Sports cars with a distinguished pedigree got together at Le Mans in France. The ticket to this reunion was earlier participation in the legendary 24hour race. And that’s why the white ŠKODA Sport, number 44, was also there, having competed in the endurance race in 1950.
Although the Le Mans Classic is not a 24-hour race – cars of various ages built between 1923 and 1981 run several laps of 43 minutes each over the course of the race weekend – the start of the ŠKODA Sport was still a great occasion. After all, it returned to the legendary track on the first weekend in July for the first time in 72 years, then and now with the same starting number.
“We have been renovating the car for six years with this moment in mind, and a Le Mans run was our dream goal,” said Michal Velebný, one of the drivers and one of those who helped to return the car to the exact form in which it appeared at the start of the race in 1950, after the first few laps of the 13.6-kilometre circuit.
He took turns behind the wheel with his colleague Stanislav Kafka. Driver rotation is an integral part of every Le Mans Classic. Once there, the drivers must also take part in the traditional start, during which they run across the finishing straight to their cars, which they start and set off on the track.
“I was jostling for position with one rival for a while, and another one and I overtook each other in one of the corners,” Kafka said of his first laps. Even his partner Velebný confirmed that, although ŠKODA Sport was racing in its age category with cars built between 1949 and 1956, the spectators were watching a sporting performance and not a leisurely drive.
ŠKODA’s only participation in the 24 Hours of Le Mans began at 4 pm on 24 June 1950. At the traditional start, driver Václav Bobek ran across the starting straight, jumped into car number 44, started it up and set off on his first lap of the 13.65-kilometre circuit. For a long time, ŠKODA’s Le Mans debut exceeded expectations. Bobek and his teammate Jaroslav Netušil had a firm grip on second place in their category up to 1,100 cc and were fifth in the overall standings, based on the balance of performance coefficient. The average speed of the ŠKODA Sport racing car was 126 km/h.
In such duels, every detail can be crucial. “We were reaching high speeds on long straights and the engine was cooled by the airflow more than necessary,” Kafka mentioned one of the insights Velebný gave him during the changeover. “So we covered part of the radiator area for the following runs,” Velebný described how they decided to tackle their rivals.
Another integral part of the Le Mans race is night driving. It is part of both the traditional 24 Hours – in fact, the ŠKODA Sport was given two extra headlights for the night section before the first Le Mans race – and the Le Mans Classic. The individual runs are scheduled so that each group, made up according to the age of the cars, runs in daylight and in the dark.
“The darkness erases the differences in engine performance, it’s the same for everyone,” says Velebný, backing up his claim with a jump of twenty spots up the results list. “It’s a bit of a complication that part of the track is illuminated, for example the finishing straight and some of the corners or chicanes, while in the rest we are reliant on the car’s lights,” adds Kafka.
Nevertheless, they consider the night ride to be part of the race and its atmosphere, as well as an experience of a lifetime. In fact, it’s like the entire participation of a seventy-year-old Škoda in this motorsport festival. “We thank our ancestors for having designed and built this beautiful car back in the day and for driving it here to Le Mans. Thanks to them, we can race here now,” summarises Michal Velebný on behalf of both drivers.
Although the ŠKODA Sport crew was primarily concerned with getting the car back on track at Le Mans, they did not give up their sporting ambitions either. The Czech crew finished 47th out of 74 cars in its category in the overall results, and even 43rd in the standings when recalculated according to the coefficient influenced by power and engine capacity.
“The car was able to deal with the busy weekend thanks to the usual meticulous maintenance and we avoided any major technical problems. For our 73-year-old car, this is an amazing performance,” said Michal Velebný of the entire race weekend.
The ŠKODA Sport racing car was based on the 1946 ŠKODA 1101 “Tudor” production car. Its chassis was lightened, the central tube was shortened by 400 mm, and the placement of the steering wheel and pedals was changed. The car was given a low, open two-seater body, handmade from aluminium sheet. Due to the low height, the powertrain was repositioned. The car received a new water pump, the fuel tank was moved behind the seats, and fuel was supplied by means of an electric pump. The radiator grille had five ribs, as on the modernised version of the production cars, and twin headlights. The ŠKODA Sport used mostly standard Tudor parts, including the Czech PAL 12-V electrical system and Barum tyres. The power of the 1.1-litre four-cylinder engine almost doubled after the modifications: the mass-produced “Tudor” delivered 32 hp, the racing car version 50 hp.
For the Le Mans race, the ŠKODA Sport underwent a number of modifications dictated by the endurance nature of the race. The wheelbase was increased by 180 mm, two additional headlights were added to either side of the radiator grille and the car was decked out in the Czech national colours, as recommended by the organisers. In addition, for the sake of symmetry, a crew nameplate was added to the passenger side and Michelin tyres were put on the wheels for the race. With a full tank and fully equipped with tools and spare parts (any repairs during the race had to use spares carried in the car) it weighed an excellent 700 kg. With the racing fuel common at the time – a mixture of petrol, ethanol and acetone – the ŠKODA Sport could reach speeds of up to 140 km/h, consuming only about 12 litres per 100 km. It was possible to drive for four hours on a full tank, so pilots Václav Bobek and Jaroslav Netušil were able to cover significantly longer distances without fuel stops than their competitors.