Recent seasons have seen Audi dominate the event, taking thirteen victories overall and in LMP1 in the last fifteen years, although the 2015 edition of the race was set to be one of the most open in recent seasons. However, a collection of small issues across the three Audis throughout the race, combined with a slow pair of Toyotas and the debuting Nissan Nismos meant Porsche took their seventeenth victory overall with relative ease.
The success of the 24 Hours has seen several other events spring up using its format, although different regulations, and costs, are used. In America, the 24 Hours of Daytona was created in the 1960s, while the IMSA GT series was formed in the late 60s as a Championship. Modern creations using Le Mans Prototypes (cars built specifically for the 24 Hours of Le Mans), include the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, World Endurance Championship and the Le Mans Legends race held just before the Great Race since 2001.
The original 24 Hours of Le Mans was held in an attempt to prove that cars could be reliable, rather than speed machines that were dominating the world of motorsport through Grand Prix at the time. The Circuit de la Sarthe provided the perfect test, as it merged long straights (ie the Mulsanne), tight hairpin bends and sweeping turns, all on public roads (until the 1950s). This reliability factor has seen several developments emerge directly from the race, with many road cars benefitting from the Prototypes.
Innovations from Le Mans include fuel efficent aerodynamics, disc brakes, Wankel engines and ethanol fuels, all of which were tested extensively at Le Mans before they became mainstream in road cars. KERS, TERS and other hybrid systems have also been refined at the circuit over recent seasons, while different designs for almost trivial parts of the modern motorcar have also been developed to combat one of the hardest races in the world.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans has run almost continously since 1923, using, initially public roads, before the Bugatti Circuit, with purpose built pits, was created in the 1950s to make the race safer. Only a ten year break due to the Second World War (ie 1939 - 1948) and a General Strike in 1936 saw the race cancelled, although start times have been moved to ensure that the race can be run. The Circuit de la Sarthe has also been modified fairly regularly, as the cars continue to evolve from the almost primitave road cars of the 1920s, to the jet-fighter esque cars of the modern day.
A "Grand Prix of Endurance"Edit
The first ever 24 Hours of Le Mans was scheduled for the 26th to 27th of May 1923, advertised as the "Grand Prix of Endurance". 33 cars entered, with 30 finishing, on a circuit which ran from the modern start/finish line to the heart of the Le Mans town and back again, covering over 17.2km. The race was won by French privateers André Lagache and René Léonard in a Chenard et Walcker Sport, beating their nearest rivals by four laps. Although the initial rules of the race dictated that the team who covered the furthest distance over three 24 hour races was awarded the trophy, they were not awarded the Rudge-Whitworth Triennial Cup, which instead went to the Bentley team in 1925.
The Triennial Cup was competed for unitl 1928, when the ACO opted to simply award the winner of the race itself, with Bentley establishing a rapport with the event over the event's first decade. Bugatti and Alfa Romeo also found early success in the event until the end of the 1930s, when a General Strike, followed by the Second World War brought about a decade without the great race.
Danger and DramaEdit
After the circuit facilities were rebuilt in the post-World War Two recovery, the 24 Hours of Le Mans finally returned to the racing calendar in 1949. A British Privateer team, running former Italian turned American racer Luigi Chinetti (a former winner), and Brit Peter-Mitchell Thomson handed Ferrari their first win, running a 166MM. Speed, distance and reliability all continued to improve, until, in 1955, one of the worst accidents in motorsport history shook the world.
A late signal for Mike Hawthron to pit caused the Brit to slam on his Jaguar D-Type's brakes, a manoeuvre enhanced by the fact that the Jaguar was one of the first cars ever fitted with disk brakes. This caused the recently lapped Lance Macklin to brake hard himself in avoidence, throwing up a cloud of dust around his Austin-Healey 100. Pierre Levegh was the next man on the scene and, unsighted by the dust cloud, hit Macklin at around 150mph, sending his Mercedes 300 SLR into a somersault, which ended in a spectator area. Levegh was killed outright, while his car, and the debris from it, flew into the crowd, causing 77 deaths, the largest accident in motorsport history. The race itself continued, and saw Hawthorn win outright for Jaguar, although the crash itself had severe consequences for motorsport around the world.
The Swiss government, already uneasy about motorsport, outlawed the sport outright within their territory, while facilities across the world were modified to improve safety. Yet, Le Mans saw the most dramatic shift, with the entire pit complex wiped out and replaced further down the straight, allowing a wider track and better control of pitting cars. Yet, the speed of the cars itself was not tackled, and as the 1950s gave way to the 60s, the Mulsanne was seeing speeds of 200mph or more.
Prestige, Personalities and PerformanceEdit
Le Mans had been inducted into the World Sportscar Championship in 1953, and had been the signature race of the Championship since. Almost all of the major motorcar brands were competing in the 24 Hours and the WSC in the 1950s and 60s except, and most notably, Ford. It came to pass that in 1963, Enzo Ferrari wrote to Ford Germany's headquarters hoping to sell the road car division of Ferrari so he could continue racing. Ford all but jumped at the opportunity, sending a delegation to sign for the $10 million valued manufacturer, until Ferrari pulled the plug, citing a clause in which he would have to ask for money to compete. The deal fell through, with the Italian media thankful (despite months earlier having protested the company's very existence for its dangerous past) that a national icon had been saved.
