So many stories come out of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Thousands of drivers have taken part since the first race in 1923 and every one of them has a story to tell.
Stories of derring-do, of triumph and failure, of surviving right on the edge of what they and their car are capable of. Enough stories, in fact, to fill the hundreds of books and countless articles that have been written on the subject.
We couldn’t possibly begin to tell you all these stories, so we bring you what we think are the five best from motorsport’s Blue Ribband event.
The first race
The 24 Hours of Le Mans was inaugurated in 1923 by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. Up until then relatively short Grands Prix were the headline events of the motorsport calendar. To compete you needed a highly specialised car that wasn’t particularly relevant to the buying public, or at all reliable. The ACO wanted a race that would encourage manufacturers to build cars that were fast and reliable, using technology that could be fed back to road cars.
The organisors chose the pretty town of Le Mans, in the Loire region, to host the race. Le Mans had real motorsport history already, having been the base for the very first French Grand Prix in 1906. A 10.7 mile course, christened Circuit de la Sarthe, was laid out on mostly unmade public roads around the town.
A field of 66 drivers in 33 cars – both largely French – lined up to take the start. The cars stood stationary on one side of the track, the drivers sprinted across to them, fired up the engines and away they went. Frenchmen Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard won in a factory 3-litre Chenard & Walcker – both were engineers at the firm – completing 128 laps, covering 1372 miles at an average speed of 57mph. Remarkably, only three cars retired.
Images courtest of 24h-lemans.com; Telegraph.co.uk
The closest finish
The Ford GT40 dominated the 1966 race. The thunderous 7.0-litre cars run by Shelby-American held a 12 lap lead at the end of the race – ahead of the similar Holman & Moody car – so Ford decided to stage a photo finish. Unfortunately they completely botched it.
The Ken Miles/Denis Hulme #1 car was in the lead during the closing stages, but only narrowly ahead of the Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon #2 machine. 47 year-old Miles – possibly Britain’s best sports car racer of the time but now largely unknown – was expected to win and secure a unique triple, having already won the Daytona 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours. As the two cars approached the line, McLaren left a small margin, believing that Miles would be declared the winner.
Unfortunately, the race officials decided to take into account the fact that the #2 car had started the race further down the order than #1. So it was awarded the win on the basis it had actually travelled further. The margin of victory? Eight meters. It was a bitter disappointment for Miles. Sadly he never got another chance, dying in a crash at Riverside, California while testing the disastrous Ford J-Car just a couple of months later.
Images courtesy of Baddgt.com; Conceptcarz.com; Motorsportretro.com
The solo drive
There are very strict limits on how much time any one driver can spend in a car at Le Mans, these days. But it wasn’t always the case – there are plenty of examples of drivers who completed most of the race single-handed. In 1950, Louis Rosier was ostensibly sharing the driving with his son, Jean-Louis, but spent all but 45 minutes of the race behind the wheel of his Talbot-Lago. Incredibly, the pair won the race.
Only Pierre Levegh actually completed the race as a solo driver in 1952 and very nearly won – Rene Marchand was listed as co-driver, but it’s unclear if Levegh ever intended him to drive. Levegh was leading during the final hour in his own, rather outdated #8 Talbot-Lago, ahead of the cutting-edge factory Mercedes 300SLs. Probably through exhaustion, he missed a gearchange, over-revved the engine and broke a conrod, forcing him out.
Nevertheless, it was a heroic performance and a fitting memory of the dogged Levegh, who is sadly forever linked with the 1955 disaster at Le Mans that killed him and 83 spectators – the notoriety makes it easy to overlook the fact he was an innocent party.
Images courtesy of GRRC.Goodwood.com; Scale143.com; Bytesdaily.com
The highest top speed
The Circuit de la Sarthe that hosts the 24 Hours is defined by the 3.7-mile Ligne Droit des Hunaudieres, more commonly known as the Mulsanne Straight – after the village at the far end. Since 1990 it has been broken up by two strategically placed chicanes. But before they were installed, the cars ran completely unencumbered.
By the Sixties, the fastest cars were easily topping 200mph on the Mulsanne and a certain caché developed around posting the biggest number through the speed trap. As the Group C era arrived in 1982, speeds started reaching the stratosphere.
French constructor WM was an early adopter of Group C whose cars seemed to exist purely to go as fast as possible on the Mulsanne. They usually were as well, but the heavily turbocharged Peugeot engines were prone to expire under the pressure – they rarely actually finished the race. In 1988 team boss Gerard Welter decreed his new car would be the first to reach 400km/h during the race. And it was. Roger Dorchy achieved 407km/h (253mph) shortly before his car succumbed to a litany of technical issues just 59 laps in. Point proven, though.
It’s highly unlikely the record will ever be broken.
Images courtesy of Autodrome-Cannes.com; Artcurial.com; Brisbane956.com; Tech-racingcars.eu
The most unlikely win
There are many stories of the underdog triumphing at Le Mans. That of 1953 winners Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton, for instance. Believing they had been disqualified before the race on a minor technicality, they hit the sauce hard. The organisors were eventually persuaded to let them take the start, but Rolt and Hamilton were found drunk in a bar. Hamilton was offered coffee to sober up during the race, but it made him twitchy so he had brandy instead. They won by four laps. It’s worth pointing out that Hamilton was first-class yarn-spinner and Rolt and team manager Lofty England refuted the story.
Then there’s Jean Rondeau. Against stern opposition from Porsche, Rondeau and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud took victory in their Cosworth-powered machine, a car designed, built and entered by Rondeau himself on a shoestring budget. He remains the only driver to win Le Mans in a car bearing his own name.
But we’ll give the nod to the win achieved in 1995 by the Kokusai Kaihatsu-entered McLaren F1 GTR. The F1 was conceived purely as a road car and it wasn’t until an influential group of owners bandied together that designer Gordon Murray relented and adapted it for racing. It was cleaning up in the BPR GT series, but wasn’t expected to win at Le Mans against the significantly faster prototypes. But the F1 proved more reliable and crossed the line a lap ahead of the favourite Courage. It is the only production-based car to win since 1950. And the only one sponsored by a penis enlargement clinic – really!
Images courtesy of McLaren; Autocar.co.uk; Totalarseracingteam.co.uk
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By Only Motors