«The Club Arnage Guide to the 24 hours of Le Mans 2015 Every input was pure reflex - things were coming at me everywhere I looked. For about 50 ...»
So, with some strict (and sometimes complicated) homologation rules and a winner which would be declared only after 3 years of running for the main trophy, the first race started in 1923 with 30 French entries, 2 Excelsiors from Belgium and a single private Bentley representing the UK. By 16.00 on Sunday and after 2209.5 km covered in 128 laps, it was the Chenard-Walcker of André Lagache-René Léonard that crossed the finish line first although it would not be recognized as winner, rather as top qualified in the Rudge-Whitworth Cup. A whole odyssey with rain, mud, no windscreen wipers and a lot of champagne consumed at the “Hartford Hotel” (a sort of proto-paddock of the time), the experience encouraged participants to engage the year after and 1924 saw 40 entries for the June scheduled race.
Just one of them was non-French and it would win the race: the number 8 Bentley of John Duff and Frank Clement which had learned the 1923 lesson installing front brakes to improve their performance. The following two years saw the domination of André Rossignol and his Lorraine-Dietrich, despite the increased international presence and entries ranging in the 60 cars.
1925 saw the first appearance of the “Le Mans start” which would be a trademark of the race (until the famous Jacky Ickx walk to his Ford GT40 in 1969) as well as the first two fatal accidents on the track. The Bentleys were very competitive but eventually retired so it was the Chenard-Walckers to win the only ever triennial cup and the newly established biennial cup. 1926 saw new pits, a new prize (the Index of Performance) and another French victory, the last one until 1932. And the reason for the first 4 of that 5-year drought was no other than the Bentley Boys.
The Bentley Boys
A fundamental step in the creation of the Le Mans legend, the 4 victories in a row of the green machines put the La Sarthe race into the definitive map of the greatest events in the world. Driven by the men that would become the everlasting symbol of the Gentleman Driver, the Bentleys were unbeatable until the appearance of another symbol of the big race, its first Italian winner. The names of Woolf Barnato, Sammy Davis, Dudley Benjafield, Bernard Rubin, Henry Birkin and Glen Kidston would forever bind the UK fans and teams to the dream of a 24-Hour win.
The 1931 victory would also be for a British team, however on an Italian car which would reign for another 4 years: the mythical Alfa Romeo 8C. The circuit, that had been shortened in 1929 to 16.430 km and would go to 13.492 km in 1932 was constantly evolving in terms of facilities, safety and road surface, therefore allowing higher speeds to be achieved and longer distances to be covered. 1933 saw 233 laps (3144km) being covered by the winning car, a works Alfa Romeo where Raymond Sommer (who had won the year before with Luigi Chinetti) shared the drive with the legendary Tazio Nuvolari, in his only (very successful!) appearance at Le Mans. Lagonda, Bugatti (twice) and Delahaye would be the last pre-war winners, the race not being run in 1936 due to a strike. The name of Jean-Pierre Wimille would be associated with both Bugatti successes (1937 with Robert Benoist, 1939 with Pierre Veyron), reaching a record 248 laps and 3354.7 km covered on the last summer before the start of World War II. By this time the Le Mans 24 hours was established as a top international event, one that manufacturers wanted to attend and win to show their cars' performance in the
The war would put a stop to the race and 10 long years would go by before a swarm of racing cars would return to La Sarthe to take history from where the Bugattis had left it. The spirit of the race would be reborn with multiplied energy and the 1950s would witness more amazing victories (including the first of a small red car with a prancing horse) and the biggest tragedy ever in motor sport history.
After the war
The 1949 race saw a field with a big mixture of pre-war and modern cars. The British were now as numerous a force as the French and the presence of Bentley, Frazer-Nash and Aston Martin was much more noticeable. The victory however would go to a new marque, a car made by an Italian rebel that had been Alfa Romeo's racing manager many years before and was preceded by as many victories as conflicts: Enzo Ferrari. But it was not his entry, rather the British Lord Selsdon's one that saw the chequered flag in the hands of (now triple winner) Luigi Chinetti and Peter Mitchell-Thompson. 1950 would see a battle of epic proportions between Ferrari, Talbot, Jaguar and Allard. In the end victory would be for the father-son pairing of the Rosiers, the dad driving over 23 of the 24 hours in their beautiful Talbot-Lago. But by 1951 another new winner would start writing their history: with a wonderful streamlined body the Jaguar XK120C would win the race it had been designed for in the capable hands of Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead.
By this time Le Mans was also attracting attention from overseas and, after his first experience the year before with a regular Cadillac and the famous “Le Monstre”, the American challenge of Briggs Cunningham would become a Le Mans feature as well as the pioneer in putting the race in the map for American motorsport. 1952 saw another new winner, this time a German one.
The inequivocal (and massive) presence of Alfred Neubauer in the pits, the collection of technical innovations and huge star signs to indicate where to stop were the clear sign of the presence of Mercedes-Benz at Le Mans. But their “gullwing” 300SL did not have an easy time and the main prize could only be clinched in the last hour by the all-German line-up of Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess who finished just ahead of their team mates Helfrich and Niedermayer. The leading Talbot where Pierre Levegh had driven almost 24 hours on his own gave up with practically minutes to go, possibly due to the driver over-revving the engine. A reversal of fortune so typical of this “gruelling monster” as someone qualified it.
The period 1953-1958 would see a ferocious rivalry between Jaguar and Ferrari which would become the first of many mythical head-to-heads at La Sarthe. The Jaguar C-Type from the works team would win in 53 with Tony Rolt-Duncan Hamilton after a Ferrari debacle that saw all but one of their cars retire or being disqualified. A new regulation was introduced as well allowing a maximum of 80 laps per stint and 18 hours total of driving per driver in order to avoid another “Levegh 1952” situation. But Ferrari would come back in strength in 1954 and the 375 Plus was able to beat both the Aston Martins as the new D-Type Jaguars. Skilled driving from Maurice Trintignant and the only South American winner ever, the Argentinian “Raging Bull of the Pampas” José Froilán González brought the first works victory for the Maranello team. “El Cabezón” González was able to resist the Jaguar pressure during a late rain period and give the Scuderia its maiden works victory at Le Mans as he had done at Silverstone in 1951 in the field of Grand Prix racing.
8The Club Arnage Guide to the 24 hours of Le Mans 2015The catastrophe
The biggest tragedy in racing history would cast a black cloud over the Mike Hawthorn-Ivor Bueb victory for Jaguar in
1955. The infamous flight of Pierre Levegh's Mercedes 300 SLR engine and debris into the main grandstands taking the lives of 80 spectators as well as the driver's has marked Le Mans and motor sport forever and threatened then to stop car racing altogether in Europe (the ban is still valid today in Switzerland). Mercedes retired while Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss were in the lead in another 300 SLR but the race went on in order to avoid total chaos.
The Belgian Oliver Gendebien would score the first of his four victories in 1958 driving on a mighty Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa (nicknamed redhead, due to the color of the upper half of the engine block) with American ace Phil Hill. They had a hard time battle the Aston Martins until about noon on Sunday but they won comfortably after a series of rival retirements. The 1950s would end with a DBR1 Aston Martin giving the British team its only overall victory to date, drivers were the American constructor-to-be Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori. After 30 years of trying it even was a 1-2 since 2nd place went to driver-journalist Paul Frere and Maurice Trintignant in another Aston. Ferrari succumbed to the “hare and tortoise” tactics from Aston Martin which had sent Moss to drive at a furious pace from the start and forced the Ferraris (and the Moss-Jack Fairman car as well) to retire. The great “uncrowned champion” would never win Le Mans but Sir Stirling Moss is undoubtedly one of the greatest drivers of all times. But 1959 was just a hiccup in the dominance of the Prancing Horse, the 60s would see the small factory from just outside the city of Modena dominate “la grande épreuve” and trigger the fury of a certain Mr. Ford.
The Italian era
If the fifties had been the start of the mythical marque duels at Le Mans, the sixties would propel these duels to an unknown level. The decade would start with a Ferrari victory in 1960. Oliver Gendebien (1958 winner) and Paul Frere (second in 1959) would bring home their beautiful Testarossa, just one of eleven Ferraris entered. Only Aston Martin could show some resistance to this Ferrari swarm with the car driven by Roy Salvadori and none other than Jim Clark arriving third in his best Le Mans finish ever.
