Racing At 200mph For 24hrs Straight
Imagine a Formula 1 race, but 18 times longer. Imagine Instead of the Indy 500, the Indy 3000 Imagine racing at over 200 miles per hour, for 24 hours straight with no breaks. The 24 hours of Le Mans is a race that you’ve probably heard of But the history of this iconic endurance race actually goes back over a hundred years And Le Mans has seen its fair share of triumphs and tragedies. So let's dig into the story of the worlds most famous 24 hour race And see how this insane French race became the testbed for the fastest cars in the universe.
I’m Guff, this is Albon, lets get started. Endurance Racing The ultimate test of the will of a driver and the capability of their engineers. And In the early 1900s, it was these hours-long races across Europe that featured the latest and greatest in automotive technology. But with many of these races, it was still just about speed.
Build the fastest car you could, and just hope that it made it to the finish. But in 1923, a little French automobile club called the ACO decided that they wanted to do something bigger, Something that would test car and driver far beyond the norm. The race would take place in a little town called Le Mans. And this race at Le Mans wasn't the first of its kind, not by any means. Just like many races before it, it was an endurance race But Le Mans set to do what other endurance races of the time couldn't.
Gone was the single track focus of pure speed. This race was about innovation. To race at Le Mans, you had to understand fuel consumption, lead the industry in aerodynamics, You needed a team of the best drivers with unbreakable focus and most importantly, your all-out sports car? It had to survive for 24 hours straight at peak performance. This certainly wasn’t the first 24 hour race, but it was certainly one of the most interesting And thats thanks to the circuit that the ACO chose for the race - Circuit de La Sarthe. In its initial form - the circuit was essentially a 17.2KM (10.725mi) long triangle. But even calling it a circuit was generous.
The layout of the track used public roads, it led in and out of the nearest town. Then back down unpaved and stone roads and then back onto actual dedicated track It was dangerous, difficult; a track that only the most fearless of drivers could handle. And instead of there being a set distance or number of laps, the winner would be whoever could cover the most distance in the 24 hour time span. Honestly, it seemed silly, an automotive masochists torture chamber. But at that inaugural race in 1923, 33 entrants willingly showed up, ready to race. None of the entrants were individual drivers, they were all manufacturer's teams, which really reinforced that this race was seen as a gauntlet of quality and craftsmanship The cars were divided into classes - small engines, medium engines, large engines, and Very large engine cars.
The largest engine of the bunch being the 5.3L Inline 6 Excelsiors, a Belgian made sports car. And these weren’t just some bruteish muscle cars, oh no They were one of the first to put anti-roll bars on their car.. because again… Le Mans was about innovation. Then there was Lorraine-Dietrich, a french company that had a lightened, torpedo bodied car that topped out at an eye watering 90mph. Then of course there were the already highly established 2.1L Delages in the race.
There was also one British entry, A privately owned Bentley that was publicly backed by Bentley themselves Then there was Ford by way of Charles Montier, Ford’s agent in France racing in a one-off Model T. But alongside the big names of Ford and bentley, were small unknown manufacturers as well Like Bugatti, yes the very same Bugatti, but long before their rise to fame. They entereds two T22 Brescia Bugattis in the small engine class So an absolutely iconic lineup of motorcars then, But again, this was Le Mans, so the uniqueness didn’t end there. Even the race start was nothing like anyone was used to You didn't start this race in your car waiting for the green lights to drop. And there was no rolling start, no pit lineup. NO. the drivers started the race OUTSIDE of their vehicles on the other side of the track.
When it was time to race, you had to sprint across the track and into your car, fasten your racing harness and take off around the rest of the contestants panicking to do the same. It was an absolutely epic way to add drama and excitement right at the start, and was an integral part of the 24 hours of Le Mans, until it wasn't, but we’ll get to that later. So those 33 drivers set off on a brutal journey, and after 1 full orbit of the sun, the winners were Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard, who covered 128 laps in their Chenard Sport, a total of over 2200km (1367mi) The race was an absolute success, and news spread across Europe that there was a new benchmark for automotive endurance, and it was called Le Mans.
