In endurance sports car racing, one event reigns as king, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The twice around the clock race is run every year in June at the Circuit de la Sarthe in the town of Le Mans, France.
The race is known for high speeds, hot temperatures, variable weather, and for being one of the toughest challenges for cars, drivers, and teams. Even the most dominant and experienced teams can suffer setbacks and heartbreaks, but standing on the top step of the podium is a powerful lure that brings the world’s best cars, best drivers, and best teams back year after year.
Here are 20 cool facts and stories about the greatest sports car endurance race.
The First Race
The very first running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans took place on the 26th of May, 1923. Twenty different car manufacturers entered the race with a total of thirty-seven cars. All cars, except a single Bentley from Great Britain and two Excelsiors from Belgium, were from France. Amazingly 33 cars finished the full race.
The track itself was comprised of public roads running through the Sarthe region of France. Measuring 10.72-miles, the circuit was not paved and ran from the outskirts of the city of Le Mans to the village of Mulsanne. The inaugural winner was the French pairing of Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard in a Chenard-Walcker Type U3 15CV Sport which completed 128 laps.
Most Wins By A Driver
Tom Kristensen, a Danish-born racing driver, holds the distinction of being the most successful driver at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He won the race nine times between 1997 and 2013 earning him the nickname “Mr Le Mans.” Seven of those wins came at the wheel of an Audi prototype, one in a Bentley prototype and one in the Porsche-powered WSC-95 prototype.
Regarded as the greatest Le Mans driver of all time, Kristensen has also won the 12 Hours of Sebring a record six times. Although officially retired as of 2019, he still competes in vintage racing at the Goodwood Revival.
Most Wins By A Team
Joest Racing is an endurance racing super-team. The organization was founded in 1978 by Reinhold Joest, a former Porsche works racer and is the most successful team to compete at Le Mans, winning overall a total of thirteen times with Porsche and Audi prototype cars.
Their first overall Le Mans victory took place in 1984 in a Porsche 956 and their most recent victory came in 2014 with the Audi R18 Prototype. Tom Kristensen, the most successful Le Mans driver, got his first overall win at the 24 Hour race in a Joest Racing WSC-95 prototype in 1997.
Most Wins By A Manufacturer
Porsche is the most successful manufacturer to compete at Le Mans by a long, long way. Since 1951, a total of 818 Porsche cars have competed in the 24 Hour race. They’ve won overall 19 times, finished on the podium 54 times and scored nearly 80 class wins. There is a case to be made for changing the name of the race to “The 24 Hours of Porsche.”
So competitive are Porsche’s cars that in 1971, 33 of the 49 cars to start the race were Porsches. Porsche also holds the record for most consecutive wins with 7, from 1981 to 1987.
Unusual Qualifying And Race Start
Prior to 1963, the 24 Hours of Le Mans had an unusual qualifying format, one that was not shared by any other race. Cars were lined up on the starting grid in order of engine size, from largest to smallest. In 1963, the rules were changed to more traditional qualifying, where the lap time set by a car determined its starting position.
The Le Mans Start, where drivers ran across the track to their cars, was the traditional beginning of the race. This format ran from 1923 up to 1969 and finally changed in 1970 so that drivers were strapped into the cars at right angles to the track, and then changed again in 1971 to the conventional, forward-facing format.
Furthest Distance Covered In The Race
In 2010, the Audi R15+ TDI set an amazing record by completing 397 laps in 24 hours. With each lap of the circuit being 8.47 miles, the Audi prototype covered 3,362 miles in that race. That’s greater than the distance between New York City and Los Angeles by 900 miles!
If you do the math, the Audi would have to average 140-mph per lap to complete 397 laps in 24 hours, and if you put it on public roads, it could cross the country in just over 19 hours!
