le mans

Why the Le Mans Classic should be on every petrolhead bucket list

Ford won Le Mans four times in the 1960s - a time when you could buy one for the road too
THE FERRY tickets are booked. A phrase book allowing the ordering of baguettes from service stations in broken Franglais has been purchased. Oh, and a boot’s worth of all the safety-related clobber that only the French seem to insist on has been ordered.

All of which can only mean one thing – it’s time to head off to Le Mans. A couple of colleagues and I have just serviced a slightly tired-looking Rover 216 Coupe, and the big plan is to venture down to Portsmouth and hop on an overnight ferry. All of which means we’ll be able to watch Porsches thundering around the world’s greatest race track barely a day later.

I know what the race fanatics are thinking already – that I’ve got my dates spectacularly wrong, because the Le Mans 24 Hours race was a couple of weeks ago. You know, the one where Toyota spectacularly snatched victory after decades of near-misses? When effectively Fernando Alonso was the winner, because you couldn’t remember the names of anyone else driving the car that came first?

Ahhh. Actually the one I’m on about is the Le Mans Classic, which isn’t actually one long race but lots of short ones, and is dedicated entirely – as the name suggests – to machines that pounded the Mulsanne Straight decades ago. I love it not only because it involves pretending to go camping but actually sitting outside your tent with a beer watching some Group C cars doing some night racing, but because classic Le Mans racers actually look vaguely like normal cars.

Think about it. Toyota will spend the next year going on about how winning Le Mans will somehow make the next generation Auris a bit better, but when was the last time you saw anything even remotely like its LMP1 racer on any sort of road?

A Ford GT40, on the other hand, was designed to humiliate Ferrari – which it did four times on the trot – but it still looks like a GT40 a very rich bloke might drive to the shops. Same with the Jaguar C-type of the 1950s, and if you don’t live in a world of Pathe newsreels, it’s worth remembering that the McLaren F1 that won in 1995 was based on a road car. The world’s fastest and most expensive road car, of course, but one that genuinely had as much luggage space as a contemporary Fiesta.

Maybe it’s time they revisited the rules at Le Mans to make the racers a teeny bit more relatable to normal people who aren’t Fernando Alonso – if it can’t be driven legally through, say, Crosby on a Friday night, then it ain’t going to Le Mans. It might mean the cars don’t look as bonkers, but it’d give hope to the rest of us that we might see cars vaguely like it bringing joy to people stuck in Volkswagen Passats.

Or just drive to France in a secondhand Rover and look at some old ones. You know it makes sense.

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RoboRace needs one thing – some human competition

Roborace is a new series for autonomous racing cars - no drivers required!

UNLESS you were fed oversteer with your alphabetti spaghetti from an early age it’s very hard to make it as a professional racing driver.

There are exceptions to the rule but generally to make the grade in top flight motor sport you need to have a sizeable amount of raw talent, a proven track record of working your way up through increasingly scary single-seaters, total fearlessness about losing it on a slippery right-hander and a considerable amount of cash – and even then you might get a politely worded letter of rejection from Sauber.

But it’s going to be even harder with the latest racing series that’s being launched, because it’s so tech-savvy that it dispenses with those pesky human drivers entirely.

I suppose RoboRace was inevitable in an age where you can do your shopping by drone and Donald Trump is forever contemplating ordering a nuclear launch from one of his golf courses. The series has a very cool name and vehicles that can crack 200mph but there won’t be any split-second decisions on whether to take the racing line through chicanes.  It’s not even a remote control affair; all the racing will be done on engineers’ laptops beforehand, programming the cars to strut their stuff autonomously.

The tech itself is a smart move. Back in the 1950s Jaguar made a big deal about its Le Mans-proven disc brakes filtering down to its XK150s and Mk2s and it’s the same story here; if the future of driving really is autonomous, then surely having it honed in the white heat of motor sport is a good idea? I know the Government’s very keen on self-driving cars, but there are still all sorts of logistical headaches to clear up, and sorting it on a race track is safer (and more fun) than doing it on the M57.

But what I’d like to see isn’t a load of autonomous cars racing each other; it’s man versus machine, which is surely what all motor sport is about in the first place. Who wants to see a load of glorified laptops dancing around one another when they can watch one robo-racer set a time around a circuit or up a hillclimb, and then see if any of their human-operated counterparts can beat it?

I bet most kids in a Honda Type-R reckon they could kick a robot’s arse at a track day – and in doing so, they’ll be helping to improve the future of driving for the rest of us. Bring it on.

