The 24 hours of Le Mans is one of the most anticipated races every year. Cars and drivers from around the world take on the 13-and-a-half-kilometer track and see who will survive the grueling race. In 2017, only 49 of the 60 cars that left the starting line managed to run the full duration of the race. This race has such a rich and varied history, so today we’re going to look at the complete history of the Le Mans race.
The first Le Mans race occurred in 1923. Race planners originally intended it to be a marathon — every three years, the driver of the car who managed to cover the most distance would receive the coveted prize. This idea didn’t hang on too long, though — the three-year race was abandoned by 1928.
Teams from France, Britain and Italy won most of these races, and most of the cars that managed to finish the races were from manufacturers like Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Bentley.
By the 1930s, car manufacturers started designing their cars to be more aerodynamic so they could get an edge during this endurance race.
In 1936, strikes in France forced the cancellation of the race, and by 1939, World War II had broken out, which caused a 10-year hiatus in the race. It didn’t start up again until four years after the war ended.
The ‘50s and ‘60s
WWII caused the need for significant rebuilding across much of Europe, including all the racing facilities. The first Le Mans race after World War II took place in 1949. This year wasn’t just the first race since the war — it was the first victory for Ferrari. Ferrari’s win opened the door for other manufacturers like Mercedes, Jaguar and Aston Martin to start sending their cars to compete.
The 1950 race saw an achievement nobody had ever completed before or since — driving the race solo. Driver Edward Ramsden Hall had raced before and was supposed to compete in the Le Mans in 1936 before it got canceled, but he didn’t make it back to this iconic track until 1950. Hall, who raced in a Bentley, earned himself a spot in history by becoming the first and only person who drove the entire 24-hour race by himself, though he did have a co-driver ready in the pits if he ever got tired. When asked about his bathroom arrangements for spending 24 hours in the cockpit, his only response was, “Wear green overalls!”
The ‘50s also witnessed the worst racing accident in history — the Le Mans Disaster. During this race, driver Pierre Levegh was behind the wheel of a Mercedes. Just two hours into the race, he clipped the rear end of another driver’s car, catapulting his car into the spectator seating at 150 miles per hour. Levegh died in the collision, as did 82 unlucky racing fans in the stands.
The damage was largely because the frame of Levegh’s car consisted of a magnesium alloy that ignited, and only burned hotter when people attempted to douse it with water. The fire burned for hours after the crash, leaving rescue crews helpless to do anything other than let it burn out.
After the crash, race organizers demolished and rebuilt the entire pit area and the spectator stands behind it to ensure a similar disaster could never happen again.
Ford entered the race in the late 1960s and dethroned Ferrari with four straight wins between 1966 and 1969, bringing the decade to a close.
The ‘70s and ‘80s
The ‘70s took the Le Mans race to new heights — and new speeds. Most of the cars were still open-cockpit speedsters, but after the Le Mans disaster, new safety protocols went into effect to ensure driver safety throughout the long race. Porsche won many of the races in this decade, though France started entering cars from manufacturers like Renault and Matra-Simca that brought the first French victories since the 1950s. This was also the beginning of sponsors, with cars becoming painted and wrapped with decals and brand logos like you see today. For example, Gulf gas had their blue and orange logo all over the blue and orange Porsche.
There were also many privateer drivers during this decade, though only two managed to win the title — John Wyer won with a Mirage in 1975, and Jean Rondeau won with a self-titled car in 1980.
Porsche dominated most of the 1980s with their Group C cars that focused on fuel efficiency. They didn’t have to stop to refuel as often, giving them an advantage over many of the other cars in this endurance race. They ended up winning six years in a row between 1981 and 1987. Though Jaguar broke Porsche’s winning streak in both 1988 and 1990, Porsche did win again in 1989.
That didn’t stop Peugeot from setting a new race speed record of 252 miles per hour in the track’s six-kilometer straight.
In 1990, Le Mans modified its track, adding two more chicanes to slow drivers to a top speed below 249 miles per hour. While this strategy proved successful, most drivers achieve top speeds of at least 199 miles per hour on various parts of the track.
Mazda managed a win in 1991 — the first Japanese manufacturer to secure a victory at Le Mans. What set this win apart is that their 787B car relied on a rotary engine, rather than a standard four-stroke engine.
The World Sportscar Championship ended in 1992, so many of the racers who had been forgoing the Le Mans race in favor of the Sportscar Championship suddenly found themselves without a starting line. During this five-year period, more production-based cars found their way onto the Le Mans track, including Toyota, Panoz, Nissan and Lotus making their Le Mans debuts. A McLaren won the race in 1995 with a BMW-made V12 F1 GTR motor under the hood.
During this time, BMW left racing altogether due to two bad Le Mans crashes. Neither crash was fatal, but the aerodynamic problems in the CLR vehicles which caused the crash meant a flaw in the design, which caused the car giant to withdraw from the racing world.
1999 also saw the birth of the American Le Mans series, which ran until 2013. American manufacturers took home a few titles toward the end of the decade — Dodge Vipers managed to win the race in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
2000 to 2009
High fuel costs left many car manufacturers scrambling to keep up, and caused many of them to pull out of racing altogether. Only Audi and Cadillac entered cars in the Le Mans during this period, which enabled Audi to dominate for most of these races. When Chevy returned to the race in 2001, they dominated — they came in first and second in 2001, 2002 and 2004, and second and third in 2003.
In 2006, Audi tried something new — they introduced a diesel prototype. While it wasn’t the first diesel car to enter the race, it was the first to secure a win. It also led to other car manufacturers — including Peugeot and Audi — entering diesel cars in the race in 2007. Audi won again in 2008, before finally being dethroned by Peugeot in 2009.
Audi ran into quite a bit of trouble in the early 2010s, as did many other teams. In 2011, an Audi crashed within the first hour of the race — the car rolled over into one of the tire walls, even though the driver was unhurt. The same night, the second Audi entered in the race that year also crashed, though the third managed to win the race.
In 2012, Toyota entered the race, replacing Peugeot. One of the two Toyotas flipped and left its driver with two broken vertebrae, and the other retired from the race after experiencing mechanical problems.
Porsche has won the last three races with a hybrid car, its 919, which gives the car company 19 total wins throughout the history of the race. They still haven’t come close to their seven-win streak between 1981 and 1987, though.
The 24 hours of Le Mans brings new and exciting automotive innovations every year, from the Mazda rotary engine that won the race in 1991 to the introduction of the Porsche 917 in 1969. The best and the brightest from all around the world come together once a year for this epic race. The 2018 Le Mans race took place June 16 and 17, and Toyota managed to snag first- and second-place finishes, though the LMP2 class apparently got stripped of its win due to using an illegal part during pit stops.
We’re already looking forward to next year’s race, though it’s always fun to look back and see where this all started. We’re coming up on the 100th anniversary of the Le Mans race in just a few years, and we can’t wait to see what sort of festivities they come up with for that.