Highest Top Speed
In 1988, Welter Racing showed up at Le Mans with a Peugeot-powered Group C prototype with the intent to smash the top speed record on the Mulsanne Straight. With a twin-turbocharged 2.8-liter V6 putting out 850-horsepower at maximum boost, and aerodynamic bodywork and ground effects developed at the Peugeot wind-tunnel, the WM P88 rocketed down the back straight at 252-mph.
The car, unfortunately, didn’t finish the race, as it suffered from some mechanical woes, but successfully captured the speed record. In 1990, a pair of chicanes were added to the Mulsanne Straight to limit the speeds of the cars, this means that the WM P88’s record may never be broken.
Length Of The Circuit
Since 1923, the race track used for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Circuit de la Sarthe, has had 15 configurations. All roughly the same shape and keeping many of the iconic corners but varying in length.
The original circuit, run entirely on public roads, measured 10.71 miles and featured the famous Mulsanne Straight which made up 3.7 miles of the circuit. Over the years, changes to the circuit’s length has shortened it to 8.47 miles and the mighty Mulsanne was broken into 3 parts, separated by chicanes, to limit the cars’ top speeds. Despite this, it is still the second longest race track in the world, behind only the Nurburgring.
Amazing Audience Sizes
One of the best parts of the Le Mans race is it’s festival atmosphere. Live music, great food, a fun fair and ferris wheel all add to the excitement of the race. It’s a top destination for race fans, and people from all over the world travel to the town of Le Mans every year to enjoy the race, the atmosphere and the festival.
For the 2019 running of the 24 Hour race, 252,000 people attended, that’s more than double the attendance of the Superbowl! That’s a lot of people, for sure, but it’s not the record. That distinction goes to the year 1969, in which 400,000 people crammed the circuit to watch the race.
Purpose Of Racing For 24 Hours
Prior to 1923, in Europe, Grand Prix racing was becoming increasingly popular. They were usually short “sprints” which put a focus on having a car that was very fast. The idea behind the Le Mans 24 Hour race was to introduce a new and different challenge for car manufacturers and drivers. It was designed to reward reliability and efficiency and encouraged manufacturers to build sporty cars that wouldn’t break down.
The effect of this was innovations in vehicle reliability and fuel-efficiency. In order to win the race, you had to spend as little time in the pits as possible, so a car that was incredibly fast, but used a lot of fuel was at a disadvantage.
Fastest Laps Of The Circuit
The fastest lap ever achieved on the Le Mans Circuit belongs to Pedro Rodriguez while driving the Porsche 917 in 1971. His lap time of 3:13.90 is likely going to be difficult to break, as at the time the circuit did not have the two chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight to slow cars down.
Kamui Kobayashi, in a Toyota TS 050 prototype came close in 2017, when his qualifying lap tripped the timer at 3:14.79. But it’s his teammate at Toyota, Mike Conway, who owns the fastest lap during the race when he laid down a 3:17.29 lap in 2019.
The Champagne Shower
Poppin’ bottles and spraying champagne is the standard of every motor racing victory celebration. Spraying your competitor team and the crowd is now commonplace and expected at the end of a race.
The tradition actually started at Le Mans in 1967 with the legendary Dan Gurney. After winning the race in the Ford GT40 with teammate A.J. Foyt, Gurney was handed a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne. In front of him were Henry Ford II, team owner Carroll Shelby, their wives and a number of journalists. Gurney took the bottle, gave it a big shake and sprayed everyone with the champagne in an act of spontaneity that would start a tradition that continues to this day.
It seems crazy to attempt to drive for 24 hours straight, and even crazier to attempt to race for 24 hours straight, but a few drivers have attempted and even succeeded at the feat. Today, the rules at Le Mans require that driving be limited to a set amount of time behind the wheel. This means it’s almost impossible to complete the race with even two drivers, and most teams have three to four. Prior to the rules changes, five drivers attempted to run the race solo including Eddie Hall in 1950. Hall entered a 17-year-old Bentley in the race and beat all the Ferraris and Aston-Martins to finish 8th overall.
