BIZZARRINI AT CLASSIC LE MANS
A tale of the trials and tribulations of buying, restoring and racing a classic sports car of the 1960s
Ian Giles has been around fast cars for some years now. Everything from Skylines, Integrales and Alpine Renaults on the road, to name but a few, whilst racing Chevrons a historic F1
Tyrrell and more recently a Gurney Eagle Formula 5000.
Now he is trying something completely different. The plan was to compete in an Iso A3/C, more commonly know as a Bizzarrini, in this Classic Le Mans 2004.
These cars were built in the 60s by Giotto Bizzarrini after he had left Ferrari following a dispute with Enzo which culminated in a sort of “night of the long knives”. Whilst there, he was responsible for the iconic 250 GTO. Later he also worked with Lamborghini on the design of their first V12 engine amongst other things. The Bizzarrini was a sort of MK 2 GTO and was a follow-on from the Iso Rivolta designed for the Milanese industrialist, Renzo Rivolta.
The car took the basic 250 GTO recipe and improved on it essentially by moving the engine back and shortening the wheelbase, thereby improving the handling via better weight distribution. He also committed quite a heresy for the time when he determined to put an American Chevrolet lump in it.
A Blast from The Past
The story behind the initial acquisition of the car is the usual one of a combination of right place, right time. Ian was working on a photo shoot in California. When perusing a copy of Hemmings [the US equivalent of Auto Trader], he found the car advertised [hook up the brakes and go racing] amongst the usual fare of such publications, and with an eye for both the unusual and a bargain he went to look.
That was 11 years ago. The car, having been stored untouched for some time until the past couple of years then started on the long road back to life. Research showed this particular car to be chassis number 202 - construction of which, started in the Livorno factory in November 1963, being completed in February/March 1964 and shipped to Florida in order to compete at Sebring.
Most of the reconstruction work has been done by Liaz and his small team from Zul Racing - the same people who have run several of Ian’s cars for some years and who are currently entrusted with the Gurney Eagle as well as the Bizzarrini. Although the car was more or less complete when shipped to the UK, it was in something of a state - prompting Liaz to exclaim to Ian “what have you done?” when he first saw the car on the trailer.
Several years plus a lot of time, effort, skill, patience and, as you might expect, a considerable amount of money now sees the car almost back to its former glory. I think Ian might consider it better than new regarding the build quality and general engineering standards.
This kind of project is not for the faint hearted!
The car uses independent front suspension, unequal length wishbones, coil springs, hydraulic shocks and an anti-roll bar. On the rear there is a De Dion set up, coil springs, hydraulic shocks, longitudinal struts and a cross bar with large inboard mounted discs. Whilst the brakes can cope with the driver’s retardation requirements, the issue of heat transference from the rear brakes to the differential is something of a knotty problem as Gregor Fisken found out when he raced a similar car in the first Classic Le Mans two years ago. High diff oil temperatures cooked the seals during practice, though the diff was replaced in time for the race.
The Chevrolet engine has now been rebuilt by Knight Racing Services in Daventry to push out close to 500 brake on Webers, as although Bizzarrini was willing to use an American engine, he remained patriotic regarding the carburettor set up. Other similar cars have and do use a Holley set up. With considerably more power than in period and geared for 86mph in first, the car would need some time to set up at the Silverstone test session on the Tuesday before being shipped off to Le Mans.
The car was duly delivered to Silverstone and tested briefly by Ian and his co-driver for the Le Mans Classic Keith Aulers, an experienced Morgan Aero pedler of note. Attracting much attention from many others on the day partly out of curiosity [you don’t see many of those about do you?] but mostly on account of the tremendous noise emanating from the side exit pipes. Think a cross between a Lola T70 and a current NASCAR sound, only louder.
I say tested briefly as after a couple of laps, Ian returned to the pit and flung himself out of the car enveloped in expletives concerning the lack of rear end grip and the car’s propensity to want to swap end even when running on the straight. It nearly went on the market there and then.
With a few extra laps, some more toe-in on the rear softening the roll bar and reducing tyre pressures, an improvement was pronounced - though still along way from being a proper race set up suitable for one of the most challenging circuits in the world. After a good deal of conversation with various other interested parties, it was established that, although not one of the best at the rear, even in its day things could be better. So it was decided to make some more adjustments to the set up before loading up for the race.
Sarthe City Here We Come
Organised chaos would be too kind an expression to use for the Le Mans event – particularly the drivers’ signing-on process which, in our case, took just over 3 hours in baking sun and crippling humidity. This chaotic theme continued as the transporter had to be parked what seemed like miles away from in the paddock. All the tools, jacks and other assorted paraphernalia associated with any racing `equipe, had to be ferried to and fro by a fleet of Second World War jeeps driven by a variety of helpful and not so helpful Frenchmen.
In addition to the logistical problems, we had a sick team member as one of the mechanics went down with swollen glands and was unable to eat or drink anything for the best part of 24hrs. This necessitated a couple of trips to the medical centre and finally into town to search for a pharmacist that was open. It was about then I wished I hadn’t been staring out of the window during my French lessons at school. Eventually we got him tucked up at the team’s rented house with a bit of extra care thrown in from the owner who happened to be a doctor.