After that inaugural race, the race took off on a historic run of success It seemed like in just a few short years, every driver and manufacturer that heard of Le Mans was fighting to get on the starting grid. But when it came to those early years, nobody was as infamous as the Bentley Boys. The Bentley boys were just a group of wealthy British car enthyuuusiasts that well..raced their Bentley's everywhere and anywhere in the 1920s. One particular Bentley Boy, Joel Woolf Barnato, was so wealthy he eventually acquired Bentley.
And the crazy thing was that they had the speed to back it up! The group would go on to win 4 back to back victories at le Mans from 1927 to 1930, putting up a historical battle against Bugatti. And in that fierce competition, the 24hrs of Le Mans was quickly becoming the new pinnacle of motor racing. Every manufacturer was trying to find ways to reach new top speeds down the Mulsanne Straight.
Alfa Romeo and Bugatti were reinventing car design to account for wind speed and aerodynamics. It was absolutely cutting edge stuff, and this was just the start for innovation at Le Mans …wellll, at least, that was the plan. By 1936 the race was canceled due to strikes in france.. Then in 1939, the race went on a 10 year hiatus for world war 2. But all that just made the return in 1949 all the more glorious. Even the president of France was in attendance, along with 180,000 other spectators.
And little did they know, this was the day they would witness the birth of a Le Mans legend. Because 1949 was the year that the prancing horse came alive. Ferrari, in its first ever race at le mans, placed first in class. And it was just one of MANY wins to come.
Those iconic red racers from Maranello were kicking butt all over the planet And the racing world was on notice. Winning Le Mans was a testament to all the factors that mattered. Your car had to be relentless for 24 hours straight, survive the abuse. Your drivers had to be laser focused through day and night. And the car next to you, you had to trust them with your life.
The track itself was extremely taxing. The ACO had already made some major revisions to the circuit since its inaugural race. They asphalted some of the sketchier stretches of road, they shortened the overall track to go around the town rather than through it, And other parts of the course were rerouted away from houses, widening the streets to allow for a little more breathing room.
The ACO did what they thought was enough to make this inherently dangerous race as safe as possible. But what the ACO didn’t do, along with the rest of the world, was prepare themselves for the horror of 1955. Just like how you weren’t prepared for this segue to our sponsor: Morgan & Morgan! OR Just like how you weren’t prepared for this segue to our sponsor: Shipstation! The 1955 race was shaping up to be another historic run 87 cars registered to race, and of the 70 that made it to practice, 60 qualified for race day. Mercedes Benz had just dominated F1 and now it was time to win outside of open wheel. Their weapon of choice was the 300SLR. And it was built to go against the likes
Ferrari, and their all new 735 LM Jaguar, with their D-type Racers Maserati’s 300S Aston Martin’s DB3S. And then of course, Porsche, who just won their class a year prior. Stuttgart came back this year with multiple platforms to prove their dominance This year's Le Mans had all of the ingredients for a monumental race. And it was, but for all the wrong reasons. 2 ½ hours into the race, Mike Hawthorn in his Jaguar, was out in front of Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey, and Pierre Levegh’s (le-vek) Mercedes Hawthorn pulled across the track in an attempt to make a last minute pit. Macklin, trying to avoid Hawthorn, veered off the right side of the track He then swerved back across the track to get back in line, but ended up right in front of Pierre Levegh’s mercedes.
Levegh’s front right wheel caught onto the rear of Macklin’s car at 120mph. Macklin’s car acted as a ramp for Levegh to launch into the air and over the barricades. Levegh was ejected from the car and died on impact But Levegh’s Mercedes went directly into the spectators, rolling end over end for over 80 meters The scene is described by multiple witnesses in grave detail. Parts of the car flew off, cutting through spectators and rolling over others. Over 80 people died, with many more injured. And perhaps the most unbelievable part of all? The race continued on.
