A brief History of the Le Mans 24 Hours
1923 - 1939
May 26th & 27th, 1923 saw the first running of the Le Mans 24 hours, on the public roads around Le Mans town. The original idea was for a three year event, with the winner being the car that could go the furthest distance over three consecutive races. This plan was abandoned in 1928 and the Le Mans 24 hours winners were declared for each year depending on who covered the furthest distance in the 24 hours. The early races were dominated by British, French, and Italian drivers, teams, and cars, with Bentley, Alfa Romeo and Bugatti being the prominent marques.
By the late 1930’s innovations in car design began appearing at the Le Mans 24 hours circuit, with Bugatti and Alfa Romeo running aerodynamic bodywork, enabling them to reach faster speeds down the Mulsanne straight. In 1936 the race had to be cancelled due to strikes in France. With the outbreak of World War II in late 1939, the Le Mans 24hrs race went on a ten year break.
1949 - 1969
The Le Mans 24 hours race resumed in 1949 following the reconstruction of the Le Mans circuit facilities, with growing interest from major car manufacturers. After the formation of the World Sportscar Championship in 1953, of which the Le Mans 24 hour was a part, Jaguar, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, and others began sending multiple cars, supported by their factories, to compete against their competitors. Unfortunately this increased competition would also lead to tragedy with an accident during the 1955 race. The car of Pierre Levegh crashed into a crowd of spectators, killing more than 80 people. This in turn, led to widespread safety measures being brought in, not only at Le Mans, but elsewhere in the world of motor sport. However, even though the safety standards increased, so did the achievable top speeds of the cars. The move from open-cockpit roadsters to closed-cockpit coupes would enable speeds over 200 mph on the Mulsanne. The Le Mans 24 hours race cars of this time were mostly based on production road cars.
By the end of the 1960s, Ford would enter the Le Mans 24hrs with their GT40s, taking four straight wins before the era of production-based cars would come to a close.
1970 - 1981
For the 1970’s, Le Mans 24 hours competitors moved towards more extreme speeds and car designs. These fast speeds led to the replacement of the typical standing Le Mans 24 hours start with the now more familiar rolling start. Although production based cars still participated, they were now competing in the lower classes. Purpose-built prototype race cars became the norm at the Le Mans 24 hours. The Porsche 917, 935, and 936 were dominant throughout this decade, but a resurgence by French manufacturers Matra-Simca and Renault saw the first Le Mans 24 hours victories for the home nation since the race in 1950. Surprisingly the 1970’s is also associated with good performances from many privateer constructors at the Le Mans 24 hours.
Two managed to complete the only ever victories for privateers in the history of the Le Mans 24 hour. John Wyer won in his Mirage in 1975 while Jean Rondeau's self-titled chassis took the Le Mans winners trophy in 1980.
1982 - 1993
Porsche dominated the 1980s at Le Mans with the new Group C race car formula that pushed the boundaries of fuel efficiency. The Porsche 956 was the pioneer in this field. It was later replaced by the successful 962. Both of these chassis were relatively cheap and privateers were able to purchase them en masse. This led to a Porsche chassis winning six years in a row. The 1980’s saw Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz make a return to sports car racing, while an influx of Japanese manufacturers saw prototypes from Nissan and Toyota at the Le Mans 24 hours. However, it was Mazda's unique rotary-powered 787B that would be the only car to succeed.
1992 and 1993 saw Peugeot enter the Le Mans 24 hours and dominate the race, as the Group C formula and World Sportscar Championship were fading in popularity and competitive manufacturers.
The famous Le Mans circuit would undergo perhaps its most significant modification in 1990. The iconic Mulsanne straight was altered to include two chicanes. This change was made to reduce speeds in excess of 250 mph from being reached. This began a trend by the race organisers, the ACO (Automobile Club de L’Ouest), to attempt to reduce excessive speeds on certain sections of the track. Despite these changes, speeds over 200 mph are still regularly reached at various points on a Le Mans 24 hours lap.
1994 - 1999
A resurgence of production-based cars at the Le Mans 24 hours followed the end of the World Sportscar Championship. A loophole in the laws enabled Porsche to successfully convince the ACO that a 962 Le Mans Supercar was actually a production car. This allowed Porsche to race their successful Porsche 962 for one final time. Not surprisingly it dominated the field. Although the ACO closed the loophole for 1995, newcomer McLaren won the race in their supercar's first appearance thanks to its reliability enabling it to beat faster yet more trouble prone prototypes. The rule bending trend continued throughout the 1990s as more exotic supercars were built in order to bypass the ACO's rules regarding production based Le Mans race cars. This resulted in Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Nissan, Panoz, and Lotus entering the GT categories. By the 1999 event, these GT cars were competing with the Le Mans Prototypes of BMW, Audi, and Ferrari. BMW would ultimately finish with the victory that year. It was BMW’s first ever win at the Le Mans 24 hours circuit.
2000 - 2010
The increasing costs associated with running a car in the Le Mans 24 hours saw many major automobile manufacturers review their participation in the early 21st century. Among these manufacturers, only Audi would remain competing at the Le Mans 24 hours, easily dominating the races with their R8. Although MG, Panoz, and Chrysler, all briefly made attempts to compete with Audi, none could match the performance of the Audi R8. After three consecutive victories, Audi provided engine, support staff and drivers to their corporate partner Bentley, who had returned in 2001. These factory Bentleys were finally able to succeed at Le Mans 24 hours ahead of the now privateer Audis in 2003.
By the end of 2005, after an impressive five victories for the Audi R8, and six to its V8 turbo engine, Audi took on a new Le Mans 24 hours challenge by introducing a diesel engine prototype car known as the R10 TDI. Although this was not the first diesel to race at the Le Mans 24 hours, it was the first to achieve victory. This era saw other alternative fuel sources being tried, including bio-ethanol, while Peugeot decided to follow Audi's lead and pursue a diesel entry in 2007 and 2008 with their Peugeot 908. They ran Audi close but the R10 finished ahead on each occasion. In 2009 the Peugeot 908 claimed victory, bringing an end to the German manufacturer's run of Le Mans wins, however Audi were back in 2010 claiming a 1,2,3 at the chequered flag after engine failures and suspension problems forced all 4 Peugeot entrants to retire.
2011 - Now
2011 saw one of the closest races in Le Mans history with Audi just crossing the line ahead of its Peugeot rivals, however, the race will most probably be remembered for the 2 major crashes involving the Audis driven by Allan McNish and Mike Rockenfeller. Fortunately both drivers were able to walk away from the wreckage of their cars.
Le Mans 2012 saw the introduction of hybrid technology for both Audi & Toyota in the LMP1 class. After the withdrawal of Peugeot for financial reasons, it was Toyota that stood up to challenge Audi. However two major crashes, one which left driver Ant Davidson with a broken back, left Audi unchallenged at the front. Audi's hybrid diesel, the R18 E-tron quattro eventually took the honours. 2013 again saw the Audi R18 E-tron Quattro victorious with the Toyota Hybrid runner up. It was the ninth win for Dane Tom Kristensen & the 3rd for British driver Allan McNish. However the race was over-shadowed by the death of driver Allan Simonsen following the early crash of his Aston Martin V8 Vantage.