Le Mans Classic, that is. And there’s no better way to go to this spectacular festival of historic motorsport than in an MX-5 along some of France’s enchanting back roads, reports Charles Robinson
The Le Mans Classic is a petrolhead’s dream outing: we take a road trip to the iconic event in a £1000 mk2
Like many great adventures, it started down the pub. Conversation generally turns to the topic of cars at one point or another: a friend mentioned his forthcoming trip to both the Monaco and Le Mans Classic events.
I’d never been to either, but with 10 previous excursions across the Channel to watch the Le Mans 24 Hours, I considered myself an old hand, so the allure of a weekend at La Sarthe watching 24 hours of racing by vintage and classic Le Mans cars was too much – I had to go. And I had to go in my mk2 MX-5 recently acquired from managing editor Steve Bennett. My friend put me in touch with Ian Longden of Fasttrack
Tours who was organising a trip and I duly booked my place.
The experience of going to Le Mans is so much more than just watching a race. La Sarthe oozes history and over the years has built up a huge following amongst the British, who every year stage a mini-invasion of the 24-hour race: it seems as though they’re equally fond of the Classic.
The devil is in the detail and as I had a few weeks to prepare, I wanted to get my mk2 properly sorted for its adventure. Apart from the obvious tyres, oil, coolant and washer fluid, I wanted to make sure it was looking its best, too. Bear in mind this car cost the modest sum of £1000, and although mechanically sound, there remained plenty to do, as there always is with an old MX-5.
The first job I decided I could tackle (with my limited experience) was to tidy up the sills which were showing evidence of previous paint jobs, none of which seemed to be quite complete! So with a £9.99 can of Halfords black paint, some wet ‘n’ dry, a few copies of the
Sunday Times and some masking tape, I set to work.within a couple of hours the sills were looking presentable. Next, the headlights, which were showing that characteristic cloudy yellowing: Michael Cleverley’s timely article about reviving
the lights in the last issue of Total MX-5 proved invaluable, and after another couple of hours they were gleaming and clear again.
Nearer departure, I started to get everything together and, when you’re journeying by MX-5, travelling light is the order of the day. Luckily, although I would be camping for three days, catering was laid on so I didn’t need to load up the car with food and cooking utensils. Even so, I decided to take basic tea and coffee making provisions – the day must start with a cuppa as a bare minimum. Other than that, it was just tent, sleeping mat, a few clothes, and my camera gear, which took up the majority of the available space. The MX-5’S boot might look small, but with some creative packing, including the use of Amazon packing cubes (brilliant) everything fitted in perfectly.
My drive south through France was going to involve tolls and this is where Fasttrack Tours organiser, Ian, imparted probably the best piece of advice of the whole trip – get a SANEF toll electronic tag. Genius. This little electronic gadget sits at the top of your windscreen and allows you to pass unhindered through the toll gates. Anyone who has been the single occupant of a right-hand drive car in France and has had to stop at the toll barrier, get out, run around the other side of the car to pay, then leap in again and buckle back up, will appreciate what a godsend this is.
The French motorways now even incorporate 30km/h barriers – the implication being that you drive at them without stopping and they open ‘just in time’. It requires faith to begin with, but by the end of the trip I had the approach to these barriers down to a fine art and was leapfrogging much faster cars that had previously overtaken me.
My plan was to use the payages from Calais to Rouen and from there to hit the back roads, reliving memories of Le Mans trips past.with my toll tag working perfectly the first section of my journey passed without incident. The MX-5 might be designed for those twisty country roads, but it seems to lap up the endless motorway miles as well as any other car and, cruising at 130km/h (81mph), I found myself navigating the seemingly ever-busy roads of Rouen before I knew it. The hot and sunny conditions made sitting in the Rouen traffic somewhat uncomfortable, so it was with relief I found my way to the D438 and the next part of my journey.
The D438 is a picturesque A-road that winds its way through the French countryside, passing through the villages of Bernay, Broglie, Gace and Sées, before bringing you to Alençon. Frustratingly, a couple of weeks prior to my trip the French laws had changed and the speed limit on roads without a central reservation had been reduced from 100km/h (62mph) to 80km/h (50mph), making progress a little frustratingly languid.
Nevertheless, the MX-5 was in its element, its 1.8-litre engine giving me all the power I needed to despatch slower traffic, so progress was good. Along the way I stopped at various points to take photographs and avail myself of refreshments, including a relaxing coffee stop in Gace. I realise that Le Mans is quite a slog from Calais and the temptation is to simply hightail it down there on the autoroutes, but I’d urge you to give yourself a bit more time, take the back roads, and enjoy immersing yourself in the French countryside.
