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24 hours of Le Mans

From Academic Kids

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1952 Le Mans race, depicted on cover of Auto Sport Review magazine

24 hours of Le Mans (24 heures du Mans) is the most famous sports car endurance race held at Circuit de la Sarthe near Le Mans, France, in the French Sarthe département. It is organised by the Automobile Club de L'Ouest (A.C.O). The first race was held on May 26 and 27, 1923 and has since been run annually in June, with the exceptions of 1956 (July) and 1968 (in September, due to nationwide political turmoils in spring see May 1968), and was cancelled only in 1936 (economy) and from 1940 to 1948 (World War 2).

The race is run on a non-permanent track which is over 13 km (8.1 mi) long, using mostly normal country roads. Over the years, several purpose built sections replaced the normal roads, especially the Porsche Curves section which bypasses the dangerous former Maison Blanche section between buildings. The permanent Bugatti Circuit surrounds the facilities at start/finish.

Usually 46 cars race simultaneously in a number of different categories and classes, from dedicated prototypes to street cars, the overall winner being the car that has covered the greatest distance in 24 hours of continuous racing. This rule appears obvious, but the 1966 race saw a surprise winner. Ford expected a level finish with two GT40 Mark II crossing the line at the same time in a staged finish, but the car that made the worse time during practice was pronounced the winner, as it had started further behind on the grid and thus covered a bigger distance in the same time. In addition, a car must cross the finish line after 24 hours to be classified, which leads to dramatic scenes where damaged cars leave the pits to crawl around the track one last time in order to finish or sometimes less dramatic scenes where damaged cars drivers are confident enough to the ability of the engine to start again and simply stop on the border of the track close to the finish line waiting for the last lap to restart their engine only to cross the line.

Nowadays, each car has a team of three drivers. Before 1970 only two drivers per car were allowed, and even solo driving was permitted in the early decades. Until the early 1980s most of the cars were raced with a two driver team. In 1950, Louis Rosier won the race with his son Jean-Louis Rosier who drove the car during only two turns. In 1952, Frenchman Pierre Levegh competed alone and looked like the winner but made a shifting mistake in the final hour which handed victory to a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR.

Contents

"Le Mans start"

Traditionally, the race starts at 16:00 on the Saturday, although in 1968 the race started at 14:00 and in 1984 the race started at 15:00 due to the conflicting French General Election.

The races used to begin with what became known as the "Le Mans start": cars are lined up on one side of the track, drivers on the other. When the French flag dropped at 16:00, the drivers ran across the track to their cars, entered and started them. This became risky after the introduction of safety belt harnesses, which needed to be properly strapped. At that time pilots entered the first curves with unfastened belts and locked their belts in the straight.

In 1969, for his first Le Mans 24 hours, a young Belgian talent and F1 GP winner, Jacky Ickx, made a pointed demonstration of the danger of this start method, when instead of running across the track to his machine, he slowly walked, then entered in his car and locked the safety belts properly. Sadly, in the first lap of the race, the privateer racer John Woolfe was killed. Despite starting in the last position with an outdated car, Ickx managed to win the race in a dramatic finish 24 hours later on by only 120 meters. Ironically while driving a Porsche 911 to Paris after the race Ickx was involved in a road accident where he escaped unharmed having worn his seatbelt.

So the traditional Le Mans practice was discontinued the next year in 1970 when the standing start from the side of the track was replaced with a rolling start, with drivers starting while being seated, with the belts fastened properly, as in Indianapolis 500. This new start procedure remains known for Le Mans enthusiasts the "Indianapolis Start".

The Le Mans start is also the reason why Porsche street cars continue to have their ignition switches on the left of the steering column rather than on the more customary location of the right-side: this enabled the driver to start the engine with left hand while engaging the 1st gear simultaneously with the right hand thus allowing the Porsche to get off the starting line more quickly than other race cars.

The circuit

The Le Mans Circuit de la Sarthe is a non-permanent track using local roads and since 1965 a part of the permanent Bugatti Circuit.

The track has undergone many modifications over the years. It is most famous for its long straight, a part of the RN138 (Route Nationale 138 - National road 138) known locally as Ligne Droite des Hunaudières, or in English as the Mulsanne Straight.

The race is run on a non-permanent track which is today over 13 km (8.1 mi) long, using mostly normal country roads. Over the years, several purpose built sections replaced the normal roads, especially in 1972 when the Porsche Curves section which bypasses the dangerous former Maison Blanche section between buildings. The permanent Bugatti Circuit surrounds the facilities at start/finish.

Unlike many other races where the speed in curves is more important than top speed, top speed was a critical parameter for being competitive in Le Mans. This led to special body designs like the "Long Tail" bodies pioneered by Charles Deutsch and Robert Choulet. Braking at the end of the straight is also critical; the first use of disc brakes on a car was in a Jaguar racing in Le Mans.

