The history of

the Le Mans 24-hour race

1906

1906, the town of Le Mans in northwestern France hosted the first ever ‘Grand Prix’ event, taking place on a closed public road. Prior to that, car races had been city-to-city affairs, often on open public roads, regardless of pedestrians and other traffic.

It wasn’t until 1923 that the first 24-hour race was organized, and a prize was given to the team of (three) drivers that covered the greatest distance in 24 hours.

Since then, the race, although different in terms of technology, attendance, and performance, has not
changed in its fundamental structure. The race takes place every June over an 8-mile course in Le Mans. National Geographic magazine recommended it as the number one sporting event to watch live.

Le Mans is still regarded as the pre-eminent test of stamina, engineering, and driving, and forms the ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport’, along with the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix.

Of these three, Le Mans is the most extreme endurance event, and also the oldest. There’s simply nothing else like it.

What makes it so special?

The history of Le Mans has made it a prestigious event; because of its international renown, major car manufacturers compete to defeat their competitors and show off their engineering acumen. One of the most unique engineering challenges of the race is the seemingly mutually incompatible goals: speed and endurance.

Formula 1 cars are designed to run as fast as possible for short periods of time. With regular pit stops and a relatively short race time and high average speed, an F1 car would not be suited for Le Mans. Furthermore, every engineering tweak that boosts endurance will usually lower speed and vice versa.

It is this combination that makes Le Mans such a unique challenge for manufacturers. On top of the overall engineering challenge of designing a car capable of running at top speed for 24 hours, there is also the logistical element. In 2015, for example, the winning car (Porsche, in the LMP1 class) went through 25,923 gear changes, 5,000 pounds of wheels and tires, and 500 gallons of fuel.

Manufacturers will regularly test their cars for 50 hours+ at a single stretch in advance of starting Le Mans. As an example of the importance of marginal gains, the 2015 race, the leading car – a Toyota – experienced a mechanical failure after 23 hours, and just beginning its final lap. As a result, Toyota finished 45th.

The stamina element of Le Mans is also unique within the racing world. For a car to be running and endurance race at near-max capacity constantly for 24-hours is difficult for the car, but also extremely testing for the team of drivers.

On average, drivers swap out every 2 hours, completing 8 hours each of endurance racing.

However, because of the variations in race conditions, drivers don’t plan in advance when they are going to swap, meaning that it is rare for any one of the three drivers to sleep in the 24-hour period.

Teams and drivers are always searching for tiny advantages, increasing the pressures on both. This makes the race, not just a fascinating spectacle, but also a uniquely testing global challenge.

What were its beginnings?

The period between the inaugural race in 1923 and the outbreak of WWII saw many of the now well-established conventions emerging. The most obvious of these was the establishment of the winner as being the car that traveled the furthest in 24 hours.

Also, in the early years of the race, the leading manufacturers from Europe began
to see it as a chance to market themselves, gain a moral advantage over their competitors, and to represent their nation.

The early years were therefore dominated by the Bugatti, Bentley, and Alfa Romeo. It was during this period that manufacturers began to factor in aerodynamics into their car designs, as demonstrated by the image below, which demonstrates a Bentley in the 1930 race.

In particular, cars were designed to achieve the highest possible speed down the Mulsanne Straight. With the onset of World War One in 1939, the Le Mans race was postponed until 1949.

Post-war years

It took four years for the track at Le Mans to be fully rebuilt after the war, although the appetite for the race had not diminished in the decade since the last race. The immediate postwar period saw many of the same competitors as the prewar years, although Ferrari became a major force.

The most notable event of the post-war period was the 1955 crash, which led to the death of 80 people (both competitors and spectators).

The 1955 Le Mans disaster was caused when vehicles banked into the pit lane, causing others to swerve to avoid hitting them, and a car driven by Pierre Levegh launched into the crowd.

The crash remains the most deadly in motorsport history, and led to major safety reforms, to both pit lanes, cars, and spectators. In the 1960s, Ford came to dominate the race, breaking the European monopoly of the event. There have been crashes in the race since 1955, although none have been as deadly – a direct result of the changes that have taken place since then.

How has the race evolved in modern times?

One of the most notable changes to the fundamentals of the race has been the change to the start. Where previously the race used to begin with a standing start (initially involving the drivers having to run to the car), in the 1970s, the race began with a rolling start, as with the Indy 500.

The period since the 1980s has seen a change in the dominant manufacturer at the race, with wins for companies such as Peugeot, Mazda, and Audi. With the introduction of categories such as fuel efficiency and the development of more extreme concept cars, Le Mans has now become more a test of engineering than of driver skills. Moreover, Le Mans has made a conscious effort to integrate with other global competitions, and the creation of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup in 2011 linked the Le Mans race with other events around the world.

