Le Mans races in history

2011-07-01 08:17

The French town of Le Mans is in the throes of roaring engines, burning rubber, smoke and dizzying speeds across the tracks. Until October 30, the locals and tourists alike will indulge in the yearly fix of the iconic Le Mans 24-hour race series.

While the current F1 Grand Prix series is all about speed and finishing laps in the fastest time possible, the Le Mans race is much more gruelling and competitors have to show their endurance and reliability.

Just how this race became the phenomenon it is today and a motoring tradition, is a fascinating tale. A century ago racing was different.

The cars were heavy and bulky, the roads rocky and sandy.

The first race was a 1?200km road race from Paris to Bordeaux in 1895. It was won by Émile Levassor and it took him two days to cross the finishing line.

Le Mans saw the birth of an era in 1923 with the first Le Mans race.

Things were different. To stand a chance of winning, the motoring world had to dig deep into their innovation arsenals to build reliable and fuel-efficient vehicles.

The race required cars to last the distance and make as few a pitstops as possible in the allocated three years.

According to wikipedia.com, the winner was declared after three years of competition. The Rudge-Whitworth Cup would then be handed to the driver-combination that travelled the farthest distance in the period. Thankfully, this was scrapped in 1925.

Picture this: It’s 4pm on a Saturday in 1923 Le Mans. A long row of Bugatti Brescia, Chenard & Walcker, Lorraine-Dietrich and Bentleys parked along the pit wall of the circuit. On the other side are the racers waiting to start by running across the track to their machines.

Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard became the first men to win the Le Mans race in their 3.0-litre Chenard & Walcker. Since then, all races have traditionally been held in June except in 1956 and 1968 when it was held in July and September.
The race began its long tradition when it became a 24-hour event from 1925.

The length of the first circuit was 17.26km long but was shortened several times and the practice of drivers running to their cars was stopped in 1969 due to safety issues.

The worst accident on the circuit was in 1955 when 81 people died. This served as a safety wake-up call for the sport. It’s believed that the late racer Pierre Levegh had voiced his concerns before the fatal incident about the narrow straight in front of the pits.

Levegh’s Mercedes struck Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey’s rear on the straight and it exploded. The car’s engine flew into the grandstand killing 80 spectators. Levegh died in his car.

The Mercedes team pulled out of the sport with the then Sir Stirling Moss and Juan-Manuel Fangio. Mercedes-Benz also withdrew from all motorsport after that.

Today, race teams need to balance speed with the cars’ ability to run for 24 hours without breaking down and managing the fuel, tyres and braking mechanics. Drivers spend up to two hours behind the wheel before stopping in the pits and handing over to the relief driver while they freshen up before the next shift.

Teams have three drivers for each car.

Modern Le Mans 24-hour racing allows cars to compete at the same time, but in separate classes. A prize is awarded to the winner of each four class, and to the overall winner.

These custom-built Le Mans Prototype classes are known as LMP1 and LMP2. They’re divided by speed, weight and power output.

As of this year, the season kicked off with two production-based grand tourer (GT) classes last month, GT Endurance Pro and GT Endurance AM.

Both of these use GT2 cars, with the older GT1s allowed to compete in GT Endurance AM class in 2011 only.

Although those in the top class are the most likely winners of the event, lower classes have won on occasion due to better reliability.

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