2014 marks an important birthday for Britain's most recognisable Le Mans special - the beautiful Jaguar D-Type is 60 years old. Of course you never need an excuse to write about a D-Type, but if you did, this would seem to be the perfect one. A trip to Classic Le Mans, and the chance to share a car with perhaps the best D-Type driver of the moment, Gary Pearson. There was moderate excitement in the Harris household.
I'd not visited the Le Mans Classic before, but had only heard good things. Hundreds of racing cars from the 30s to the late 70s, 24 hours of racing and fewer people than the main moderns event a few weeks back. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't praying for a better outcome than the last outing in a Carrera Cup car, but Mr Trouillet's name was not on the entry list, so hopes were high.
Nothing quite prepares you for the sheer volume of stunning, significant racing cars on display, nor the surrounding cavalcades of road cars that lurk in the surrounding paddocks. What is the collective noun for a bunch of Facel Vegas? A parfait?
Harris and Pearson qualified on pole
We were in Group 3, for racing cars from '57-'61. The car is actually a 1955 long nose D - it was the spare car for the Le Mans race that year but didn't race. Gary Pearson has owned the car for seven years and has wowed crowds at most of the big classic races sliding the car at silly speeds. Frankly, it all sounded like a bit of a dream, and I wasn't too apprehensive about not even sitting in it until qualifying because the engine and gearbox were very similar to
This was something of an oversight on my behalf. Friday qualifying was later in the evening, allowing ample time to wear out a pair of shoes drooling over a dozen Lola T70s, Carlos Montiverde's 917 and one of those batty flat-12 Matras. Gary might just be the coolest cookie I've ever shared a car with. No dramas, no reminder of the catastrophic value of the machine, just a smiley reminder to enjoy the car. "I'll go out first", he said quietly, "Will do three laps, on the third I'll go for a time." Which he duly did, setting pole position by nine seconds.
This both removed the pressure, and added it. No need to push for a pole time but, equally, I don't care who you are, no one likes being completely obliterated by their teammate. I rumbled out of the pits a little overawed by the whole show - the circuit in the fading light, the noise, the beautiful wooden wheel flexing in my hands, the Smith's rev-counter needle skipping about and the view forward through that Perspex screen. "I'm driving a D-Type at Le Mans" I think I screamed to myself, before almost rotating on the exit of the first chicane.
Where the hell was the grip?
D-Type fast on straights, slithery elsewhere
There was none. And what was going on with the gearing? The Dunlop chicane was first gear, it just felt unnecessary, and required a very deliberate and accurate de-clutch to make it happen. But all of this was forgiven as a side-show when I tried to brake from 350 metres into the first chicane - the brake pedal was completely solid, the car gave the sensation of shedding some speed, but not that much, so I pushed just a little harder and the then the rear axle attempted to overtake the front and I thought I was going to bin it. Underscoring all of this was a 3.8-litre wide angle straight-six pushing something beyond 350hp, surrounded by 920kg of metal, penetrating the air with what would appear to be less drag than Concorde. God it felt fast.
Above 100mph the D just flies, the prow rises and the wind noise increases and it seemingly frees itself from all air resistance and the speed just keeps rising. Third becomes fourth and the rev counter down by your left knee is reading 6,000rpm - or 165mph in real money. In a car built in 1955. Life-affirming is an overused phrase, in this situation it is entirely justifiable.
It was at this point, careering into the second chicane, that the brakes caused me serious problems. There's no real feel to the pedal, very little travel and the system is pressured by a pump driven from the gearbox. So when you hit the pedal, you activate the pump and the pedal then begins to come back at your foot, and each time your brain says you should be able to add a little more pressure, you do, and it locks the rears. Or maybe the fronts. The Lister was a doddle compared to this.
And the Lister ran on wider Avon ZZ rubber, whereas the D uses narrow little Dunlops. There are six or seven places where first gear is a must in this car, and once the motor has been coaxed through its off-cam phase and the throttles opened fully at 3,500rpm, it screams to the agreed 6,200rpm maximum and traction is always a problem. In the dry, full power in second is fine, but not in first. As I'd discover over the weekend, in the wet, the rears would spool up in third.
Rolling start 'complete mayhem' says Chris
I completed four laps in that session and posted a 4min 59.6sec against Gary's searing 4min 53.6sec. Still, first time in the car, and with those weird brakes, I was over the flipping moon. Gary had pole position by a mile, and even my time would have put us P1 - not that I reminded many people of this fact. We had some stiff competition for the weekend too - 1988 Le Mans winner Andy Wallace and journo-hand Dickie Meaden were in another D-Type and qualified fourth.
There was a surreal moment at the end of that qualifying session where I chased Dickie between the two chicanes and came past him and we momentarily glanced at each other, at 160mph. To do that with a very dear friend is quite a special experience to share. It also provided crucial ammo for banter about engines, diff ratios and all manner of other stuff (including talent!). Please feel free to ask him on Twitter if I overtook him.
