Remembering Le Mans 1989 at Donington 2012

| 9 May 2012

I was lucky enough to have a number of good teachers at school but, in this context, my history teacher should get special mention. That’s because Mrs Boney had planned a field trip on the Monday after the 1989 Le Mans 24 Hours.

Dad phoned her up and explained that we were due to be travelling back from the race, so I would have to join the excursion later in the day. To her eternal credit, Mrs Boney agreed that our plans sounded like much more fun than what the school had in mind.

That remains my only visit to the 24 Hours, a state of affairs I’m more than happy with. For a start, it was the final year in which the Mulsanne Straight was unsullied by chicanes. Seeing cars blasting past at 240mph is still a vivid memory.

Also, it was the height of the Sauber Mercedes vs Silk Cut Jaguar era. We did, of course, manage to pick a year in which the former was victorious. One year either way and we could have celebrated a Jaguar win.

Davy Jones led in the early stages. We watched from the Esses, and each time he came through – lights ablaze on the Jaguar – a huge cheer went up. The action on the track had thankfully brought an end to the fight that had kicked off among drunken Brits directly opposite us.

It was a year of distinctive noises, too. As I tried to catch a couple of hours’ sleep, I lay down and listened as the cars went past. At opposite ends of the spectrum were the rumbling Aston Martin AMR1 and the shriek produced by the Mazda 787.

It’s mostly because of that great trip to Le Mans that I remain so fond of the Group C era. The presence of even a handful of those cars was enough to entice me to the Donington Historic Festival last weekend (5-6 May).

Although the infield of the circuit still bears the scars of the ill-fated attempt to bring the British Grand Prix here, the track itself is in rude health.

It’s a great place to watch historic racing. Even the conveniences boast some impressive views: walk out of the Gents positioned at the Craner Curves and you can see all the way from Redgate, down the hill, through Old Hairpin, up to McLeans and on to Coppice – perhaps two-thirds of the lap.

I was there on the Saturday only, so had to content myself with practice for the Group C race that was to be held the following day. It was enough, though. To see the Aston Martin AMR1 and Sauber Mercedes running at full chat was worth the trip on its own.

But funnily enough, those later sports cars weren’t my favourites on the day. That distinction went to the stunning grid that lined up for the 1000km Pre-1972 Sports Prototypes. Consider the entries: Lola T70s, Chevron B8s, a McLaren M1, Ford GT40s, Porsche 910s and Paul Knapfield in a glorious Ferrari 512M.

And then, early in practice, out came a late entry: Rick Hall in the wailing V12 Matra.

The one-hour race ran into dusk, and to see this field hammering down the Craner Curves was wonderful. Martin Stretton’s charge to victory in a Lola T70, ducking fearlessly in and out of the backmarkers, was great to watch, as was Hall’s measured drive to second place.

But Knapfield’s Ferrari stole the show. No matter that it retired from third place – we’d seen and heard enough. What a magical car.

This was only the second running of the Donington Historic Festival, and I hope that it thrives. It put me in mind of another of my favourite historic events, the Brands Hatch Superprix. The quality (and diversity) of the field, the racing and the circuit means that it deserves to succeed – and those elements more than outweighed the fact that the car-club displays were a little thin and the traders' village a bit small.

The Donington Collection provided a welcome lunchtime diversion and, unlike some high-profile historic events, you can enjoy unfettered access to the paddock. It was there, while walking out of the circuit in the gathering gloom of the evening, that I spotted the Ferrari 512M resting quietly among the Transits and trailers.

Somehow, it looked just as good there as it had done out on the circuit.