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The 24 hours of Le Mans

24h du Mans

For those of you who don't know yet: Le Mans is a sports car race, it's the biggest and most famous endurance sports car race on this planet. But actually it's much more than just a race, with 200,000 - 300,000 people watching it and the Woodstock-type atmosphere you will find each June at the Sarthe calling it a festival is much closer to reality.

Le Mans 1923 Poster

The first edition of this race was started in 1923. The concept of driving around the clock and especially at night was something new at that time; the idea behind it was to test not only the chassis and engines for reliability but also accessories like headlights, which were in the early stages of development. This basic idea hasn't changed that much until nowadays because besides speed it's still reliability which gets you on the podium, but the headlights are usually not that decisive any more...

Pre-war years were dominated by manufacturers like Bugatti, Bentley and Alfa Romeo, in the first decades after the war Ferrari, Mercedes and Jaguar were very successful. In those early years, drivers had to service their cars by themselves at the pits. Unfortunately Le Mans is also known for the worst accident in the history of motor racing. During the 1955 race Pierre Levegh's Mercedes struck the rear of an Austin Healey driven by Lance Macklin on the pit straight. The car rammed the bank, exploded, and its engine flew into the packed grandstand, killing more than 80 and leaving hundreds of spectators injured. Levegh died instantly and the entire Mercedes team was withdrawn, including Stirling Moss and Juan-Manuel Fangio. After this disaster Mercedes Benz retired completely from motor racing and it took more than 30 years before they came back to the scene.

Le Mans 1967

1967: Downhill from Dunlop bridge to the "Esses", © Derek Appleyard

The Sixties gave Le Mans an enormous boost in publicity, especially with the big battles fought between Ford and Ferrari. The Ford GT40 was actually built for the express purpose of defeating Ferrari, after Enzo Ferrari backed out of a deal to sell his company to Henry Ford II. In 1966 Henry Ford himself travelled to Le Mans to arrange his cars for a picturesque 1-2-3 win. This was followed by 3 more wins for the GT40. 1969 saw the closest finish ever, with just about 100 metres gap between the winning Ford GT40 of Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver and the Porsche 908 driven by Hermann and Larousse. The same year saw also the end of the famous Le Mans starts where drivers had to run over the track, jump into their cars and start them. Belgian Jacky Ick considered this start method unsafe and instead of running across the track to his car, he slowly walked, then entered in his car and locked the safety belts properly. Even though he got away last from the grid, he won it. Since then it's a lap behind a pace car and a rolling start.

The Seventies saw a lot of smiling local spectators, with French success 1971-1973 (Matra with local hero Henri Pescarolo) and in 1978 (Renault). Since 1977 teams have been allowed to put 3 drivers in a car, before that there were just 2 of them who had to share the driving and even solo driving was permitted in the early years.

The most successful manufacturer in the history of this race is Porsche, with 16 overall wins between 1970 and 1998, the first one with the legendary 917. Their most successful driver was the Belgian Jacky Ickx, who scored 4 of his 6 Le Mans wins behind the wheel of Porsche cars. Porsche also became famous for producing one of the most long-lasting race cars, the 956/962 model which scored consecutive wins 1982-1987, after that Mercedes (1989) and Jaguar (1988, 1990) restored some former glory. Since 2000 German manufacturer Audi dominates at Le Mans with 7 overall wins, 2 of them with a Diesel-engine powered car.

Pit lane at Le Mans 1988

The race track: The "Circuit des 24 Heures" is a non-permanent track using local roads that remain open to the public most of the year. In the original configuration, the race track was 17.26 km (10.73 miles) long, and it has subsequently been shortened on several occasions. The most dramatic modifications happened in 1990, when the famous 7 km long Mulsanne straight was divided by 2 chicanes to cut down the top speeds which were close to 400 km/h at that time. The length of the current race track is 13.65 km (approx. 8.5 miles).