The Ormskirk MotorFest is great – but it could be even better

The MotorFest has evolved into a real success story for Ormskirk

YOU CAN’T help but love a show that picks a Vanden Plas Princess – basically a posh Austin 1300 – above a Ford Mustang, Opel Manta and Rover P5 as its concours champion.

Even the 1957 Vanwall Formula One car in which Stirling Moss won that year’s British Grand Prix briefly had to step aside while the beautifully polished BMC baby hogged the limelight. It was a crushing victory for the plucky underdog (and its owner, of course), and one of the many reasons why I loved last weekend’s Ormskirk MotorFest.

I go to far too many car shows for my own good and all the best ones have a single snappy nugget of brilliance that sums them up neatly in a nutshell. Le Mans is a big Brit petrolhead party – that just happens to be held in France. The Goodwood Revival is an overdose of 1960s nostalgia. The NEC classic show is Britain’s big season-ender. And the MotorFest?  Your chance to see the world’s coolest cars parading around Ormskirk, of course. It’s a winning formula that seven years on is still packing the crowds into West Lancashire. Job done.

But even if it ain’t broke there’s still ample opportunity to muck about with it, of course. There was nothing wrong with the original 911 but it’s a far cry from the tarmac burners Porsche puts in its showrooms half a century on.

Which is why the formula’s changed ever so slightly since Ormskirk’s first MotorFest outing back in 2011, even if you hadn’t noticed. An autotest’s been tried to add a little tyre-screeching drama, there’s now a concours for anyone who cherishes their Vanden Plas Princess, and for anyone who (like me) preferred Top Gear 20 years ago the event now comes with added Steve Berry.

But what I think it needs more than anything else are the long gaps between the parades filling in. It’s time to nick a page out of Goodwood’s book and send all those lovely cars out one at a time, so there’s always something doing the rounds on Ormskirk’s big day.
I’d love to see Steve Berry and motor sport commentary legend Neville Hay bringing all those Astons, Jags – and yes, the bubble cars – to life as each heads out around the one-mile circuit. You’d get to see a lot more, as long as nothing breaks down there’d be no awkward gaps, and hopefully you’d learn a few pub facts about the Ferrari F40 while you’re at it.

The MotorFest is a superb event that does Ormskirk proud, but I reckon it can be even better still. Oh, and more Vanden Plas Princesses, please!

How to stay cool in your car

An MG ZR is no place to escape the current heatwave

WHAT’S the hottest you’ve ever been? Chances are it’ll be mid-gulp during a particularly brave visit to an Indian restaurant, or during that holiday to Majorca where you and your mates forgot to dab on the suncream.

For me it’s always going to be an assignment that involved watching Ford GT40s powering around the Catalunya circuit – it’s a rotten job, I know – but last weekend very nearly edged it. If you want to ramp up the hottest day of 2017 to extra degrees of stifling discomfort, just chuck a car into the mix.

The one at my disposal was an MG ZR, which you’ll no doubt remember as being a Rover 25 with a bodykit and really stiff suspension. It’s a lairy, chuckable hot hatch in the old-school sense of the phrase, but being a 14-year-old car made on the cheap by MG Rover it has no aircon whatsoever.

So coming back to it after a car show – with it having spent nine unbroken hours in 30 degree sunshine – meant having to take a rather more cautious approach to driving.

For starters it might have been 30 degrees on the outside but on the inside the temperature was probably closer to what you’d find on the Sahara. Putting your hands around the steering wheel felt more like grasping a freshly cooked Cumberland swirl – only minus the oven gloves. The ZR’s also fitted with part-leather seats, which normally add a touch of class to a teenage hatchback but last weekend felt like having two small ovens burning into your shoulders.

The little MG did at least managed to keep its cool in traffic – which is more than I’d be able to say of my MGB in the same scenario – but driving it even for an hour, with every window wound down, was unbearable. It makes me wonder how everyone racing at Le Mans, managed to sit in even hotter climes last weekend and do a bit of racing while they’re at it.

But if you aren’t lucky enough to have air con fitted there are a couple of things you can do. Drive early in the morning or later at night, when it’s cooler. Leave the windows partly open if it’s safe to do so. Make sure your engine coolant’s topped up, and whatever you don’t leave any children, dogs or other vaguely cute things strapped in while you pop to the shops.

Oh, and don’t leave it for nine hours in the baking heat at a car show.