Le Mans: The Story So Far

It’s the world’s greatest motor race and its history is stranger than fiction. Mike Cotton and Andrew Frankel report

Few of us would know much about the city of Le Mans were it not for the 24-hour race held there each year, in June. Le Mans is the capital city of the agricultural Sarthe region, but only for one week is it the focus of worldwide interest.

Le Mans has a magnificent cathedral, in front of which scrutineering takes place, on Monday and Tuesday prior to the race. The 24-hours therefore effectively becomes the 168 hours of Le Mans, something that the local chamber of commerce does not complain about too freely.

So impressed was Masanori Sekiya during his visits to Le Mans with the TOM’s Toyota team in the mid-80s, he took his fiancee along in 1987. Her parents followed on a later flight, complete with trousseau, and the young lady, Rasui Hoko, was taken to the cathedral on Friday morning ostensibly for a sight-seeing visit. This became her wedding, a delightful occasion.

Le Mans repaid the compliment when Sekiya became the first, and only Japanese driver to win at the wheel of a McLaren F1 GTR in 1995.

Le Mans hosted the first French Grand Prix (tided the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club de France) in June 1906. A 1031cm road circuit was marked to the east of the city, and on each of two days competitors completed six laps, with an aggregate result. It was won by Ferenc Szisz in a 13-litre Renault, at 1031cm/h. Frequent tyre repairs were eased by Michelin’s new detachable rims.

Wilbur Wright, the American pioneer aviator, made Le Mans his headquarters in 1907, manufacturing his biplane in the Boll& works and using the Hunaudieres equine race course as his flying strip. The main straight at Le Mans, always referred to by the British as the `Mul.sanne Straight’ is named the `ligne droite des Hunaudieres’ by the French.

The success of the Grand Prix in 1906 left the citizens of Le Mans thinking of it as a two-day event, and led to the creation of a 24-hour event for roadgoing cars in 1923. Georges Durand, secretary of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, proposed the race in October 1922 at a meeting with Charles Faroux, editor of La Vie Automobile, and Emile Coquille, distributor of Rudge-Whitworth automobile parts. Seeing the chance to promote lighting components with night racing, Coquille put up the Rudge-Whitworth Cup and 100,000 francs.

Officially, there was no winner of the first 24-Hours of Le Mans because it was conceived as a triennial event. The finishers would be invited back in 1924, and finishers would return in 1925 to determine the winner of the Cup. Those racing for the first time in 1924 would return in ’25 and ’26, and so on.

The public demanded a winner, of course, and the honour fell to the fastest finisher, the 3-litre Chenard et Walcker driven by Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard. In May 1923 they covered 1373 miles at an average of 57mph, in conditions so wet and miserable the ACO moved the event back to mid-June.

Sideshow entertainment has always been a feature of the 24-Hours of Le Mans. At the first event in May 1923 a display of fireworks was held on Saturday evening, a dance hall was opened on the outskirts of town, wireless concerts were broadcast from the Eiffel Tower, and spectators were treated to a jazz band, an orchestra for the more serious minded, and an American bar.

The ACO entertained 500 people to lunch on Sunday, but the teams were not invited. Instead, the organisers sent 700 litres of soup to the pits at Tertre Rouge, 50 roast chickens and 450 bottles of Champagne.

There have been 11 variations on the circuit since 1923, the existing track being defined in 1987 when the unpopular chicane was installed at the Dunlop Curve. The original track went right to the outskirts of Le Mans, at Pontlieue, and covered 10.73miles, but Pondieue was by-passed in 1928. In 1932 the ACO created a perma nent circuit incorporating the now familiar Dunlop Curve and Esses, rejoining the Route Nationale at Terte Rouge, reducing the circuit length to 8.37miles.

The so-called Porsche Curves were opened in 1972, cutting out the White House section-, but the 3.7-mile Mulsanne Straight remained a flat-out blind until 1990, when on the insistence of Jean-Marie Balestre the ACO was forced to install temporary chicanes, two kilometres apart.

Jackie Oliver remains the all-time Le Mans lap record holder, taking his Gulf Porsche 917LH round the track in 3rnin 18.4sec in 1971 at an average speed of 244.387km/h (151.85mph). The Essex driver, sharing with his BRM teammate Pedro Rodriguez, forced a lap in 3min 13.9sec during qualifying, an average of 250.069km/h (155.38mph). Oliver’s record broke the existing lap record (3min 23.6sec) set by Mario Andretti in a 7-litre Ford MIdV despite the installation of the Ford Chicane to slow the cars before they raced past the pits.

A Peugeot-powered WM Group C car established the highest speed ever recorded on the Mulsanne Straight, Roger Dorchy being timed at 405km/h (251.65mph) during the race in 1988. The speed was no fluke, as the WM (the product of Gerard Welter and Michel Meunier) was shaped in the wind tunnel purely for speed. It had little downforce, and the V6 twin-turbo engine was tuned up to 850bhp, with no regard for the fuel consumption requirement

WM, indeed, had no intention of racing through the night. Once Dorchy had topped 400km/h in the cool evening air, the WM team packed up and had a nice dinner in town. Their achievement, alas, was used by FIA president Balestre as evidence to force through the building of the two chicanes.

Five manufacturers have effectively defined the history of the race, winning between them some 41 of 67 races so far held. The first marque to dominate the results was Bentley with five wins from seven attempts between 1924-30. Alfa Romeo then took over with four straight wins from 1931-4. The next marque to chalk more than three wins was Jaguar which mimicked Bentley’s five from seven between 1951-7. Ferrari next took centre stage, adding six straight wins (1960-5) to the three it had gained in 1949, ’54 and ’58. The writing on Maranello’s wall said Ford which, peeved by Enzo Ferrari’s refusal to sell his company to them took an “if you can’t join them, beat them” approach and, after two false starts, won every Le Mans from 1966-69.

Then, of course came Porsche.There were two wins at first in 1970 and ’71 before the three-litre formula gave three on the trot to Matta-Simca, but Porsche was back in 1976 and, in the next 12 races, conceded just two to the opposition. Jaguar came back for its final two in 1988 and 1990 before Porsche returned for its most recent salvo — four wins in five attempts between 1994-98.

Of the drivers, Jacky Ickx’s record six wins looks likely to last a while yet, though Derek Bell, five times winner, has not yet ruled out a return. The four time winners are Olivier Gendebien, Henri Pescarolo and Yannick Dalmas. The man to whom a Le Mans win would perhaps mean most is Mario Andretti. Victory in France would make him only the second driver in history to win Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula One World Championship. The only other person to have reached these milestones is Graham Hill whose win at Le Mans in 1972 was the last great race win of his career.

One measure of the importance of this race is the fact that it has not formed part of the world sportscar championship since 1993. This has not stopped it remaining the most important race of its kind in the world and, now the Indianapolis 500 has broken away from the premier US race series, it has a good a claim as any to be called the greatest race on earth.