It has been called the greatest test of motoring endurance. The track, the competition, the personalities, all conspiring to impart damage on the most high-performance vehicles in the world. For many, Le Mans is THE race of the year to watch. Twenty-four hours of grueling driving, putting strain on car, driver and pit crew alike. Any automaker can develop a vehicle that goes incredibly fast in short sprints. For 24 hours, the top competitors achieve speeds in excess of 200 mph at least once a lap. Due to the mix of dedicated race course and public roads, the track conditions put added stresses on the car. It is a place where the repetition, combined with small bouts of extreme tension, push a driver’s concentration to its limits.
There is Le Mans, and there is every other race in the world.
In the Beginning…
Not long after the first automobiles came about, auto racing took hold. The first known auto race was held in 1887 at Bois de Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris. It is fitting then, that the longest running active endurance race takes place in rural France.
The first 24 hour competition at Le Mans took place on May 26-27, 1923 on roads surrounding the town. Originally intended as a three-year event, this idea was ditched in 1928, and winners were awarded for individual years. The first decade-and-a-half was dominated by Bentley (Six and 3-Liter) and Alfa Romeo (8C 2300), with Bugatti hot on their heels. The first track-inspired car modification came about in the late 1930’s, in the form of more aerodynamic bodywork to take on the Mulsanne straight. It would be the first of many “trickle down” innovations developed for the track- many of them making their way into road cars.
Due to the outbreak of World War II, the track closed in 1939. It would not open again until 1949, following extensive efforts to rebuild the track and facilities. In the ten-year hiatus, Enzo Ferrari had spun off from Alfa Romeo to form his namesake company. In the first race since before the war, Ferrari won, in the gorgeously simple 166MM. It would be the first of decades of Prancing-Horse dominance at the track.
Innovation for All
There are three major areas of innovation that Le Mans racing has helped develop; braking, engines, and aerodynamics. The latter due to the high speeds achieved on the Mulsanne Straight. In the early years, race teams used road cars with body panels removed, but because of that long back stretch, higher speeds meant that cars needed better stability. One of the more profound examples of the custom bodywork came in 1950, when Briggs Cunningham entered two Cadillac Coupe DeVille’s. One of the Cadillac’s was nearly stock, while the other featured a special body co-developed with Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. It was aerodynamic, but looked very unusual. Finishing in 11th place, the French press dubbed it “Le Monstre.”
“Le Monstre” would portend the evolution of Le Mans-specific aerodynamics. Many teams would develop long tail designs to manage the high-speed aerodynamics. As this continued, the Le Mans cars and Grand Prix cars would begin to deviate greatly in design.
Heightened Competition Results in Tragedy
In 1953, Le Mans’ new role as a stop on the World Sportscar Championship brought in major factory backed teams from Aston Martin, Ferrari, Jaguar, and Mercedes-Benz. The latter had won the prior year in the iconic 300SL “Gullwing.” The next iteration of that car would be the focal point of one of the worst accidents that motorsports had ever seen.
At lap 35 of the 1955 race, two Mercedes SLR’s, an Austin Healy 100, and a Jaguar D-Type, were tightly packed on the front straight, alongside pit row. Mike Hawthorne in the D-Type was signaled to pit. The D-Type featured new disc brakes, and the quick deceleration startled Lance Macklin in the Austin Healy 100. Macklin took evasive maneuvers, which cut into the Mercedes 300 SLR driven by Pierre Levegh. Both cars hit the spectator grandstand side of the track. The SLR went airborne, somersaulting into the stands. The car disintegrated, and the magnesium frame of the car caught fire and burst into white-hot flames, which rescue workers could not put out for several hours. All told, 83 spectators, plus Levegh, died in the crash, and 120 were injured.
It was the most catastrophic event in motorsports. In a sign of respect to the victims of the crash, Mercedes-Benz withdrew their remaining entrants, which were leading at the time. As a result of the crash, safety features like guardrails and tire stacks were employed in all forms of auto racing.
Legends are Born
The Late 50’s and early 60’s would bring on Ferrari dominance, and the move to closed-cockpit racers. The former would solidify Ferrari’s legacy at the track, while the latter made for ever-increasing top-speeds.
While Ferrari was mopping up the competition with the 250 TRI’s, and the early “P” or “Prototypo” cars (like the 250P, 275P, and 250LM), Enzo Ferrari began to contemplate selling his successful racecar company. Ford was interested in an endurance racing team, and the two seemed like a perfect fit. However, at the last minute, Enzo backed out of the deal, which enraged Henry Ford II. He poured all of Ford’s resources into beating Ferrari at Le Mans. The result of their efforts were the GT40’s that dominated the competition from 1966 to 1969. The GT40, with its massive V8, overpowered the competition, and sailed to four straight victories.
