A Peerless performance at Le Mans after 48 years.
In 1958 two works Peerless cars went to The Le Mans 24 hour endurance race. 48 years later one privately owned car went back to France to The Le Mans Classic. Celia Stevens and Ian Mc Donald have been racing a peerless for two seasons now and have always wanted to race at Le Mans, well wouldn’t everyone, but few see it through. There’s the entry fee, all the preparation of the car, documentation, time off work, the back up crew, support vehicles full of spares, expenses, accommodation. Let’s just break down this list to give you some idea how committed these guys are:
The enter fee alone is £3,000 and doesn’t secure your drive, if the car fails scrutinising and you can’t put it right you’re out.
Preparation of car has been going on for some time as it is already racing in the Top Hat trophy and Oldies but Goldie’s class in the UK, but you’re not going all the way to France without double checking everything.
Documentation. I spoke to Celia in January and she said they had to virtually strip the car down just to fill in the paper work. For instance, The ACO want to know the diameter/thickness of the front disc, size and compound of the brake pads, what bushes are used etc etc.
Time off work. Celia has a day job but Ian works for himself so to most people he can please himself! Then there’s the support crew in all shapes and sizes from different walks of life giving their time for nothing. Expenses. Camper van, trailer, two spares’ vans, ferry, new race suits (well a lady can’t be seen in the same thing twice!) Fuel, food, and one bottle of wine. Accommodation. On their budget there are no swanky hotels and soiree, it’s all camping and porridge.
If you were fortunate to go to the Classic this year you will have been offered the chance to go round the full track in your own car, two laps at an average cost £75 well I estimate that the cost for these guys was near to £300 per lap!
Celia is also a member of the British Women’s Racing driver’s Club (can’t see why Ian isn’t but there you go) and this is the report she has sent to us.
Well here goes, where do I start? We decided we would have to have a go at the Classic Le Mans after mechanicing to one of my partners’ customers who was competing in 2004 in a Talbot 90 (1930). We had such a fantastic time and were so taken aback by the event and the atmosphere that as soon as we got home we started looking for an eligible car. ( It had to be a car that raced at Le Mans or one of the same year and marque.) Ian being a walking car encyclopedia said we needed a Peerless as that was more likely to get an entry being very rare. We were lucky enough to find the car we wanted in Selkirk, after being vetted by the owners I drove it home–7hours of sheer pleasure, and he became Peter Peerless our mean green racing machine! We campaigned him between us, and joy of joys got our entry into Le Mans accepted at the very first selection! Several months and much racing and preparation later we were heading to Portsmouth and the Caen ferry en route to Le Mans.
Arriving at the competitors parking and campsite on Wednesday at 14.30, we unloaded Peter and drove him up to the tented garages (all open to the public) of plateau three. Admin checks done; roundels put on we left him in the care of the security and went back to camp. Thursday a.m. up to the plateau for scrutineering. Still not too many cars in yet–we were the second there, all well with “the scrutes”, they were very insistent of everything being authentic, which of course Peter is, being completely original! Then just staying with the car answering questions to all and sundry from all nations who wanted to know about the Peerless. Ian and I went off to a formal dinner organised by the event at L’Abbeye de Pau, leaving our stalwart pit crew and supporters at the camp to get nicely inebriated !
Friday and this is where it all starts in earnest. Off to the drivers briefing along with all the other drivers from all plateaus where we were transported by vintage coaches! ours had a roof which folded back right to the end–now that’s really what you call a sunroof! Then qualifying began with plateua one ( 1923-1939.) We were out first in mid afternoon, Ian took the car out first and came in saying there were no problems, just take it easy and enjoy myself. Then it was off, wow I really can’t believe this, little old me racing around Le Mans, what an amazing circuit, down through the chicane under the Dunlop bridge, then another chicane fast and sweeping to the flat-out bend of Tetre Rouge into the Mulsanne straight. Never been so fast in Peter for so long, trees and houses flashing by on both sides ( this part is public roads usually ,) engine sounds good, all dials OK. Into Hunaudiees right left right, then more straight to Courbes des Hunaudiers, much faster right and left, then straight to the right-hander at Mulsanne village, phew that was a sharp one, back end wiggled a bit! Another straight then Indianapolis, great fun right and sharp left, foot down drift and away. Arnage right hander very tight but OK to the Porche curves–fantastic, this is where the British Circuit racing experience comes into its’ own, as we are used to sliding round bend after bend and not everyone else is ! To the sharp chicane before the straight out down it and away again. Over Eight miles of sheer concentration and unadulterated excitement. All too soon the chequered flag came out for end of practice and it was back to the tented plateau to check all over. Ian put a little diff oil in but otherwise nothing needed doing. Relax and eat before night practice. Got the times, I did a 7.05 and Ian a 6.37. Quite pleased although now I’ve learnt the circuit a bit must go faster. Out before midnight, Ian doing a super practice nearly as fast as day. I wasn’t as fast as I would’ve liked, nearly going straight on at the end of the Mulsanne straight as an e-type lost its’ suspension in front of me and a marshall suddenly appeared with a luminous yellow board, yes i know i shoud’ve been watching the road but all very off putting! However no harm done, we stopped and carried on in one piece. Bed shattered but happy.
