80 years of Le Mans’ 24 Hours

Cutting-edge technology and endurance have always been major keys to victory at 24 Hours of Le Mans.

  • The image of cars in a showroom

Competition lives deep within the human spirit.

At first men raced on foot, then on horse but when they discovered the wheel the pace, and the danger, increased considerably. Naturally, with the dawn of motoring, came the birth of motor racing. The earliest forms of motorsport saw competitors racing from one town to the next, proving that travel by car could be expedient and reliable.

Sadly, it was also dangerous, not only for those involved in the races, but for people along the route. It wasn’t long before these open road races began to move to closed circuits.

In 1906, the first ever French Grand Prix was held in the town of Le Mans. Just close enough to Paris, the town embraced the visitors that came to watch the race. A tradition was born that survives to this day.

In 1923, the first ever 24 Heures du Mans was held at a new track called Circuit de la Sarthe that combined public roads with purpose- built sections just for racing.

Known as the Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency, the Le Mans race continued to be a showcase for reliability. During these early days, the cars raced were usually the same cars that consumers were able to buy right from the showroom.

As automotive design advanced, so did the speeds on the 6 km-long Mulsanne straightaway and manufacturers began experimenting with more aerodynamic bodies to improve top speed on the straight. The onset of World War II meant that the track was dormant for a decade.

When motorsport returned to Le Mans in 1949, the transition from road-going sports cars to purpose-built racers began. That year was significant also because it was the first time that Ferrari won the race.

The 1950s saw the development of the World Sportscar Championship, which brought auto manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Porsche and Ford into the field.

The 1960s saw a bitter battle between Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II that created a war on the race track. Ferrari won the first six races of the decade, with Ford stealing their thunder with the legendary GT40 for the final four races. The GT40 gave a glimpse into the future visually, with its sleek bodywork and closed cockpit.

In 1970, Porsche had their first overall win with the now iconic 917. It would be the first of 16 wins for the German manufacturer, the most of any brand. From 1989 until 2000, the podium has gone to a variety of manufacturers including: Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Mazda, Jaguar, McLaren, BMW and of course Porsche.

A new name appears on the list of winners in 2000: Audi.

The impact of the mighty Audi R8 began a new era that was not unlike the dominance of Porsche’s 917 and later on the 956/962. From 2000 until 2004, the factory Audis were unbeatable. In 2003 the Audi factory supplied engines, crew and drivers for the corporate partner, the Bentley team and won under the British brand’s banner.

Like Formula 1, Le Mans prototype engineers typically work on the cutting edge of technology, always looking for an advantage over their competitors. Aerodynamics and handling are key, but a car has to be powerful yet efficient if it is to succeed at Le Mans. To this end, a number of teams have attempted to use alternate fuel and power-plant solutions over the years. In the ’60s, a couple of teams tried gas turbine engines, which proved to be powerful but too hot and inefficient. Mazda is the only company to find success without pistons, as the rotary powered 787B would win in 1991.

In 1949, the French built Delettrez Special made use of an American ex-army surplus GMC diesel. Fuel efficiency was not that car’s strong suit, as it ran out of fuel at the 20th hour.

While some production car manufacturers are heavily invested in hybrid technology, nobody has done diesel as well as the VW/Audi family. Many North American consumers view diesels as dirty, slow and less powerful than gasoline engines, so it made sense that Audi’s engineers should look to diesel technology for their next Le Mans prototype.

Yet another new era dawned in 2006, as diesel became the fuel of choice for prototypes as Audi’s R10 TDI swept the next three races, followed by a diesel-electric hybrid from Peugeot in 2008. Every race since then has been won by an evolution of the R10.

The 2012 running of the 24 hours of Le Mans will see Audi campaign a pair of new diesel-electric hybrids, the R18 e-tron Quattro alongside a pair of proven R18 Ultra diesels. Toyota is also returning to Le Mans for the first time since 1999, with their TS 030 Hybrid, that uses a gasoline-electric powertrain.

In early practice sessions, the Toyota was off the Audi’s pace, but the Japanese manufacturer’s expertise in building reliable hybrid road cars could come into play during the race, ensuring that the hybrid era is upon us.

  • 80 years of Le Mans’ 24 Hours

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