24 stories from the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which celebrates its 100th anniversary: ​​a flying car, the greatest tragedy of motorsport and the inspiration for two films

The cars that will be part of the 2023 edition (Press 24 Hours of Le Mans)

It is the queen of long-term races in which being the fastest does not mean finishing first. This Saturday the legendary will leave 24 Hours of Le Mansthe traditional French competition that celebrates 100 years since the first of its 91 disputed editions and in which hundreds of stories were woven. Achieving glory means racing at night on a circuit that crosses national routes, surrounded by a historical setting in which winning is worth a title.

The appointment in Le Mans can be included in a select group of mythical races where it is necessary to add to the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. They are considered the most important competitions in the history of motorsports. The Dakar is added, although this event also has a presence of motorcycling.

Winning at Le Mans requires an extraordinary effort. A sacrifice where the Mechanics get to be 40 hours awake and they must have full concentration at each stop of the cars in the pits, be it for tire changes, fuel refills, driver replacement and most importantly: repairing the car.

There is an old phrase that states that “Le Mans chooses the winner”. It is that a car can lead most of the competition, but in the end the least expected problems can arise, such as a mechanical failure or driving error after so many hours, beyond the fact that the drivers usually sleep when it is not their turn up. of the car.

24 Hours of Le Mans
First Edition Poster (Collector Studio)

1. Its origin. The French event began to take shape in 1922 through the company Rudge Whitworth de L’Ouest, which allocated an investment of 100,000 francs to promote the automotive industry.

The initial idea for a long-term competition came from Georges Durand, founder of the club that organized it. He asked Charles Faroux and Emile Coquile to design the bases of the race and they proposed one of 8 hours, with 4 at night. Jean-Marie Lelièvre, a member of the club, was the one who said: “Why not 24?”

The objective was to create a variant of the “Grand Prix” races (prequel to Formula 1), where victory not only depended on speed, but also on the reliability of the machines and the resistance of the drivers.

24 Hours of Le Mans
A small square in the town of Le Mans with a monument that honors the pilot Derek Bell, two-time World Endurance champion and 5-time winner at Le Mans (Diego Zorrero)

2. Circuit. Since then, it has been run on the Le Mans track, capital of the Sarthe department (Pays de la Loire region), and a town about 200 km southwest of Paris. The original circuit, between 1923 and 1928 had a extension of 17,262 km. From 2007 to now, the distance is 13,629 km.

3. His people. Le Mans has a magical environment and looks like a motorsport theme park, with pedestrian streets that display tiles alluding to the drivers who made history, as if it were a kind of “Hall of Fame”. It is also full of bookstores with material from the race or other places where you can take souvenirs.

4. A motor village. In 2021 the public returned after the restrictions due to the pandemic and a capacity of 50 thousand people, one fifth of the usual amount in all years. Most people sleep in tents and, beyond the race, spectators seek entertainment in an amusement park set up next to the circuit. Since last year, with full capacity, there are 350 thousand viewers.

24 Hours of Le Mans
The public stays in the vicinity of the circuit. In the image, the amusement park (Diego Zorrero)

5. Argentine triumphs. On June 13, 1954, the Argentine José Froilán González went down in history by becoming the first Latin American to win at Le Mans. Pepe shared a Ferrari 375 Plus with the Frenchman Maurice Trintignant. Froilán drove 17 hours in a car that was put in sandbags to give it more grip.

While José María López managed to win on his fourth attempt on August 22, 2021. Like two years ago, Pechito shares a Toyota GR010 Hybrid with the japanese Kamui Kobayashi and English Mike Conway. This Thursday Kobayashi they got the fifth qualifying time and on Saturday at 11:00 a.m. in Argentina they will start from that position.

Froilán González in his 1954 victory (CORSA Archive)

6. Twisty and Poppy. Juan Manuel Fangioparticipated four times (1950, 1951, 1953 and 1955) and gave up on all of them. While Oscar “Poppy” Larrauri He was a protagonist in the eighties. In 1986, the man from Santa Fe, with a Porsche 962, achieved the second place in the general classification next to Spanish jesus couple and the French Joël Gouhier.

24 Hours of Le Mans
Pechito López will seek victory with the Toyota team (TGR Press)

7. Dotted Lole. In 1973 it was the turn of Carlos Reuteman, who on a Ferrari 312 PB had no luck and left together with the Australian Tim Schenken. Lole was in front during the tenth hour of competition, but a broken connecting rod left him empty-handed.

8. 1955 tragedy. On June 11, 1955, there was a multiple crash that became known as “The Le Mans disaster.” The pilot Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators died and it is considered the greatest tragedy in the history of motorsports. However, the race was not called off, and was won by Mike HawthornFormula 1 champion in 1958.

9. The day a car blew up. In 1999, the Scottish Peter Dumbreck suffered a horrifying accident, but was able to tell it. In the fastest sector, his Mercedes-Benz CLR left the asphalt, rose and after three rollovers into the air and landed in an area that luckily was not wooded.

“I could see the sky and I thought: ‘I know what’s coming now,” recalled the Briton. “Afterwards I don’t have any memories until I woke up in the ambulance,” he added.

10. Lonely. In the 1950 24 Hours, Eddie Hall had a reserve driver, Tom Clarke, but his intention was to run without him. He did 236 laps, more than 3,200 km, qualified eighth and was the only pilot to complete the entire test solo.

