The 24 Hours of Le Mans, is the oldest active sports car race in endurance racing in the world. It has taken place annually, since 1923 just outside of the town LeMans, France. The “Circuit de la Sarthe” is a combination of, closed public streets and a specialist racing circuit. Roughly 50 competitors compete in this event. Currently, Tom Kristensen hold the record for most wins as a driver(9), Joest Racing Team holds most wins as a team(13), and Porsche holds most wins as a manufacturer(17).
Everybody hears Le Mans and thinks of, the Mazda 787b or the Porsche 962c. But if you go back in the history, Mazda actually started with the 717c. Mazda entered two, 717c racecars into the 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing 12th and 18th place overall, and being the only cars to finish the “C junior” class!
Mazda 717c on the Circuit de la Sarthe
Cars and Their Requirements.
The race takes place in June, starting mid-day, going through to the next day. Closed cockpit cars had poor ventilation and could get extremely warm inside.
Cars with an open cockpit, were not required to have doors, where in a closed cockpit car, you could not have more than 2 doors.
All competitors race at the same time, however, they are not all competing against each other. There has been more classes in the past, but there currently are four. The classes consist of, LMP1 and LMP2 (Le Mans Prototype), and the two are separated by weight, power output, and speed. The next two classes are GT Endurance Pro and GT Endurance AM (Production based Grand Tourer). There is an overall prize, which is obviously more than likely to be won by a higher class competitor, but on occasions a lower class has won due to more reliability.
Back when Le Man’s originally started, there were no limits on how many drivers a team can have for one car. A few drivers tried to run the entire event solo, trying to reduce time from switching drivers. This practice has since been forbidden. Most teams have two drivers.
Drivers were not permitted to race for more than 4 hours consecutively, and one driver could not drive for more than 14 hours in total due to the strain on the driver caused by speed.
Traditions and Uncommon Rules
Because of the length of the race, it has different rules than most races. Cars were not allowed to pit within the first hour to change liquids (oil, coolant) with the exception of fuel. Cars with lost fluids in the first hour were disqualified from the race, due to lack of reliability.
As for another test of reliability, while refueling the car must be shut off. This rule tested to see if the car could turn on/off under hard racing conditions. The pit crew was not allowed to work on the car, nor its tires while refueling. However, teams were able to change drivers while the car was refueling.
A tradition to starting the race, is the waving of the tri-color flag, shortly followed by fly-over jets smoke trailing red, white, and blue.
In 1967, Dan Gurney and his Co-Driver A. J Foyt mounted the victory podium, which led to the first known instance of a race winner spraying champagne instead of drinking it.
Dan Gurney spraying the Champagne
Days of The Race
The first race took place in 1923, on May 26th and it carried on through the 27th.
“Test Days” were held at the track at the end of April, or beginning of May. However, the cost of competitors transporting their cars twice, was costly. They moved the “Test Day” to the first weekend in June, shortly followed by the race, the second weekend.
The race takes place at 3pm on the 26th of June carrying through to 3pm the 27th.
1971 Le Mans Flier
Generally the car that were to cover the greatest distance was the overall winner.
In 1966, Ken Miles took a slight “lead” over Bruce McLaren. However, McLaren’s car was placed much further back on the starting grid. McLaren actually won the race, along with his Co-Driver, Chris Amon by an astonishing eight meters! This caused Miles a victory, which previous that year he won at Sebring and Daytona endurance races. If he were to have won at Le Mans, it would have made him not only, the only man to win all three, but the only man in the world to win all three in the same year! Miles was one of the oldest racers on the circuit. He was killed later that year, in a crash.
The determination of winning by most distance covered was over-ruled and replaced by, most laps completed.
In order to be in the final “Race Results”, you had to cross the finish line after the 24 hours was up. Racers used to sit in the pits, or near the finish line for hours in their damaged cars and restart their engines at the 24 hour mark just to be classified as a finisher. This practice was later banned, and it was required, finishing teams must cover a certain distance within the last hour in order to be registered as a finisher.
A finishing requirement was that each team car must complete 70% of the overall distance as the winner. If a racer were to fail at this requirement, they were not listed as a finisher, due to lack of speed/reliability, even if they were to finish the race.
