For car fans, motorsport fans, or those who appreciate a rich heritage, today is the grandest day in motoring. It is 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Le Mans Grand Prix d’Endurance History
May 26th & 27th, 1923 saw the first running of the Le Mans 24 hours, on the public roads around the French town. The original concept was a three year event, with the winner piloting the car that could go the furthest distance over three consecutive races. This plan was abandoned in 1928 and the Le Mans 24 hours winners were declared for each year depending on who covered the furthest distance in the 24 hours. The early races were dominated by British, French, and Italian drivers, teams, and cars, with Bentley, Alfa Romeo and Bugatti being the prominent marques.
By the late 1930’s innovations in car design began appearing at the Le Mans 24 hours circuit, with Bugatti and Alfa Romeo introducing designs with aerodynamic bodywork, enabling them to reach faster speeds down the Mulsanne straight. In 1936 the race was canceled due to strikes in France. With the outbreak of World War II in late 1939, the Le Mans 24hrs race went on a ten year hiatus.
1949 – 1969
The 24 Hours of Le Mans race resumed in 1949 following the reconstruction of the Le Mans circuit, and with growing interest from major car manufacturers. After the formation of the World Sportscar Championship in 1953, which included the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Jaguar, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, and others began sending multiple cars, supported by their factories, to compete.
Unfortunately, increased competition would also lead to tragedy with an accident during the 1955 race. The car of Pierre Levegh crashed into a crowd of spectators, killing more than 80 people. This in turn, led to widespread safety measures being introduced, not only at Le Mans, but elsewhere in the world of motorsport. As safety standards increased, so did the achievable top speeds of the cars. The move from open-cockpit roadsters to closed-cockpit coupes would enable speeds over 200 mph on the Mulsanne. The Le Mans 24 hours race cars evolved to become largely based on production road cars.
The Ford GT40 was a high performance sports car and winner of the 24 hours of Le Mans four times in a row, from 1966 to 1969. It was built under the mandate of Henry Ford, who was enraged at Enzo Ferrari, and his company, Ferrari for backing out of a deal late in negotiations for the Ford Motor Company to purchase Ferrari. The Ford GT 40 Mk IV is the only race car built in America to win Le Mans outright, ending Ferrari’s 6-year streak of victories.
1970 – 1981
In the 1970s, race cars began achieving increasingly extreme speeds and car designs. Such extreme speeds resulted in the elimination of the race’s traditional standing start in favor of the rolling start. Production-based cars continued to participate, but were relegated to competing in the lower classes. Purpose-built prototype race cars became the order of the day at the 24 hours of Le Mans. The Porsche 917, 935, and 936 were dominant throughout the 70s, but a resurgence by French manufacturers Matra-Simca and Renault saw the first Le Mans 24 hours victories for the host nation since 1950.
1982 – 1993
Porsche dominated the 1980s at Le Mans with the new Group C race car formula that pushed the boundaries of fuel efficiency. The Porsche 956 and 962 were the demonstrations of the company’s innovations.. The chassis were relatively cheap and private race teams were able to purchase them in large quantities. The result, six consecutive wins at Le Mans for the Porsche chassis.
Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz made a return to sports car racing in the 1980s, while and the Japanese manufacturers Nissan, Toyota and Mazda competed with their prototypes; the latter the only manufacturer to realize success with its rotary-powered 787B.
In 1990, the Le Mans circuit would undergo perhaps its most significant modification. The iconic Mulsanne straight was altered to include two chicanes. This change was introduced to prevent race cars from achieving speeds in excess of 250 mph. Despite these changes, speeds of over 200 mph are still regularly reached at various points around the circuit.
1994 – 1999
A resurgence of production-based cars at the 24 Hours of Le Mans followed the end of the World Sportscar Championship. A loophole in the laws allowed Porsche to successfully convince the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) that its 962 Le Mans Supercar was actually a production car. This allowed Porsche to race its successful Porsche 962 for one final time. Not surprisingly, it dominated the field. Although the ACO closed the loophole for 1995, newcomer McLaren won the race in their supercar’s first appearance, thanks to its reliability, enabling it to beat faster, yet more trouble prone prototypes.
The rule bending trend continued throughout the 1990s as more exotic supercars were built in order to bypass the ACO’s rules regarding production based Le Mans race cars. This resulted in Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Nissan, Panoz, and Lotus entering the GT categories. By the 1999 event, these GT cars were competing with the Le Mans Prototypes of BMW, Audi, and Ferrari. BMW would ultimately finish with the victory that year. It was BMW’s first ever win at the Le Mans 24 hours circuit.
2000 – 2010
The increasing costs associated with running a car in the Le Mans 24 hours saw many major automobile manufacturers review their participation in the race. Among these manufacturers, only Audi would continue to compete, dominating the races with their R8. Other major automobile manufacturers made attempts to compete with Audi. None could match the performance of the Audi R8. After three consecutive victories, Audi provided engine, support staff and drivers to their corporate partner Bentley, who had returned in 2001. The factory-supported Bentleys were finally able to succeed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans ahead of privateer Audis in 2003.
By the end of 2005, after an impressive five victories for the Audi R8, and six to its V8 turbo engine, Audi introduced the R10 TDI diesel engine prototype car. Although this was not the first diesel-powered car to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it was the first to achieve victory. This era saw other alternative fuel sources being tried, including bio-ethanol.
Audi Racing driver Alan McNish illustrates the driver experience on the Circuit de La Sarthe during the 24 Hours of Le Mans
A Celebration of Motorsport
Race teams are invited for the privilege of 24 hours of racing at the Circuit de La Sarthe. They prepare a year in advance for this race, and they work hard throughout the race to keep their cars on the track and competitive. While the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a highly competitive event, and winners are declared in each class, in the end it is very much a celebration of automotive and racing heritage by all.
Best wishes to all of the race teams competing in the grandest of motoring occasions, the 2011 Le Mans Grand Prix d’Endurance