24 HOURS CENTENARY – THE LE MANS EXCEPTION ⎮ Jean Graton has been a diehard fan of the race since childhood, first bringing his illustrated driver Michel Vaillant to life in 1957 and figuring him in three runnings of the 24 Hours.
In 1937, 13-year-old Jean Graton attended the 14th 24 Hours of Le Mans with his father, witnessing the first of Bugatti's two wins at the race with at the wheel Robert Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille (two of the top French drivers of the interwar period).
Twenty years later, after becoming an illustrator, Graton created Michel Vaillant in the pages of Tintin's diary. To test the character with readers, he first drew five short stories published in 1957, one of which, "La 24e Heure", was already set at Le Mans. To date, of the 81 albums released between 1959 and 2021, 17 stories took place or mentioned the 24 Hours, including five wins since the most famous driver in Franco-Belgian comics has chosen not to beat the record long held by his great friend Jacky Ickx!
In 2002, it was at the circuit in Le Mans that producer and co-screenwriter Luc Besson set the plot of his Michel Vaillant film adaptation based on a production by Louis-Pascal Couvelaire. On three occasions, Graton's character took the start with prototypes in the colors of Vaillante, a fictional car constructor whose models and history refer as much to Bugatti as to Ferrari.
1997 | Tribute paid to Michel Vaillant
For the double anniversary of Graton's first visit to Le Mans and the birth of Michel Vaillant, a Courage prototype aptly named the Courage-Vaillante was entrusted to Franco-Belgian trio Didier Cottaz, Marc Goossens and Jérôme Policand. The car sported Graton's favourite number 13 and qualified…13th on the starting grid.
While in seventh position as night fell, the prototype experienced an electrical problem, costing it one full hour. The engine refused to start, but the solution came from a trick that Graton himself would most likely not have even imagined in his albums: the team's physiotherapist sprayed the malfunctioning electronic box with a spray used to cool stiff muscles. The action was repeated during each pit stop, allowing the Courage-Vaillante to climb to 4th place overall and also become the second prototype ranked, only preceded in the class by the winning car of Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Tom Kristensen.
2017 | Michel Vaillant and the "rebels"
The double anniversary was once again feted in 2017 with the release of the "Rébellion" album and a participation in the LMP2 class at the 24 Hours and in the FIA WEC, in partnership with Swiss team Rebellion Racing and Motul. In the #13 and #31 ORECA 07s fielded by Vaillante Rebellion figured racing legend progeny (Nelson Piquet, Jr., Nicolas Prost and Bruno Senna), an LMP2 expert (Mathias Beche) and two talented gentlemen drivers (David Heinemeier Hansson and Le Mans local Julien Canal).
Contenders for the overall podium after long leading the class, the two Vaillante Rebellions ran out of good fortune near the end of the race. Delayed with technical troubles, the #31 of Canal/Prost/Senna finished 16th overall (14th in LMP2) and the #13 of Beche/Heinemeier Hansson/Piquet was disqualified after claiming the third step on the overall podium. At the remaining six rounds of the season, the #31 managed a series of wins worthy of Michel Vaillant (four) which earned the Vaillante Rebellion team, as well as Bruno Senna and Julien Canal, the FIA Endurance Teams and LMP2 Drivers trophies, respectively.
2022 | Michel Vaillant and the surprise guest
In 2022, Michel Vaillant joined TDS Racing, a top French team in the LMP2 class, under the name TDS Racing x Vaillante and with an ORECA 07 entered in the European Le Mans Series for Mathias Beche, gentleman driver Philippe Cimadomo and Tijmen van der Helm (an 18-year-old Dutch driver from the endurance pyramid).
Cimadomo was replaced at the last minute by another Dutchman, Nyck de Vries, already on the scene as a reserve Toyota driver with three participations under his belt in 2019, 2020 and 2021. The team's ORECA 07 once again boasted the number 13 and finished eighth overall and fourth in LMP2.
Next year will mark a double centenary: that of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and also of Jean Graton, born on 10 August 1923 (deceased on 21 January 2021): a double celebration that surely Michel Vaillant won't miss. So, will the number 13 take the start in this momentous running of the race? See you next on 10 June to find out!
PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO Archives): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS. From top to bottom: in 2022, and previously in 1997 and 2017, the number 13 along with "V" for the Vaillante marque is the racing logo of choice for the character's participations in the 24 Hours. It is the lucky number of Jean Graton who entitled the first Michel Vaillant graphic book dedicated to the race "Le 13 est au départ" in 1961.