Henry Ford II was furious, and decided to hit Ferrari where it hurt: Le Mans. The Italians had dominated the early 60s in Sportscars, with Ford employing a former Le Mans winner and car designer Carrol Shelby to build Ford's challenger in time for the 1964 race. Shelby's team did so, sending a pair of freshly buily GT40s to the race, as well as a full contingent of AC Cobras to fight in the GT class. Yet, the GT40 hit problems before the race was in full swing, meaning John Surtees had an almost clean run to victory for the tifosi.
1965 saw Ford put their largest engine in the GT40, the 7.0 litre V8 which had been built for the race itself. Yet, of the six GT40s sent, none made it to the chequered flag, with various mechanical issues, as Ferrari once again saw one of their cars sweep to victory. Ford II, his passion for beating the Italians cooling now success was hard to find, sent a single line message for the GT40 team in 1966: "You'd better win, Henry Ford II". Victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona and at Sebring saw the GT40 break its duck, with eight of them sent to battle with Ferrari in France.
24 Hours of furious fighting saw a 1-2-3 for the Americans, their first success overall, and an end to the Ferrari dominance of the 1960s. Another factory effort won the 1967 race, with older privateer entries winning the next two. Ferrari have yet to find their feet since the 60s, having not won the race outright since, while Ford's intrest in the sport diminshed over the following years.
German Grunt and French FightersEdit
The 1970 race saw the first of seventeen wins for German marque Porsche, whose 917 focused heavily on aerodynamics to achieve huge speeds down the Mulsanne. After taking another victory a year later, small French outfit Matra-Simca won three races in a row, with future Le Mans legend Henri Pescarolo at the wheel of all three. Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell formed what was to become a formidable partnership in 1975 when they took victory, before Ickx moved to Porsche to take the following to races.
Porsche went on to dominate Le Mans in the 1980s, with the former partners Ickx and Bell reunited again, with Ickx becoming the most successful driver in Le Mans history to that point with six outright wins (Bell ended the decade with five). Renault claimed the 1978 race, while Rondeau, with a car based on the original 917, claimed one of the last "Privateer" victories in the race in 1980. By 1987, Porsche had gone from zero wins in 1969, to twelve, becoming the most successful marque in the process.
Group C CrazinessEdit
The incredible Group C era in Sportscars was dominated by the speed of the cars down the Mulsanne straight, where the 250mph (400 km/h) barrier steadily came into sight.Jaguar became the first factory outfit to beat Porsche in a decade by winning the 1988 race, where a Welter Racing Peugeot set a record speed of 253mph down the Mulsanne straight. The ACO took exception to this feat, (with Peugeot writing off an engine in the process), adding chicanes to the straight over the next few years to slow the cars.
Group C, in its death throes, saw Mazda become the first Japanese manufacturer to take victory in the great race, and the first to use a Rotary engine to win, when they won the 1991. Finally, Group C was dropped in 1993, it took the World Sportscar Championship with it, and prompted a new age for the 24 Hours, as GT cars and Le Mans Prototypes became the norm.
Manufacturers and the new MarqueEdit
Porsche were allowed to take a modified 962 to victory in 1994, before McLaren stepped up with their F1 GTR in 1995. Porsche claimed three more victories, entering "production" based supercars in the GT class until 1998, before BMW claimed their one and only outright victory in the 1999 event. But, with the Le Mans Prototype concept taking hold in America in the form of the American Le Mans Series, it was a European marque who was to become the next big thing,
Audi built their new R8 on the basis of effiecency, a fact which meant their car in 2000 was the most fuel efficent petrol car in the history of the race. It was to be the first of thirteen victories for them over the next fifteen years, with the R8 taking four of the next five races. Only Bentley, using a rebodied R8 named the Bentley Speed 8 defeated them, before the R8 was dropped in favour of a deisel engined V10 machine.
The Dawn of Diesel and Hyper HybridsEdit
Audi became the first manufacturer to win the World's Greatest Race in 2006 with a diesel powered car, the Audi R10 TDI. The ACO gave diesel entries favourable rules that season, a move which prompted a return by Peugeot, whom built the Peugeot 908 HDI FAP to respond to Audi, claiming victory in 2009, while Aston Martin had a brief flirtation with LMP1 in 2009 and 2010. Yet, with the introduction of KERS in both Formula One and Le Mans, electric hybrids became the order of the day over the coming years.
2010 saw Audi set a new distance record for the event with the Audi R15 TDI Plus, breaking a 40 year record held by Porsche, although its poor competition record overall saw it quickly replaced. The Audi R18 (and later R18 e-tron Quattro) became the first Audis to use hybrid power, although they were quick to establish themselves as both reliable and safe, with Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller suffering huge crashes but emerging unharmed in 2011.