This is it, raceday and night ! Plteau three started at 18.40, and we were all lined up on the Bugatti circuit prior to going out on the track. It had been decided I should do the run across tthe track ( Le Mans start ) and I was much more nervous about that than the race ! I sat in the car trying to relax while masses of people and photographers crowded round, realising that I was female and wishing me ” bon chance. ” I felt quite emotional, the enormity of the situation really beginning to affect me. Then whistles blowing and signs to start the engine and we were ushered out onto the track to park slantwise by the pit wall. I left the car in gear, handbrake off, just the master switch off and the door pushec too and not shut! We all walked to the other side of the track, the stands on both sides were packed and the French commentator talking flat out. Only the few drivers that were right at the front could see the man with the French flag, so it was a case of when my next -door driver ran I ran !I belted across the track, pulled the door open, threw myself into the seat, foot on clutch, pressed starter button and away–brilliant, had a blinder of a start, pity it isn’t the real thing as when we all get onto the Mulsanne straight we are stopped, seatbelts on and into position ( vaguely, ) then it was stay in position behind the pace car until the green light on the gantry–keep position until under it and away for a rolling startl Cars everywhere, there’s someone off on the first bend, they’re alright, must keep an eye out for faster cars coming behind, but this track is so wide there’s plenty of room, going well and think I’m faster, beginning to get the feel of the car properly, it really is a darling, I love it to bits. Look out for the pit board, yes I am going faster, great! Seems only a very short time before the pit board shows “IN 65” and I go into the pit lane remembering to slow down so as not to incur penalties. Out of the car (very hot now) and Ian gets in, seatbelts on and away, unknown to us we do that too quickly and get a 30 second penalty! I am over the moon, what a buzz, what an experience, can’t wait till the night race. Ian going very well sliding into the pit straight amidst cheers from the crowd who are very knowledgeable and appreciative. he manages to overtake cars on the bends as I had, showing once again that British racing is a very good teacher for here. Back to the plateau where it is discovered that the Peerless has a bent throttle linkage and frayed cable. Ian, Jim and Neil sorted it and off to a couple of hours sleep we went. Up and off to the car again. Ian did the first night race as he was fastest and off he went on his green flag lap before the rolling star at 02.55 ish on Sunday morning! Did absolutely fantastically. only taking an extra 4 seconds in the dark than he did later in the last race in the day ! he came in after 4 laps and out I went out. There is no way in the world I can really describe the night drive but I will try! In a world apart from other mortals, just the car, the track, blue lights from the marshalls posts zipping by as lights from a faster car appear in the rear view mirror, the drum of the engine, the dials lit up and the trees on either side flashing by as if from another time and place. Corners and chicanes looming up, try to get them right in the gloom, and on again On the Mulsanne straight completely alone, only the Peerless and I flying on through the dark, lights blazing, rev counter bouncing off 6000 and utterly, helplessly happy. Had to take evasive action when a Porcshe tried to go ballet dancing just in front of me as I was going into the first chicane on the Mulsanne, he ended up in the gravel, and in the morning was good enough to come and apologise to me, this was the spirit all through the event, the entente cordial being extended to cover all races of the world that were competing. Then there was the chequered flag and it was time to fuel up and get a couple of hours shut eye for the last race.
Up again after very little sleep–too excited and full of adrenalin. Up to the car and get ready as our race is at 10.53.I am doing the first stint as Ian is to take the final chequered flag as I started the first. line up and wait on the Bugatti Circuit chatting to other drivers and the public, time to go out, around after the pace car and away. This time I gave it my all. The car responded brilliantly, drifting beautifully round corners with the crowd flashing by, a sea of blurred faces all leaning as far as they dare towards that track. tearing along the straights, sliding and skipping through Posrche and on, this was living life to the full, probably the most exciting exhilarating experience of my life. pit board out–6.40 fantastic, then “IN” and my race was over. Ian out and incredibly did a 6.26, albeit doing a bit of ploughing at the Porsche curves! but coming to no harm, controlling the car and continuing (it was full of grass afterwards! Then the chequered flag and it was over. WE HAD DONE IT and our faithful Peerless had never missed a beat. Back to the plateau where Ian was met with cheers and not a few damp eyes. Champagne (supplied by an admirers) was opened and all our faithful fantastic supporters and crew joined us for the celebration. Roll on 2008 ! A really big THANK-YOU must go to to Lynn, Antonia, Diane,Alec, Gary, John, Nigel, Jim, Sean, Neil, Caroline and my sons’ fiance Katy, who came being interested in cars and returned a petrol head, and Chris who drove our back-up vehicle and who with his wife Jane have shown immense tolerance to all our endeavours! Couldn’t have asked for a more magnificent and wonderful pit crew. Also, all ours friends and helpers at home, especially Steve, thanks a million.
Reading this again still gives me “goose bumps”. I really enjoyed the trip to France but if you know a team like this and can get involved and support them well it’s so much more fun, and I have to say because Le Mans Classic is so informal you really can get involved. Can the average punter in F1 get onto the pit wall at 3.00 o’clock in the morning with your camera, talk to the drivers, watch the pit crew, take photos, even hold the timing board and all for £47.00 a ticket for 4 days! Just for the record Ian fastest lap was 6.26 and Celia did 6.40, Ian only dropped 4 seconds in the night race which over 8 miles in the dark is scarry. The engine used no oil or water and only a little diff oil.
Thanks to the Committee of the TR Register for their support in this expedition and to the friends who came with me (and supported my ailing car) down to Le Mans. Also thanks to Phil Wilcox and his team for the campsite’s clean, warm showers inside the circuit, unheard of! Yes, we all had a brilliant time and Celia’s “seat of the big pants” reporting is so atmospheric. I’ll be there with my pit crew overalls washed and pressed! That’s all for this one, see you sometime.