The Famous Mulsanne Straight
Nothing personifies the character of the Le Mans Circuit more than the Mulsanne Straight. At 3.7 miles in length, it was one of the longest straightaways in motorsport, with cars reaching speeds of up to 252-mph.
In 1990, a pair of chicanes were added to the straight in an effort to keep car speeds under control and to appease the FIA. The two chicanes essentially create three straight sections of the track and because of the shortened length, modern cars will typically hit a top speed of around 205-mph. The Bentley car company, named their luxury sedan, the Mulsanne, after the straight at Le Mans.
Women At Le Mans
Motor racing is often, wrongly, considered to be a “man’s sport.” Women have a long history of competitive auto racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 1930, Odette Siko became the first women to race the endurance event at Le Mans. She would compete there from 1930 to 1933 with a best finish of 4th overall and winning her class once.
In total, 61 women have contested the great Le Mans race including Michele Mouton, the only woman to win a World Rally Championship Event and Lella Lombardi, the only woman to have raced in Formula 1.
Cars With Non-Traditional Engines
Due to the nature of the race, focused on reliability and fuel-efficiency, many manufacturers use the Le Mans race as an experimental test bed for future technologies and engine design. In recent years, the winning cars have all been hybrids, combining a small turbocharged engine with electric motors and diesel powered cars have won at Le Mans as recently as 2014.
One of the most uncommon engines used at Le Mans was found in the Rover-BRM Turbine car. Powered by a modified Rover gas-turbine engine producing 150-horsepower, the race car proved to be surprisingly competitive against the A/C Cobras and Ferraris of the 1960s and raced at Le Mans between 1963 and 1965.
The Infamous 1955 Accident
At the 1955 running of the 24 Hour race, one of the worst racing crashes in history occurred on lap 35. Mike Hawthorne’s Jaguar darted for the pit lane, cutting off the Austin-Healey of Lance Macklin. Macklin swerved to avoid the Jaguar and into the path of Pierre Levegh driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. The collision between the Macklin and Levegh launched the Mercedes over the Austin, into a dirt berm where the car exploded and sent debris across the track and into the spectator stands. The horrific crash killed 83 people and injured nearly 180 others. Mercedes-Benz withdrew all cars from the race and retired from motor racing until 1987.
Smallest Engined Car
The 1937 Gordini Simca 5, a racing car based on the Simca Cinq, has the distinction of having the smallest engine ever to compete at Le Mans. Powered by a 570cc four-cylinder engine with a puny 23-horsepower, the Gordini Simca 5 had a top speed of about 75 mph. Not exactly the type of performance numbers you’d expect from a racing car.
Despite an apparent horsepower deficiency, Amedee Gordini managed five class wins from the eight races he entered with the car including the 1937 Le Mans race!! Even more amazing, Gordini went on to set twenty-two world records with the car including a 48-hour endurance record.
Largest Engined Car
A complete polar opposite to the Gordini Simca 5, the Dodge Viper GTS-R race car had massive 8.0-liter V10 engine under its long hood. The mighty Viper won its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans three years in a row from 1998 to 2000, thanks in part to its 650-horsepower engine.
The origins of the Viper and the V10 can be traced all the way back to 1988. Chrysler, which owned Dodge, had wanted to create a modern version of the iconic A/C Cobra of the 1960s. The engine was developed with the help of Lamborghini, which Chrysler also owned, and the legend was born.
How The Winner Is Chosen
In a normal auto race, the winner is the car that crosses the finish line first, usually after a set number of laps or time. In endurance racing it works a bit differently, the winner is the car that’s completed the most number of laps in the allotted time.
That means, that if a car doesn’t cross the finish line when the checkered flag flies, it can still win the race if it has completed more laps than the other cars. The fastest cars may not win the race, and the most reliable cars that spend the least amount of time in the pits will usually come out on top.