It was the time of the Maserati Birdcage, the Austin Healey and so many fast cars but it was the period were Ferrari would prove unbeatable in Le Mans: 6 wins in a row (5 by the Scuderia itself and the last one by the NART) would bring first an offer and then the rage of Ford by the mid-sixties. 1961 saw another Gendebien victory, partnered again by Phil Hill like 3 years before. A clean sweep with a 1-2-3 followed by a Maserati and a Porsche which could have been even more humiliating if a Ferrari vs Ferrari battle between the cars of Ritchie Ginther/Wolfgang von Trips and Pedro/Ricardo Rodríguez would have not taken those two cars out of the race. The following year was almost a copy of 1961, same winners, same Ferrari domination and another 1-2-3 against mild resistance from Maserati and Aston.
Fourth victory for Gendebien and third for the Gendebien-Hill pairing in a field with 15 Ferraris entered.
In 1963 an early Maserati lead soon gave way to another Ferrari all-Italian victory with Lorenzo Bandini and Ludovico Scarfiotti putting their 250P on the top of the podium. A curiosity in 1963 was the inclusion “hors-concours” of the turbine Rover-BRM which even managed to finish the race (it would have been a virtual eighth). The Jean GuichetNino Vaccarella victory of 1964 made it 5 in a row for Ferrari. However, this year saw the debut of Ford, anxious to grab the top spot from the small Italian constructor. This would be the last year for Jaguar and Aston Martin for decades and it also was a year for the victory in the GT class of Dan gurney/Bob Bondurant in another legendary Le Mans car: Carrol Shelby's AC Cobra. Another 1-2-3 for Ferrari and on to 1964. And another 1-2-3 would materialize when the Ferrari of Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory would lead another two Maranello cars after a disastrous performance by Ford which saw all their MkIIs abandon the race in just a few hours.
The Ford – Ferrari battle
The Ferrari domination would come to an end in 1966 when the 13 Fords vs 11 Ferraris race ended with a legendary victory by Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon leading a procession of 3 Fords to achieve a 1-2-3 in the closest finish ever in history. The rest of the decade would be a solo of the GT40: 1967 saw the beautiful MkIV take the win in the hands of Dan Gurney/A.J.Foyt in a first ever all American win which also broke the distance record with 5232km run. The 9 The Club Arnage Guide to the 24 hours of Le Mans 2015 fantastic P4 Ferraris could only manage second and third in a tough battle with the American monster. But 1968, when the race had to be moved to the end of September due to the social unrest in France, witnessed two important facts: the first was the win of (yet another) Ford GT40 run this time by John W yer Engineering with Pedro Rodríguez/Lucien Bianchi in Gulf colors, a team/sponsor that would become a symbol of Le Mans. The second fact was that a small German manufacturer that had always raced in small classes started now knocking on the door of the big win: Porsche. Since no works Ferrari was present due to regulations issues the Porsche offensive with their 908 car was even more visible and the Ford could take over only after the 908s showed their mechanical weaknesses, as did another future star: the Matra.
For 1970 a new, short lived age will start. Ford would be gone and the battle of the giants would take place between Porsche and Ferrari with a funny blue car watching right behind.
Battle of the Titans – Ferrari vs. Porsche 1969 was the last year of the Beatles together, the year of Woodstock and the end of the hippie era but it had also been the last year of the Le Mans start. The 1970 edition of the 24 Heures would see many unique happenings: A weird start with the cars in their traditional Le Mans layout but with drivers already in them, a certain Steve McQueen shooting for what would become a classic film among racing fans and the so-called Battle of the Titans between two very powerful cars ending on the first overall victory for Porsche. In fact the duel between the three John Wyer Porsche 917s and the four works Ferrari 512S was never as thrilling as in the film: a multiple crash in the rain would cripple the red team and leave one lonely car that never made it through the night and several issues would have the legendary GulfDownhill from Dunlop Bridge towards the Esses sponsored cars retire leaving the victory to the © Derek Appleyard number 23 Porsche Salzburg 917 of Dick Attwood and Hans Herrmann.