A brief history of Le Mans
Every June, car manufacturers gear up for a gruesome, treacherous crossing of the finish line at the Circuit de la Sarthe. To me, this name is gibberish, as I know it as Le Mans. However, names don't matter here, what matters is what the name is for, and that means another history lesson. So gather your notebooks and turn to page 3, its history time!
It all starts in 1923. The French are showing more passion in the automotive industry and racing. Proposed in the nearby town of Le Mans in France, the course took up streets of the town and started at roughly 10.7 miles (17.2 KM.) This meant it was considerably large in length for the time. As well as this, it was put on and proposed by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest who was based in France.
Most unusual about it was the fact that it was to last a solid 24 hours. A whole day of strait racing was unheard of but that was Le Mans it seems. It truly was ahead of its time even in the beginning. This type of formula would test out quality, speed, reliability, and would show which company was boss. This, then made it very popular indeed.
To start the race, there were 66 drivers and a massive 33 car lineup, each car having two drivers. The first race was one by French natives by the names of Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard. They conquered the course in a Chenald and Walcker Sport that housed an inline 4 engine containing 2978cc's. Little did they know what they had started.
After the pilot race in 1923, more and more car companies, teams, countries, and drivers became interested in the event. Italian, British, and German teams were starting destroy the circuit in hopes of victories. More teams led to more growth and more money, which allowed the event to expand beyond expectation. Bentley teams started to dominate the beginning years as they had larger engines and better reliability.
Not only Bentley were dominating the race, however. Alfa stepped in with their 8C 2300 prototype that inevitably led to a series of 4-year wins. These Alfas carried Inline-8's, so again we see power increase. The next years brought about the French companies of Bugatti and Delahaye. These companies however were no match to the rising power of Italy: Ferrari.
There was a lot of achievement in winning these races, as said before, and when it comes to powerhouses, it's Ferrari that brought the horse to the pony show. Ferraris were ever so dominant in these races for one reason: V12's. Much bigger than the inline 6's of that time, they were much more powerful and much more dominant. They were heavier, but that wasn't as much as an issue as Le Mans had, and still has the longest motorsport straight, known as Mulsanne.
Before Ferrari had its actual success, it was the cat that brought multiple wins in a row. One win for the C-Type and 3 consecutive for the D-Type showed what Britain's best could do. A lot of competition had occurred between the two companies, but after a few years, Ferrari was starting to show bright red every year for quite a few years. As a matter of fact, Ferrari had a total of 6 consecutive wins. SIX!
Now, it gets boring when you talk about Ferrari's greatness, as I lack the skills, time, and opinions to do so. But, it was rather interesting to see what came next.
We all know what happens next. Early-mid 60's? American VS. Ferrari? Doesn't ring a bell? Thinking of telling the story of Ford and Ferrari at Le Mans is already making my brain hurt and as a result I will get a brain aneurism. It may be important, but James May has a review on that you can watch. For now, I shall skip this event in history and catch flack for it.
After the Ferrari era, there was a trend that started to show. There was no more eold fashioned. There was no more Grandmas in Depends, just flat out racing. Since 1923, however, many changes were made to the courses layout. It shrunk to 8.5 miles (13.6KM,) due to safety precautions. This is another part I have wanted to skip over in this article that I am boring you with.
Safety wasn't a major concern. Rule#1- Win. Rule# Don't get killed, was probably at the bottom. Motorsport was a very dangerous sport, and at that time, you were really lucky or pretty darn good not to get injured or killed. Even so, many greats have passed by due to this sport, and all of the competition involved in it. Not only did drivers experience this, but so did the spectators. If you have ever wondered why there are all these regulations today, it's probably due to the fact that history does and will repeat itself. Anyway, what were we talking about again?
For your sake, a picture was added to stop you from exiting the article, as that was a lot to take in. Anyway, after the GT40 built by Americans, (and Brits) Le Mans saw a new uprising in popularity. After the GT40's 4 year wins, a company called Porsche came into the mix. If you don't know where this is going, some explainaition is in order.
As with Ferrari before, Porsche started dominating the 24 Huers du Le Mans. The 917 won consecutively for 2 years after the Americans, and then came anther 2 year stint with the 936 Turbo and the 936 Bi-Turbo. Then, there were others, until 1981. The Porsche 936/81 started a long line of year-after-year wins. After that win, we saw the ever so glamorous 956 win a strait six wins. (See what I did there, Strait 6.) They had flat-6's but my comedic career fell down the drain along with Ferrari's Le Mans success.
The dominent streak Porshe left on its French chair ended with the Jaguar XJR-9. One of the most iconic of all, this was a 2-time Le Mans winner, holding out the Sauber C9 Mercedes who won following the Jaaaag's first victory. That Sauber-Mercedes meanwhile, still holds out as it was the fastest car ever to go down the Mulsanne. In it's race, it went a mere 249 MPH (401 KPH.) That is one hell of a fast achievement.
After the Jaaaag and the Sauber, this is where Mazda comes in. Yes, today they are known for small hatchbacks and compact SUV's but in 1991, the Mazda 787B took the win. This was the first car Japan was able to win with, and it was equipped with a Rotary 4 engine. Yes, JDM guys and gals, there is a car here for you. This car was important as it really showed how much attention the world was paying to this race. It meant everything.
The French. We love there track, but their cars were meh. When it came to racing, the French didn't involve there cars as much as the Germans. Or British. Or Italians. Or Japanese. Or Americans. Either way, they did show rally success which is also important, but they never really achieved their Holy Grail. They owned it, but were never able to take it. until now.
Peugeot brought in some winner in the early 90's. The Peugeot 905 was formed, and it carried a loaded V10 along with it. Today as a brand, they are par, but this car was able to bring them success for a couple of years at Le Mans. This success would continue, but you'll have to wait for the end.
A Mclaren, a few Porsches, and a BMW became leaders out of the 20'th century. What the 21'st century brought about however, was rather unexpected. In the 2000 race, we see Audi as the winner. Makes sense as the R8 had a Bi-turbo V8 on board. Anyway, this car took 3 consecutive wins from 2000-2002.
The first Bentley in a while stole the show in 2003, but that didn't sit well with Audi. They won some more with R8 for a few years, and then they did the unthinkable. It was the first diesel to win Le Mans.
Diesels had race before, but have never one. The Audi however did. They used this same set-up for 3 years, allowing them a total of 5 wins in a row. This was all good, but Peugeot wanted more. Peugeot's diesel beat the Audi in 2009, however, that not only was the lastPeugeot to win, but the last French car to win as well.
Audi won 2 years after that with the R10 diesel and turbo diesel. These were the last fuel-only cars to win at Le Mans as in 2012, Audi had won with a Prius. Yes, I am talking about the birth of the Hybrid cars in motorsport. These became majorly successful as they have been winning all years since 2012. Winners include Audi, Porsche, and last years winner of Toyota.
Don't worry, we are half-way there!
Many cars and car companies have contributed to there variety that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Obviously, not every car was highlighted, as that list would be as long as the Mulsanne strait and as wide as an Amish family tree. However, there is a compelling history to the darn thing, and it has been one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, motorsport events...in the world. It also is important to mention the level of respect I and most motorsports fans have to this place. Drivers as well contribute to the history of this track, and I strongly hope you can appreciate what Le Mans is.