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100 years of Le Mans

12 months ago

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Andrew Frankel | Ti co-founder


7 June 2023

One hundred years ago a new motor race was announced, taking place on a street circuit to the south of the city of Le Mans in France. It prompted one respected observer to comment: ‘I think the whole thing’s crazy. Nobody’ll finish. Cars aren’t designed to stand that kind of strain for 24 hours.’ The observer was one WO Bentley whose cars would go on to win five of the next eight ‘Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans’.

In the world today there are just two other races that capture the imagination like Le Mans: the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. But while Monaco is usually done in fewer than two hours and Indy in around three, Le Mans is eight times the length of the latter, 12 times the former. There have been so many stories played out over the decades that all we can hope to do here is to provide a glimpse, the merest snapshot of some of the more remarkable happenings to have occurred at what many still regard as the world’s greatest race.

1923: One private Bentley enters and is stranded with a hole in its fuel tank four miles from the pits. Its driver, John Duff, runs the whole way, tells his teammate Frank Clement, who steals a bicycle, pedals the wrong way around the track with the race cars rushing towards him, repairs the tank and rejoins the race. They finish fifth

100 years of Le Mans

1927: All three factory Bentleys get caught up in the same accident at the notorious White House Corner. Two are so damaged they can’t move, the third struggles back to the bits where the chassis is found to be bent and the steering damaged. It also has only one headlight. Nevertheless it re-joins the race and wins by a margin which has still not been exceeded to this day

1932: After his teammate gets ill, Raymond Sommer drives solo for over 21 hours to win the race for Alfa Romeo

1949: After his team-mate gets ill, Luigi Chinetti drives solo for over 21 hours to win the race for Ferrari. This is the same Luigi Chinetti who himself had become unwell 17 years earlier when teammates with Raymond Sommer

The First Le Mans

1950: Eddie Hall enters his 16-year-old Bentley, the oldest car to race at Le Mans before or since. He completes the race, comes eighth and becomes the first and last man to drive Le Mans solo

1952: Pierre Levegh tries to win the race solo because he thinks he is the only person who can persuade his Talbot’s engine to last the distance. With one hour remaining, leading by miles, he misses a gear and blows up the engine

1955: Mike Hawthorn driving a Jaguar swerves in front of an Austin-Healey and jams on the brakes to stop at his pit. Lance Macklin driving the Healey swerves in avoidance just as Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes is trying to pass. The Mercedes launches off the back of the Healey and goes into the crowd killing Levegh and over 80 others, in the worst accident in the history of motorsport. Macklin and Hawthorn are unharmed

1965: The race is won by an utterly unfancied private Ferrari after the factory Fords and Ferraris all fail. The car is driven by Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory, but another unregistered driver, one Ed Hugus, claimed to have done a stint in the car in the middle of the night. If he had, the car would have been instantly disqualified

100 years of Le Mans

1966: Ford tries to stage-manage the finish with two of its cars in a dead heat as they cross the line. But the organisers consider that the car that started further back on the grid had covered the greater distance so deemed that to be the winner

1969: In protest at the dangers of the traditional running start, Jacky Ickx walks slowly across the track to his car while others blast off into the race. Twenty-four hours later he wins the race by less than 100 yards, the closest non-stage managed finish in Le Mans history

1971: Jackie Oliver laps the circuit in 3min 13.6sec, the first ever 250km/h (155mph) lap. Because of changes to the rules and circuit, it would be 14 years before anyone lapped the track at a higher average speed

1980: Jean Rondeau wins in a Rondeau, the first and only time Le Mans has been won by a driver in a car bearing his own name

1981: An era of Porsche dominance begins with the first of seven straight wins for Porsche. In 1986 the first seven cars over the line are all Porsches, and nine of the top ten

100 years of Le Mans

1991: Mazda becomes the first Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans, exploiting a loophole in the rules which excluded it from restrictions that applied to other similar cars

1994: The rules are written to ensure only a car based on a street machine can win. So Porsche takes its racing prototype 962, makes one road-legal version, then uses that car to homologate its race car, in essence turning a race car into a road car so it can turn it back into a race car. The race organisers are outraged but can find no grounds for banning it. The so-called ‘Dauer 962’ wins

1995: McLaren wins, making it only the second manufacturer after Ferrari in 1949 to win Le Mans at its first attempt. For these purposes we do not count the Chenard et Walcker that won the very first Le Mans in 1923

100 years of Le Mans

2003: Bentley wins Le Mans for the sixth time, 71 years after its fifth

2006: A diesel-powered Audi wins Le Mans, the first time the race has been won by that power source. Diesels win the next five on the trot, but none since

2016: The Toyota of Kazuki Nakajima breaks down on the very last lap while leading the race. Although it does finally stagger over the line, the final lap has taken too long to complete. It is not even classified as a finisher

2023: Ferrari returns to Le Mans as a factory team at the top level for the first time in 50 years on the 100th anniversary of the race. All tickets and camping sites sold out before Christmas. The crowd will be desperate for Ferrari to win, but Toyota have won the last five Le Mans, plus every round of the championship this year and will be very hard to beat. And, just to spice it up a bit, Porsche is returning as a works team for the first time since its last win in 2017 and is by far the most successful manufacturer ever to race at Le Mans. It has the makings of a classic contest

100 years of Le Mans