Tom Kristensen won his ninth and final race in 2013, while the 2014 saw the return of Porsche in LMP1. Audi, meanwhile, managed to take their thirteenth win that season, before Porsche claimed the 2015 race in their Porsche 919 Hybrid. Toyota replaced Peugeot when they withdrew from the Sportscar scene in 2012, while Nissan, whom had experimented with the DeltaWing concept for several years, entered the 2015 fray with their unusual front engined, front wheel drive NIssan GT-R LM Nismo in LMP1.
Below is a list of all of the drivers, cars and teams to have won the 24 Hours of Le Mans since its creation. This list contains only the overall winners, not each individual class winner.
Records and FeatsEdit
At present, Danish racer Tom Kristensen is the most successful driver in Le Mans history, having won the race outright nine times, having beaten Jacky Ickx's record in 2005. Porsche, meanwhile, have the most wins at seventeen (the most recent coming at the 2015 race), followed by Kristensen's Audi with thirteen. Ferrari sit on nine outright wins, including six in a row during the 1960s, while Bentley remain the best of the British manufacturers on six.
Hemri Pescarolo deserves a mention as the man with the most entries at Le Mans, recording 33 starts and four outright wins, as well as entering teams after his retirement as well. Japanese driver Yojiro Terada is also in the record books for appearences, although his 29 entries have yielded no outright wins. in 2015, 43 rookiee drivers were entered, among a total of 165 drivers, with the 2017 race set to see 60 cars take to the Circuit de la Sarthe.
The Le Mans 24 Hours is known to be part of the informal "Triple Crown of Motorsport", a title which also contains the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500. Only one driver has won all three and claimed the "Triple Crown", that man being Graham Hill, although several others have come close over the years.
The "Triple Crown of Endurance" also sees the Le Mans race as an important part of its honours, combining it with the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring. Twelve drivers have completed the feat, although the recent formation of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship in the US may see more drivers complete it by winning all three in the same season, a feat none have managed.
Le Mans, as one of the oldest races still in existence, has long standing traditions going back to its earliest days, although some have been removed due to safety concerns. The most well known of these traditions was the Le Mans Start, whereby the cars were parked diagonally across the pitwall, and drivers would run from the opposite side of the track to get in. This tradition was replaced by the Indianapolis Start (ie a rolling start) after a protest by Jacky Ickx in 1969.
Other traditions include the dropping of the Tricolour to signal the start of the race, and numerous rules surronding pitstops. Cars, since the first ever Le Mans have to be turned off during the pitstop, a rule which tests the ignition systems and improves safety during the race. Furthermore, while fuel is being added, no other work can be carried out on the car, with a limited number of mechanics allowed to work on the car in pitlane. The only exception to this are the driver changes, which may take place at any time during the stop.
Champagne was first sprayed at Le Mans at the conclusion of the 1967, when Dan Gurney sprayed the bosses of Ford and the media from the podium, a tradition which has spread across the motorsport world. Fluids other than fuel, meanwhile, may only be replaced after the first hour, another example of a lasting rule from the race's earliest days.
The ACO uses a system of invitation and applications in order to determine the starting grid for Le Mans. Traditionally, the winning team from the previous year is invited, along with the second placed car as well, a rule that has spread to the other class winners as well. Invitations are also extended to the winners of other major Endurance races and Championships as well, with around 10 teams invited to take part each season.
The rest of the entry list is composed by the ACO on the basis of applications, whereby a team submit their car, team name and other information in order to get onto the grid. Manufacturer based teams are often given priority, while some efforts are made to ensure that there is a similar number of cars across each class. Each season, around six reserve entries are also maintained, in case one of the entries cannot make it to the race.
Historically, the winner of the 24 Hours was the car which completed the furthest distance, meaning that a car which started further down the order could win the race if it crossed the line at the same time as a car from the front. This rule most notably caught the Ford team out in 1966, as Bruce McLaren snatched victory from Ken Mileson the line by a distance of eight metres. This rule was replaced by the switch to the Indianapolis Start in 1970, when the number of laps completed became the key figure, then distance covered.
In order to complete the races, cars must cross the line at the 24 Hour mark, a fact that has seen severely damaged cars limp across the line having been parked in the garages or near the end of the circuit for hours. This was modified in recent seasons, whereby a car must complete a lap of the circuit within a certain time when the 24 Hours drew to a close in order to be classified. Additionalluy, a car must complete 70% of the race leader's total distance in order to be classified.
Images and Videos:
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 'History of Le Mans', 24lemans.co.uk, (24 Le Mans, 2015), http://www.24lemans.co.uk/history.html, (Accessed 12/06/2015)
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 'BBC on this day: 1955: Le Mans disaster claims 77 lives', bbc.co.uk, (British Broadcasting Company, 2008), http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/june/11/newsid_3726000/3726535.stm, (Accessed 15/06/2015)
- ↑ 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 'Great Rivalries: Henry Ford II vs Enzo Ferrari', automobilmag.com, (Automobile Magazine, 25/08/2009), http://www.automobilemag.com/features/racing/0909_henry_ford_ii_vs_enzo_ferrari_great_rivalries/#ixzz3d84YCCNm, (Accessed 15/06/2015)