Ken Miles and his Co-Driver Denny Hulme at the pits
How The Race Started
Until 1962 the cars were lined along the pits, on the grid in order from the size of their engines (in 1963 this changed to having qualifying times determine the starting grid). All competitors stood on the opposite side of the stretch and when the French Tri-Colors dropped they ran to their car and took off without assistance. In the late 1960s this became a safety hazard, due to many drivers running many laps, either not properly harnessed or not even harnessed at all! That resulted in many deaths during wrecks.
This starting method was not an issue for Porsche. They looked at it as an opportunity to be better. Porsche, still using a left hand drive car, put the ignition on the left side of the steering wheel so the driver could also be putting the car into gear at the same time as he was rolling the engine over.
However a driver by the name of, Stirling Ross had developed a way that consisted of rolling the starter over in the car, while the car was in first gear with the clutch engaged. Obviously, the car would just jerk forward, but he did it until the car was rolling fast enough to get the engine speed high enough to completely fire.
In 1969, a racer by the name of, Jacky Ickx thought running to your car and taking off, not properly harnessed was nonsense. Ickx, walked to his car as all his competitors ran, while almost being hit by a competitor car, Jacky took his time making sure he was secured in his car, and his car was ready to go. Racer, John Woolfe, who was one to rush to his car and not worry about safety died in a crash on the first lap; Ickx later won the race.
In 1970, the starting changed. The cars were still lined along the pit, in the order of fastest qualifying. However, drivers were already in their car, harnessed in with the engines off. The drivers were not permitted to start their engines until the Tri-Colors dropped.
That method only happened in 1970. In 1971, it was changed to a rolling start (Indianapolis start).
Competitors running to their cars as the flag drops
Since 1923, the track has been heavily modified, mostly for safety concerns and is currently, roughly 8.5 miles long. Originally the track partially ran through the town of Le Mans, but has since been redirected to better safety of the spectators.
This safety act cause the “Dunlop Curve” and the “Tertre Corners” just before joining back to the old circuit.
Another major change came upon in 1990, where the FIA made it apparent that they would no longer sanction a circuit that had any longer than, 1.2 miles of a straight stretch. This led to the two chicanes in the straight so drivers were not traveling at high rates of speed for such a long period of time. Before this change the straight was 3.7 miles in length.
Another reason for this precaution was in 1988, racer Roger Dorcey was timed going 252 MPH. Since the actions of shorting the track, average speeds on the circuit was roughly 200 MPH.
History of Le Mans!
With original plans to declare the winner each 3 years, by competing to see who could cover the most distance in 24 hours, three times. However, this idea was looked past and a winner was declared every year for the most distance covered in 24 hours.
At the time Bugatti, Bentley, and Alfa Romeo were three of the fastest brands. Although teams didn’t start using very effective aerodynamic body until the 1930s, starting with Bugatti and Alfa Romeo striving to be able to run down the track faster.
In 1936 the competition was cancelled due to “general strikes” in France.
A ten year hiatus was entered into 1939 due to World War II.
With the race coming back after 10 years, it caught the attention of car manufactures, including Ferrari which they took first place in 1949.
In 1953, because Le Mans was a part of the “World Sportscar Championship”, it triggered companies such as, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Ferrari, Aston Martin, and many, many more to compete. Manufactures entered multiple cars, supported by outstanding work done by the manufactures themselves.
The competition itself, is extremely dangerous. Competitors are at times passing each other at upwards of 180 MPH. But spectating is also dangerous.
In 1955, racer Pierre Levegh, tragically crashed into spectators. Leaving more than 80 people dead, this started a whole new movement for safety for more than just Le Mans. After this incident it left officials to completely reconstruct the pit and widen the starting straight. With this movement, every competitor looked at it as an opportunity to go faster, seeing as they were more “safe”. This caused teams with “open cockpit” cars to go to “closed cockpit”.
The late 60s is when Ford introduced the GT40, which finally ended the four year winning streak of Ferrari.