The drivers: Hermann Lang, Phil Hill, Bruce McLaren, Jacky Ickx, Graham Hill: the list of the winners shows a lot of famous big names in Motorsport, especially during the Sixties and Seventies when it was common that Grand Prix drivers did some sports car racing as well. This has changed in the last 2 decades, in the age of exclusive contracts and regular overlapping with the Grand Prix calendar you won't find active Formula One drivers on the grid any more. But beside the experienced old hands of sportscar racing there is always a lot of young talent to watch. Grand Prix drivers like Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard, Mark Webber (Mercedes SLK flight captain in 1999) and Alex Wurz (youngest winner ever in 1996) earned some merits at Le Mans already before they went into Grand Prix racing. Current record holder at Le Mans is the Dane Tom Kristensen with 7 overall victories!

Sporting regulations - as of 2008

The start

Pit stops

Repairs

End of race / classification

Time penalties

Drivers

En route

Fuel

Tyres

Overall winners since 1923

Year Car Driver (Nationality)
1923 Chenard & Walcker André Lagaché (F), René Leonard (F)
1924 Bentley 3-Litre John Duff (GB), Francis Clement (GB)
1925 La Lorraine Gérard De Courcelles (F), André Rossignol (F)
1926 La Lorraine Robert Bloch (F), André Rossignol (F)
1927 Bentley 3-Litre Dudley Benjafield (GB), Sammy Davis (GB)
1928 Bentley 4.5 Woolf Barnato (GB), Bernard Rubin (GB)
1929 Bentley Six Speed Woolf Barnato (GB), Sir Henry Birkin (GB)
1930 Bentley Six Speed Woolf Barnato (GB), Glen Kidston (GB)
1931 Alfa Romeo 8C-2300sc Earl Howe (GB), Sir Henry Birkin (GB)
1932 Alfa Romeo 8C-2300sc Raymond Sommer (F), Luigi Chinetti (I)
1933 Alfa Romeo 8C-2300sc Raymond Sommer (F), Tazio Nuvolari (I)
1934 Alfa Romeo 8C-2300sc Luigi Chinetti (I),Phillipe Etancelin (F)
1935 Lagonda M45R J.S. Hindmarsh (GB), Louis Fontes (RA)
1936: Race was cancelled
1937 Bugatti S7Gsc Jean-Pierre Wimile (F), Robert Benoist (F)
1938 Delhaye 135M Eugène Chaboud (F), Jean Tremoulet (F)
1939 Bugatti S7Gsc Jean-Pierre Wimile (F), Pierre Veyron (F)
1940-1948: Races were cancelled
1949 Ferrari 166MM Luigi Chinetti (USA), Lord Selsdon (GB)
1950 Talbot-Lago Louis Rosier (F), Jean-Louis Rosier (F)
1951 Jaguar C-Type Peter Walker (GB), Peter Whitehead (GB)
1952 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Hermann Lang (D), Fritz Reiss (D)
1953 Jaguar C-Type Tony Rolt (GB), Duncan Hamilton (GB)
1954 Ferrari 375 Juan Froilan Gonzales (RA), Maurice Trintignant (F)
1955 Jaguar D-Type Mike Hawthorn (GB), Ivor Bueb (GB)
1956 Jaguar D-Type Ron Flockhart (GB), Ninian Sanderson (GB)
1957 Jaguar D-Type Ron Flockhart (GB), Ivor Bueb (GB)
1958 Ferrari 250TR58 Olivier Gendebien (B), Phil Hill (USA)
1959 Aston Martin DBR1 Caroll Shelby (USA), Roy Salvadori (GB)
1960 Ferrari 250TR59/60 Olivier Gendebien (B), Paul Frère (B)
1961 Ferrari 250TR61 Olivier Gendebien (B), Phil Hill (USA)
1962 Ferrari 250P Olivier Gendebien (B), Phil Hill (USA)
