The 24 hours of Le Mans is the original and oldest endurance race and still the best. The legendary motor race got a major Hollywood boost back in 1971 in “Le Mans” staring Steve McQueen and has just got another Hollywood dressing by the movie “LeMans 66” which is an excellent watch. We’re going to take a step back and take a look at the history of the most prestigious automobile race in the world.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans or Grand Prix of Speed and Endurance, has been run annually since 1923 (apart from the year 1936 and 1940-1948 when the race was cancelled) at the Sarthe road-racing circuit, near Le Mans, France. The winner is judged on the car that travels the greatest distance in a 24-hour time period.
The racing circuit is roughly 8.5 miles (13.6 km) long, and the race is always run in June, when days are longest and nights are shortest. The track contains a mix of closed public roads and dedicated sections of racing track, where racing teams must balance the demands of speed with the cars’ ability to run for 24 hours without mechanical failure. Of the 60 cars which qualified for the 2018 race, 41 cars ran the full duration. The track has undergone some modifications since the race began, but largely has remained the same.
The Le Mans 24’s place in motor racing
In it’s early years, Grand Prix motor racing was the dominant form of motorsport throughout Europe, Le Mans was designed to present a different test. Instead of focusing on the ability building the fastest cars to go around a small track like F1, the 24 Hours of Le Mans would instead concentrate on the ability of manufacturers to build reliable, durable, fuel efficient race cars. It is truly an endurance race for both car and driver.
Le Mans is part (and most important part) of the Triple Crown of endurance racing, which links the three largest endurance races together, the 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Daytona (known as the Rolex 24 At Daytona) are the other legs of the so called Triple Crown.
Le Mans long been at the forefront of automotive pioneering and innovation issuing from major car companies. The push for greater speed, durability, aerodynamics, fuel efficiency over the years has been feed down to main stream manufacturing. The race has approximately 60 competitors every year and the cars are designated in two categories, Prototypes and GTs.
Those categories are further subdivided into the classifications of LMP1, LMP2 (Le Mans Prototype 2), LMP3 (Le Mans Prototype 3), then LM GTE (Grand Touring Endurance) and LMGTE AM.
The race has produced some pretty legendary cars over the years and has lead to great competition between manufacturers, the period of 1966 to 1980 is often referred to as the golden years of Le Mans. European manufacturers had completely dominated Le Mans and Ferrari had dominated the race since 1960 winning the previous six races in a row, but in 1966 a new supercar emerged called the Ford GT40 which finally toppled Ferrari. The three GT40’s at Le Mans 66 won gold, silver and bronze in Ford would go on to secure first place in the next four races, officially announcing America as the dominant force in the European racing circuit until 1971 when Porsche took over. The Porsche 917 would go on to win the race four times in the 1970’s.
Porsche largely dominated the 1980s, and at one point winning six in a row. Jaguar made a return winning in ’88 and ’90, and in 1989 Mercedes-Benz also made a comeback for the first time since the 1955 tragedy.
Originally, there were no rules on the number of drivers of a car, or how long they could drive. This practice was later banned due to safety concerns over driver fatigue. Up until the 1980s, there were teams which only two drivers, but by the end of the decade, the rules were changed to stipulate that at least three drivers must drive each car.
By the 1990’s, due to the speeds of the cars and the strain it puts on drivers, additional rules to reduce driver fatigue mandated that drivers could not drive for over 240 minutes over a 6-hour period, and that no one driver could run for over 14 hours total. Most teams are still three drivers but some still just use two with careful management of driver duration.
Le Mans uses its regulations to ensure driver and spectator safety and drivers are ranked in level of experience from “Platinum” to “Bronze.” Drivers can only participate in the divisions to which their classification corresponds. The race used to have a standing start, in which drivers had to run to their cars from a standing position to begin the race, but that was eliminated in the late 1960s when it was deemed a safety hazard.
Every decade has seen it’s fair share of disasters and horrific crashes but none more so that the year 1955, where the worst tragedy in motorsports history took place. At Le Mans 55, Frenchman Pierre Levegh was driving for the Mercedes-Benz team. Before the race, Levegh had voiced his concern that the area near the pit-stop section and the grandstand was too narrow, and therefore dangerous.
Piloting the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, Levegh was trying to overtake racer Mike Hawthorn’s Jaguar in that region of the track when Levegh’s Mercedes hit Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey, sending Levegh and the SLR into the air. The car launched out of the track and into the stands, exploding and killing Levegh and 83 spectators.
Mercedes-Benz exited the race after this terrible tragedy and didn’t participate for many years subsequently. In the wake of the disaster, many races were cancelled, including the Grand Prix races in Germany, Spain, and Switzerland. The accident was a huge turning point in terms of attitude regarding the safety of motorsports, and many new rules and regulations were introduced after this devastating tragedy.
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