Mercedes was distraught with what happened, and said that they couldn’t continue. And besides, the optics of a german team brushing off a french catastrophe would be a PR nightmare at the time. So they pulled out of the race in the middle of the night when the crowd was most sparse.
Mercedes also approached Jaguar to pull out of the race, as it was Hawthorn’s pit stop that caused Macklin to swerve. But their team leader, a gentleman by the name of Lofty England, refused to accept that. And in a twisted turn of events, it was Hawthorn in his Jaguar who ended up winning the race.
As you can imagine, blame was being thrown everywhere after the race. Did the ACO create unsafe racing conditions? There wasn't even a designated deceleration lane before entering the pits Or was this Hawthorn's and Jaguar’s fault for their late pit entry? Or did Macklin just lose focus and control when he swerved across the track avoiding Hawthorn? And beyond all that, why wasn't the race stopped? The ACO argued halting the race would cause spectators to block the entry roads for emergency vehicle But, surely there were private roads and entry points onto the track though right? Regardless, what happened, happened. The ACO’s investigation cleared any single person of blame. It was considered just another “racing incident”. The worst racing incident in history. Mercedes dropped out of racing altogether after that day.
And It wouldn't be until over 30 years later that they would ever race again. Section 4: Rebuilding The ACO spent the next few months doing whatever they could to prevent such an incident from ever happening again. Grandstands were demolished and relocated. There were more barricades installed, safer pitting rules, and so on.
But the damage from the 1955 race had been done. Many groups were calling for the ban of motor racing altogether. Switzerland outlawed road racing events altogether after 1955. A ban that would last 67 years until 2022! It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that the race would start to return to its former glory.. And that’s thanks to Ford and Ferrari.
Ford was expanding quickly in the 50s with the success of their passenger cars, But there was one thing they were painfully lacking; a sports car. So Henry Ford II went out to buy Ferrari. And they almost did it too! But they just couldn’t come to agreeable terms when it came to Ferrari’s motorsports team. So the entire deal fell through. Things got personal and a feud broke out. And well you saw the movie. Ferrari reigned supreme in the mid 60s until Ford teamed up with Carrol Shelby.
Ford made the GT40 and well, the rest was history . The GT40s took 1st, 2nd, and 3rd at the 1966 Le Mans. Ferrari didn't even finish. But once the dust settled, and Ford and Ferrari were over their beef, It was Porsche that decided to take the crown from Ford Le Mans was basically Porsche's second home. They hadn’t missed a single race since 1951
And for 19 years they fought it out on that French circuit, until 1970 when they took their first overall win at Le Mans in the legendary 917 K, finally beating out the Gt40. But Porsche’s win wasn’t just luck, they were riding a wave of change that was overtaking Le Mans. Cars at the turn of the decade were just too fast, and things were still too dangerous, so the ACO needed to account for this during race day. So the famous standing Le Mans starts that made the beginning of the race so exhilarating was canceled. Drivers were getting too reckless, taking off into the race before fastening seat belts, even sometimes hitting late runners on the way to their car.
In its place was a much safer rolling start. And as for the cars themselves? Production-based cars were moved down a class and the top class was now reserved for dedicated race cars And that class is where Porsche capitalized. The 917K not only took the overall win in 1970, but they won again in 1971 And then in 1976, Porsche won again in the first turbocharged prototype to ever win the race, the Porsche 936.
Then they won again in ‘77, and then a third time in’ 81. And yet Porsche still wasn't done, because the 936 was about to be replaced by the iconic 962 The 962 was a Group C class racer, And it destroyed the competition at the World Sportscar Championship in 85 and 86, AND it dominated IMSA from 85 to 88 So hell, why not take it to Le Mans and win there too? So, that's exactly what they did in 86 and 87. When it was all said and done, Porsche’s reign was for nearly 2 decades They had been winning for so long, that the track itself didn’t even look the same from when they started.
