Should We Consider Recently-Retired Le Mans Prototypes ‘Classics’ Yet?
Photography by Jayson Fong
With the 86th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans taking place in a few weeks’ time, it seems fitting that I spent a weekend at Brands Hatch watching some of the more memorable prototypes from the ultimate endurance race’s history. It was the second round of the Masters Endurance Legends series, and yes, even for a younger enthusiast like myself it was pretty odd at first to consider these cars “classics.”
As the wide Audis and Peugeots took to the classically tight track that was once famous for hosting Group 5 cars and power-sliding Porsche 917s before them, it was a rather special experience to watch these relatively modern prototypes lapping in front of me. It served as a solid reminder of why these cars deserve their historic status despite their relative recency.
As Le Mans legends go, the LMP classes were the stars of the modern era (an era that seems to be winding down as the GT field continues to grow), and they have had an incredibly varied history since the name was given to them after the turbocharged times defined by Group C and the later, tamer GT1s. Over the years they’ve changed from open to closed cockpits, championed diesel power, returned to open cockpits before closing them again, employed hybrid technology, shunned diesel engines, and now they’re wobbly perched on the fence of existence as most manufacturer’s have pulled out of the class. A rise in privateer teams has kept it alive, but who’s to say how long that will last. LMP has an intriguing backstory, and they’ve led to great dynastic efforts from the likes of Audi and more recently the continued dominance of Porsche at the famed race in France, as well as the heartbreaking struggles of Toyota.
Among the LMP’s that appeared at Brands Hatch though, it was the two Peugeot 908 LMP1’s and an Audi R8 LMP900 that stood out for me as the perfect examples of why these recent prototypes should be appropriately classed as historic cars. Together with the multiple Le Mans titles that are held between them and their sister cars which instantly links them to trophy cases, the importance of these cars is still fresh in the minds of many, people like me who grew up watching them battle one another down the Mulsanne.
However it’s not just their success on the track that makes them significant, for in the case of the Peugeot the 908 reflects a time and place that no longer exists—an important physical reminder of the past. Once an important piece of proof for the reliability and efficiency of diesel performance engines, the 908 was at the forefront of the alt-fuel’s positive image in an era of praise that has dramatically backflipped within the last decade thanks to more than a few emissions scandals. Now, only seven years on since the 908Xs went head to head and finished a mere 13 seconds behind another diesel at Le Mans—the Audi R18—it was insightful to hear spectators make its fuel type a major point of discussion that usually began with “Oh, that’s a diesel!?”
On the topic of age, it’s usually at this point that many would argue that the cars are still too similar to the machines still competing. Much has changed, but it wasn’t all that long ago that these cars were at the cutting edge of technology, the pinnacles of race engineering alongside F1. It’s important to consider that they are actually relatively aged in comparison to their successors, just look at the lap times.
To really put it into perspective, compare the LMP1 Peugeot 908’s qualifying time in 2011 (3m26.010s) to Kobayashi’s lap record in the LMP1 Toyota TS050 from 2017 (3m14.791s). 12-odd seconds isn’t a lot of time in most aspects of life, but in racing it’s a material amount to be sure. Include the top qualifying time for LMP2 in 2017 set by a Manor Oreca (3m25.549s) and you can see the monumental difference between the then and the now.
Watching as the LMPs used every pound of their downforce to lap the picturesque Brands Hatch Grand Prix Loop, there was no question about the interest held in the crowd. With technology in sports car racing advancing with every passing season, watching these recently-retired heroes made me realize the passage of time in a different sense than I get when photographing and writing about cars from the ‘70s or even the ‘80s. Perhaps we should take a moment to appreciate them as the historically significant cars that they are rather than questioning their appropriateness at classic race days. After all, with the challenges involved with running and maintaining them with the correct software, they might not be around forever like their more analog predecessors.