A POTTED HISTORY OF LE MANS PART 1 – FROM CHENARD-WALCKERS TO FORD
As we look forward to 4pm today and the start of the delayed 2020 24 Hours of Le Mans we’re taking a brief look at the history of the race in a 2-part feature.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is widely recognised as the grandfather event of modern motor racing. The first race was held on 26th and 27th May 1923 on the Circuit de la Sarthe which is made up of public roads near the French town of Le Mans from which the race takes its name. The race, made up almost solely of French entrants, was won by René Léonard and André Lagache driving a Chenard-Walckers. Although the French pair were the first to cross the line, they were not awarded the trophy as the race in its early years was designed to be a three-year competition with the team covering the most distance over the three races being awarded the Rudge-Whitworth Triennial Cup. The accumulation of points between 1923 and 1925 meant the first official winners of the trophy were Robert Sénéchal and Albéric Loqueheux, driving another Chenard-Walckers.
For 1926 the race adopted a biennial format again for the Rudge-Whitworth Cup. However, this was changed again in 1928 when the drivers of the car covering the furthest distance over a 24-hour period were crowned the winners after each race.
From 1928 to 1939 the main protagonists were French, British, and Italian drivers, with teams and cars designed mainly by Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, and Bentley. Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939 the race was cancelled and didn’t run again until 1949.
The race has always promoted the very best in engineering design and build, with the cars arriving to race being the fastest of their kind, whilst also needing to be reliable and fuel-efficient and so keeping time stationary in the pits to a minimum.
After the war the race resumed following the resurfacing of some of the roads and rebuilding of various facilities around the circuit, and in the pit and paddock areas.
The race began to generate new interested and its raised profile brought the big manufacturers to the grid. The first race after the break was also the first victory for Enzo Ferrari with Luigi Chinetti and Peter Mitchell-Thomson driving a Ferrari 166MM.
The mid 50’s brought the acceleration of the major sports car manufacturer teams sending multiple cars to the race to compete.
This was in no small part due to the formation of the World Sports Car Championship series of which Le Man became a part of. Ferrari, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar amongst others were dedicating bigger budgets to the sport, and the race in particular, seeing winning Le Mans as a huge marketing opportunity.
With bigger budgets came faster cars made with new lighter materials and as the speeds increased so did the chances of life changing accidents. Never was this more magnified than in 1955 when the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR of Pierre Levegh crashed while trying to pass the Austin-Healy of Lance Macklin. The collision sent the Mercedes careering into an earth bank causing it to disintegrate and explode with large parts of the car hitting spectators in the crowd, killing more than 80 people. The incident became known as the Le Mans disaster of 1955.
The tragedy cast a black cloud over the sport with many teams pulling out of competitive motor racing, and drivers retiring as a result. Mercedes would not enter a works team in any competitive motorsport again until 1989.
In the aftermath of the accident safety measures were implemented across all series, formulae, and circuits.
For the next 10 years Ferrari dominated the race, winning 6 times, only losing out to Jaguar in 1956 and 1957, David Brown Engineering in 1959 racing an Aston Martin DBR1, driven by Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori, and 1965 beaten by a non-factory car driven by a trio of Rindt, Gregory, and Hugus.
The year before had seen the first entry for the Ford works team with its GT40 although it proved unreliable and suffered a DNF. Ford returned the following year but failed again to finish. With the 1966 race approaching Ford chose Carroll Shelby, a previous winner at Le Mans in as a driver, and now a team owner, to spearhead Ford’s attempt to break Ferrari’s stranglehold on the event.
The result of the race has passed into legend as Ford GT40’s took the first 3 places with Porsche placing P4 to P7, with the British Maranello Concessionaires Ferrari entry in P8.
The race was tinged with controversy as Ken Miles leading the race in the No.1 GT40 slowed to allow the other two Ford’s to catch up for the chequered flag photo opportunity. This proved costly for Miles and his teammate Denny Hulme. Rules at the time dictated that the winning car was the one that covered the furthest distance over the 24 hours. As the No.2 Ford of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon had started further down the grid although they crossed the line second, they covered 8 yards further than the car of Miles and Hulme. Following the debacle, the rules were changed for the following season so that this couldn’t be repeated.
It proved a missed opportunity for Ken Miles, who was considered one of the most talented engineers and fastest endurance drivers of his generation. After the race he returned to the US to begin testing on Ford’s J-Car, the next generation of Ford’s endurance racing cars. On a hot day testing in Southern California, Miles crashed and was tragically killed. It’s commonly considered that he would have returned to Le Mans and won in 1967. As it turned out the 1967 victory went to Gurney and Foyt in a GT40 MkIV. GT40’s would win twice more in 1968 and 1969.
As we head for the start of the 2020 race this weekend, it’s Toyota who top the timings in qualifying ahead of the independents Rebellion Racing. With Toyota and Rebellion in P3 and P4 respectively let’s hope it’s a cracking race.
Tomorrow we will continue our walk through the history of Le Mans looking at 1970 up to the present day.