In 1979, the Tertre Rouge corner, known for its sharp right angled turn, was changed to a more suitable double apex corner. In 1982, when Porsche won again, it would be the very last time a 2 man driver crew would run the race. All future winning teams would have 3 drivers. Then in 1986, as the cars were becoming much faster, the Mulsanne Corner was redone. It was now a roundabout at the junction, in an effort to reduce accidents Then in 1987, the entry speed into the dunlop bridge was now considered far too fast with the more powerful modern cars, so there was a chicane added By 1988, you could honestly say that the circuit was basically brand new compared to 30 years ago, and so were the race winners. The jaguar factory team made a return Having pulled out the factory team in 1957, just two years after the tragic 1955 incident.
And even Mercedes Benz decided that they would come back too. And both companies were on a mission to prove they still had it. Jaguar won immediately in 1988.
Mercedes won in 89. And then Jaguar took it back in 1990. Even though the course was changed dramatically yet again.
The FIA had rules on what the maximum length of straightaways could be, and the Mulsanne Straight was now considered too long, too fast, Cars like the Welter-Meunier (Mun-yay) P87 were doing 251mph on the straight, in 1988! So it was inevitable that 2 chicanes would be added to the straight. Arguably the biggest change in the course's history. In 1991, Mazdaspeed entered 3 cars into the 24hr race. One was the Mazda 787 and 2 were 787Bs One of those 787Bs was destined to become the greatest milestone in Mazda’as racing history. And it was easy to tell which one, it stuck out like a sore thumb. It was Bright orange and green to rep their biggest sponsor, Renown, a clothing company in japan All three of the Mazdas used 2.6L 4 rotor engines, and even though that orange 787B
started all the way in 19th place 24 hours of fight and grit later, it ended up winning the race with a 2 lap advantage over Jaguar Mazda, and absolute underdog at that race, became the first japanese team to ever win at le mans, and also the first and only non-piston engine car to win. But the 787B never raced at Le Mans again, Because Group C cars were being replaced by the new 3.5 Litre World Sportscar Championship class, Which outlawed wankel rotaries from competition. It was a big blow for Mazda, but it came at a time where racing around the world was on the decline. Many teams pulled out or cut budgets, and race classes were constantly being updated to try and accommodate for it.
By 1992, the world sportscar championship class was shut down, so the grid changed once again. Out went purpose built race cars and back came the production grand touring cars.. But, as with all racing, to win you need to bend the rules, So Porsche re entered their Dauer 962 under a production loophole and dominated the field in 1994 But in 1995, Mclaren used that same loophole and beat porsche at their own game with the F1 GTR. And by 1996, every major manufacturer in motorsports caught on to the loophole and were entering newly built supercars to compete at Le Mans Ferrari had the F40 LM and GTE Porsche, the 911 GT2s Jaguar with their Xj220 Honda’s NSX Gt1 Toyota Supra GT LMs Nissan Skyline GTR LMS It was awesome! All of these “production-based” one-off supercars fighting it out for 24 hours straight at Circuit de la sarthe BMW won in 1999, their first and only win to date. All the while, Mercedes was forced to leave racing again, after a massive aerodynamic oversight caused 3 huge accidents thanks to their CLR taking flight.
But along with Mercedes leaving. Well, so did everyone basically else. The cost of racing in 2000 was just too high and manufacturers saw less and less value. The only manufacturer teams left were Audi and Cadillac. The rest were privately owned. And with basically no competition, Audi’s R8 LMP won in 2000, 2001, and 2002 until team Bentley returned in 2003. But even Bentley was using Audi’s engine, team staff, and drivers. Audi and Le Mans were becoming synonymous. And so even Cadillac dropped out.
And with that, competition in the highest class of Le Mans became non existent. Audi won again in 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2010 2011 2012 2013 And 2014. Guys, Audi was winning so much in the R8 that they got bored and challenged themselves with the R10 diesel engined Prototype.
