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Endurance at the Le Mans Classic

Richard Mille times the vintage racecar event for the ninth year.

The Le Mans Classic offers motorsport enthusiasts one of the rare occasions to enjoy legendary racecars competing head to head on a racetrack. For three days in early July, this classic car race, with its heady mix of esthetics and performance, hosted a record 135,000 spectators and more than 1,000 drivers, including ten former 24 Hours of Le Mans champions such as Derek Bell, Henri Pescarolo and Klaus Ludwig.

The 2018 Le Mans Classic hosted a record 135,000 spectators and more than 1,000 drivers, including ten former 24 Hours of Le Mans champions.

Visitors watched as hundreds of legendary cars raced. This year, all the classics were there, including a 1970 Ferrari 512, a 1969 Porsche 917, a 1967 Ford GT 40, a 1956 Lotus XI 1500, a 1928 Bugatti Type 35 B and even a 1961 Jaguar E-Type.

The Le Mans Classic is the world’s largest gathering of its kind, as 8,500 vintage cars from 200 automobile clubs around Europe representing sixty carmakers were on display at the 2018 edition. Richard Mille returned as main sponsor and official timekeeper of the event for the ninth consecutive time.

Armand Mille (son of Richard Mille) at the wheel of car #32, a 1970 Lola, during the 2018 Le Mans Classic.

Mille himself is passionate about the automobiles that marked his youth. At this year’s Le Mans Classic, Mille entered two of his own cars in the race, a 1969 Lola T70 Mk III B and a 1970 Lola T212 FVC, and of course took the opportunity to debut a new Richard Mille watch, the RM 11-03 (see more below).

“I’ve always been crazy about technical subjects and mechanics. My passion for automobiles dates back to my childhood and has only grown over the years. I also have an utter fascination with beautiful classic cars.”

The racing

Under the blazing July sun, my senses were on overload. I smelled burning rubber and motor oil and heard tires screech and engines roar as they barreled down long straight stretches into hairpin bends. I shared the excitement with the crowd as day turned into night and day again and more than 700 automobiles (all made between 1923 and 1981) competed in turns according to period, arranged into six grids with eighteen races from Saturday to Sunday.

It’s not the first vehicle past the checkered flag that wins at this race. Instead, the Le Mans Classic is a best of three 43-minute race (one in complete darkness) multiplied by a handicap factor, with some cars switching drivers during the mandatory pit stop.

For decades, the race began from a standing start with the racecars, engines off, parked at an angle and the drivers standing on the starting line before running to their cars. This start is imitated ceremonially today.

The race historically began from a standing start with the drivers running to their cars. This is done in a ceremonial fashion today.

I was treated to a hot lap around the full 13.6-km course, which is actually a half racetrack, half public road circuit. I enjoyed the circuit in a McLaren 570S piloted by racecar driver James Littlejohn, who tackled the Dunlop Chicane, hurtled full speed down the Hunaudières long straight, and attacked the tight Mulsanne and Indianapolis corners with ease.

Global Endurance Legends

This year marked the premiere of the Global Endurance Legends class, featuring GTs and prototypes from the 1990s and 2000s. As a result, we saw the Audi R8, Bentley Speed 8, Peugeot 908, McLaren F1 GTR, Ferrari F40 and a Chrysler Viper GTS-R on the track, in part to attract younger audiences. Drivers were primarily collectors who came to race in their own cars, funded from their own pockets.

The Classic is more relaxed than the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“Today, you no longer have the pressure of winning; you’re just battling against yourself,” explains Ralf Kelleners, Le Mans 1996 GT2 winner. “You try to perform well, for yourself, for your team, to obtain a good result, but it’s not as if your life depended on it! Previously, I had to get good results. If not, I didn’t obtain good contracts. So now I can enjoy it more.”

Kelleners scored second place in Group C Racing that featured the track’s stars from the 1980s and early 1990s.