The cars were reaching impressive speed in the straight: in 1971, during night practice, a Porsche 917 LH was clocked at a top speed of 386.004 km/h or about 239.852 mph.

During the 1970s top speeds decreased after the introduction of new regulations that reduced the size and power of the engines while the evolution of aerodynamics allowed the engineers to improve the speed on a lap by increasing downforce and thus increasing speed in curves and reducing top speed. This evolution that bring less stress on the car was also favored by drivers because it made the car easier to drive, leading to less violence in acceleration and braking while reduced speed in the straight required less attention and gave more relaxation to the driver. On a 24 hours race these are important benefits.

But by the late 1980s the fastest cars were again reaching impressive top speeds. In 1988 a WM P87 powered by a turbocharged PRV engine and driven by Roger Dorchy reached the speed of 405 km/h (251.7 mph) during the race. This performance is generally considered as non-significant because it was a media coup by a team seeking budget: the car was tuned for top speed with all air orifices taped, as a result the engine broke soon after. But the next year a Sauber Mercedes C9 reached a top speed around 400 km/h (248.5 mph) without any special tuning during the race, and the FISA felt that it had grown unsafe. Two chicanes were consequently put in place in time for the 1990 race to lower top speeds. Near the end of this straight was an infamous hump, which gave flight to a Mercedes CLR in 1999 during warm-up. The problem reoccurred to another CLR in the race, leading to the withdrawl of the third CLR, out of concern for safety. This hump was lowered during the winter before the 2001 race, again in the interest of safety. Although the hump remains, it is greatly diminished from what it was.

A new chicane was introduced in the Dunlop curve for 2002.

Marques

The most successful marque in the history of the 24 hour race is Porsche, with 16 overall victories (including seven in a row, from 1981 to 1987), followed by Ferrari with nine (including six in a row, from 1960 to 1965). The early years were dominated by Bentley, with four consecutive wins from 1927 to 1930.

In a personal spat between the two companies' owners, Ford won the race four times (1966 to 1969) with its GT40, built for the express purpose of defeating Ferrari, after founder Enzo Ferrari backed out of a deal to sell his company to Ford.

The only Japanese company to win the race so far has been Mazda, which won the 59th race in 1991 with its rotary-engined 787B prototype. Toyota almost took the overall win in 1999, but mechanical woes in the final hour relegated them to second.

Accidents

Le Mans is also known for the worst accident in the history of motor racing. In 1955, Pierre Levegh was invited to drive a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. Racing for the lead, he hit the back of a slower Austin-Healey which had to swerve left in order to pass the Jaguar of Mike Hawthorn who suddenly moved over to the pits. The much faster Mercedes was unable to avoid the Austin-Healey, was catapulted upwards by the sloped rear end and crashed into the huge crowd opposite of the pit lane, disintegrating into parts. The driver and more than 80 spectators were killed, and many others were injured. The race was continued to prevent leaving spectators from crowding the roads which would have slowed down ambulances. The Mercedes team retired at that point as a sign of respect to the victims, while Jaguar continued, with Mike Hawthorn winning.

In the shock following this disaster, many major and minor races were cancelled in 1955, like the Grand Prix races in Germany and Switzerland - the latter country banned circuit automobile racing, a ban which still remains in effect today.

At the end of the season, having won World Championships in Formula One and Sports Cars, Mercedes withdrew from motor racing generally, and did not return until 1987. That today's DaimlerChrysler Corporation, owner of the Mercedes marque, is still aware of and sensitive to this incident was evidenced by their re-withdrawal from sports car racing in 1999 after their CLR sports prototypes caught air and backflipped three times at Le Mans. Aerodynamic modifications made to the #4 car after a practice crash couldn't prevent it from becoming airborne again during the warm-up, this time at a different section of the track. The remaining two slightly different cars started the race, but the #5 car took off like an airplane and somersaulted into the forest, in front of a live TV audience. Incredibly, driver Peter Dumbreck walked away from the flipped car without injury, just like Mark Webber did twice before. Car #6 retired immediately. Similar accidents involved a Porsche and a BMW while racing in the USA, and had happened in the 1980s.

In the movies

The 24 hours of Le Mans race was also famously featured in a 1971 movie, titled simply Le Mans, produced by and starring Steve McQueen. This film remains a classic which is still appreciated by racing fans. It was filmed on the circuit during the 1970 race using genuine racing cars of the day, and a non-racing Porsche 908 spider equipped with heavy 35mm movie cameras was entered there, providing actual racing footage from the track. The car was non-racing and thus non-classified. Despite having to stop often to change films, the car finished the race with a mileage that would have been a noted performance if it had been classified.

History

1927 to 1930 The Bentley years

These years were dominated by the big Bentley Blowers, driven by the Bentley Boys. After 70 years, this marque returned to Le Mans, to win again in 2003.

