24 Hours of Le Mans: A history

Modified 03 Jun 2015

24 Hours of Le Mans is an endurance racing championship. The world’s oldest such race, it has been running since 1923 at the picturesque town of Le Mans in France.

Drivers line up at the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans

Regarded as one of the most prestigious events in motorsport, it is the ultimate test of drivers’ skill, endurance and ability.

At the event, drivers must race for 24 hours, managing all vehicle consumables – fuel, tyres, brake fluid, whilst they avoid any mechanical issues or damage. Drivers usually race for two hours or more before they are allowed to be relieved by another driver in order to rest, with each vehicle shared by three drivers. 

With vehicles subject to conditions for 24 hours, the Championship is regarded as the ultimate test for motor racing technology – it is at Le Mans that their true mettle is tested. 

The race, held on the Circuit de la Sarthe is a combination of public roads and specially designed racing tracks, held on and is designed to test not just endurance but racing speed. The circuit, 13.629km long, is one of the longest circuits in the world, and it utilises roads that are open to the public all year round. 

The 1955 Disaster of Le Mans

The wreckage of the 1955 Le Mans disaster

1955 was one of the darkest years in motorsport history, and the Circuit des 24 Heures played host. 49-year-old Pierre Levegh, driving a Mercedes-Benz vehicle under the Daimler-Benz banner, was following the Jaguar of British driver Michael Hawthorn, Britain’s first Formula One champion, who belatedly followed a signal to pit for fuel. Hawthorn’s braking caused competitor Lance Macklin to brake harder, and this threw a cloud of dust up in front of the vehicle of Levegh, whose visibility was seriously hampered.

Levegh's vehicle collided with the rear of Macklin’s with almighty force, so much so that it became airborne, landing on an embankment that separated spectators from the track. Parts of the car disintegrated, flying through the crowd. The bonnet, detached from the rest of the car, flew through the crowd and was described as “decapitating spectators like a guillotine.” The engine crushed some spectators as well. 

Levegh himself was thrown from the vehicle, landing with a force that crushed his skull completely. He and eighty three others, all spectators, lost their lives at Le Mans in 1955. 120 others were injured in the melee.

Mercedes retired all of their drivers from the race and invited Jaguar to do so as well, which they declined. Mike Hawthorn and Jaguar teammate Ivor Bueb would win that year, but were heavily derided in the media, and their win marred forever by the terrible tragedy that had befallen Levegh and spectators. 

The Bugatti Circuit at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

The Bugatti circuit, a part of the larger Circuit de la Sarthe, was named for famed automaker Ettore Bugatti, is a permanent race track within the Circuit de la Sarthe. Separately divided turns at the overlapping sections of the track indicate a continuation into the the Circuit des 24 Heures, or conversely into the Bugatti Circuit. It uses parts of the larger circuit and has dedicated sections of its own, and plays host to the motorcycle version of the 24 Heures de Le Mans. 

More popularly, the Bugatti circuit hosts the yearly MotoGP of Le Mans, won this year by Movistar Yamaha MotoGP rider Jorge Lorenzo.

Cars at Le Mans are classed according to different categories. In the early days of the race, cars were classified only according to engine displacement, which meant that it was not necessary for the car that had covered the most distance to win – the car with the smallest engine displacement would be classed the winner. 

With a new rolling start, the modern day iteration of the 24 Hours of Le Mans classes the car that has completed the most laps the winner. In addition, regulation requires cars to have completed 70% of the distance of the overall winner, or they would be classified as non-finishers even if they had not finished as many laps. 

Published 03 Jun 2015
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