And after that TDI racecar won, they introduced the r18 E-tron, a freaking hybrid, in a time when hybrid only ever meant the Prius. And as I’m sure you can guess, they won again. But that was where things got interesting again. You see, Le Mans was always the motorsports test bed for new technologies, the most cutting edge in automotive engineering.
Things like biofuels were starting to be used, and when the world began seeing the value of electric cars, the Hybrid Audi R18 came to show that even battery power could be used for speed. And in 2014, Porsche returned to Le Mans, not to test a new high horsepower gas guzzler, but rather, with another hybrid, the 919. And of course, the first name in Hybrids, Toyota had to make an appearance with their TS040 prototype. Even Nissan came back with the GTR LM Nismo, a twin turbo V6 hybrid that was front wheel drive.
The grid was finally looking like more and more like a manufacturer battle again And just like in the 80s, Porsche found their way to the top winning in 2015, 16 and 17 in the Porsche 919 Hybrid But that 2016 win was different. It seemed like for the very first time, Porsche faced trouble from another team. And that team was Toyota.
The Toyota TS050 Hybrid and Porsche’s 919 battled for the lead the entire race. With under an hour left, Toyota had just a 30 second lead over porsche. 30 second lead in a 24 hour race! And then Porsche had to pit. Toyota had it, finally! Porsche’s hybrid dominance was at its end. And then with 3 minutes left in the race, the Toyota’s intercooler pipe popped off the turbo. And the car lost all power.
1437 minutes of running like an absolute top. But it was those last 3 minutes that mattered most. The 919 passed the broken down Toyota, and Porsche won the race.
It was tragic. I remember watching live and being on the verge of tears. But Toyota, for the first time ever at Le Mans, caught a glimpse of what winning felt like. And while they came back the following year, it wasn’t until 2018 that they were truly looking for blood.
The drivers were all superstars in their own rights. Fernando Alonso, Sebastion Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima And the TS050 Hybrid was a well oiled, and fully charged machine. Both of the cars ran the entire race with minimal issues. And at the end of the 24 hours, The TS050 won the race just ahead of Toyota's other TS050.
A 1,2 finish for Toyota. As for Porsche? Well they didn't race. They left after winning in 2017 in order to prepare for Formula E coming in 2019. Which seems like great news for Toyota! But Porsche’s absence became the stain on Toyota’s record that still exists to this day. Toyota dominated Le Mans for years to come. In fact, Toyota’s Gazoo Racing team hasn't lost the endurance race since it won in 2018.
18,19,20,21,22. All won by the TS050 and GR010 hybrids. They’re in the running with the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, and Audi when it comes to wins But fans argue that Toyota hasn’t seen any real competition. Toyota DID earn these wins, it takes serious effort to have cars and drivers last 24 hours in an all out race.
Not to mention, Toyota has by far the most advanced car on the grid, pushing the limits of technology further than any other manufacturer in the industry. But what would have happened if Porsche never left for formula E, or if Audi continued building on their R18. It was the question on everyone’s mind every year when those trophies were hoisted into the air. But, well, it seems like in 2023, you might just get an answer to that question. Section 5: Present Day 100 years after the very first Le Mans 24hr, the latest global spectacle of automotive endurance is shaping up to be a good one.
Scheduled for June 10th, the race is already sold out with over 300,000 spectators expected to attend. And why is the 2023 race such a big deal? Well that's because Toyota won’t be racing alone. Gone is the long running LMP1 class, replaced by the new Hypercar class as of 2021. And Porsche, Cadillac, Peugeot, Ferrari and more are all set to race in this new top class. And with competition this stiff, many are keen to see if Toyota's previous 5 wins will continue to be respected, Either way this year will continue to show the bleeding edge in Hybrid technology, and with a Hydrogen class coming soon, innovation is truly alive and well at Circuit De La Sarthe And Le Mans, a hundred years on, continues to be one of the greatest events in the automotive world. Thanks for watching! Join us on discord to tell us all about your favorite LMP car! And don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t already I’ll see you in the next one!