1931 to 1934 The Alfa-Romeo years

1955 The worst accident in racing history

In 1955, Pierre Levegh was allowed to drive a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR after his excellent previous efforts. He was chasing Mike Hawthorn, when Hawthorn's Jaguar passed a slower Austin-Healey before suddenly braking to enter the pits on the right. This forced the Austin-Healey over to the left into the path of the faster Mercedes which was approaching at high speed. It ran into the back of the Austin-Healey, was catapulted into the air, and crashed into an earth bank designed to protect the crowd, disintegrating and killing the driver and 80 spectators, and injuring many others. There has been speculation, based on the nature of the injuries of some of the victims, as well as the haste with which the Mercedes team allegedly left France after the event, that the Mercedes may have been carrying some kind of illegally treated fuel, such as nitromethane, and that in fact it exploded rather than disintegrating on impact. Large portions of the car were made of magnesium, which when ignited burns very intensely. The race was continued to prevent departing spectators from crowding the roads, which would have slowed down ambulances.

Mike Hawthorn and the Jaguar team continued and won the race, while the remaining Mercedes cars (driven by Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and others) were withdrawn from the race as a sign of respect to the victims. Mercedes was not to race again for 40 years.

1963

Rover and the BRM Formula 1 team joined forces to produce a Gas turbine powered coupe, driven by Graham Hill and Richie Ginther. It averaged 107.8 mph (173 km/h) and had a top speed of 142 mph (229 km/h). Ludovico Scarfiotti and Lorenzo Bandini won in the Ferrari 250 P.

1964 to 1967 Ford/Ferrari duel

After Ferrari had dominated since the late 1950s, Ford first try to buy the Italian company. A deal had been all but agreed on when Enzo Ferrari called the merger off, after an intervention of Fiat that gave some financial backing to Ferrari. A frustrated Ford decided to beat Ferrari in Le Mans instead. The GT-40 project was launched under the mangement of Roy Lunn with the partnership of Eric Broadley from Lola and John Wyer former Aston-Martin's team manager. The 1964 race turned to the advantage of Ferrari with the victory of a 275 P. The duel ended prematurely in 1965, with the failure of all the Ferrari and Ford works cars. However the NART (Luigi Chinetti's private team) saved Ferrari's honor with a Ferrari 275 LM winning the race, this proved to be the last win for the red cars. Four consecutive victories for Ford followed in the next years.

1964

The previous year Ford had won Indy 500 on its first try with Lotus. The Indianapolis powerplant, a 4.2 L aluminum block Fairlane engine with a Colotti gearbox, was installed in the new GT-40s.

The new white and blue coupe made his first appearance in April at Le Mans’ test days. The results were disappointing, the car was unstable on the straight, however Ford sent one car to Germany for Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren to race in the Nurburgring 1000 km (621.4 mi). The GT-40 qualified a second to a Ferrari 275 P, but retired after 15 fast laps.

Even if the reliability of the GT-40 was questionable, Ferrari took Ford as a serious threat. The works entered four prototypes in Le Mans (three 3.3 L 275 P and a 4.0 L 330 P) and other Ferrari prototypes, including two 330 Ps, were entered by the British team Maranello Concessionaires, the Belgian team Equipe Nationale Belge and the American North American Racing Team.

Ford entered three GT-40s in the 24 hours and could also count on Shelby's Cobras Daytona coupes.

Pedro Rodriguez took the best start with the NART 330 P. Richard Attwood’s No. 12 Ford GT-40 took fire at evening.

Phil Hill drove the sole surviving GT-40 broke into the top three coming from 32nd during the night and establishing a lap record at 131.375 mph (211.4 km/h). Just before 5:30 a.m. Phil brought the last GT-40 to the pits. After some discussion between Ford officials the cause of the renouncement was a gearbox failure: Ford engines never fail.

1965

For the 1965 season the development of the GT-40 was given to Carol Shelby the GT-40 were fitted with the same engine than the Cobras, an iron cast 4.7 L (280 in³), the Colotti gearbox that proved unreliable was replaced by a ZF.

In parallel Ford developped a new version of the GT-40. The Mark II was develloped at Kar Kraft in Dearborn under the direction of Roy Lunn. The Mk IIs were powered by a 7.0 L engine based on a Ford Galaxie block. As there was no gearbox alvailable on the market able to sustain the power of the 7.0 L, the car featured a new 4 ratios Kar Kraft gearbox. Two Mark IIs were entered by Shelby. The cars were finished in a hurry. As there was no time to run a fuel consumption test, Shelby ignored the real fuel consumption of the 7.0 L Mk II.

The GT-40 were entered by several teams.

The Scuderia Ferrari entered two P2s, a new version of the prototype, featuring a new DOHC V12 engine.

Strangely Ferrari dispersed some of his effort by entering a 1.6 L Dino 166.

Two 365 P2s were also entered one by the NART, the other by Maranello Concessionaires. The 365 P2 was built around a previous year P chassis with updated aerodynamics and featured a 4.4 L SOHC V12.

