Alpine at Le Mans Classic. Le Mans rookie Richard Meaden gets an invitation to race an Alpine M65 at the Classic. Well, what would you say? Photography Andy Morgan.
RACING AN ALPINE AT LE MANS CLASSIC / Alpine Trials Fulfilling an ambition in one of the quirkiest contenders
Got even the smallest drop of petrol in your veins? Then Le Mans will mean something very special to you. Depending on your age (or your level of obsession with the greatest endurance race of them all), mention of its name will conjure a vivid kaleidoscope of iconic cars. Dark green Jaguars, bright red Ferraris, pale blue and orange Fords, azure Matras and Martini-striped Porsches. The list goes on.
For the true Le Mans geeks among you that list will also include an exquisite succession of diminutive Alpine-Renaults. Developed during the 1960s – a golden era of sports car racing – these tiny but unmistakable machines were overshadowed by the attention-grabbing big bangers, yet their speed, sophistication, success and seductive streamlined looks ensured the cars from Dieppe always punched above their weight.
Cue a deliciously understated email from the ever-enthusiastic Jeremy Townsend at Renault UK: ‘If we could get you into the Alpine M65 alongside Alain Serpaggi for the Le Mans Classic, would you be interested?’ I think you can guess my reply.
Le Mans I love. Alpines I know a little about. But the M65? Its diminutive size and slippery, windcheating shape are extraordinary, even from an era that embraced innovation, individualism and the ‘Index of Performance’. Powered by a 1296cc Gordini-tuned four-cylinder engine developed from the 1108cc unit found in the squared-off tail of the hot Renault 8 Gordini, the M65 has 130bhp. That sounds rather feeble by today’s standards, but weighing just 669kg and blessed with dart-like aerodynamics, the little Alpine was born for the sustained high speeds of Le Mans.
Running a light fuel load to see just how fast it would go, the M65 touched 164mph along the pre-chicane 4.3-mile Mulsanne (or Hunaudières) Straight, matching the considerably more powerful Porsche Carrera 6s. Sound potent enough for you?
The car I’m driving is chassis 1719. Now owned by Renault Classic, custodians of the entire collection of historic Renault road and competition cars, it’s a precious little gem. In period it suffered bad luck at Le Mans, retiring from the 1965 24 Hours after three hours. It also retired the following year, that time in the 20th hour, although its sister car went on to take a glorious victory in the 1300cc class.
Despite its Le Mans issues, 1719 made a significant contribution to Alpine’s racing success, tasting champagne in the 1965 Reims 12 Hours by finishing first in the 1300cc class and seventh overall, then taking a sensational overall victory in the Nürburgring 500km race two months later.
There can be few things more French than driving an Alpine M65 at the Le Mans Classic weekend. I’m pretty certain Renault Classic has never invited a rosbif into its midst as a driver, which makes the opportunity all the more special. Despite my appalling efforts at Franglais, the team – led by Hugues Portron – couldn’t be friendlier and has a warm, close-knit feel. The only thing they take more seriously than the cars is their break for goose rillettes (a delicacy from the Le Mans region), which makes a pleasant change from the cuisine you’ll find in the paddock at Silverstone.
I’m a complete Le Mans Classic rookie, both as a driver and spectator, so I’m intrigued to discover how the format works, not to mention incredibly excited – and, if I’m honest, a little intimidated – about driving on the hallowed 24 Hours circuit. Fortunately I’ve had a couple of short test sessions in the M65 prior to arriving at Le Mans (once at Montlhéry, once at Dijon), so the car isn’t a stranger to me. In fact I think I’ve already fallen in love with it.
