On the support bill on the Saturday morning before the Le Mans 24 Hours this year were the Ferrari Trofeo and Le Mans Legends races. The Trofeo race was interesting if only for of the sheer number of 458 Cup cars in action (around 40, plus a smattering of older-spec 430s) but the line-up in the Le Mans Legends race was astounding. Millions of pounds-worth of irreplaceable cars being driven with as much aggression as they would have experienced in period. Lazy show cars these are not… The Le Mans Legends drivers have a serious race out there.
Frustratingly, time was too short for me to take in the race from the track and instead I had to watch it unfold from the window of the media centre, overlooking the pit-lane and main straight. But the night before, on the way into town for the drivers' parade, I'd managed a quick detour to their paddock for a whip round the tents. What a treat.
The Motor Racing Legends organisation oversees a clutch of series for classic cars, and have organised the Le Mans support race a couple of time in the past: this year the chosen period was for racers from 1949-1965 – a broad church to choose from, and one that attracted a massive 63 car entry, more than the 24 Hours itself!
The simplicity in technological terms is a counterpoint to the extreme shapes of the cars' bodies: these are cars with wildly-differing, fluid, organic shapes created by a designer's imagination rather than the inside of a wind tunnel. This is one of my favourite cars – and it's one of the fastest. #117 qualified on pole for the Legends race, with a second Knobbly just behind.
The Lister Knobbly dates from 1958 – it's got a growling Corvette 3781cc V8 under the hood: a melding of American grunt to British chassis know-how typical of the time. Lister was one of many a small engineering firms of the '50s who started out tuning existing racecars before turning their hand to creating their own chassis: in self-deprecating form the car is called a 'Knobbly' because of its unusual shape!
Up against the privateers of the time were the manufacturers with the big bucks (or lira in this case). This is the Alfa Romeo TZ1 run by Alfa's racing team Autodelta in 1964, with a 1.6-litre twin-cam engine.
The Tubolare Zagato's body was draped over a tubular spaceframe chassis and the whole car only weighed 650kg. The shapely aluminium body was crafted by Milanese design experts Zagato; the shame of only seeing the car in the paddock was not being able to get a decent shot of the cut-off short-tail rear of the car, one of its unique features. There are no bad angles of a TZ1.
Five Ferraris were out, including this Ferrari 365 P2 driven by David Piper. It's a 4.4-litre prototype built in 1964 – Piper raced the same car in period.
Bizzarrini is one of the less well known Italian supercar manufacturers from the '60s – contemporaries of Lamborghini and Ferrari who made some beautifully crafted cars but didn't make it into the '70s before folding. This is the 5.3-litre 5300GT Competizione from 1965.
The wide-bodied and winged modern GTE Evoras in the main race were a stark contrast to the '60s Lotus entries in the Legends grid like these svelte Elans and Elites. 50 years or development in between…
A Lotus 15 with its bodywork removed shows its hand-crafted, riveted construction. This was an update to the Lotus 11: the car was incredibly low-slung even with the bodywork fixed on, at just over two feet high!
The Coventry Climax range of engines was a mainstay of racing across F1 and sportscars in the '50s and '60s. The Lotus 15 featured a 2-litre FPF unit developed for Formula 1 – the base block was also used at the Indy 500 and in the Tasman series.
The AC Cobra is another example of a British car given steroidal treatment and a big-block US engine. The tame-looking AC Ace had a V8 shoe-horned in and then its bodywork flared out to make one of the most iconic-looking cars ever.
Then there's the ultimate development of the Cobra, the 4.7-litre Shelby Daytona Coupé from 1964 – a 200mph rocketship that was built to take on Ferrari at Le Mans.
It's interesting to see the entries lined up: check out the different nose treatments between the raked British machines and the 1960 Corvette, which completely obscures a low-line Lister Chevrolet tucked in between it and a '63 Stingray.
A big frontal area to contain the big engine of the first-gen Corvette.
The second-gen Corvette was supposedly based on the lines of the Jaguar E-type: the curves extend to the classic Chevrolet badge on the hood.
You can see a similar design evolution between the early Aston Martins here: compare the DB2 from 1951…
…to the DB4GT from 1960. This lightweight GT special had a handy 300bhp and could make 0-60mph in 6 seconds. Not bad for a 50 year old car.
Jumping across to classics at the Drivers' Parade but not taking part in the Legends race itself, a fleet of Jaguar E-Types were on display, celebrating the half-centenary from their launch. These cars were for show only, though a single E would be representing the model in the race.
Similarly, a clutch of GT40s were parked up – these cars just fall outside the Legends time-frame for this year, so we'll have to wait till the Goodwood Revival to see this many out on track at once.
A Jaguar D-type was parked up next to the Fords: this is technically a replica, although it is based on a real chassis. I love the sculpted nose of the D.
On the bulky transmission tunnel in the cockpit is one concession to modern times: a GPS. The car has been liveried to replicate the winning car from the 1955 running of Le Mans.
Another D parked next door had a period steering wheel complete with Jaguar boss: it must be amazing to drive a car like this – drivers always talk of the connection they feel with the car and road beneath them, and how much more alive they are. This is clear to see when you're watching them dicing out on the track. The Revival festival can't come soon enough for me!