LE MANS CLASSIC – NOSTALGIA AND AESTHETICS

A Petrolhead’s Paradise, or I Love The Smell of Gasoline in the Morning and the Doppler scream of a fine-tuned flat-12 as it streaks past into the dawn mist of the Mulsanne Straight. Le Mans. The name alone conjures images ranging from moustachioed Bentley Boys in immaculately oil-stained white overalls to latter day superstars at the wheel of machines more like fighter planes than cars.

Richard Mille’s passion for watches dates back to when, aged 12, he took apart the watch his father gave him for his first communion. Though he couldn’t put it back together, the seed had been sown. A few years later his passion for motor racing was ignited when his father took him to see Bruce McLaren competing in the 1966 Monaco GP, a couple of months before the legendary battle fought by Bruce in his GT40 against the Ferraris at Le Mans in June the same year. That certainly explains Mille’s fascination for the golden age of motor racing, 1966 in particular, and his immense admiration for McLaren, always at the pinnacle of the sport and with a reputation for non-stop innovation, maniacal attention and race-winning success that perfectly matches the philosophy of Richard Mille the brand.

That’s probably why he doesn’t define himself a watchmaker, but simply a man with a passion for things that tick and roar, and why his watches are a symbiosis of his love for cars, craft and everything mechanical.

The official 24 hours of Le Mans, held every year since 1923, is the world’s oldest sports car endurance race, and probably the most prestigious.  At a time when Grand Prix racing was the dominant form of motor racing in Europe, Le Mans was designed to present a different test. Instead of concentrating on speed, the 24 hours of Le Mans focused on the ability of manufacturers to build cars that were certainly fast, but efficient and reliable as well. It came to be the testing ground for all the world’s most prestigious manufacturers, as well as for many of the world’s legendary drivers, all contributing to creating a unique sporting event.

The race truly entered into the collective imagination ‘in the late ‘sixties when it became the centre of a major motion picture by one of the coolest actors ever to grace the silver screen, Steve McQueen. “Le Mans” was a fictional take on the real-life 24 Hours of Le Mans race, but its authentic attention to detail means it has the air of a documentary. (In fact, the film incorporates actual footage of the real race from 1965.). It painted a picture of the golden age of motor racing that inspired an entire generation of petrolheads. The adrenalin, the rush, the awesome sound of those monstrous engines, the atmosphere of that legendary circuit, and the machines.

And what machines! Alfa Romeo, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Bugatti, Ferrari, Ford, Jaguar, Matra, Mazda, McLaren, Mercedes, Peugeot, Porsche, Renault… all have gone past that famous chequered flag with such household names as Graham Hill, Henri Pescarolo, Jacky Ickx, Mario Andretti, Steve McQueen Paul Newman, Tom Kristensen and of course Bruce McLaren at the wheel.

Even today this race lacks nothing of its original fascination: the excitement, the adrenalin, the heat, dust, and ever-present danger, though some efforts have been made to make it a little safer. Like the elimination of the classic Le Mans start where the drivers run across the track to start their cars. Knowing it was unsafe, in 1969 Jacky Ickx objected to this type of start by walking across the track, and although he was nearly hit by another competitor’s car, he took the time to fasten his harness. Privateer John Woolfe didn’t and died in an accident on the first lap of the race. Ickx went on to win.

As his own personal tribute to that golden age of motor racing, in 2002 Richard Mille created the biennial Le Mans Classic vintage sports car event in collaboration with Peter Auto, an event which not only offers a great retrospective of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, but a comprehensive overview of the evolution of automotive technology.

The event consists of a series of races for cars which have actually competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or similar cars of the same model, with all cars being broken down into six different eras, from 1923 (Grid 1) to 1981 (Grid 6).

Among the many incredible cars on the first entry lists are: Delahaye 135s (Grid 1), D-Type Jaguars (Grid 2), Ferrari 250 GTs (Grid 3), Ford GT40s (Grid 4 and 5), Porsche 917 LHs (Grid 5), Ferrari 512 Ss (Grid 5), Howmet TX (Grid 5), Ferrari 512 BBLMs (Grid 6), Inaltera (Grid 6),and in the more reent categories Jaguar XJR-9s (Group C Racing), Peugeot 905s (Group C Racing). Over the years the Classic has grown in reputation, establishing itself as a firm calendar fixture every two years to become quite simply the most famous worldwide historic motoring event.

Next to the golden age of motor racing and watches, Richard Mille’s true passion is collecting cars. Specifically, old race cars. Rather than the typical office, Mille works from a plush garage on his Brittany estate that houses a fleet of some of the rarest and most important race cars of the past.

From behind his upstairs desk, the watchmaker can look out over a collection of cars he calls  “his babies.”

In his own words: “In the morning when I come, I say, ‘Hello, my babies,’ and at night, when I leave, I say, ‘Kiss kiss, have a good night.’ It’s friendly, I love that.”.

Now there’s a true petrolhead if ever I saw one.


RICHARD MILLE WOMENS RACING TEAM: Surprising though it may seem for a high-testosterone brand like Richard Mille, associated with what in the golden age was considered a decidedly male preserve, but Mille in his role as chair of the FIA Endurance Commission has long been a supporter of women in motorsports and the brand one of the main sponsors of the all-women Rallye des Princesses. Richard Mille Racing Team is now set to compete in the 2020 and 2021 European Le Mans Series seasons with an ORECA 07-Gibson in the LMP2 class, entrusted to an all-female driver line-up. The car will be driven by Katherine Legge (former IndyCar car driver and IMSA GD runner-up), Tatiana Calderón (Formula 1 test driver for Alfa Romeo-Sauber) and young German talent Sophia Floersch.


SALON RETROMOBILE 2020

Held for the 45th time, this year at Paris Expo Porte de Versailles, the annual Retromobile is the leading classic car fair in the world. The event attracted an International audience of over six hundred exhibitors, brimming with over one thousand legendary vehicles.

On his stand at Retromobile 2020, Passionate partner of the event, Richard Mille presented four chassis, including the 1995 Le Mans winning GTR, alongside a newly restored road car, complemented by an example of the road-legal 1968 M6B GT.

I am a die-hard fan of classic cars. They are genuine works of art in my eyes. Just like our watches, they are objects that elicit emotion. 

Richard Mille

 

www.richardmille.com

About the author: Keith Francis

Keith Francis