Several 275 LM prototypes were entered by Ferrari customers. Ferrari developped the LM for homologation in the GT category but was refused by the CSI. These cars are often mistakenly designed as 250 LMs. In fact, the fist car build was fitted with a 3.0 L engine, hence the name 250 LM. The cars delivered to customers were 275 LM powered by a 3.3 L. The performance of the 275 LM was far from "real" prototypes but as the SOHC V12 engine was a close derivative of production Ferrari engines the car had proved very reliable.

The Mark IIs took the lead at start. The Mark IIs were faster than the Ferraris but lost a part of their advance in frequent refueling.

The weather was hot and overheating began to hit the GT-40s. Bondurant and Luigi Maglioli’s No. 7 had head gasket failure before 8:00 p.m. and on the same lap, Herbert Mueller and Ronnie Bucknam’s No. 6 overheated terminally.

After the failure of Ford prototypes, fourth Ferraris were leading. By then the top Ford-powered car was the Dan Gurney/Jerry Grant Cobra Daytona coupe. Around midnight Gurney and Grant had rised to third overall. That was when the Cobra's motor mounts began to crack and Gurney had to park the blue coupe after 204 laps.

This left the Ferraris on top. But the P2 began to suffer of excessive disk brakes wear, probably due to heat. All the leading prototypes had pit stops to change disk brakes, an operation that required between 20 and 30 minutes.

As the 275 LMs put less stress on the brakes two 275 LM were leading at 4:00 a.m. Pierre Dumay’s Belgian yellow car led the NART 275 LM of Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory.

On the Belgian Ferrari the right rear tire began to deflate, and then disintegrated destroying a large part of the thin aluminium rear bodywork. It took the crew five laps to have the car ready to rejoin the race.

1966

In 1966 the Ford Mk.II had become reliable. Ken Miles, main Shelby test driver managed to win in Daytona and Sebring with the big block Ford.

Ford sent to the Sarthe no less than eight Mark II entered by three teams Shelby, Holmann & Moody and Alan Mann racing.

To compete against the Ford armada Ferrari sent only two works P3s, another P3 was entered by the NART and four 365 P2 were entered by Ferrari usual private partners.

The two works P3s were involved in an accident.

At 1:45 am the P2s had already exhausted their engine in trying to keep contact with the Mk.II and the last Ferrari prototype the Pedro Rodriguez/Richie Ginther NART P3 retired with overheating. The race was won for Ford.

At the last pit stop three Mark IIs were Ken Miles and Dennis Hulme were leading followed by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon in the same lap , Ronnie Bucknum and Dick Hutcherson were third but twelve laps behind.

Ford decided to stage a near level finish finish between Miles/Hulme and McLaren/Amon with the No. 5 following. In fact Bruce McLaren left a small margin to Ken Miles and it was expected than Miles/Hulme will be declared winner after the examination of the photo finish. But the ACO declared McLaren/Amon car had won the race having covered more distance as it had started the race behind Miles/Hulme Mark II. The ACO estimated the difference to 8 meters. This was a terrible deception for Ken Miles who expected the triple crown Daytona-Sebring-Le Mans as a reward of his investement in the GT40 developement.

1968-1969 The Gulf Ford GT40 years

1968

The 1967 Ford Mark IV performance scared the CSI. In 1968, in an attempt to reduce speed the rules of sports car racing were changed. Like in Formula One, 3.0 L engines were adopted in order to reduce costs by the use of similar engines for both kinds of racing. So dedicated race cars built only in small numbers were now limited to 3.0 L engines. Cars with engines that displaced over 5.0 L were banned from the World championship and thus from Le Mans, which was the end for the Big Block Fords (Mk II and Mk IV) and for the Chevrolet-powered Chaparral in Le Mans. Cars with up to 5.0 L engines were still allowed to compete in the Sport category if there were at least 50 cars built. This mercy rule allowed old customer cars like the Ford GT-40, the Lola T-70 and the Ferrari 275 LM to compete against factory prototypes powered by sophisticated 3.0 L engines.

A new section was added at Le Mans between Maison Blanche and the starting line to slow the cars between the pits and tribunes. The new section was called Virage Ford. The changes added around 10sec to a lap.

Enzo Ferrari was disappointed to have to bring his P4s to the museum and refused to compete in endurance for 1968 despite having a suitable F1 engine. John Wyer had to renounce to compete with his GT-40 derived 5.7 L Mirage M1. Wyer chose to dismantle his M1s and to build new GT-40s on the Mirage chassis which was close enough from the GT-40 to comply with homologation. Gulf GT-40s received some of the improvements of the Mirage, and a significant work was made to reduce the weight of car, using high-tech materials, for instance a large part of the body was made of a very thin polyester sheet reinforced with carbon fiber.

