June 24, 2014
Legends of Le Mans. Click image to enlarge
Review and photos by Brendan McAleer
On the day before news breaks that Michael Schumacher has emerged from his coma, a car bearing his name leaves the pits at Le Mans. It accelerates quickly through the Dunlop curves and under the pedestrian bridge, through the esses and around the corner at Tetre Rouge.
As the Mulsanne Straight beckons, this 1991 Mercedes-Sauber CT11 dips deep into the power reserves and unleashes a twin-turbocharged 905-hp V8 against just 900 kg of mass, uncorking a furious howl as it becomes a silver dart and streaks out of sight. If it weren’t for the pair of chicanes placed in 1991 to break up the straightaway and slow the racers, it’d crack on to above 400 km/h. As it is, the Merc screams past the artificial obstacles, hammering through the Indianapolis corner, the Porsche curves, the Ford chicanes, and once again past the packed grandstands. The crowd stands, straining for a better look as a parade of legends follow the Mercedes, all of them running at full speed.
Established in 1923, Le Mans presents challenges unlike any other branch of motorsport. It has the speed and relentless fatigue of a circuit race, but over far greater distances. It has the strategy and skill of a Formula One contest, but with even greater top speeds. It is a place steeped in historic victories and losses, an arena where victory takes something more than just skill and luck. Le Mans is perfectly capable of crushing the dreams of a dedicated racing team, but it’s also a place that creates heroes. On this year, before an epic three-way battle between Toyota, Audi, and Porsche, the legends armour up to do battle once again.
The demonstration race held before the full 24-hour race is a forty-five minute gallop for semi-retired racehorses. These are the Group C cars, members of a sports-car series that ran from 1982 through to the mid-1990s. It enjoyed its greatest popularity over a period of about a decade, and was most spectacular at Le Mans when the Mulsanne straight was an incredible six-kilometre run.
For the drivers of the twenty-five historic machines lined up before the race, it must be something of a relief that those top speeds are now a historical curiosity. The mind boggles to think what it must have been like to drive something like the thousand-horsepower Nissan RC90CK at top-speed for a full day, not to mention pulling the same trick at three o’clock in the morning after 12 hours flat-out. The stamina and the bravery of the drivers is utterly amazing.
Of course, the big story of the 2014 race is the return of Porsche to this highest level of endurance racing. The winningest marque in Le Mans history, Porsche can claim sixteen wins for their cars, and more than a third of the varied Group C cars are Porsches. Their most successful racer was the 956/962, represented here by nine machines including several in the iconic racing livery of Rothmans, Jagermeister, and even Tic-Tac.
Legends of Le Mans. Click image to enlarge
The 956/962 were the first monocoques Porsche built – while your own car is likely a unibody, this construction method is more properly a single shell-like structure combining great strength and lightness. The 956 was an earlier version, and it debuted at Le Mans in 1982. Here, drivers Derek Bell and Jackie Ickx led the race for 24 hours straight to take the win.
The 962 improved in both safety and outright speed, and was very popular as a privateer racer. If the idea of campaigning your own private Porsche endurance racer isn’t enough to whet your appetite, several companies modified the 962 to road car status, and at least one privately owned former racecar has been made street-legal in Japan. That’s a car weighing less than a Mitsubishi Mirage, with 600+ hp and a top speed of over 300 km/h.
Porsche brought a number of its other Le Mans legends to the track, not to race, but they did parade through the grounds en route to the display location. These included the spectacular 1974 911 RSR, possibly the wildest version of the turbocharged 911 ever conceived. Hugely flared, the RSR has a relatively small-displacement flat-six engine at just 2.1L. However, a turbocharger the size of a leaf-blower ensures 450 hp in a huge, laggy, tricky-to-drive surge of power. With its innards exposed out the back for better cooling, it looks utterly unruly.