What are the innovations from Le Mans?

One of the defining features of the eight decades of Le Mans has been the constant innovations.

Because of the competition between manufacturers, there has been an ongoing desire to improve the performance of cars. As the picture below demonstrates, the first year of the Le Mans race featured little awareness of aerodynamics, and cars that were not different than road cars. In fact, cars were actively prevented from being amended too greatly from their roadworthy specs. All cars had to have four seats, with a 165 lb ballast for any unoccupied seat. All cars had to start the race with the soft top of their car down before the driver raised it and started driving.

For the early years of the race, all tools and spare parts had to be carried in the car, and no new parts were permitted aside from those in the car. In 1926, the leading car – a Peugeot – was disqualified because their windshield wiper was broken.

In contrast to Formula 1 (a comparable competition in terms of the rivalries of leading manufacturers, as well as the potential R&D budgets involved), Le Mans has very few prescriptions on engine size and power unit. Formula 1 has strict rules on the power unit’s specifications; by contrast, one LMP1 car could use a diesel-electric hybrid, while another runs exclusively on diesel.

This capacity for innovation has driven a spirit of constant improvement in the Le Mans cars. Furthermore, because the Le Mans race is an endurance, not a speed race, many of the technological advances are more translatable to the road, meaning that developing a new technology can lead to a major financial boost for a manufacturer.

  • As the saying goes, ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday.’ This demonstrates that there is a real financial advantage to performing well at Le Mans.
  • This is as true for established manufacturers as it is for newer companies looking to gain
    attention and boost their reputation. This keeps companies invested (literally) in Le Mans.

aerodynamics

For the initial years of the Le Mans race, manufacturers and drivers had little knowledge of aerodynamics, particularly by modern standards.

It wasn’t until the 1930s, that cars began to be designed specifically to minimize their drag, particularly down the famous Mulsanne Straight.

The first car specifically designed for the rigors of Le Mans was the Cadillac Coupe DeVille entered in 1950, and immediately dubbed ‘Le Monstre’ by the French press. Since then, cars have constantly striven to improve aerodynamics, leading to ever more efficient cars.

Fuel

One of the biggest changes to have taken place at Le Mans is the introduction of electric cars and the move away from hydrocarbon-based fuel. In 2012, Audi won the Le Mans with their R18 e-tron quattro, which is not only a diesel-electric car but also had a kinetic energy recovery element.

Increasingly, battery technology is improving to the extent that the use of a fuel cell is viable in a Le Mans LMP1 car. This has led to manufacturers experimenting with hybrid use, or attempting to increase endurance, or even diminish the weight of batteries.

Safety

One of the less glamorous, but not unimportant, features of Le Mans’ innovation has been in the field of safety. Seatbelts and windshield wipers were first developed on the track. In 1926, Lorraine-Dietrich introduced the first fog lights for its cars at Le Mans. In 1927, the first front-wheel car debuted.

After the horror of the 1955 crash, innovations in spectator safety, as well as to the pit lane have also had major ramifications for motorsports in general.

What does the future hold?

One of the most exciting developments at Le Mans in the near future is the introduction of a Hydrogen fuel class in 2024. This race is specifically designed to provide an incentive for manufacturers to develop hydrogen fuel capacity, with a view to curbing overall hydrocarbon consumption. This fits in with a wider pattern of Le Mans categories, with prior categories including diesel and hybrid cars.

More long-term, manufacturers constantly look to the future to gain a competitive advantage. In 2016, Michelin held a competition to determine what the Le Mans race would look like in 2030.

Some of the most interesting predictions from the manufacturers included cars that were autonomous and all-electric or contained an instant-3D print technology to change tire traction mid-race. The innovations are all based on contemporary trends in the sport. It is also likely that new players will make headway at Le Mans, with rumors of Apple and Tesla making ventures into endurance cars.

Again, the prestige of Le Mans, born from its extensive history, is what is likely to draw more and more innovation and to keep major tech companies interested. Certainly, comparing the cars of the 1923 cohort with those of today’s will give an indication of the huge technological leaps in the past eight decades.

Le Mans prestige stems primarily from its heritage. As the first major race of its type, it attracted notable manufacturers, who sought to represent their country’s honor on an international stage. The most interesting and important developments of the pre-WWII years were not to the cars, but to the race itself. By cementing the race as an international blue riband event, the Le Mans 24 hour race ensured that it would be a place of innovation.

Compared with other motor racing events, the Le Mans race is remarkably broad in its engineering rules. This creates more space for manufacturers to innovate, and as a result, there is far less homogeneity than is the case in Formula 1, for example. Add on to this the extreme endurance of racing for 24 hours straight, and you have a race like no other in the world.

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