24 Hours of Le Mans
The spectacular flight of the Mercedes-Benz CLR in 1999 (CORSA Archive)

11. Start. Traditionally, drivers would run to their car on the race grid, dangerous because they didn’t have time to fasten their seatbelts. As a protest, in the 1969 edition, the Belgian Jacky Ickx was walking, instead of running. He won the race and, the following year, the game started with the drivers in the car.

12. Date changes. Traditionally, the second Saturday in June because it is the shortest night of the year. It had date changes as in 1968 due to the internal crisis due to the “French May” demonstrations. Also in 2020 and 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its creation, it has only been canceled 10 times (1936 and the period between 1940-1948).

13. Champagne Feast. In 1967, Moët et Chandon presented a bottle of champagne to the winners, including Dan Gurney, who recalled: “We went up to the platform (the podium) and someone gave me a giant bottle of champagne. It was a huge achievement, after many attempts. On seven occasions I didn’t even finish the race and I thought, let’s do something…”

Apparently the year before someone had left the bottles out in the sun and when runner Jo Siffert went to get hers the cork flew off and spilled the drink everywhere. The big difference is that Gurney shook his Chandon and put his finger to create the rain. There the tradition of dunking the other competitor on the podium was born.

Steve McQueen starred in the film Le Mans and himself raced a Porsche 917

14. He came to the movies. The 24 hours of Le Mans was the setting for the 1971 film, titled Le Mansproduced by and starring Steve McQueen, who drove a Porsche 917. The film is considered a classic still appreciated by many motor fans. It was shot on the circuit during the 1970 edition using real vehicles that competed on the same day, such as the Porsche 917, the Ferrari 512 and the Lola T70.

15. Ford’s vendetta. Henry Ford II in a minute wanted to buy his factory from Enzo Ferrari. The Commendatore refused, and undiplomatically. Offended, the son of Henry Ford set out to defeat the Italians where it hurt the most, that is, in the race. His wish came true in the 1960s, with the GT40, a sports car that swept the Scuderia, winning Le Mans four times in a row, from 1966 to 1969. This story inspired another movie, Ford vs. Ferrari (2019).

16. Goyo’s Jewel. One of those Ford GT 40s that ran at Le Mans in those years is in Argentina. It is owned by the employer Gregorio Perez Companc. At the 2009 Autoclásica exhibition, the jewel came to light and was one of the attractions of the event.

24 Hours of Le Mans
Ford GT 40 that raced at Le Mans and is owned by Gregorio Pérez Companc

17. Celebrities. Other Hollywood stars also ran at Le Sarthe, such as Paul Newmanwho was second in 1979 with a Porsche 935 and Patrick Dempsey (2009, 2013 and 2014). In addition, the world champion archer with France in 1998, Fabien Barthez (2014); and the Pink Floyd drummer, Nick Mason (1979, 1980, 1982 and 1984).

18. The incredible feat of Louis Rosier. Legend has it that in 1950, Louis Rosier drove 23 and a half hours straightbut something that no one doubts is his tenacity to win after overcoming various adversities: a mechanical failure that cost him the loss of his seven lap advantage, the collision with an owl and a broken windshield…

19. Did they win drunk? Although it was never officially verified, it is one of the more anecdotal stories. In 1953, Tony Rollt and Duncan Hamilton, Jaguar drivers, were disqualified in practice for repeating the numbers on the car. Both, upset, went to a bar and began to drink. However, after negotiations, the team was reinstated, although the pilots were drunk, so they drank several cups of coffee and took cold showers. They qualified and the next day they won the race. Years later, the manager denied the story, saying that he would never have allowed them to run drunk and that it was already difficult to work with them when they were sober…

A nocturnal postcard. Typical image of the French race (TGR Press)

20. Triple Crown. Only Graham Hill got the “Triple Crown of Motorsport” (it is not a trophy, but an honorary title), product of his victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500 Miles and the F1 Monaco GP. Those who can match him today are the Spanish Fernando Alonso, who needs to celebrate in Indianapolis and the Colombian Juan Pablo Montoyawhich owes its success at Le Mans.

21. Kings of Le Mans. the german brand Porsche won 19 times. And the winningest driver is the Danish Tom Kristensen, with 9. The first was in 1997, the first year he participated and in which he made the team at the last minute to replace injured running back Davy Jones. The Scandinavian pilot ran with four marks and won with three.

24 Hours of Le Mans
The cars on National Route 138, in what was the long straight of six kilometers (@24hoursoflemans)

22. A straight line of six kilometers. There are F1 circuits that today average five kilometers and Le Mans came to have a six km straight. “Ligne Droite des Hunaudières” until 1990, was an uninterrupted straight line on the national route N138, between Mulsanne and Arnage, with a wide curve called Indianapolis. Three chicanes were then placed to limit top speed at that point.

23. At 400 km/h. Before the chicanes were placed, the highest speed reached in Hunaudières was 407 km/h. Roger Dorchy achieved it with the WM P88-Peugeot, in 1988. Currently, with the chicanes, the maximum speed hardly exceeds 340 km/h.

24. Prophet in his land. jean rondeau He is the only driver to win this event (1980) with a car that bears his name (Rondeau M379B). He is also the only Le Mans winner to have been born in that French town.

Keep reading:

He was bedridden as a child, was a Hollywood “villain”, created a Formula 1 giant and died at 32: the incredible story of Bruce McLaren

From transporting pigs and grains to being the first winner with Ferrari in Formula 1: the best anecdotes of José Froilán González