The 24 hours were cancelled in June after the May 1968 events, instead the race was run in September being the last race of the championship. The report of the race increased the chance of the Prototypes against the Sports — the new Prototype cars had matured during the season.

The competition was between Wyer's Ford GT-40 and the new 3.0 L prototypes Matra 630, Alpine A220 and Porsche 908. The 2.0 L Alfa-Romeo 33 were outsiders.

The Renault-Gordini V8 engine that powered the Alpine A-220s was disappointing giving no more than 300 hp (220 kW). With 350 hp (260 kW) the new 3.0 L air-cooled flat-8 that powered the Porsche 908 was underpowered in comparison to the new Matra V12, but the car was light. Porsche was much more experienced in Le Mans and had an advantage in number, thus Porsche was the favorite.

Wyer entered 3 GT-40s but the team wasn't at its best. Its fastest driver, Jacky Ickx, had broken his leg practicing for the Canadian GP, and Brian Redman was still out after a crash in the Belgian GP at Spa.

Ferrari was represented only by privateers. tThe best Ferrari was a green 275 LM entered in the Sport category by David Piper the car was obsolete despite being seriously updated — most of its body was made of polyester/fiberglass instead of aluminium.

Two turbine-powered Howmet TXs were also entered in the prototype class.

The start was given at 14:00pm by Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli.

The Porsche were in front, Siffert took the lead at the fourth lap. Then a litany of minor problems slowed the new Porsche 908s. One of Wyer's cars had clutch failure at 5:00pm the other had engine failure at 10:00pm. By midnight, Wyer had only one car still in race, but it was leading.

Henri Pescarolo made a noted with performance the new Matra 630 powered by the Matra V12 engine. The car started the race with mechanical problems, which sent it down to a 14th place in the race. But Pescarolo drove the car to the second place under the rain despite a windshield wiper failure while his teammate Johnny Servoz-Gavin had definitely refused to drive the car in such conditions. However during one of the last pitstops the car caught fire, and could not continue.

The Porsche were still in trouble with alternators, belts and bearings while everything was just fine for the leading GT-40.

The victory went to the GT-40 driven by Lucien Bianchi and Pedro Rodrigez. Porsche’s best finisher was a private 2.2 L 907 second, followed by a works 908 in third, both were just one lap behind the winning GT40. Alfa-Romeo performance was impressive with three cars finishing the Nanni Galli/Ignazio Giunti T33 being fourth overall and winner of the 2.0 L class, the two other fifth and sixth.

1969

During the 1969 the minimal production figure to compete in the Sport category was reduced from 50 to 25. Starting in July 1968 Porsche made a surprising and very expensive effort to conceive, design and build a whole new car for the Sport category with one underlying goal: to win its first overall victory in the 24 Heures du Mans. In only ten months the Porsche 917 was developed, which incorporated remarkable technology: Porsche’s first 12-cylinder engine and a lot components from titanium, magnesium and exotic alloys. Porsche built 25 917 and according to many sources this drove Porsche AG close to bankruptcy. In need of cash, Porsche sold the 917 to anyone who wanted to pay for.

It soon appeared that the Porsche 917 didn't work well on the racing track, as its aerodynamics were developed for low drag rather than downforce. This was necessary for all former underpowered Porsches in order to do well on the fast straights of Le Mans but as the car was 30 km/h (18.6 mph) faster than anything previously built for le Mans the body was generating a significant lift on the straight. Brian Redman recalls that "it was incredibly unstable, using all the road at speed." Many thought that the 4.5 L engine was too much for the frame. At its competition debut at the Nurburgring 1000 km, all works drivers preferred the 908 over the 'unsafe' 917, which was driven by two hired drivers.

Matra ordered the aerodynamic engineer Robert Choulet to conceive a low-drag Long Tail Coupe specially designed for the Le Mans, the Matra 640. On April 16, Matra brought the car to the Sarthe circuit. Henri Pescarolo took it to the track, at the first kilometres in the Hunaudières the car took off and was pulverised, Pescarolo was pulled out alive but severely burned.

In parallel, Matra was experimenting with roadster bodywork. This lead to a new car, the 650. Some 630 chassis were converted in roadster, they were christened 630/650.

Despite the fact that no solution was found to fix the instability of the car, three 917s entered Le Mans. Two were Porsche team and the third was entered by the gentleman-driver John Woolfe. The Ahrens/Stommelen 917 qualified on pole.

Matra entered four cars: a new 650 roadster, a 630 coupe and two 630/650.

Ferrari made his come-back with the 3.0 L 312.

John Wyer's team was there but managed by David Yorkes. Wyer himself wasn't in Le Mans his wife was ill. the team entered two GT-40. Jacky shared GT-40 1075, the car that won the previous year, with Jacky Oliver.

Before the race Jacky Ickx had expressed to journalists that he considered the start procedure unsafe as it was not possible to fasten the seat belts properly. When the start was given, he slowly walked across the track to his GT-40 instead of running, then entered his car and locked the safety belt carefully before starting last.

