A legendary race
Le Mans 24 Hours, inaugurated in 1923, is one of the most prestigious races in the world. André Lagache and René Leonard won its opening race and that first trophy was called Rudge Whitworth Cup.
The circuit de la Sarthe hosts this race with a semi-permanent course which is 13.629 kilometres long, located in the city of Le Mans, France. The permanent race track is known as Bugatti Circuit (1965), where the defiant Dunlop curve is, whereas the non-permanent track includes local roads that remain open to the public most of the year.
Le Mans’ race is an endurance test which takes 24 hours and requires the best of drivers and racing cars. Concentration and perfection are sine qua non conditions to get the victory since throughout the whole day both man and machine are taken to the limit. Given the slightest sign of weakness, Le Mans is ruthless (in case of doubt, ask Toyota ,which lost the 2016 race just a few minutes before the finish).
Taste of Competition
Le Mans is synonymous with competition. Throughout history the best firms in the world have gone to the Circuit de la Sarthe to beat each other and better themselves. Brands like Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, Mazda, McLaren or Ferrari know what surviving day and night is, being the fastest to taste the champagne. But the king of Le Mans is Porsche with 18 victories, from the early seventies with the memorable Porsche 917. Close behind is Audi, which has become the real 21st century leader.
As for drivers, the most acclaimed one is Tom Kristensen who holds nine victories with three different teams (Audi, Porsche and Bentley), followed by the Formula One World runner-up Jacky Ickx, with six victories. The latter was a real motor sport passionate, participating in dozens of different competitions and driving for firms as prestigious as Ferrari, Porsche or Ford. With the last one he would get his first victory at Le Mans in the iconic Ford GT 40.
A life that goes a long way
Since this almost centenarian race was celebrated for the first time, many memorable events have taken place which now belong to history. One of them was the devastation of the circuit because of the Second World War bombings, something which prevented from competing during the whole forties decade. Afterwards, all the organizer ACO (Automobile Club de L’Ouest) wanted was recovering 24 Hours of Le Mans. The local population also got involved by collecting the money necessary for rebuilding. The joined forces of the ACO, the French Government and even the British Racing Drivers’ Club bore fruit and at last in 1949 the 24 Hours of Le Mans race was pulsating with life again for everybody’s enjoyment. Merci.
From then on the circuit has been redesigned several times with the aim of improving safety to prevent accidents. One of the most serious ones took place in 1955, when an unfortunate crash between the Austin Healey driven by Lance Macklin and the Mercedes by Pierre Levegh made the latter literally take off and hurtle out of control into the granstand. In this tragic event 82 spectators and the Mercedes driver passed away. Consequently, Mercedes left Le Mans and all kinds of competitions until the year 1989.
24 Hours is not the only race carried out at the Bugatti Circuit. It has also hosted MotoGP races, rounds of the DTM (German Touring Car Series) and even the 1967 French Grand Prix, race which Jack Brabham won.
Le Mans, more than a race
Some things have changed in the race, like the starting itself. Nowadays a rolling start begins it but in the past it used to begin with the drivers running across the track to enter their cars. In 1969, however, Jacky Ickx opposed it by walking while his competitors ran and, even so, he eventually won.
There were many rivalries all over the years, but specially a memorable one in the sixties, when Ferrari ruled at Le Mans although its finances were anything but comfortably off. Because of this, Ferrari’s Il Commendatore, Enzo Ferrari, tried to negotiate with Ford’s president, Henry Ford II. When everything seemed to be going smoothly for Ferrari sale, Enzo changed his mind and left the deal. This provoked a sport vendetta which made Ford produce a car on purpose to beat Ferrari, goal achieved time after time from 1966 to 1969. The name of that car surely rings a bell: Ford GT 40.
24 Hours of Le Mans has gone beyond the boundaries of the motor world and landed on industries like that of the videogames and the cinema. In the latter, Steve McQueen brilliantly recreated the feelings and experience of this phenomenon with the wonderful movie Le Mans (1971).
It is also a must to mention specially the spectators who attend 24 Hours of Le Mans, the true fuel of this race. More than 250,000 people are attracted to its granstand. Quite amazing! Thanks to them, the Mulsanne Straight has been done by real thoroughbreds such as Alfa Romeo 8C, Ferrari 250 LM, Ford GT40, Porsche 917K, Mazda 787B (with a Wankel-type rotary engine), McLaren F1, or Audi R18 e-tron.
The quick circuit and the long straights made aerodynamics basic, in such a way that it was developed to lead air flows and gain aerodynamic load and speed. Cars like the Sauber Mercedes C9 or the WM P88-Peugot have managed to exceed 400 kmh at Le Mans.
The triumvirate formed by the 24 Hours of Le Mans together with the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix became the unofficial achievement known as The Triple Crown of Motorsport, title held only by Graham Hill (Formula One World Champion).
Translated by Jose Vicente Duran