Few sporting events can boast a century’s worth of history, but the French twice-round-the-clock marathon is one that can. It quickly became the greatest endurance race on the planet and its story is full of twists and turns.
Georges Durand, secretary general of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, Charles Faroux, motorsports journalist and Polytechnique graduate, and industrialist Émile Coquille got together at the Paris Motor Show at the Grand Palais in 1922. There, they discussed an idea that resulted in the Rudge-Whitworth 24-hour Endurance Grand Prix, an event introduced the following year. Little did they know that it would become the world’s most revered endurance test. Now, a hundred years later, the race is about to celebrate its Centenary.
A bold claim perhaps, but one that is befitting of the status that this event has gained over the years thanks to a 17-kilometre circuit that has undergone many changes but is still extraordinarily long, the trials and tribulations of the night, the occasional torrential downpour, and much more. All major manufacturers of mainstream cars and sports models have since come to Le Mans to test the robustness of their machine, use the race as a marketing ploy to boost their notoriety, beat speed or distance records or show off their technological prowess to the public.
Le Mans saw Bentley excel in the 1920s and Alfa Romeo in the 1930s. Despite the considerable damage caused at the circuit, the race was revived after the Second World War – proof that it was already a unique component of French heritage. After the tragic accident in 1955, which caused numerous casualties, the organisation embarked on extensive work to make the circuit safer. Safety has always been at the forefront of the ACO’s concerns.
Jaguar and Ferrari shared the limelight in the 1950s before the giant Ford Motor Company chose Le Mans to seek revenge, on the racetrack, after seeing its takeover bid for the Italian firm snubbed. This episode was portrayed in James Mangold’s 2019 film Ford v Ferrari (aka Le Mans ’66) starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale in the roles of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles. And there have been plenty of other actors at the circuit over the years. Steve McQueen came to Le Mans to shoot one of his best-known films, while Paul Newman almost won the event in 1979. In the 1970s, a titan emerged and made the circuit its own: Porsche. The German carmaker now holds the record for the number of victories with 19.
Le Mans isn’t just about cars, however. It has always been fertile ground for human prowess. For example, Louis Rosier who spent 23 and a half hours at the wheel of his Talbot to win in 1950, or Henri Pescarolo who, in 1968, climbed back to second place during a rainy night-time stint on board a Matra with broken windscreen wipers. And then there was local man Jean Rondeau who, in 1980, became the only driver to win in a car of his own design. He even fended off the Porsche works entries, including the car driven by Jacky Ickx. The Belgian – known as Mr. Le Mans – long held the record for the most Le Mans victories. Many actually wondered if his record would ever fall. However, with nine wins in just 18 race starts, of which seven with Audi in the 2000s, Tom Kristensen proved that records are made to be broken. His too might be beaten one day.
And, of course, Le Mans is a city too. In fact, the whole region lives and breathes the race, benefiting from the event’s international appeal. Local people and businesses honour their cherished race, all getting involved in one way or another. There’s not many a family in Le Mans without a grandparent or cousin who has taken part in June’s biggest event, either behind the wheel, with the organisation, as a mechanic, a marshal or in another volunteer role. In fact, without the army of marshals, there would be no race. There were around 1,600 of them on duty at the 90th 24 Hours of Le Mans in June 2022.
Safety and technology have been the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s main concerns since it was founded in 1901 as a small regional motoring club. Now there is much focus on hydrogen, seen as the fuel of the future, and the ACO is spearheading the development of this new propulsion technology. The aim is always to go further, faster and for longer, while sustaining the race’s legend for many years to come, inspired by the three pioneers who led the way all those years ago.
The 24 Hours celebrates its official centenary
The first 24 Hours of Le Mans 24 Hours took place on 26 and 27 May 1923. The entry list featured 33 cars and marques such as Lorraine-Dietrich, Bentley, Chenard & Walcker, Delage and Bugatti, with all contenders setting off together. The cars were lined up on the grid in rows of two in decreasing order of engine capacity, with odd numbers on the right and even numbers on the left.
Despite the speed of the Bignans and Bentleys, it was the Chenard & Walckers who set the pace out on the track, holding the lead from start to finish. Although there were no standings to speak of at the time, the #9 Chenard & Walcker Sport driven by André Lagache and René Léonard was the first to lay claim to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
For a century now, stringent regulations and their strict application have been a hallmark of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Le Mans is the ideal testing ground, with the ensuing technology benefiting cars and their drivers. This has held true since 1923, as demonstrated by the array of innovations that have emerged from the race. Seven manufacturers will vie for victory at the Centenary race in 2023 – Toyota, Porsche, Ferrari, Vanwall, Cadillac, Peugeot and Glickenhaus. It is the highest number for many years, confirming that the 24 Hours of Le Mans remains more relevant than ever in an age of major transition for the automobile.