. Beginning in the early 1950s, the Hotel de France’s most fascinating chapter of history started. According to a well-known motorsport’s legend, John Wyer found a tiny family motel in a small village. The British driver, an engineer, oversaw several racing teams over the years and together they won multiple races in a variety of endurance racing competitions. He originally came to La Chartre-sur-le-Loir in 1953 with the Aston Martin team and established this location as a base for the de la Sarthe track for many years to come. Cars were prepped for qualifying sessions and races in the rear of the hotel and in the spaces between buildings, or in the bypass. Then, thousands made their way to Le Mans on public highways. Wyer-led Aston Martin won the Le Mans race in 1959 with a DBR1 piloted by Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby. Naturally, the Hotel de France served as the team’s home base. Numerous images from that time have survived, and today they adorn hotel walls and improve the morning meal. Even though spending a night here is a tremendous delight – the night’s sleep passes really fast!
Time to take the last sip of coffee
Catching the last rays of the morning sun, with the aroma of coffee slowly sipped in front of the Hotel de France and with a view of our brave travel companion, the CX-5, we talked about memories. At this point, our adventure with Le Mans Classic was slowly becoming one. We absolutely felt that this is an event with a unique atmosphere, which, above all, offers an unprecedented closeness to the car experience. It gives you the smell of burned petrol to the point that your eyes peak, and the crack of revving motors is so electrifying that your doctor would ban you from taking this journey. It is certainly evident that the Le Mans Classic has its flaws and faults, but these are easily overlooked in the excitement. Without a shadow of a doubt, if classic motoring is close to your heart – you must try to come here, and you will not regret your decision. I guarantee! And now, unfortunately, it’s time to pack our luggage into Mazda and hit the road, because more adventures with Śniadanie & Gablota await ahead!
Words by Sławomir Poros
Translated by Andy Zikeev
Photos by Maciej Jasiński