Soon after the start the poor handling of the 917 and the inexperience of the driver resulted in a drama: John Woolfe had a fatal accident at the Maison Blanche with his private 917. He had not taken time to belt himself in, proving that Ickx was right.

Woolfe's crash had dislodged the gas tank from car. The burning tank was thrown onto the road where Chris Amon's Ferrari 312 hit it. After an interruption the race was restarted. The 2 official 917s were put out of the race by clutch bell housing problems, but the 908 of Hans Hermann and Gerard Larrousse remained a serious candidate for the victory.

In a dramatic finish, Ickx managed to beat Hans Herrmann by a few seconds, as the Porsche 908 had brake problems.

Jackie Ickx and Jackie Oliver won with the GT40 chassis 1075, the same car that had won the previous year. This was second time the same car had won two years in a row; a Bentley Speed Six had done it in 1929 and 1930.

Ironically Jacky Ickx had a road accident near Chartres while driving to Paris on monday morning. A car pulled in front of his Porsche 911. Ickx's car ended up crushed against a utility pole. Ickx unbuckled his seat belt and stepped unharmed from the wrecked Porsche.

1970-1971 The Porsche 917 years

1970

During June 1969 Enzo Ferrari sold half of his stock to Fiat. Ferrari used some of that money to build 25 cars in order to compete with the Porsche 917: the Ferrari 512, powered by a 5.0 L V12, was introduced for the 1970 season.

Disappointed by the poor results of the 917 in 1969 and facing a new competition, Porsche concluded an agreement with John Wyer and the Gulf Team, which became the official Porsche team, and also the official development partner. During tests in Zeltweg Wyer's engineer John Horsmann had the idea to increase downforce to the expense of drag, a new tail was molded with aluminum sheets taped together. This worked well as the new short tail gave the 917 better stability. The new version was called 917 K (Kurzheck).

Wyer was surprised to discover that an other team was carefully preparing le Mans with close support from Porsche. The Porsche-Salzburg team was de facto a second works team under control of members of the Porsche family. The competition between the teams was at climax.

The Martini Racing team also gained some support from Porsche AG, obviously Porsche had made major efforts to win the race with competing teams.

A new low drag version of the 917 was developed for Le Mans with support from the external consultant Robert Choulet. The 917 LH (Langheck) featured a spectacular new "Long Tail" body which had very low drag and better stability than the 1969 version.

Two 917 LH were entered in Le Mans, one by Porsche-Salzburg, the other by team Martini Racing. The spectacular livery of this car was an elaborate whirls and swoops of light green on a violet background. The car gained the nickname of the Hippie Car or the Psychedelic Porsche from the team and media. The Porsche-Salzburg's LH was powered by a new 4.9 L that Porsche had introduced at Monza, this car broken lap records on every track it had run before.

Wyer lined up three 917Ks, two with the 4.9 L engine and one with the 4.5 L unit. Porsche-Salzburg entered a 917 K with the 4.5 L engine.

A "non-racing" Porsche 908 was driven by Jonathan Williams and Herbert Linge; the roadster was equipped with three 35 mm movie cameras to record the race for Steve Mac Queen’s movie "Le Mans".

A total of eleven Ferrari 512s were entered in Le Mans.

Matra entered two MS650s (roadsters with tubular chassis) and a new MS660 (a roadster with monocoque chassis), except Jack Brabham all drivers were French.

Unsurprisingly, the Porsche-Salzburg 917 LH won the pole position.

For the first time the traditional "Le Mans start" was replaced by an "Indianapolis start". For Porsche’s 20th participation Ferry Porsche himself dropped the tricolor flag at 4:00 p.m.

At 5:30 all the Ferraris had already lost touch with the leaders, when the rain began to fall. Soon after Reine Wisell was running at reduced speed in White House in his "coda lunga" Ferrari 512 S. Derek Bell came in another 512 S going around 160 km/h (99.4 mph) faster. Bell produced a miracle in avoiding the crash but Clay Reggazoni’s works 512 S hit Wisell’s and car Mike Parkes hit both cars, setting his own 512 S on fire. The firemen came quickly and no drivers were seriously hurt. To complete Ferrari's disaster Bell's engine took excessive RPMs in the adventure and broke in the Mulsanne straight.

The rain became heavier around 8:00 pm. The last works Ferrari was driven by Jacky Ickx and Peter Schetty. Ickx, probably the most talented driver of this era under the rain, managed to bring the car from sixth at 8:00 pm to second at midnight. But Ferrari lost its last chance tragically when Ickx had an accident that killed a corner worker at the Ford chicane.

Jack Brabham and Francois Cevert led the prototypes in the Matra roadster but the V12s were using too much oil, as all the Matras broke piston rings at quarter distance. This wasn't the year either for Wyer: Rodriguez had a connecting rod go, Hailwood crashed in Dunlop Curves and Siffert blew his engine by missing a shift while passing slower cars. The Porsche-Salzburg's 917 LH had problems. All the major players were gone during the night.

