The 24 Hours of Le Mans automobile competition is one of the most famous automobile endurance races in the world, just like the Monaco Grand Prix or the Indianapolis 500 miles. Created in 1923, Le Mans take place every year on the Bugatti circuit of Le Mans, in the department of Sarthe. Car manufacturers such as Porsche and Audi have won a large number of victories there, and since 2012 the event has been part of the FIA WEC World Endurance Championship. Organized by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the 24 Hours of Le Mans will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023. In this article, we’re going to take a look at the history of this iconic race and dwell on some of the greatest drivers and car manufacturers who have participated in it.
The history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans
In 1920, the automobile club of the west wishes to set up a car competition, intended to contribute to the evolution of technical progress in order to promote the development of the automobile in France. An endurance test was born in 1922 in the department of Sarthe, and its rules stipulate that during the test, a crew of 2 pilots will meet day and night for 24 hours. On May 26 and 27, 1923, the first edition of the 24 hours of Le Mans was launched and 33 crews took part. After 128 laps at an average of 92 kilometers per hour, André Lagache and René Léonard won this first edition. From now on, each year, the car racing takes place during the 24th week of the year, in June and Le Mans remains the most prestigious automobile endurance race in the world. The 24 hours of Le Mans also contributed to the technical innovation of the cars and the race made it possible to experiment with new technologies, such as disc brakes, radial tires and even LED headlights. Similarly, many manufacturers took advantage of the race to test new engines, such as hybrid vehicles in 2012.
The Le Mans circuit
The track of the 24 Hours of Le Mans circuit is 13.6 kilometers long. It takes part of the Bugatti circuit and also includes a large part of the national road. The Tertre Rouge and Mulsanne bends and the 6-kilometre long Mulsanne Straight remain the most famous parts of the race. Some cars, in fact, manage to exceed the speed of 400 kilometers per hour on this portion. The absolute record for the shortest circuit lap was achieved by Jacky Oliver in 1972, aboard a Porsche 917. The driver covered the 13.6 kilometers of the circuit in 3 minutes and 13 seconds, an average of 250 kilometers per hour! The speed record on the Mulsanne Straight stands at 405 kilometers per hour and was set by Roger Dorchy in 1988 aboard a Peugeot-powered WMP 88. In 1990, 2 chicanes were installed on the straight line of the 1990s in order to limit the excessive speed differences between the competitors. Since then, the fastest lap in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is held by driver Kamui Kobayashi aboard a Toyota, during qualifying practice in 2017. It took 3 minutes and 14 seconds for the latter to complete the 13.6 kilometer circuit, at an average speed of 251 kilometers per hour.
The different categories of cars at Le Mans
The cars participating in the 24 hours of Le Mans are divided into several categories:
- LMP 1 cars: LMP 1 (Le Mans Prototype) cars are specially designed for the race, as well as for the other races of the World Endurance Championship (FIA WEC). The LMP 1 category is open to hybrid cars. But since 2021, the LMP 1 category has been replaced by the LMH (Le Mans Hypercar) category and 2 types of cars are now admitted: LMH (Le Mans Hypercar) and LMDH (Le Mans Daytona Hypercar).
- LMP 2 cars: LMP 2 cars (Le Mans Prototype 2) are specially developed to race on circuits in accordance with the technical regulations of the International Automobile Federation (FIA). LMP 2 cars have a closed body.
- LM GTE PRO cars: derived from production cars, this category is reserved for the latest generations of cars entered by manufacturers (Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Corvette and Porsche) or by private teams supported by a manufacturer (BMW, Ford, Ferrari).
- LM GTE AM cars: This category is reserved for road cars and amateur crews who are at least one year old and allow private teams to use the most recent materials authorized by the 24 Hours of Le Mans regulations.
The biggest car maker wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans
Many car manufacturers have taken part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans since their creation. The builders with the most wins are:
- Porsche : with 19 victories at Le Mans, the German brand has achieved the best record of the famous endurance race.
- Audi : with 13 victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi confirms the supremacy of Germany, the country with the most victories at Le Mans.
- Ferrari : with 9 victories, the famous Italian firm is positioned 3rd manufacturer behind Audi and Porsche.
- Jaguar : this British manufacturer has no less than 7 victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
- Bentley : this other English manufacturer has a total of 6 victories at Le Mans.
- Alfa Romeo, Ford and Toyota: these 3 car manufacturers have 4 victories each.
- Matra-Simca and Peugeot each won 3 victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
- Bugatti and Lorraine-Dietrich : 2 wins each.
- Aston Martin, BMW, Mercedes, Renault Alpine : these famous French, English and German car manufacturers have won just one victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans also enabled certain tire manufacturers such as Dunlop and Michelin to obtain multiple awards.
The greatest drivers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans
Every year, many crews take part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This mythical team race also revealed the talent of some drivers who boast multiple victories behind the wheel. Some of them took the start several times and achieved great feats, thus delighting the spectators. The greatest drivers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans are:
- Tom Kristensen : this Danish driver has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans 9 times. It is to date, the pilot who holds the greatest number of victories at Le Mans.
- Jacky Ickx : nicknamed “Monsieur Le Mans”, the famous Belgian racing driver has 6 victories in his Porsche or Ford car.
- Derek Bell : this British driver has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans 5 times. He also raced in Formula 1 for the Ferrari and Mc Laren teams.
- Frank Biela : this German driver who became an official Audi driver won the 24 Hours of Le Mans 5 times.
- Emanuel Pirro : this Italian driver also has 5 victories at Le Mans.
- Yannick Dalmas : this French driver, who also distinguished himself in motorcycling and in Formula 3000, won the 24 Hours of Le Mans 4 times.
- Olivier Gendebien : this Belgian driver has 4 victories at Le Mans.
- Henri Pescarolo : with 4 victories, Henri Pescarolo is the second French racing driver to have won 4 trophies at Le Mans. He also holds the record in terms of participation with 33 races.
For motorsport enthusiasts, the next edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will take place on June 11 and 12, 2022. Last year, the Toyota Gazoo Racing team, accompanied by drivers Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and José Maria Lopez, won the edition. In 2021, the female driver Lilou Wadoux won the 24 Hours of Le Mans circuit and we will find her again this year at the wheel of her Oreca 07 car. Go to the website www.24-lemans.com to find out all about the future participants in the race or to find out the list of manufacturers involved.