The house was the same one we used two years ago at the inaugural event. It is ideally placed on the inside of the circuit just after the second kink before Indianapolis. This means we could commute to the circuit untroubled by traffic, through the forest at the back of the house and when relaxing with a glass of something, spectate the fastest part of the circuit by hanging over the Armco at the bottom of the garden. Petrolhead heaven.
There is a lot to see in and around the circuit with cars from a wide selection of manufacturers who have competed at Le Mans over the years. An auction at which a Bentley was sold for £2.5M making it the most expensive car sold at auction in Europe to date. Also where an American car dealer was overheard completing a deal in the states for $14M on his mobile. Displays of exotic cars from all over the world litter the infield in both road going and competition form.
A Circuit of Note
Robin Donavan, something of a Le Mans specialist, has competed in the legendary 24 hour Le Mans no less than 14 times – one of the most celebrated being his front row start co-driving with 5 times Le Mans winner Derek Bell MBE in the Gulf Kremer Porsche K8. This is his insight into the intricacies of this famous circuit
An Early Bath
With the car cleaned and polished, we awaited the arrival of the scrutineer who eventually turned up mumbling puffing and soaking wet from the heat. After a good look round and a few (presumably) humorous remarks which were sadly lost on us non-French speakers, it was declared that all was fine except for the need to double the strap on the rear towing point. This was required on the scruitineer’s own admission due to the fact that he was under instruction to find at least one thing wrong with each car.
As Keith had recently been at the circuit for the main race it was Ian who needed time in the car. Unfortunately the first slot for his grid was at 11.45 at night – talk about in at the deep end. Having practiced again the next morning and with the back end still mightily unstable at 170mph, it was decided that discretion was the better part of valour and the mission was aborted. But not before some of the rather tricky tactics deployed by some famous names from the past had been experienced on the first lap out of the pits.
Much weaving sometimes onto the grass and a bit of a brake test now and then, must have been how you got to the top some years ago – maybe it still is? With a good mix of Gentleman and Professional drivers of all ages; eyes constantly peeled in the mirrors, was the order of the day. Speaking of mirrors, this year some parts of the circuit were lit by massive flood lights mounted high in the air in an attempt to help the more myopic and elderly during their night time stint. Unfortunately, although throwing a good pool of light onto the circuit, they also served to confuse many a driver as having passed them they then appeared in the mirrors to be confused with following cars headlights.
Anyway it was an early bath for the team. The Bizzarrini was loaded along with the other two cars brought over and joined by an immaculate Gallow Fly £2.5M Testa Rossa for onward shipment to the US.
Museum or Mulsanne?
Would you risk wrecking a car worth more than a million? Most of us will never have to make that decision. But if you thought they weren’t serious racers, then a series of impressive nose to tail 4 wheel drifts through Tetre Rouge will soon convince you that they mean it. You wouldn’t think that most of the pilots are probably much older than the cars they drive.
Even the traditional Le Mans start is still used but for demonstration purposes only. The cars being rearranged into their correct grid positions along the Hunaudieres straight and much applause for those left behind when they were finally able to start their engines and put an end to their embarrassment.
It was also staggering to see the outright speed of many of the latest DB9s and Ferraris on their demonstration runs in between races. Including a Ford GT being driven in a rather pushy fashion muscling the others out of the way at the entrance to the second kink on the Mulsanne. The high speed Alfa GTA parade of the various course cars was no the less impressive as they circulated flat out, line astern, only a few metres apart. Looking just like an escaped roller coaster.
It is a bit of a cliché to argue that it is better to see these sometimes irreplaceable cars racing rather than being confined to a museum, but the Classic Le Mans meeting is unquestionably one of the finest historic treats in the motor racing calendar.
Where else can you behold the sight of a GT 40 Ferrari 275 GTBC or Porsche 936 etc. and even more evocatively the sound echoing through the trees of these leviathans of a past age as they approach, pass and then disappear still flat out in top gear (to say nothing of the smell)? This combined assault on the senses has the power to raise every hair on the back of your neck.
Facts and Figures
More than 50,000 visitors this year.
396 competing cars which have been raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans between 1923 & 1978, split according their period into 6 grids.
More than 1000 drivers, 20 nationalities and the 5 continents represented.
6 winners of Le Mans 24 Hours Jürgen Barth (D), Jean Guichet (F), Johnny Herbert (UK), Phil Hill (USA), Jean Pierre Jaussaud (F), Henri Pescarolo (F) and over 20 drivers, who previously ran at Le Mans,
More than 4000 cars and 100 clubs from all over Europe – more than 50 makes displayed
A “Club LMC 24H" concours dedicated to the cars that competed in the "24 Hours" between 1923 and 1994 and a concourse patronised by the FFVE and FIVA Federations specially set up for them.
A Club concours many clubs are recognised by the jury for the rarity of theirs cars.
Marques and boutiques hosting the Automobilia specialists.
Christie’s organised one of the most exciting auctions of the year. The auctioneer offered several rare Le Mans racers… The highlight of the sale, Bentley Speed Six, 1st Brooklands Double Twelve (Barnato/Clement) and 2nd at 1930 Le Mans (Clement/Watney) was sold for 3.8 million euros.