A POTTED HISTORY OF LE MANS PART 2 – FROM PORSCHE TO TOYOTA
In part 2 of our focus on Le Mans we look at 1970 through to this years race.
Le Mans entered the 1970’s with a mixture of optimism in the form of technological advancements and the looming clouds of the 70’s oil crisis. The cars were achieving such speeds that it was considered dangerous for the traditional running start to be continued and so it was replaced with the rolling start that we still see today.
As with Formula 1, aerodynamics was beginning to play a major part in the performance of the cars. This was in parallel to turbocharged engines appearing on the grid. Modified production sports cars were being replaced by cars built purely for racing with little resemblance to road going models. This caused the organisers to introduce a new class for prototypes, the production-based cars moving to lower categories.
The manufacturer that embraced this prototype approach most successfully was Porsche, winning five races between 1970 and 1979. Matra, a French conglomerate with interests in aviation and weapons technology, emerged as Porsche’s stiffest competition during the 1970’s with its first win in 1972. The win also became a landmark for the car’s driver Graham Hill, who became the first driver to win the Triple Crown of Motorsport – The Monaco Grand Prix, Indy500, and Le Mans. To this day, Hill remains the only driver to achieve this feat. Matra cars would go on to take a hat trick of wins in 1973 and 1974.
The 1980’s saw a significant change in the regulations with the introduction of Group C cars. This new class was aimed at bringing the evolving closed cockpit prototypes of the 70’s (Group 5) and open topped racers (Group 6) into line with limitations on weight, fuel tank capacity, and the number of pits stops over set distances. It was hoped this would also discourage teams from focusing on engine performance where on the Circuit de la Sarthe and its almost 4-mile Mulsanne Straight the cars were spending half a lap at full throttle.
The rule changes had an effect, but the one constant was the domination by Porsche with 7 wins, only to be beaten by Jaguar and Sauber (heavily supported by Mercedes-Benz) in 1988 and 1989. The 80’s also proved successful for driver Derek Bell who took 4 wins for Porsche, taking his overall Le Mans win tally to five.
The 1990’s began with further changes to the circuit in the wake of ever-growing speeds. Cars were now regularly clocked at over 250mph on the Mulsanne and so the Automobile Club de l’Ouest introduced two chicanes equally spaced along the 3.7-mile straight and reduced top speeds down to a more manageable 215mph. 1991 also threw up another interesting milestone with Mazda victorious as the first ever Japanese winner and also with the first to win with a rotary engine powered car, the 787B. Whilst not having the all-out top speed of the traditional reciprocating combustion-engined cars, its reliability proved to be its secret weapon.
With further rule changes came the rise Peugeot, McLaren, and BMW all taking wins in the 90’s but Porsche could still not be shaken form the victory honours board with another 4 victories in the 90’s to add to the 12 wins taken between 1970 and 1987.
With the turn of the millennium came a changing of the guard and the emergence of a new dominant force in endurance racing. Manufacturers were now looking to reduce costs and motorsports programmes were being cut with many of them.
Audi had a rich history in motorsport with its pre-war Auto Union’s, rallying dominance in the 80’s, and touring car successes. However, this would all be surpassed with its development of the Audi R8 for the 2000 season. The car delivered the first win for Audi at Le Mans and went on to become one of the most successful cars of all time, winning five of the six Le Mans races it competed in between 2000 and 2005, only missing out in 2003 to Bentley’s Speed 8.
In reality the Bentley was in many ways a rebadged Audi, as many of the engineers, and drivers were provided by Audi during the design phase and lead up to the race.
The new millennium also introduced as to a new superstar of endurance racing in Tom Kristensen. Kristensen had won the 1997 race in a Porsche, but between 2000 and 2005 he achieved legendary status driving in every winning car.
Audi’s dominance continued with the introduction of the diesel fuelled R10TDI winning 3 times between 2006 and 2008, and another win (2008) for Tom Kristensen, and co-drivers Duval and McNish. Peugeot took an isolated victory in 2009 with their own diesel powered 908HDi car following the introduction of the Audi R15TDI. Peugeot had disputed the Audi design ahead of the race citing the front of the cars aerodynamics as illegal. Following the team’s victory Peugeot decided to drop their dispute.
Audi’s losses were short lived as they returned to winning ways in 2010 and 2011 with the R15TDIPlus. Audi continued to lead the way as we entered the Hybrid era racking up 3 more victories between 2012 and 2014 with their R18 e-tron Quattro. This also enabled Tom Kristensen to take another victory in 2013, bring his tally of wins to nine!
The balance of power shifted again with Porsche’s 919 Hybrid which took the honours between 2015 and 2017 before the baton was passed to Toyota and its own TS050 Hybrid car. Toyota, with a driver line-up including two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso have won the last 2 races in 2018 and 2019.
So as we head to the final hours of the race who will prevail and add to the rich history of The 24 Hours of le Mans?