All images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale
Some Le Mans 24 Hour Background
Do you remember when your favourite band or singer released their latest, long-awaited album? Perhaps it was Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, JJ Cale, or some obscure group that you really liked. You would go down to the record shop (remember those) and search eagerly for that new album, and finding it, you would pay the man behind the till so you could rush home to put your new album on the turntable as quickly as possible. While this writer was an enthusiastic fan of the above artists, and others like them, the same excited feeling would run through my body when, as a young boy, I would read the latest news about the greatest endurance race of all time, the 24 heures du mans.
This year, 2023, the creator and organizing body behind the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), will celebrate one hundred years since the first running of this great event. In those early years it actually wasn’t a race at all, but rather a test of endurance and reliability of both man and machine, and a cup was awarded to that team which scored the highest tally of points averaged over three races. So the cup did not go to the first car to cross the finish line in each year, but through a complicated formula, the winner would only be announced in the third year, assuming that the same car or team entered three years running. But it became so complicated to establish a winner, as some drivers would drop out, that the three-year formula was abandoned in favour of a two-year arrangement, but that system too was abolished in favour of an outright winner each year. In fact, in the early years, it was only the organisers who insisted that the event was not a race, but an endurance event. It appeared that no-one had told the drivers that it wasn’t a race, as they treated it as an all-out contest right from the first running of the Grand Prix d’Endurance back in 1923.
Many manufacturers have competed over the years, some have dominated for a time only to disappear from the scene having achieved what they set out to do. Some of the pioneering brands such as Bentley, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Peugeot and others, were regular winners and top finishers in the early years, but then ceased to participate. One manufacturer, Aston Martin, is still a regular competitor today having first competed back in 1928, but as it will become clear, it is not the manufacturer that can claim the highest tally of entries over the years.
There was no racing during the war years, the first race after the war took place in 1949, an important race if ever there was one, because the winner that year, Ferrari, would become a household name around the world. The name Ferrari will forever be associated with racing, but this win in ’49 also showed that, out of the tragedy of war came innovation and growth that would benefit so many different industries. While the 1950s belonged to Jaguar, the 1960s would be dominated by Ferrari and Ford.
But the last year of the swinging ‘60s would witness the rise of a player that would dominate like no other name. Porsche first entered the world of endurance racing officially, and the Le Mans 24 Hours in particular, in 1951. Steadily the young Stuttgart manufacturer built its reputation by dominating the lower classes of racing, regularly out-performing more powerful cars through its lightweight construction and reliable engines. Then, the mighty 917 wiped all before it in the early 1970s, as Porsche became the name to beat.
As the decade of the ‘80s rolled around, Porsche unleashed its next factory-built prototype race car, the all-conquering Group C 956. The year 1983 will probably be remembered by most of its fans and competitors alike but for different reasons, as Porsche 956s filled nine of the top ten places that year, the only non-Porsche name in the mix was a lone BMW-Sauber in ninth place. This pattern followed the Porsche 956 and its successor, the 962C (the same car but with a longer wheelbase), throughout the ‘80s until the Group C rollercoaster came to an end in 1992. Towards the end of this period other manufacturers had risen to prominence and these included Jaguar, Lancia, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Toyota, Nissan and others.
Group C gave way to a period of little direction and development by the sporting bodies, but out of the ashes rose the Grand Touring (GT) class of race car. GT cars were more easily identifiable with cars that could be purchased in the dealer’s showrooms, although realistically the similarities ended with the external appearance of the cars. This saw the rapid growth in development of GT race cars as manufacturers maximised the opportunity to piggyback their marketing and promotion of road cars with wins achieved on the race track. Names that played an important role through the ‘90s in this respect were Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, McLaren, Toyota and Nissan.
As the decade of the ‘90s closed out, the new Millennium ushered in a fresh move back towards prototype cars. BMW kicked off this era in ’99 with a win for its V12 LMR open Spyder, but 2000 belonged to Audi and the R8, a race car model that would dominate for the foreseeable future. In fact, Audi would take the Le Mans title thirteen times in the next fifteen years, only missing out in 2003 (Bentley) and 2009 (Peugeot). Audi withdrew from endurance racing in 2016, but already Porsche had re-entered the fray taking the title three times in quick succession, lifting its tally of Le Mans victories to nineteen. By 2017, Audi trailed with thirteen wins followed by Ferrari with nine wins, and Jaguar with seven overall titles.
Porsche followed its cousin Audi by withdrawing from the World Endurance Championship (WEC) at the end of the 2017 season. This left Toyota as the only real player in the LMP1 class, as its competitors were drawn from privateer entries. In 2021, the WEC replaced the longstanding LMP1 class with the Hypercar class, and the dominant name here was again Toyota. Following Porsche’s withdrawal, Toyota has been the only real team in with a chance of winning the title outright, and they wasted no time by taking the chequered flag five times in a row. With such a run of success behind them, this year will be the third year for Toyota running in the Hypercar class, making them the most experienced team in the field.
Back in 2019 the new rule changes were talked about, and this would see the dissolution of the two GTE classes, Pro and Am. 2022 was the last year for the GTE Pro class, and this year will be the last year for the GTE Am class, to be replaced by the new GT rules which will come into effect next year. This means that most of the GT class this year will be made up of privateer teams (actually most are thinly disguised works teams), for instance the Porsche teams are still running the 2019 model 911 RSR with some upgrades. This is a pity because for the last four years there has been little development on these cars which rather flies in the face of what motorsport is all about, that is, pushing the boundaries of innovation and development.
Be that as it may, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is still the most important of the all the legendary endurance races anywhere in the world today, evidenced by the small matter of its one hundred year existence.
The Le Mans Centenary Exhibition
Opened on Wednesday 31 May, the 24 Hours of Le Mans Centenary Exhibition offers the visitor what can only described as the most mouthwatering display of Le Mans winners and significant participants imaginable. Originally planned for around 80 race cars, some cars regrettably dropped out at the last moment, but the final tally of cars on display still reached a commendable 81 cars.
Commemorating 100 years of competition in the world’s most recognised and important 24-hour endurance race, was never going to be an easy task. For the chance to see so many iconic cars under one roof is nothing short of spectacular, and the staff of the Museum are to be congratulated on a truly sterling effort indeed. No less than 28 makes are represented, including 59 outright race winners, the impressive collection being sourced from fifteen international museums and seventeen private collectors from around the world.
Among the stars are the 1924-winning Bentley, 1925 Lorraine-Dietrich B3-6, 1931 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300, the famous 1966 winning Ford GT40 Mk II, the Gulf-liveried Porsche 917 LH, the Mazda 787 B, the unique BMW Calder and quite possibly the most curvaceous and potent Ferrari 330 P4 from 1967. Also in the lineup are a brace of Audis from the 2000s, Porsche 956s and 962s, 936/77 and ‘Moby Dick’, McLaren F1 GTR, Bentley Speed 8, Peugeot 905, and a delicious collection of Ferraris GTs and prototypes from the 1960s – there are too many to mention here.
The Le Mans Centenary Exhibition can be viewed in the Musee des 24 Heures, located at the main entrance to the circuit. Its is open daily until 2 July 2023 from 10h00 to 19h00, with special extended opening times during 24 Hours of Le Mans race week (5–11 June).
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale