24 Hours Centenary – The distance record 1923-1971: from 2,000 to 5,000 km

24 Hours Centenary – The distance record 1923-1971: from 2,000 to 5,000 km

24 HOURS CENTENARY – THE LE MANS EXCEPTION ⎮ While winning the race is an outstanding achievement for any competitor, going faster than anyone ever has and setting a record are no small feats either. The number of kilometres covered during the 24 Hours is an important factor in victory. Here is a look back at the evolution of the distance record between 1923 and 1971, the ultimate symbol of performance and excellence.

For example, Ferdinand Piëch was particularly annoyed in 1970 to find that his "baby," the winning 4.5-litre Porsche 917 K designed to his specifications, had covered fewer kilometres than the 1969 3-litre Porsche 908, second behind a Ford GT40! But the number of kilometres travelled depends on several factors.

Certainly it's a good indication of the performance level of a car. But the technical details are subject to significant regulations that limit the cubic capacity (therefore the power of the engine), aerodynamics (to set a balance between top speed and cornering speed), weight (the enemy), dimension of the tyres and sometimes even fuel consumption over 24 hours.

Then there's the performance of the drivers who have to take care of their car while going fast. How many times have we seen competitors set a breakneck pace only to lose steam or worse before the finish?

The factors involved in setting a distance record

Weather is a major component in how many kilometres drivers are able to cover. No matter how talented they are, they race slower in the rain than in dry conditions. Tyre manufacturers supply tyres adapted to the rain for maximum water evacuation, but the kilometres covered during a wet running of the 24 Hours always remain lower than the previous or following year on dry ground. Such was the case in 1970.

The configuration of the circuit also plays an essential role in the distance race. From the first 17.252-km layout with its extremely long straights (without the Dunlop curve or Tertre Rouge esses) to the current 13.629-km version (with the addition of what has been called since 1972 the new portion: the Porsche curves that replaced the ultra fast corner at Maison Blanche and the two chicanes at the Mulsanne Straight) which is much slower than the first despite remaining one of the fastest circuits in the world.

The years of the great battles between two or three manufacturers often marked a rapid progression in the distance record: Jaguar/Mercedes in the 1950s, Ferrari/Ford in the 1960s and Porsche/Ferrari in 1971.

Let's take a look at the evolution of the distance traveled during the race from 1923 to 1971, the last year without the Porsche curves. Note: at that time the Safety Car did not exist and the race was never neutralised, including during the catastrophic 1955 running.

1923-1939 | First records

In 1923, the Chenard & Walcker of André Lagache/René Léonard covered 2,209.536 km at a staggering average of 92.064 kph! Back then, a 100 kph average was a dream to spectators, drivers and engineers. It took three more years for that bar to be reached by the Lorraine Dietrich B3-6 driven by Robert Bloch/André Rossignol (2,552 km at an average 106.305 kph).

It wasn't until 16 years later, in 1939, the last year before the interruption caused by WWII, and despite extensive modifications to the circuit in 1932 reducing it to 13.492 km and creating the Dunlop curve and Tertre Rouge essess that Jean-Pierre Wimille/Pierre Veyron in their Bugatti 57 G beat every distance record with 3,354.760 km covered at an average 139.781 kph (an increase of 1,145 km!).

During those 16 years, the distance covered progressed by more than 50% (51% to be exact). During that era, cars were streamlined, advances were made in braking systems, the number of cylinders increased from 4 to 8 inline, as did the displacement which reached a peak of naturally aspirated 6,597 cc (Bentley in 1929 and 1930) then supercharged 2,337 cc (Alfa Romeo from 1932 to 1935) and lastly naturally aspirated 3,251 cm3 (Bugatti in 1939).

The race returned in 1949. A new momentum had spurred on engineers, resulting in the V12 engine of the winning Ferrari, for example. But, delayed by a major bodywork repair, the 166 MM driven by Chinetti/Selsdon failed to break the distance record. That would happen the following year thanks to the Talbot Lago T26 GS of father and son Rosier who covered 3,465 km.

1,000 km in 10 years

The progression got back underway at the end of the 1950s when Jaguar and Aston Martin dominated with six victories in nine years. Only Mercedes and Ferrari managed to keep up (in 1953 for the former, and in 1954 and 1958 for the latter). Six- and 12-cylinder engines, disc brakes, lowered chassis and streamlined bodywork made it possible to reach record distances of 4,397 km in 1957 (Jaguar) and 4,347 km in 1959 (Aston Martin).

The next decade was marked by two phases: Ferrari's domination from 1960 to 1965, and Ford's from 1966 to 1969. The cars went from the Italian 3-litre V12 to the big American 7-litre V8 before the regulations limited them to 5 litres in 1968 for the Sport class. The distance record grew from 4,217 km (Ferrari in 1960) to 5,232 km (the Ford MK IV of Dan Gurney/A.J. Foyt) in 1967 after an epic fight with the Ferraris in third and fourth positions). That's more than 1,000 km in less than 10 years!

The record held for the next few years due to cylinder constraints imposed by the regulations before Porsche and then Ferrari decided to invest in a line of 25 prototypes equipped with 4.5 and then 4.9 litre (Porsche) or 5 litre (Ferrari) engines. That duel resulted in a new record of 5,335 km in 1971 for the Porsche 917 k of Helmut Marko/Gijs van Lennep.

The circuit was significantly modified in 1972 thanks to the addition of the Porsche curves (costing about 12 seconds per lap) and the engine regulations limited to 3,000 cm3 starting that year make any comparison impossible. Also, the regular deployment of the Safety Car and use of Slow Zones (partial zones of neutralisation) for safety reasons during interventions by track marshals slow down the cars for what can amount to more than an hour of racing. In 47 years, the distance covered in-race more than doubled from 2,209 in 1923 to 5,335 km in 1971. It would take nearly 40 years for an Audi to beat the Porsche 917 and set the current distance record in 2010.


PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO/Archives): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 1926-1971 24 HOURS OF LE MANS. From top to bottom: the Porsche 917 K (#22) record holder from 1971 to 2010; Lorraine Dietrich (#4, #5 and #6) became the first constructor to surpass an average of 100 kph in 1926; Bugatti (#1) attempted a new distance record in 1939 before the race went on a 10-year hiatus due to WWII; in 1956, Jaguar (#4) became the first marque to cover 4,000 km; Ferrari (#11) established a new distance record in 1960 and set new ones in 1963 and 1964; Ford (#1) was the first to exceed 5,000 km in 1967.

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