At first I thought it looked outlandish, but with time I’ve become smitten by its pert features and flamboyant-yet-functional tailfins. Barely more than a metre high, its roof just comes past your waist. You open the lightweight glassfibre door by pulling on a thin, spatula-like aluminium lever that sits in a slot by the window. Then you stare at the tiny aperture and try to fathom how you’re going to fold yourself into the cockpit. Unless you’re a contortionist, clambering in or out is not the work of a moment, but once you’ve ducked and wriggled and cursed and, most likely, clouted your head, knee or elbow on something hard, you can drop into the vestigial bucket seat.
For a driver more used to modern road-based GT racers, with their sturdy monocoques criss-crossed with reassuring lattices of hefty rollcage, clambering inside a featherweight sports prototype built around a spindly spaceframe and clothed in what looks like a thin eggshell of glassfibre is accompanied by a palpable sense of exposure and vulnerability. Of course Renault Classic has installed a rollcage that complies with modern safety regulations, but it can’t hide the fact that the M65 is from a time when the pursuit of speed alone was the essence of racing car design.
Drivers get two opportunities to practise: one on Friday afternoon, followed by another session on Friday night. The format for the race weekend itself is a little more complex and operates on a rota system based around six groups, or plateaux, each of which covers a different era from Le Mans history. The M65 is in Plateau 4, for cars that raced between 1962 and 1965. Not only does this mean we have the honour of being in the first race of the weekend, it also means we’ll be sharing the track with Cobras, GT40s, Porsche 904s and early 911s, Jaguar E-types and the odd Bizzarrini, Lotus Elan, MGB and Morgan.
Practice is overwhelmingly brilliant in every respect. The rain stays away just long enough for me to get the first three laps under my belt and the M65 feels sensational; its sweet, forgiving balance, strong brakes, snorty little engine and surprising, but not alarming, turn of speed down the straights make it the perfect car for a Le Mans novice like myself. The circuit is every bit as good as you’d hope: wide, smooth and blessed with a fabulous flowing rhythm. It’s surprisingly easy to find the groove, as it is to spot those sections that demand respect and sizeable trouser furniture.
I regularly used to attend the modern 24 Hours race as a spectator throughout the 1990s so, coupled with the countless times I’ve watched Steve McQueen’s cult movie, it’s no surprise that every bit of the circuit somehow looks and feels familiar as it spools through the Alpine’s windscreen. Slicing through Tertre Rouge and onto the Mulsanne Straight for the first time, I’m not ashamed to admit I start bouncing up and down against the shoulder straps of my racing harness, whooping like a fool with the sheer excitement of the moment. This place has magic packed into every mile. By the time night falls so too does the rain, which means conditions are less than ideal for my first nocturnal foray. The canyon-like start/finish straight comes alive under the floodlights, intensifying the spectacle of spotting cars you recognise from history books thundering by before disappearing into the darkness. Actually it’s not as black as I’d feared once you stray beyond the pitlane exit, as there seems to be enough ambient light to distinguish the track margins. On the faster sections towards Indianapolis and the run from Arnage to the Porsche Curves, floodlights pointing into the trees are a clever way of defining the track into the far distance. That’s just as well, because the M65’s lights aren’t exactly dazzling.
My nerves are jangling prior to the start of the first race. As the team are quick to point out, the weather is very English. The track is neither fully wet nor fully dry, which makes it more slippery than a greased eel when running on Dunlop Historic race tyres. My co- driver, former Alpine and Renault works driver Alain Serpaggi, is due to take the ‘Le Mans start’. It’s more a piece of theatre than anything else, and once the drivers have scampered across the track and powered away from the pit wall, they then form-up in grid order and complete the remainder of the lap in formation before taking a conventional rolling start.
The grid accelerates away for the first lap of the race and the noise is incredible, as a raucous procession of mid-1960s icons creates a chaotic symphony of howling Italian V12s, bellowing American V8s, snarling German flat-sixes, brassy British straight-sixes and an assortment of hollering in-line fours. The M65 is in the thick of it, comprehensively outgunned as they accelerate from the nadgety Ford Chicane, but quick and poised through the tricky right-hand approach to the Dunlop Chicane at the top of the hill. By all accounts Alain is on it.