1963 Ferrari 250P Ludovico Scarfiotti (I), Lorenzo Bendini (I)
1964 Ferrari 275P Jean Guichet (F), Nino Vaccarella (I)
1965 Ferrari 250LM Jochen Rindt (A), Masten Gregory (USA)
1966 Ford GT40 Mk II Chris Amon (NZ), Bruce McLaren (NZ)
1967 Ford GT40 Mk IV Dan Gurney (USA), A.J. Foyt (USA)
1968 Ford GT40 Pedro Rodriguez (MX), Lucien Bianchi (B)
1969 Ford GT40 Jacky Ickx (B), Jackie Oliver (GB)
1970 Porsche 917 Hans Hermann (D), Richard Attwood (GB)
1971 Porsche 917 Helmut Marko (A), Gijs van Lennep (NL)
1972 Matra-Simca MS670 Henri Pescarolo (F), Graham Hill (GB)
1973 Matra-Simca MS670B Henri Pescarolo (F), Gérard Larousse (F)
1974 Matra-Simca MS670B Henri Pescarolo (F), Gérard Larousse (F)
1975 Mirage-Ford M8 Jacky Ickx (B), Derek Bell (GB)
1976 Porsche 936 Jacky Ickx (B), Gijs van Lennep (NL)
1977 Porsche 936 Jacky Ickx (B), Jurgen Barth (D), Hurley Haywood (USA)
1978 Renault-Alpine A442 Jean-Pierre Jaussaud (F), Didier Pironi (F)
1979 Porsche 935 Klaus Ludwig (D), Bill Whittington (USA), Don Whittington (USA)
1980 Rondeau-Ford M379B Jean-Pierre Jausxaud (F), Jean Rondeau (F)
1981 Porsche 936-81 Jacky Ickx (B), Derek Bell (GB)
1982 Porsche 956-82 Jacky Ickx (B), Derek Bell (GB)
1983 Porsche 956-83 Vern Schuppan (AUS), Hurley Haywood (USA), Al Holbert (USA)
1984 Porsche 956B Klaus Ludwig (D), Henri Pescarolo (F)
1985 Porsche 956B Klaus Ludwig (D), Paolo Barilla (I), "John Winter" (D)
1986 Porsche 962C Derek Bell (GB), Hans Stuck (D), Al Holbert (USA)
1987 Porsche 962C Derek Bell (GB), Hans Stuck (D), Al Holbert (USA)
1988 Jaguar XJR-9LM Johnny Dumfries (GB), Jan Lammers (NL), Andy Wallace (GB)
1989 Sauber-Mercedes C9 Jochen Mass (D), Stanley Dickens (S), Manuel Reuter (D)
1990 Jaguar XJR-12 Martin Brundle (GB), John Nielsen (DK), Price Cobb (USA)
1991 Mazda 787B Johnny Herbert (GB), Bertrand Gachot (B), Volker Weidler (D)
1992 Peugeot 905 Derek Warwick (GB), Yannick Dalmas (F), Mark Blundell (GB)
1993 Peugeot 905B Geoff Brabham (AUS), Eric Helary (F), Christophe Bouchut (F)
1994 Dauer Porsche 962LM Yannick Dalmas (F), Hurley Haywood (USA), Mauro Baldi (I)
1995 McLaren F1 GTR Yannick Dalmas (F), J.J. Lehto (SF), Masanori Sekiya (J)
1996 Porsche WSC95 Manuel Reuter (D), Alex Wurz (A), Davy Jones (USA)
1997 Porsche WSC95 Michele Alboreto (I), Stefan Johannson (S), Tom Kristensen (DK)
1998 Porsche 911 GT1 Allan McNish (GB), Stéphane Ortelli (F), Laurent Aiello (F)
1999 BMW V12 LMR Yannick Dalmas (F), Jo Winkelhock (D), Pierluigi Martini (I)
2000 Audi R8 Frank Biela (D), Tom Kristensen (DK), Emanuele Pirro (I)
2001 Audi R8 Frank Biela (D), Tom Kristensen (DK), Emanuele Pirro (I)
2002 Audi R8 Frank Biela (D), Tom Kristensen (DK), Emanuele Pirro (I)
2003 Bentley EXP Speed 8 Rinaldo Capello (I), Tom Kristensen (DK), Guy Smith (GB)
2004 Audi R8 Rinaldo Capello (I), Tom Kristensen (DK), Seiji Ara (J)
2005 Audi R8 Tom Kristensen (DK), JJ Lehto (SF), Marco Werner (D)
2006 Audi R10 Frank Biela (D), Marco Werner (D), Emanuele Pirro (I)
2007 Audi R10 Frank Biela (D), Marco Werner (D), Emanuele Pirro (I)