The sun was beating down relentlessly on the tiny little French town of Le Mans, but it was literally raining cars. There were thousands – some 8,500 of them, unearthed from eras as far back as the 1920s up to the early 2000s – all scrubbed, shiny and in as perfect working order now as they were back in their heyday. For one weekend in July, they would parade through the festival grounds that the Circuit de la Sarthe had been turned into, for this biennial auto fashion show that is the legendary Le Mans Classic 2018.
THE GREATEST AUTO SHOW ON EARTH
So which came first – the race or the city? Le Mans is so synonymous with motor racing that you forget it’s a bona fide medieval town complete with cobblestoned paths, 12th century architecture and what’s left of an ancient Gallo-Roman wall that was built in the third century.
Wandering the narrow lanes of the old town that is Cité Plantagenêt, you half expect Emma Watson to pop out of one of the beautifully preserved houses, singing the opening tune of Beauty and the Beast. It was the birthplace of King Henry II of England, who was born in 1133 and baptised at the imposing Saint-Julien Cathedral that looms over the city. His son Richard the Lionheart’s widow Berengaria of Navarre lived there after his death. She is one of the ‘stars’ of the summer light show La Nuit des Chimères, where her image and other stunning visuals are projected on landmark buildings in vivid colours, spinning a fantastical tale of Le Mans’ history and legend. And speaking of movies, Gerard Depardieu’s Cyrano de Bergerac was filmed there in 1990, as was the Jeremy Irons’ flick, The Man in the Iron Mask – just to mention a couple of Le Mans’ extensive filmography.
But Le Mans is by and large a one-race town, or make that two races – the 24 Hours of Le Mans which has been running every year since 1923 and is the oldest endurance race in the world; and the carnival-like Le Mans Classic – a biennial affair that started in 2002 with just 300 cars and 30,000 spectators, growing to a record-breaking 700-plus classic cars in competition and 135,000 spectators over the recent July 6 to 8 weekend.
The city square itself was almost deserted (with many shops and restaurants closed on weekends), but it was a different picture outside of town as traffic crawled on the way to the circuit and every campsite was crammed with campervans as fans from all over Europe streamed in for three days of auto-gazing. Those not inclined to slum it out filled whatever available hotels there were nearby and in town. As the la Sarthe track spills out from the circuit and on to public roads, you could see people staking out choice spots on little hillocks and other vantage points, ready to cheer whenever a stream of cars went past – which was practically every few minutes.
Le Mans Classic isn’t so much about speed as it is about heritage and a tribute to the gruelling 24-hour Le Mans endurance race where the likes of Porsche, Ferrari, McLaren, Audi and Toyota (the 2018 winner) compete with their most technologically advanced models. It was the brainchild of its organiser Patrick Peter of Peter Auto, who approached the Automobile Club de l’Ouest – which runs the endurance race – to bring together cars which had raced from 1923 back on the same track.
It wasn’t easy to pull off then because two-thirds of the track is on public roads and closing them for a race other than the original one would be a logistical headache, not to mention very expensive. In fact, its 2002 debut was reportedly a financial disaster. But by then, race fans were hooked – and the rest, as they say, is history.
From qualifying trials to practice runs and even fun laps for special guests, right up to the actual races – the action was non-stop on and off the track. Jostling with the crowds on the circuit grounds were gleaming vehicles from Bentley Belles to MG Roadsters – their drivers in era-appropriate dress flaunting their rides to appreciative gawkers.
For hardcore fans, the races were divided into six grids or categories, representing a different era of the 24-hour Le Mans, for example, 1923 to 1939; 1949 to 1956; up to 1972-1981. The most high-octane action took place in the Group C racing for cars from 1982 to 1993 – when some of the most legendary and technologically advanced cars were built. Some of the oldest cars competing included two Bugattis – Type 35 and Type 39 – from 1925, while some from 1981 included a Lola T600, Porsche 935 and 924 GTR.
This being the 70th anniversary for Porsche – the biggest winner in the history of 24-hour Le Mans – the brand put together 70 cars for the special Porsche Classic Race, starring 356s from 1952 and the 2.8 RSR from 1973. Jaguar wasn’t left out either, with its own race featuring pre-1966 models such as the XK series, C-, D- and E-Types, and MkI and MkII saloons.
Even with 250 car clubs and some 1,000 drivers taking part – including 10 winners from 24-hours Le Mans – taking part in the Classic is no easy feat. All the cars that take part must have competed in the 24-hour race before, and while priority is given to the actual cars that raced, your car is eligible if it’s the same model and age as that driven on the track. There is no shortage of applicants either, with potential applicants coming from some 30 nations around the world. Singapore, however, has yet to be represented at Le Mans.
Naturally, this is a rich man’s sport as it costs a pretty penny to upkeep a car from the 1920s not just in peak condition visually, but under the hood, for these machines will be tearing down the 13-km track for multiple laps, at speeds close to if not faster, than a Formula One (F1) car. The average classic car can set one back by some US$2 million, but can go as high as US$40 million. In 2012, a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO made for racing legend Stirling Moss sold for US$35 million. If you’re looking for a slightly cheaper model, Paris auction house Artcurial Motorcars has held sales at Le Mans Classic since 2010. A peek at its catalogue shows you can buy a little 1967 Fiat 500F at a bidding range of 8,000 euros (S$12,758) to 13,000 euros. Its racing capability is, of course, another story.