Changes in the class rules made the GT40 obsolete, but also set the foundation for the modern prototype racers. For the Prototype class, engines were limited to 3-liters, and to compensate, constructors began to fashion more lightweight, aerodynamic body work. It was at this stage, that the prototypes began to diverge greatly from the road cars on which they were claimed to be based.
The higher speeds, in part, led to the end of the standing start at Le Mans. For decades, drivers would start at the pit wall, with their cars in the starting grid. When the French tricolor was waved, the drivers would run to their cars and take off. So iconic was this method, that it was known throughout racing as the “Le Mans Start.” This led to many varying tactics. Porsche put their ignition to the left of the steering wheel so that one hand could start the car while the other shifted. (Porsche’s still have the ignition located to the left of the steering wheel). Stirling Moss had his own clever tactic of starting the car in first gear, with the clutch engaged. The car would lunge forward, and while it was rolling, he would let out the clutch, which would finally let the engine start.
Still another tactic was performed by Jacky Ickx. In the 1969 race, Ickx casually walked across the track while others hastily pulled away before even strapping in. Ickx carefully put on his harnesses, started the car and pulled away. He would go on to win that 1969 race at the wheel of a 5-liter GT40 MK I.
Accidents caused by this type of start led to a rule change in 1970. Drivers would still start from a standstill, but would be strapped into their vehicle. The following year, the practice was ultimately abandoned, in favor of a rolling start.
The early 70’s would bring on a rivalry between the Porsche 917K and Ferrari 512P, though Porsche had the upper hand. This tete-a-tete was immortalized in the Steve McQueen movie “Le Mans”. The 917’s were stupendous cars, though fragile at times. The 917K featured a Kammbak design, which gave it stability at higher speeds.
German Dominance Gives Way to Variety of Winners
Following a heightened involvement from privateer racing teams, including John Wyer’s wild Mirage prototype, Porsche maintained a near-stranglehold on the podium, winning 9 out of 12 years, spanning from 1976 to 1987. That same year marked the return of Mercedes-Benz to Le Mans. They competed in the gorgeous Sauber 9C (also known as one of the last “Silver Arrows”) which would eventually win in 1989 competition.
As the 80’s drew to a close, cars like the Silk Cut Jaguar, (with its unique covered rear wheels) and the Mazda 787 (the first and only rotary-powered car to win) were among the super-fast Group C and prototype cars to push top speeds to as high as 249 mph. Race organizers embarked on the most notable change to the course in its history- adding a pair of chicanes to the Mulsanne straight. In spite of the changes, cars still reach top speeds of 199 mph.
The Great GT’s
Through the early 90’s, the rules of homologation ruled. Homologation allowed more powerful cars to enter the GT class if a certain number of road cars are sold. That included the Porsche 962, Porsche 911-GTR, and McLaren F1. The McLaren would prove incredibly reliable, and finished 1-3-4-5 in 1995. A number of other automakers would field production-based exotic road cars through the GT class, including the Panoz Esparante, Dodge Viper GTR, and Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR. By the end of the 90’s, the prototypes would regain the podium, and the popularity of these years would lead to the creation of the American Le Mans Series. ALMS continues to serve as qualifying for “le 24 Heueres du Mans.”
From here on Audi…
If you have been following Le Mans in the last decade, then you’ll know Audi has owned the track. The would-be streak from 2000 to 2005 was broken up by a 2003 win from Bentley with their Speed 8. It should be noted that the engine and race team were donated from Audi, as both companies fall under the Volkswagen umbrella.
The late 2000’s up until now has been the era of diesel. The R10 TDI, and R15 TDI has been doing battle with the Peugeot 908 (also diesel powered). The 908’s have been faster cars at times, but do not have the reliability of Audi’s 5.5-liter turbocharged V10. The wide power band of a diesel engine and superior fuel economy make them attractive options on the track.
Legacy of Le Mans
Perhaps no other track has seen as much drama as Circuit de la Sarthe. No other current endurance race has been run as long, and on as demanding of a track. The legacy of Le Mans is one of innovation, drama, and at times, tragedy.
Much like the F1 counterparts, the modern prototypes are seeing major breakthroughs in aerodynamics. As a result, their design is departing from what had been largely an evolution of the foundation of the Porsche 917, Ferrari 512 era. Yet it is just another stop in the march of progress brought on by a track whose challenges yield some of the greatest cars, most savvy innovations, and most terrific finishes in all of motorsport.
Stay tuned for more Le Mans cars and history tomorrow with: The List – The Top 5 Le Mans Cars for the Road!