At dawn when the weather turned from heavy rain to storm three 917s were leading followed by a 908. The remaining Porsches just had to finish at reduced speed.

Hans Hermann and Dick Atwood in their red and white No. 23 Porsche-Salzburg 917 K won while Gérard Larousse and Willi Kauhsen finished second with the Hippie Car, only seven cars finished. Hans Hermann, a veteran at age 40 which survived the dangerous Mille Miglia and Carrera Panamericana races of the 1950, drove for Mercedes in F1 and won the Targa Florio plus many other major races for Porsche, had promised his wife to quit racing if he should finally win the big one at Le Mans, a success which he had missed narrowly in 1969. So he retired with immediate effect, much to the surprise of his team.

Porsche had won Le Mans for the first time, the last and most sought after triumph for the former underdog which managed to win all others sports car races and titles during the 1960s, and even a F1 race.

1971

At the end of the 1970 season Ferrari had entered in some races a new version of the 512, the 512 M (Modificata). The 512 M had a new bodywork built on the same aerodynamics doctrine than the Porsche 917K. At the end of 1970 the 512 M was faster than the 917s, at least on some tracks.

During the 1971 season the FIA decided to ban the loop hole Sport category for 1972, so the big 917s and 512s would have to retire at the end of a year which they would surely dominate again.

Surprisingly Ferrari decided to give up any official effort with the 512 in order to prepare the 1972 season a new prototype, the 312 PB was presented and engaged by the factory in several races. But many 512s were still raced by private teams and most of them converted to M specification. Being cheaper than the 917 K the 512 M appeared as a bargain for customers at the end of 1970.

Roger Penske bought a used 512 M chassis that was totally dismantled and rebuilt. The car was specially tuned for long races receiving many unique features, among them were a large rear wing and an aviation inspired quick refueling system. The engine was tuned by Can-Am V8 specialist Traco, this engine was probably able to deliver more than 600 hp (450 kW). As of today it's impossible to know to what extend Penske's initiative was backed by Ferrari works. This 512 M, painted in a blue and yellow livery, was sponsored by Sunoco and the Californian Ferrari dealer Kirk F. White. This car made the pole position for the 24 hours of Daytona and finished second despite an accident. For the 12 hours of Sebring the "Sunoco" made the pole but finished the race at the sixth position after making contact with Pedro Rodrigez's 917. Despite this misfortune the car had proved to be a serious opponent for the 917. Not only this car was the fastest on track in Daytona and Sebring but it was also the car that had the shortest refueling time.

The presence of the 512 M "Sunoco" forced Porsche to pursue his effort of research and development on the 917: The 917 K tail was modified, and the 917 LH aerodynamics received further improvements. New Magnesium chassis were developed. An entirely new car, the 917/20 was built as test-bed for future Can-Am parts and aerodynamic "low-drag" concepts.

The 917/20 was painted in pink for the 24 hours race with names of pieces of meat written across it, the car earned the nickname "Pink Pig".

A modified Ferrari 512 featuring a narrowed cockpit (built around a Porsche 917 windshield) was entered by the Scuderia Filipinetti, for Mike Parkes and Henri Pescarolo, the car was christened 512 F.

Matra entered only one 660 for Chris Amon and Jean-Pierre Beltoise.

The Ford Cosworth DFV made his Le Mans debut in Guy Ligier’s new JS-3. The engine was limited to 8800 rpm. Available power was around 400 hp (300 kW).

The "Sunoco" Ferrari was unable to break the 200 mph (320 km/h) barrier on the straight while the 917 LH were lightning quick at speeds of over 240 mph (380 km/h). Mark Donohue qualified fourth anyway, which was obviously the result of an aerodynamic configuration that favored downforce over drag, which helped in the twistier sections.

Rodriguez/Oliver's 917 lead the first hours.

At 7:00 p.m. the Sunoco was third.

At 8:16 p.m., Donohue pitted the Sunoco Ferrari early. The Traco-tuned engine died.

At dawn the Matra was in an amazing second position.

At 9:40 a.m., Amon stopped in the long straight and stepped out of the Matra roadster. He had ran out of fuel, the fuel-metering unit was wrong, and the pits were too far away to push the car.

Despite the extremely high speeds of the long tail versions (Vic Elford's silver Martini car was clocked at 386 km/h or 239.8 mph) the 1971 Le Mans race was again won by a short tail car but with magnesium chassis, the white No. 22 Martini of Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep.

1972-1974 The Matra 670 years

In 1972 5.0 L cars were banned from the World championship and thus from Le Mans. The Prototype (Group 6) category became the new Sport (Group 5) category with no minimal production required. This left the game open for the best 3.0 L cars with F1-like engines.