RICHARD MILLE AND LE MANS CLASSIC
When Patrick Peter wanted to make automotive history with Le Mans Classic, he had the perfect partner in crime, or should it be time – Richard Mille, the watchmaker who built his entire brand on the tagline ‘racing machines for the wrist’.
The brand has been the title sponsor for Le Mans Classic since its first race in 2002. After the mega watch show SIHH, it ranks as its biggest sponsorship investment, says Tim Malachard, Richard Mille’s international marketing director.
The brand is also involved in similar classic car events, notably the Nürburgring Classic in Germany; Chantilly Arts & Elegance and the Rallye des Princesses – which is an all-female endurance race.
“We’re very involved in anything that’s close to motor racing because that’s the passion of Richard Mille himself,” explains Mr Malachard. “A lot of the technology in motor racing, whether it’s Formula One, for example, is very close to what we do. One of the reasons we got into a partnership with McLaren is that as a brand it always uses the most innovative of materials and is at the pinnacle of technological development in sports cars. We are the same in watches.”
Plus, “it’s such an amazing event,” enthuses Mr Mille himself as he’s kept busy during the event, entertaining guests at the plush Richard Mille suite which has a clear view of the pit lane and free-flowing buffet spread throughout the day.
“You can see more than 500 cars racing on the track and they are representative of motor racing from the 1920s to the 2000s. You have a spectrum that is very large, with different shapes, engines, colours, noises – you can never get bored. There is so much beautiful scenery, the atmosphere is very nice and not aggressive like Formula One. (Formula One) is very clinical and boring. You have 20 cars and nothing is happening, just this driver leading or that one.
“Here, you can go everywhere, the village is beautiful, it’s an event that people love and want to come back to.”
Mr Mille himself doesn’t race anymore, but he entered three of his own cars in the races, including a Lola T70 from the 1970s, and a Porsche 962 from 1992, driven by his son and a friend of Mr Mille’s.
Passion aside, being associated with Le Mans Classic is also a way of being visible to their target customers, says Mr Malachard. “All the cars that you see on the track, they’re worth anything from US$2 million to US$40 million, and when you have people spending that kind of money on cars, we like to feel they are our target customers. After all, these people don’t have just one car, they have many cars; it’s like those who like horses, they breed them and spend a fortune on it. We’re also partner to Les Voiles de Saint Barth (a yacht event) in the Caribbean, we see people turn up in boats with crews of 20 to 25 people and it’s all personal investment.”
MEMBERSHIP WITH PRIVILEGES
At prices starting from S$120,000 for an entry level Richard Mille, it’s an elite crowd that gets to wear one of its prized timepieces, especially when production is so limited that any new models are snapped up the moment they leave the factory.
“Our brand is 17 years old and we’ve produced 35,000 watches, which is what most brands do in a year,” notes Mr Malachard. “Our price point is very high, that’s why our customers deserve to be looked after.” That’s why for the Le Mans Classic, the brand invited some 450 guests including VIP customers, suppliers, partners and some press to experience the event up close.
“We had some VIP customers whom we took out with the McLaren drivers for a lap around the track,” he adds. “Whether they’re big car fans or not, it’s an experience. We want people to feel that when they buy a Richard Mille, they’re buying into a very exclusive club. For example, we did a watch launch last year and we invited 40 guests to a private dinner with Rafael Nadal. Or we could do a polo event where we invite people to discover what polo is all about. It’s all about creating an experience.”
It’s not just about sending clients a ticket and letting them fend for themselves either. Each country distributor invites their clients according to their profiles and a sales representative accompanies them on the entire trip, to ensure that their needs are looked after. At Le Mans Classic, guests were entertained for the entire three days of the event, with hotel, airfare, meals and even sightseeing taken care of.
The beauty of Le Mans Classic compared to F1 is the accessibility which means anyone can go anywhere, whether it’s to look at the cars or talk to the drivers. For the VIPs, it also means free helicopter rides to get an aerial view of the track and the surrounding countryside. Those looking for speed thrills could go on a spin around the track in any car they chose from a large variety including a Ferrari GTC4Lusso which provided a masochistic, hair-raising ride which involved squeezing between cars and even overtaking ‘regular’ cars on the public roads.
The fun didn’t end there, as guests could pile into authentic World War II-era American army jeeps (with no seat belts, much less seat cushions) for a bumpy ride to the Le Mans golf club, for a barbecue and the chance to hobnob with the likes of racing stars such as Felipe Massa – a Richard Mille ambassador. And on the last night, a relaxing dinner in the historic buildings of the Le Mans Country Club capped off the action-packed weekend.
“We offer something very unique, especially in a digital age where human contact is pretty important,” concludes Mr Malachard. Technology may be at the forefront of Richard Mille’s watches, but the brand is also savvy enough to know that when it comes to brand loyalty, nothing works better than treating their customers like royalty.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.