I reached the outskirts of Le Mans in time for the evening rush hour and made my way through the traffic to the circuit. Camping had been reserved for me by Ian and finding my pitch was easy. Taking a moment to familiarise myself with my new surroundings, I realised that, in MX-5 terms, I was not alone. Not only were there a couple of MX-5S camped opposite, but also another in the tent directly behind me. From thinking my car would be on its own in a sea of gleaming classics, I found myself in an MX-5 enclave.
I introduced myself to the respective owners and within no time we were comparing notes and exchanging stories about our cars.when Ian arrived not too far behind me, we settled down to a couple of well-earned beers before walking to Arnage for food.
An evening in Arnage is one of the (many) highlights of any Le Mans trip. The small town comes alive, streams of fabulous cars strut their stuff down the main drag, whilst the bars and bistros
spill out onto the wide boulevard-like street.we found ourselves at La Vieille Cloche, which typically was heaving with revellers. Beer, steak and chips: the dinner of gods.
As the evening progressed, the parade of cars down the boulevard reached a crescendo; a couple of inebriated English men stopped each car and encouraged the bemused drivers to make a racing start: engines revving and tyres squealing, in turn they took off down the street accompanied by whoops and cheers from the onlookers. Aah, it was good be back, and just as I remembered it!
Of course, Le Mans wouldn’t be Le Mans without the racing. For the Classic, the 24-hour rules are bent slightly to accommodate cars of all ages from the 1920s all the way to the 1980s. Obviously it’s inadvisable for a 1929 Bugatti Type 44 to race alongside a Porsche 935 from 1978, so the cars are split into grids (or ‘plateaux’) based on their age, pre-ww2 cars making up the first grid with five further grids covering the years from 1946 to 1980. Each grid raced three times in the 24-hour period, giving each set of drivers a couple of daytime races and a single night race: one of the races included a classic Le Mans-style start, with the drivers running across the track to get into their cars.
Included in my weekend package from Fasttrack Tours was parking in the Classic VIP area, which entitled me to take my car and park on the Bugatti circuit with 8000 classics.you might question whether a mk2 MX-5 has really attained classic status, and yet my car fitted in perfectly alongside a Jaguar E-type and a Ford GT40. Many of these cars were there with their owners’ clubs; disappointingly, although MX-5 France had a good turnout, I never found a representation for the UK MX-5 Owners Club; perhaps something for next time…
Main grid racing was due to start at 16:00, but there was plenty happening before then, including a classic Jaguar race and a Group C race packed with a veritable feast of amazing Le Mans racers from the 1980s and 1990s, such as Porsche 962s, Jaguar XJR-14S and a Mercedes-benz C11.
My first ever trip to Le Mans was to the drizzly 1995 event where I watched the start from close to Terte Rouge. It had a particular poignance as it included two of my cousin Jem Marsh’s Marcos LM600S, which thundered their way around the circuit. I’d long wanted to go back to Terte Rouge and since the track’s
redevelopment I was intrigued to see what the new layout was like. As it turned out, it is now one of the best parts of the track to photograph from. I found myself there as darkness fell after an amazing sunset, and watched the cars as they appeared under the Dunlop Bridge and snaked their way down La Chapelle, through the new Forest S-bend and on to Terte Rouge before joining the famous Mulsanne Straight. very special…
One of the most entertaining features of the main 24-hour race was the pits. There was always something happening there, so it was with some excitement that on Sunday morning Ian suggested we go take a look.we found ourselves standing in a garage about halfway down the pit lane during the third and final race for grid 4, which included a Volvoengined Marcos GT from 1965 being raced by my cousin (Jem’s son) Chris Marsh. Sadly, mechanical problems ended their race out on the circuit, but it was good to talk to the car’s other drivers and exchange a few family stories and anecdotes.
We stayed long enough to watch as the next race got underway and witness the cars come in for their pit stops. This gave me one of the highlights of my weekend – the 1968 Howmet TX pitting outside the garage we were in. what you may not know is that it’s powered by a jet turbine engine.yes, really…
After the racing was done we decided to hop in the MX-5 and get some photos of the car in and around the track. Although the main circuit was still closed to traffic, we managed to navigate all of the clear-up chaos and get back into the Bugatti Circuit, which was like being handed the key to the sweet shop.
My Le Mans Classic trip delivered on so many levels: good company, stunning cars and fabulous motorsport. My £1000 MX-5 added to the experience, never missing a beat and dishing out driving pleasure from the moment I left home to the moment I arrived back.
This is precisely what MX-5S were created for
It’s surprising what you can stuff in a mk2’s boot
Make sure you stop for coffee
Can’t be Le Mans without going camping…
Does what it says on the teeshirt… Classic sports car at Classic Le Mans
Looking for that chequered flag MX-5 Owners Club of France
Le Mans special edition: how topical