2023 saw the centenary celebrations of the first running of the Le Mans 24-Hour Race. Normally the Le Mans Classic is held every second year, but following the disruption of lockdowns and the marking of the centenary celebrations, the weekend of 30th June – 2nd July saw a huge crowd assembling for the Le Mans Classic once again. Having attended every single one since they began in 2002, I can honestly say that you would be hard pressed to find a more exciting historic motorsport event anywhere in the world. With 900 cars from motoring history on the track, 9,000 club enthusiasts’ cars in the infield displays, and nearly 250,000 spectators, you don’t need to use much hyperbole to express the immense organisation required to make this event run smoothly. And smoothly it did indeed run.
Our main interest on the track lay in Plateau 1, the pre-war grid. Talbots have always been extremely well represented at LMC, and the line up included six well-prepared racing machines, drivers anxious to get things moving. The cars and their drivers were:
BGH21 – Gareth Burnett and Michael Birch
JJ93 – Max Sowerby and Dan Balfour
GO52 – Michael Birch and Gareth Burnett
GO54 – Nick Pellett
PL2 – Thomas and Stephan Slijpen
PL3 – John Polson
The procedure is the same each time at the Classic – day practice on Friday to determine starting grid positions, followed by night practice in the dark. The 24 hours of competitive racing starts at 4pm on Saturday, with each of six Plateaux enjoying three 43-minute races, two of which are in daylight and one at night. The result of each race determines the starting grid for the next one, and the final Scratch and Performance Index Classifications are calculated from the aggregate of all three races.
But before all that can start, the French scrutineers do their best to ensure that every car is fit to race. It may be just me, but I did get the distinct impression that French Talbots have no difficulty passing scrutineering, and that real Talbots come in for more of a hard time. But after all these years of experience, the Talbot team, overseen as ever by the indomitable John Ruston, keep a low profile, even when scrutineers award penalties, fortunately subsequently deleted.
Day Practice saw all the cars in action, resulting in the following line-up on the grid of 86 cars for the start of the first race:
All these famous Talbots have huge previous experience at Le Mans, both in period and at the Classic. But not so some of the drivers. Luc Slijpen, having driven PL2 himself in previous Classics, had delegated the task to Thomas and Stephan, his two sons. They had taken part, with Luc, in 2022, but this was their first chance to show the old man what the next generation can do.
And then there is Dan Balfour. You may recall I mentioned Dan in one previous report, when he raced father Willie’s Round-the-World 105 at Donington. This event gave him only his second time racing a Talbot, and never previously in an endurance event or at night. Dan told me that he has just one season of HSCC racing under his belt, in the Guards Trophy series. He continued:
“The Practice Session was my first time in JJ. I knew of the car’s history and that the car was well capable of a podium position. It felt really quick, and I was delighted that it was my second lap ever in JJ that turned out to be our fastest, and thus our qualifying time for the starting grid.”
And so to the first race. Sadly, GO52 had suffered a mechanical problem during qualifying and did not reappear. Right from the start BGH21 and JJ93 were hugely impressive among the leaders. Gareth and Michael were nipping and tucking with a very fast 8C Alfa and a BMW 328 with previous LMC success. But by the chequered flag Gareth and Michael in BGH 21 were in first place by a clear 23 second margin, with Max and Dan in JJ93 in 3rd place. Nick Pellett had had a lot of fun working through the field, advancing from 32nd on the grid to 13th at the finish. And also for the two 90s, with John in PL3 finishing in 27th and Family Slijpen advancing to 48th – a great start all round.
Nick Pellet takes up the story so far:
“The last time at Le Mans, in 2022, had not been great for GO 54, as gearbox failure had put me out in the night qualifying session. So this year, in Qualifying, I took the long view and restricted track time to an out lap and one flying lap. Just enough to warm up and not stress the car. Night practice reminded me how poor vintage lights are, so I added another couple of laps to re-familiarise myself with the trickier end of the meeting. The net result was qualifying way down in 32nd place out of a massive 86 strong grid, much larger than normal.
“On Saturday in Race 1, after re-gridding on the Mulsanne Straight following the afternoon's ceremonial Le Mans sprint to the car, it was a rolling start as usual. The BMW 328 spun as we took evasive action around him on the opening lap. After that it was heads down to make up ground. Lap after lap I had the pleasure of overtaking gaggles of every marque. As the cars in front of me all pulled into the pit lane for the compulsory stop/driver change, I stayed out for a further lap, with a clear track ahead and was able for the first time to take the car to its limits. As the flag fell after 45 minutes, GO 54 had made up over 20 places, coming in 13th.”
Right from the start of the night race, BGH21 and JJ93 pulled clear of the field, extending the Talbot dominance over all other marques. Dan Balfour takes up the story again:
“The most exciting part of the whole weekend, the absolute high point for me, was following Gareth on the night race. I had never raced at night before; we had such a big lead that the track was clear for us, and I had the privilege of following the master.”