Each race lasts for 45 minutes with a mandatory pit stop. It’s amazing what adrenalin does for joint flexibility, so after Alain climbs out I slide in feet-first. Pop the detachable steering wheel back on, flick the fuel pump and ignition toggles, then thumb the silvery pip of a starter button to spark the Gordini engine into life. The Hewland gearbox is a five-speed with first on a dogleg, and it takes an awkward pull to find the gear.
Watch for the signal to leave the box, feed-in the light clutch and we’re away, chuntering slightly as hot cams and generous fuelling signal their impatience to get going.
Forward visibility is fine, as is the view offered by the rear-view mirror, but the tiny bullet-shaped wing mirrors provide a distant, miniature picture of what might be on your inside. Fortunately the bodyshell is so thin and the other cars so noisy that you hear them snapping at your heels long before you see them. I physically duck in the car when the battling GT40s punch by on the Mulsanne, their seismic V8s and awesome speed providing a spectacle I’ll never forget.
I don’t take part in the night race, as Carlos Tavares – the grand fromage of Renault – is also sharing the car, but I do drive in the third and final Plateau 4 race, held at breakfast time on Sunday morning. The track is still slick, but I get to take the start (a conventional rolling start this time, no running to the car!). The M65 has scored some good results in the previous two races, so it’s right among the E-types (see above) and 904s in the assembly area. I try to avoid making a mental tally of the combined value of the cars ahead and behind me, but it’s impossible not to.
What follow are three of the best racing laps I’ve ever experienced. Where the first race felt more like a liberal track day, Race 3 is a lot feistier. Everyone’s dander appears to be well and truly up, evidenced by the short shrift shown to a Bizzarrini that tickles through the corners then hammers down the straights. I’m in a gaggle of 904s, 911s and an angry-sounding Lotus Elan. The M65 is flying, pulling a little over 7500rpm on the straights, which equates to 140mph or thereabouts. We can’t live with the Porsches on acceleration, but we reel them in as the Alpine hits its stride between the chicanes. You can almost hear it saying ‘I remember when this was all one long straight…’
Fellow journalist Andrew Frankel is also in the race, sharing a lovely Porsche 904. He’s been looming in my mirrors for a lap or so, but I started ahead of him and am determined to stay there. So you can imagine the satisfaction of giving him a cheeky wave as I peel into the pitlane entry at the end of my stint.
It’s over all too soon, but not only have I been fortunate enough to have fulfilled a life’s ambition of racing on the Le Mans 24 Hours circuit, I’ve also done so in a proud piece of French motor sport history. I knew very little about the Alpine M65 before this race; now I have first-hand memories that will last a lifetime. What a car. And what an event.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1965 ALPINE M65/A210
ENGINE 1296cc rear-mounted Renault Gordini T55 (Mignotet) four-cylinder, OHV, twin Weber carburettors
MAX POWER 130bhp @ 6000rpm / DIN nett
MAX TORQUE 94lb ft @ 5350rpm / DIN nett
TRANSMISSION Five-speed manual dog-clutch Hewland MkIX gearbox, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Rack and pinion
SUSPENSION Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
BRAKES Girling discs
PERFORMANCE Top speed 262km/h (164mph) in Le Mans configuration
‘“If we could get you into the Alpine M65 alongside Alain Serpaggi for the Le Mans Classic, would you be interested?” I think you can guess my reply’
‘At first I thought it looked outlandish, but with time I’ve become smitten by its pert features and flamboyant tailfins’
Clockwise from above Leaving the paddock (and Le Mans rookiedom) behind; writer/racer Meaden in overalls (on far right), pre-race; on track at last; Alpine owners’ display; ‘English’ weather. Left and below It’s not the 24 Hours, but racing in the Le Mans Classic involves huge grids and continues into darkness; aero-bodied Alpine is capable of a startling 164mph – from 1296cc!