Gary scrubbed some tyres in the night practice session that evening, otherwise we were ready to roll with a list of unobtanium behind us that read like an RM Auctions catalogue: 250 SWBs, DB4 GTs, Listers and lord know what else. There were 73 cars in the race. Most were being driven by people who wanted to race hard.
Ah, the race format. This isn't a real 24 hour race: cars of this type couldn't possibly be expected to last the duration, so there are six groups of cars that run three 45-minute races each. The remainder of the time is taken up by traditional Le Mans running starts (purely ceremonial) and the frankly enormous logistical burden of marshaling hundreds of old sheds that want to overheat and be unhelpful in the paddock areas. And that's before you consider the cars. The officials do a stunning job - it really is very well organised.
Rain made conditions tricky. Then came oil...
Each race contains a mandatory 60-second pit stop, the driver change is optional. We agreed to do one complete race each, and share the 4am graveyard stint. Gary took the ceremonial start, absorbed the banter from his teammate with a casual shrug and promptly thrashed the opposition. It might well have been closer if the Meaden/Wallace car hadn't suffered an engine problem because Andy Wallace leapt from fourth to second at the start, but sadly they retired before the end of the race.
We finished the race with a 1min 44sec advantage. The silverware is awarded for cumulative time over the three races, and finishing place determines the next grid spot, so when I rolled onto the green flag lap at 4:20am having no idea what the car was like on a wet track, or if the headlights would be as pathetic as they looked, I was actually in pole position.
This lasted for about 20 seconds as Joe Twyman simply drove alongside me out of the Dunlop chicane as I wondered if someone had dipped my rears in Castrol R. There was just no traction, not much lateral grip and that solid brake pedal was utterly terrifying. I was braking when I could just about make-out the 300m board through the dark and spray and barely being able to stop the thing. A little Lotus 15 squeezed by, as did a glorious 250 SWB, but I managed to hold on to fourth, when things took a turn for the worse and someone dumped oil on the track from Mulsanne to the end of the lap.
I've never before wanted to just park a race car and walk back to the pits, but this was the first time. It was treacherous; in the pitch-black you couldn't see the dark line of oil, but you could smell it, so I popped my visor up and attempted to sniff my way around. It kind of worked - how I only spun once on the stuff I'll never know. Gary finished the race and held fourth position, despite some rear-end attention from a Healey. We were both happy just to have finished the race, which was won by Twyman who was untouchable in the Aston.
D-Type gearing meant first for a few corners
There were several penalties though - the aforementioned Aston was carrying three minutes per race for some technical issue. The fast James Wood Lotus was also taking a time penalty, so going into the final race at midday on the Sunday, my closest rival was the 250 SWB of Vincent Gaye, who was 30 seconds behind me, but in the previous race was between five and 10 seconds per lap faster on those wider Avon tyres. If I could keep the 250 behind me, we'd win.
Typically, the rain was Amazonian an hour before the race, the track completely sodden as we ran the rolling start which, it won't surprise you, was complete mayhem. I attempted to squeeze down the inside into turn one, but the car just snapped sideways causing poor James Wood to take avoiding action - apologies James. Then I had the usual zero traction problem out of Dunlop and was roasted by a couple of cars and was running, I think, fourth out of Tertre Rouge. But the D is so fantastically fast down the straights it blitzed two of those cars before the end of the lap and I was then second behind the Dalglish Aston, crucially with the 250 a good six seconds behind me and dropping back.
The pit stop was fine, but I somehow came out behind James Wood's Lotus and couldn't quite understand how he got there! Turns out he was very quick into the pits and played a blinder, so I emerged in third spot, not too worried, and able to pass him on the first straight.
For the following three laps we had a fantastic dice, he superior under brakes and traction, me with big speed on the longer straights and the ability to terrify other road users with large oversteer angles. The D is always sliding, but sometimes you have to let it cut some very big angles. This really was The Best of Times - it was fair racing and enormous fun. But I had to cede to the 450kg Lotus eventually. It was just too good in the wet.
Turns out he's alright at this driving lark
On the final lap we caught the leading Aston DB4 GT which spun into the first chicane, handing the lead to Wood and leaving me second. He rejoined just behind me and barged his way through on the run into the Porsche Curves, but all that mattered to me was that 250 SWB being behind me, and it was! The Aston had a proper head of steam on by now and was looking for a last gasp run out of the final chicane past Wood to the finish line, but he got greedy and spun in sight of the flag, leaving the Wood Lotus with a well-deserved victory and me in second.
Because of the penalties, we were subsequently listed as race winners and overall winners of Group 3. I'm a very lucky boy to sit in these cars, let alone have the owner allow me to go hammer-and-tongs in them on a wet Le Mans circuit.
It took me time to learn the D. It isn't a great communicator, but once you find a connection with it and learn to interpret the muted messages it does send, it's a thing of some joy. Straight line stability is fantastic and it just feels so right screaming beyond 150mph. The rest of the lap, be it wet or dry, is just an exercise in managing the strange brakes and copious oversteer. And then you slide through Tertre Rouge and open those taps one more time and peer through that screen as the nose lifts - and you wonder whether you'll ever top such an experience.
Wow. Huge thanks to Gary for allowing me to drive it.