The outcome at the end of Race 2 showed all Talbots still making superb progress, with no further mechanical problems. BGH21 and JJ93 were in 1st and 2nd respectively. GO54 had been wrongly gridded in 18th place, and after a cautious race slipped back one place to 19th. PL3 had more or less held station in 32nd place, while the Slijpen boys, who could clearly see in the dark, had moved up eight places to 40th. Stephan reflects with this comment:
“It is magical to race a pre-war car on this historic circuit, especially during the night. Racing Bentleys and Bugattis on the straights with the original and historic Talbot PL2, and overtaking them in the corners, while being cheered at by the crowd is something special.”
Sunday morning, 8am, the final race got under way. Watching from the Goodyear grandstand, the sight of two green Talbots pulling away at the head of the field, round the Dunlop chicane and over the hill towards Tertre Rouge is an unforgettable experience. I suspect the drivers’ adrenalin was pumping, and it felt no less so for the enthusiastic Talbot supporters cheering them on. As lap followed lap, it became clear that they just had to keep the cars on the road and keep going to the finish. The gap between them and the third car was massive.
Watching PL2 and PL3 confidently sweeping round the bends and pressing hard in the straights demonstrates just how these delightful little cars can still show the world how good they are – just as in the 24-Hour Race of 1930.
The driver changes at the pit stop meant that Gareth handed over to Michael for the final section of Race 3, but when Dan Balfour came in to hand over to Max Sowerby, the team boss told him to stay put and finish the race, which he obligingly did.
When the chequered flag fell for the last time, BGH21 and JJ93 had held station in 1st and 2nd with a gap of over a minute to the third car. Nick brought GO54 home in 13th, with John and PL3 in 30th, with PL2 close behind in 38th place. It was then just a matter of waiting for the calculators to whirr and produce the aggregate results, which were as follows, with their accumulated times:
BGH21 1st 2:13:36.769
JJ93 2nd 2:15:25.360
GO54 9th 2:27:40.003
PL3 25th 2:18:57.228
PL2 37th 2:30:54.600
Nick Pellett adds:
“Having covered the same number of laps as the leaders (21) at a respectable time of 2 hours 27m, I was placed 9th overall, and my best result in all the years competing in my favourite race meeting. With Gareth and Michael (with Max and Dan) 1st and 2nd, it resulted in three Talbot 105s in the top 10.
“I can't finish it there. Le Mans is nothing without being on top of the cars every minute. The Pace mechanics, Dale and Reggie, were fantastic in their support over the event as minor matters were spotted early and dealt with before they became major ones. They completed a team operating at its absolute best. Well done guys!”
And Michael Birch, having brought BGH21 over the finishing line, sums up his reflections:
“Le Mans Classic! For the Talbot Team Cars, it’s definitely ‘le plus anticipé et prestigieux’ event of the biennial racing calendar, and this year it didn’t disappoint.
“BGH 21 has been for me the epitome of ‘The Invincible Talbot’, ever since I did my first Liege-Rome in it back in 2001 with John Ruston (remember that, David!). We’ve won dashes to the pub, concourse events, historic rallies and now LMC with this car, it can do just everything. It was very special to drive ‘21’ over the finish line for the chequered flag not once but three times in one weekend. Magical!
“I was really pleased for (and very grateful to) John Ruston for ‘21’ to win, as it is one of only a handful of cars to have competed at every edition of Le Mans Classic, and he, along with Gareth Burnett , have done so much to put these cars back in the spotlight where they deserve to be. JJ93 came in second on the podium, driven exceptionally well all weekend by Max Sowerby and Dan Balfour (his first time), and I was really pleased for Nick Pellet as he also put in a great performance to finish a superb 9th overall in GO54. To ape Roy Salvadori – ‘Give me a Talbot at Le Mans on a Summer’s day…... ‘”
We spectators celebrated that evening, and I gather that the race team did too – not surprisingly. And how fortuitous that the cellar in the restaurant they chose had copious quantities of Chateau Talbot, which the team put to very good use!
I leave the final comment to newbie Dan:
“It was a fantastic privilege to be asked to share the driving in JJ. I went in not really knowing what to expect – it’s full on and very tiring. Now I can see that the combination of the Talbot 105 and Gareth’s preparation – it’s like taking a gun to a knife fight!”
Congratulations to all those who took part in preparing and maintaining these amazing cars – the Pace team, the Polson mechanics and the Slijpen crew. And of course, the drivers, all enhancing the awareness of the Talbot reputation once again. There is great anticipation of further success in 2025.
The Talbot Owners Club magazine is published bi-monthly and contains news, updates and informative articles. It is edited by club secretary David Roxburgh.GO TO DOWNLOADS
The essence of the Club is to ensure that members meet and enjoy themselves; the Club is open and democratic, dialogie is encouraged. It is for people of all ages who like Talbot cars and want to enjoy the company of like-minded people and also to support current Talbot involvement in historic competition.