24 HOURS CENTENARY – THE LE MANS EXCEPTION ⎮ Waving the French flag at the start of the race in front of thousands of spectators and TV cameras from all over the world is an incredible honour for all official starters: athletes from every discipline, retired or active drivers, industry leaders, royalty, federation presidents, astronauts and more. Of course, among them has figured the heads of major car manufacturers linked to Le Mans.
Since 1949, the year the race returned after World War II, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest has entrusted the waving of the French flag to an individual of some renown. Between 1923 and 1939, the honour was carried out by a chosen few, but not regularly.
Major captains of industry who directly impacted the history of the 24 Hours have signaled the start. In fact, since 1949 as many as 15 automotive industry leaders have served as official starter at Le Mans.
The first was Ford Motor Company President Henry Ford II (grandson of founder Henry Ford) in 1966. Forty-nine years later, in 2015, the privilege went to Henry's great-grandson and Ford Executive Chairman William Clay Ford. The two invitations are evidence of the American marque's legacy at the 24 Hours: Ford remains to this day the only U.S. manufacturer to claim the overall win at Le Mans.
Previous winners serve as official starters
Other motorsport leaders who have made a lasting impact on auto racing have been designated as official starters.
In 1970, Dr. Ferry Porsche, the son of founder Ferdinand Porsche, was given the honour of signaling the start to the 51 competitors on the track (including seven Porsche 917s). What a race it turned out to be! The German marque clinched the first of its 19 wins at the 24 Hours, against 11 Ferrari 512 Ss!
Luca di Montezemolo, Fiat and Ferrari S.p.A. Chairman at the time, gave the start in 2009. Then, John Elkann, the current Chairman of Ferrari (and Stellantis which includes PSA, Fiat and Chrysler) did so in 2021. John Elkann: "The Centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is an opportunity to do wonderful things, and to look to the future in such a way history carries on." The future it seems is now with Ferrari returning this year to the head class (Le Mans Hypercar) at the race and in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Only three marques have been represented by official starters at the 24 Hours: Ford (1966 and 2015), Ferrari (2009 and 2021) and Peugeot in 2006 with PSA Peugeot Citroën Chairman and CEO Jean-Martin Folz, then in 2020 with PSA CEO Carlos Tavares. It was at that running of the race that the French constructor (three wins in 1992, 1993 and 2009) announced its return to endurance racing and Le Mans.
With 13 victories to the manufacturer's credit, Audi AG Chairman Dr. Martin Winterkorn waved the French flag in 2005. He too experienced the thrill of one of his own marque's cars winning the race. The achievement was made even more special when Tom Kristensen became the new win record-holder at Le Mans.
The automobile industry beyond manufacturers
Other auto industry heads have given the start at the 24 Hours, but without seeing their marque win that year. For example, seven-time winner Jaguar's president Sir John Egan, who waved the French flag in 1986, and Toyota Chairman of the Board Takeshi Uchiyamada who did so in 2012 (six years before the first of the hybrid car world leader's five consecutive victories at the race).
Let us not forget Matra president Sylvain Floirat who gave the start in 1973 and watched as the marque clinched its second win in a row, Volkswagen Group Chairman of the Executive Board Dr. Ferdinand Piëch in 2001 and American businessman and founder of Petit Le Mans Don Panoz in 2003.
From another sector of the auto industry, Kyohei Yokose, CEO of Sumitomo (owner of Dunlop, the winningest tyre manufacturer at Le Mans), gave the start in 1988.
Last year's official starter, TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanné: "The most challenging auto endurance race once again proves it's a true laboratory for TotalEnergies and a showcase for all motorsport. As a partner of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, TotalEnergies is proud to provide competitors in this 90th running with 100% renewable fuel for the first time in the history of the race. We are contributing to the ACO's commitment to sustainability. It is a privilege for me to give the start."
For these world industry leaders, to give the start at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a measure of recognition and of the importance of their marque to the legacy of the race. It is an honour bestowed upon very few, and even more exceptional on 10 June for the start of the Centenary!
PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO Archives): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 2021-2022 24 HOURS OF LE MANS. From top to bottom: the French flag given to the official starter was waved by John Elkann in 2021 and by Patrick Pouyanné in 2022 (at centre above with ACO president Pierre Fillon at right), the heads of Ferrari/Stellantis and TotalEnergies, respectively.