2023 Concours of Elegance – Ten out of ten…
If you go down to the woods today…. The Great Fountain Garden at Hampton Court Palace provided a fabulous stage for displaying the terrific array of automobile treasures seen at the Concours of Elegance.
Bentley Speed Six
The Bentley Speed Six, chassis #2332LB, has passed into the folklore of the 24 Hours scoring dominant victories in 1929 and 1930. Commonly known as ‘Old Number 1’, it was driven to the first win by Woolf Barnato and Sir Henry Birkin, heading three other Bentleys at the chequered flag. The car would go on to win the Brooklands Six-Hours a few weeks later.
The 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours saw a new challenge in the shape of a 7.1-litre, supercharged Mercedes-Benz SSK driven by Rudolf Caracciola and Christian Werner. The Germans were quicker, but this came at the price of reliability, and they were out of the race before the halfway point. This left Barnato to take his third win, this time partnered by Glen Kidston, with Bentley also taking second place.
Bentley EXP Speed 8
Fast forward some seventy years and Bentley was back at Le Mans in 2001. Now under the ownership of the Volkswagen Group who had invested over £500 million in the factory at Crewe, it was time to ramp up the marketing and brand awareness. A return to the 24 Hours was the obvious solution.
2003 was the third year of the project and there was a sense that this would be the time that a new set of Bentley boys would join the immortals who had gone before them. A completely revised car and driver line-up gave notice to the opposition that no stone would be left unturned in pursuit of victory.
Chassis 004/5 was only completed a couple of weeks prior to the race, and it was entrusted to Guy Smith, ‘Dindo’ Capello and Tom Kristensen, already a four-time winner at La Sarthe. The trio led almost every lap in a trouble-free run and finished two laps ahead of their sister car, a dream result for Bentley.
Ford GT40 #1075
The second half of the ‘60s at Le Mans were dominated by Ford. After crushing wins in 1966 and 1967 the Detroit giant withdrew as the rules changed. Porsche took up their mantle as leaders of the pack but the Ford GT40 still had plenty to offer at La Sarthe.
The 1968 race was run in late September, a consequence of les événements in May, as there had been great civil unrest in France. JW Automotive enjoyed sponsorship from Gulf Oil and entered three of the distinctive blue and orange GT40s in the 24 Hours. Two retired before the halfway point. The other car, chassis #1075, was driven by Pedro Rodríguez and Lucien Bianchi, who were substituting for the injured regular pilots, Jacky Ickx and Brian Redman. As the Porsche armada faltered, the super-subs slipped into a lead that they would hold till the conclusion of the race.
In early 1969 Porsche unveiled its new 917 to an astonished endurance universe and they also continued development of the 908, covering all eventualities. JW Automotive kept faith with the GT40, #1075 winning at Sebring. For most of the 24 Hours the Porsches led comfortably, it looked as if their 917 would win on its first race at La Sarthe. The racing gods had different ideas, and the top two Porsches went out with transmission problems. The final hour saw Ickx and his Porsche rival, Hans Herrmann, swapping the lead on many occasions, till the last lap when Ickx slipstreamed past his opponent to take victory by just 120 meters.
Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 LM Zagato
1931 saw a new era at La Sarthe with the departure of Bentley, in their place were Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo and Chrysler. The Bugattis suffered with tyre problems, eventually one left the track killing a spectator, the others were withdrawn from the race. The Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 LM Zagato of Lord Howe and Sir Henry Birkin ascended the leaderboard to take the top spot, where they remained for the rest of the race.
The Alfa Romeo was the first to exceed 3,000 kilometres in the 24 Hours and it was the first win for an Italian car – the drivers even got a congratulatory telegram from Benito Mussolini.
The TWR-Porsche WSC 95 that ended up winning Le Mans in 1996 and 1997 had a convoluted history to say the least. It started life in 1991 as a Jaguar XJR-14, chassis #791 (though some sources say that it was #691) and competed in the FIA Sportscar World Championship, winning the Nürburgring round, David Brabham sharing with Derek Warwick. Then it found its way to Japan and the final round of the All Japan Sportscar-Prototype Championship held at Sugo where it did not start due to a fuel leak. Then it was across the Pacific Ocean to America and the second half of the 1992 IMSA season.
The car’s career should have ended at that point but late in 1994 Tony Dowe, head of TWR’s operation in North America, did a deal with Porsche to convert the car to race in IMSA’s WSC class at Daytona and Sebring in 1995. Mario Andretti was signed with the team but a very late rule change angered Porsche who withdrew, leaving the car sitting under a dust sheet at Weissach.
Unlikely double winner
At the Porsche Christmas party later that year Reinhold Joest persuaded the head of Porsche R&D, Horst Marchart, to let him prepare and enter the cars at Le Mans in 1996, as a backup to the 911 GT1 project. This cunning plan was approved but slightly backfired as the prototype, driven by Manuel Reuter, Davy Jones and Alexander Wurz, beat the two 911 GT1s.
Joest’s third victory in the 24 Hours brought him another prize, he got to keep the winning car. So, 12 months later once again Joest stood on the top step of the podium at La Sarthe as the TWR Porsche took advantage of both factory 911 GT1 Porsches retiring. He was joined in the celebrations by Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Tom Kristensen, the latter breaking the lap record around dawn, launching the Dane into a legendary career at La Sarthe.