How it started

The Le Mans Classic was launched in 2002 by Patrick Peter, founder of Peter Auto, who aimed to revive the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the annual endurance race that has been held at the Circuit de la Sarthe for the past ninety-five years. Experiencing Le Mans Classic is to travel back in time to revisit an automotive culture that flourished in the 20th century. Teenagers who once plastered their bedrooms with photos of iconic cars fantasizing of one day driving them now actually own and race them, and there’s no other place they’d rather do it than on this mythical circuit that’s one of the most prestigious races in the world.

“Spectators come to see the cars that made them dream when they were young,” says Richard Mille marketing director Timothée Malachard. “They’re coming to see cars in the flesh driving around the track that usually collectors put away in a garage and don’t use.”

A longtime friend of Peter, Mille has sponsored Le Mans Classic from day one. His eponymous watch company also sponsors historic car events like Chantilly Arts & Elegance, Rétromobile, Nürburgring Classic and Sound of Engine.

“I am a die-hard fan of classic cars,” Mille says. “They are genuine works of art in my eyes. Some of them embody the greatest mechanical and aesthetic challenges of their age. Just like our watches, they are objects that elicit emotion.”

Massa & Mille

Felipe Massa, former F1 racing driver and future Formula E driver, was the first sportsman to join the Richard Mille family (in 2004) and the first F1 driver to race while wearing a tourbillon wristwatch.

“I love classic cars. They mix history with art, and Le Mans Classic mixes the most incredible brands and important cars that passed through all the different periods until today,” he says. “It’s an amazing event.”

The RM 11-03 Le Mans Classic

Massa’s collaboration with Richard Mille has spawned nine different models, the first timepiece being the RM 006 Tourbillon.

“It was maybe the lightest tourbillon at that time,” Massa recalls. “It was so easy for me to wear in the car, not disturbing at all. It was important also to show that you can do whatever you want with a very expensive tourbillon watch, especially racing a F1 car with lots of vibrations and crashes. Richard is like a brother; we are great friends. He really trusts me as a sportsman and for everything that I have always done for his brand, and it’s the same for me.”

Beyond racing

Le Mans Classic is not just about reliving precious memories for those nostalgic about the past. It’s also a festival for the entire family, as fathers share their passion with their sons, with incredible proximity between the public, the cars and the track.

The RM030 Le Mans Classic, from 2014.

For example, in the village behind the pit lanes, visitors this year got close to the cars and could speak to the mechanics at work, witness team preparations, watch concerts and of course purchase automotive memorabilia. They could also bid on rare cars like a 1963 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster. This year the car set a new world record, fetching $3.7 million at auction – the best sale result for any auction held at Le Mans.

Now all eyes are riveted to 2020 for the 10th edition of Le Mans Classic, a major anniversary that Richard Mille will certainly not miss.

The 2018 Richard Mille Le Mans Classic

For each edition of Le Mans Classic since 2008, Richard Mille has released a dedicated limited-edition timepiece inspired by automotive history. Past watches have included the RM 011 skeleton flyback chronograph, the RM 010 with 24-hour display, the RM 008 chronograph tourbillon and the RM 11-02 with annual calendar, flyback chronograph, 24-hour counter, UTC display and countdown.

The Richard Mille Le Mans Classic RM11-03 is available as a limited edition of 150 pieces.

This year’s RM 11-03 Le Mans Classic, available as a limited edition of 150 pieces, is powered by the automatic Caliber RMAC3 and is the first RM 11-03 to have a case made of ATZ white ceramic and Carbon TPT. It sports accents of legendary British racing green – Le Man Classic’s signature colors.

The Richard Mille RM 11-03 from the back, exposing the automatic Caliber RMAC3.

Encircled by rings marked with intermediate times, the 24-hour flyback chronograph (with the number 16 highlighted in red in reference to the race’s start time) and small seconds counters above the see-through dial give the impression of depth. Further motorsport influences include a titanium crown design echoing competition wheel rims and tire treads and ribbed pushers recalling the grooves on pedals. The RM 11-03 Le Mans Classic limited edition is priced at $184,000.

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