Royston born racer Sarah Bennett-Baggs and partner Mike Thorne drove to a brilliant Le Mans podium victory last weekend at the bi-annual Classic 24-hour endurance event.
The prestigious Le Mans Classic event, held every other year, allows drivers to race on the full 8.5 mile road endurance circuit with classic cars from 1923 to 1979 in the Sports LM racers class. The cars are divided into decades across grids and while the racing action is non–stop for 24hrs, each grid or plateau has 3 x 45 minute races plus day and night qualifying with a pit stop. Sarah and Mike shared the drive in a 1955 Austin Healey 100M, in Grid 2 – sports cars from 1949 – 1956, supported by Adrian Flux Insurance Services and JME Healeys.
In the 78-car grid, the Healey was up against champion pro-driver Alex Buncombe at the wheel of his C-Type Jaguar, who drove to victory in the first two heats. The duo finished 13th in Heat 1 and when the night session came at 3am so did the rain and that’s when the Healey started to climb the rankings as the slippery track claimed a number of victims and drivers began to slow down. Finishing 8th overall after Heat 2 and with Mike having secured the fastest time in the night, the Healey was placed 4th on the grid for the third and final heat on Sunday morning, bang in the middle of the powerful multi-million pound C and D-type Jaguars, and a brace of brutish Mercedes Gullwings. This was going to be some battle.
As the cars lined up for the start, the heavens opened and rain fell biblically, causing the race to be started under safety car conditions. After two painfully slow rain- drenched laps Sarah pitted cleverly to hand over to Mike, who exited the pit lane alongside race leader Alex Buncombe in his Type-C Jaguar. Mike quickly climbed the field to 8th position and as the rest of the field came into the pits for driver changes, moved up into 3rd position just two laps from the end, putting in the fastest sector times on the circuit. On the penultimate lap the leading car of Alex Buncombe hit a rival at Arnage and was sidelined, moving the Healey up into second position. Confusion by the race officials looking for the leader meant the race continued for one more lap. In that extra lap Mike overtook Monteverde again in his D-Type Jaguar to take the chequered flag as the winner.
Only later did the position get rewound a lap to 2nd place. But the final race result gave the duo enough of a lead to beat favourites like Gavin Pickering (winner in 2012) and Carlos Monteverde, both in competition D-Type Jaguars, and the duo Mulder-Simon in their Mercedes 300 SL, which suffered mechanical issues.
The final overall results after all three heats showed Finburgh-Newall team took overall victory:
1st. FINBURGH-NEWALL (JAGUAR TYPE-C) in 2h 28′ 21″ 478
2nd. REEDTZ-THOTT-HOLSTEIN-LOKVIG (LOTUS XI 1100) at 5′ 12″ 738
3rd. THORNE-BENNETT-BAGGS (AUSTIN HEALEY 100 M)
Mike Thorne commented: “Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would stand on the podium at Le Mans, but the wet weather really levelled it out against the much more powerful cars on the grid, and thanks to the JME Healey team, who worked hard to give us a good car, and to a solid driving performance, we proved that anyone can do it…even us littl’uns!”
Sarah added: “The weekend was not all plain sailing – we had problems with the car in qualifying and the team worked really long hours to sort them out. The circuit is incredibly difficult to learn in the short qualifying sessions, but Mike drove like a demon in the torrential rain on Sunday and all I had to do was keep it on the black stuff in the early laps. For me the image of driving down the Mulsanne straight in the dark at night with all those super-fast race cars will stay with me forever. It has been awesome.”
Sarah is back out with her usual steed, the Pink Porsche 911SC, at Brands Hatch Superprix this weekend (July 12) in the 1970s Roadsports event on the full Brands GP circuit.