This is the decade where teams built the car, more for speed. The most dominant manufacturer throughout the decade was by far, Porsche. Production based cars still ran and competed, they however were placed in a lower class since purpose-built sports cars became the normal competitor.
This was the time that one of the most iconic cars was introduced.
In 1984, the “Group C” Porsche 962 came in to play with competitors. However as Porsche introduced the 962, replacing the 956, Jaguar returned in 1988 to end Porsche’s six year winning streak.
In 1991, Mazda became the first Japanese manufacture to place first, with their 26B-Powered 4 Rotor, 787B.
As the participation of Group C faded, Peugeot came to make a statement with their Peugeot 905, winning in 1992, and 1993.
During this time, the circuit has been modified a lot. At this time is when two chicanes were added to the Mulsanne to slow the speed of most competitors. It still is not uncommon for most competitors to do 200 MPH in the straights.
Porsche changed some features about the 962, convincing the ACO it was a production car, which allowed Porsche to to race the 962 one more time.
This led to more super cars trying to abide by the rules and build the cars to classify as “Production Based Cars”. This put manufactures such as Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Nissan, Panoz, and Lotus in the GT class. These GT cars were competing against LMP cars from BMW, Audi, and Ferrari.
In 1999, BMW took their first and only win, whilst Mercedes disappeared from sports car racing due to unreliability and aerodynamic flaws with the CLR.
Since the Le Mans race brought in so many manufactures, it led ACO to lend the “Le Mans” name to racing in the States. In 1999 came the “American Le Mans Series” which at the end of 2013 merged with Grand-Am and form into United Sports Car Championship.
With all the new competition, and the high cost of building the cars, many manufactures stopped competing. Aside from Audi and Cadillac who stuck around. With Audi proving the total dominance with the R8, Cadillac gave up three years later. Many attempts by other manufactures such as Panoz, Chrysler, and MG have been brought up, but they all could not seem to compete. With getting bored after three wins, Audi reached out and provided an engine, team, and drivers for Bentley.
In 2001, Bentley returned and in 2003, they defeated privateer Audis with the factory Bentley Speed 8s.
Meanwhile in the GTS class, The Chevrolet Corvette Racing Team took many, many victories with their C5-R.
After Audi getting bored with the R8 and the turbo V8 engine, they introduced a whole new level of competition. The Audi R10 TDI was brought into the race, although it was not the first diesel to compete, it however was the first diesel to win.
In 2007 this led to Peugeot trying an different fuel type, with that being bio-ethanol, which introduced their car, the 908 HDi FAP.
In 2008 the R10 beat the 908 by a slight 10 minutes.
As for the 2009 24 Hours of Le Mans, Peugeot brought on a new engine recovery management identical to the Formula One style. Aston Martin competed in the LMP1 class, but had private team racing in the GT1. Audi returned with the R15 TDI but could not compete with Peugeot, which had taken their first win since 1993.
Racing in 2010, Peugeot aimed more towards speed instead of reliability, as for Audi did the opposite. In the end, Peugeot retired from the race because three car lost due to engine failures. Audi took 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place.
Audi had three cars entered in the 2011 race. The first car had crashed the first hour, barrel rolling into a tire wall. The second crash, which was the defending winning car happened during the night, in the same fashion. The third Audi went on to win the race.
The event in 2012, Peugeot was replaced with two Toyota cars. However the first car had crashed and flipped and the second car retired due to mechanical issues, which gave Audi, yet another win.
As of 2015, it is no secret that Porsche is one of the most successful manufacturers, with a record breaking 7 wins in a row and 17 overall victories.
I really hope you enjoyed reading this blog as much as I enjoyed typing it. I personally learned a lot along the way, and I hope it taught you a thing or two that you didn’t know. Please if there is any information that is false and you can show proof of, tell me and I will gladly change it. This was a very exciting topic for me to type about, and I enjoyed every bit of it.
If there is anything you would like an informational blog about, comment and let me know. I, as well as all the other bloggers, would be more than happy to extend the knowledge!
-Dakota O (MiAutoFed)
Site of sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/24_Hours_of_Le_Mans#Classification, http://www.24h-lemans.com/en/race/legend_2_2_1739.html