1972

In 1971, the best competitor in the 3.0 L was Alfa-Romeo who managed to beat the Porsche 917 at three races. Alfa-Romeo made the choice to build a new car for 1972. Surprisingly the new 33 TT3 was build on a tubular chassis while the previous prototype was a monocoque. Making the new car competitive and competing in both the World championship and Le Mans proved to be to much for the team.

Ferrari and Matra were more wise. Matra cut down its participation in endurance-racing to focus on "Le Mans", while Ferrari made the opposite choice preferring to compete for the World Championship and to bypass Le Mans, as the F1 inspired 312 PB was optimized for 1000 km (620 mi) races.

This brought Matra in the favorite position for the 24 hours, with four cars enrolled — 3 brand new Matra 670 an evolution of the 660 specially constructed and designed to race in Le Mans, and an older but updated 660. They faced an opposition consisting mainly of three Alfa Romeo 33 TT3s, two semi-official Lola T280s entered by Jo Bonnier's team, and one private Porsche 908 L enrolled by Reinhold Joest. This car was similar to the Porsche that finished second in 1969 and was considered seriously outdated and underpowered.

The Matra of Beltoise/Amon took the lead at start but broke its V12 at the begin the third lap. This caused enough disconcentration among Matra drivers to allow the Lolas of Jo Bonnier and Hugues de Fierlant to take the lead. Bonnier was slowed down by a deflated tire and after the first pit stops the two remaining Matra 670s were leading the race again with Cevert/Ganley on front.

Even if the reliability of the Ford-Cosworth DFV that powered the Lolas was questionable on a 24-hour race, there was some hope for a general failure of the Matras and Jo Bonnier decided to keep some pressure on the Matras. The Lolas where running fast with Bonnier establishing a new lap record early in the evening. The other Lola broke his gearbox.

Graham Hill took the lead with his Matra around midnight.

At dawn the Matra 670 swapped their position again. Bonnier's Lola T280 was still there with a surprisingly healthy DFV V8. During the night some race incidents caused unexpected pit stops and the car was only eigth but the F1-inspired Lola was running really fast the early morning. Just before 8:30am Bonnier's Lola came upon the Ferrari GTB4 of Florian Vetsch before Indianapolis curve. The witnesses are not entirely sure what Bonnier hit first, the Ferrari or the barrier, but the Lola got over the barrier and into the trees killing Bonnier.

This tragedy left the Matras without any serious opposition. Despite an unscheduled pit stop the car of Ganley and Cevert was still leading when Ganley got hit in the tail by a Chevrolet Corvette. This gave the lead to Pescarolo and Hill. The Hobbs/Jabouille Matra 660 was stopped with transmission problems.

The Matra 670 "Short Tail" piloted by Henri Pescarolo and Graham Hill took the first place, and the 670 "Long Tail" driven by François Cevert and Howden Ganley the second. This was the first victory of a French car since 1950 and made Graham Hill the first and so far only driver to win the Triple Crown of the Indianapolis 500, the 24 hours of Le Mans and the Formula One World Championship (including the Grand Prix of Monaco which he won several times, too).

In such a context the third position of the Porsche 908 L driven by Reinhold Jöest, Michel Weber and Mario Casoni that was mainly the result of careful preparation by Joest and his team was largely unnoticed, yet remarkable. It appears in retrospect as the first demonstration of Joest's "savoir-faire" in Le Mans.

1973 Duel with Ferrari

In 1973 Matra competed against Ferrari for the World Champion title for constructors and Ferrari came to Le Mans as the race could be decisive for the title.

The beginning of the sport championship had showed that the Matras 670 had better handling but the Ferraris showed better reliability.

For Le Mans the Matras 670s were updated to the 670B specification consisting mainly of larger spoilers and new gearboxes especially built for Matra by Porsche. The Ferrari 312PB had a previously unseen longtail bodywork.

John Wyer was back with two Cosworth-powered Gulf Mirage M6 roadsters. In 1000 km races the M6s had proven they were serious competitors and only a slight advantage allowed the Matras and Ferraris to dominate them. But had that time nobody would consider the a car powered Cosworth DFV, a flat plane V8 engine known for its destructive vibrations, as a favorite for Le Mans.

Alfa Romeo was more affected than Ferrari by strikes and social troubles in Italy. Alfa racing subsidiary Autodelta renounced to enter his new flat-12 powered cars was represented only by a V8 powered private car entered by Scuderia Brescia Corse.

A Sigma powered by a Mazda Wankel engine was entered this was the first Japanese car to qualify in Le Mans as well as the first Wankel-powered car to race.

Ferrari sent the Arturo Merzario/Carlos Pace 312 out first as a rabbit.

The Matra raced theur plan and let the Ferrari go. While the Matra were all running at the same speed, the Ferraris had diversified plans Carlos Reutemann and Tim Schenken were running among the Matra. While Jackie Ickx and Brian Redman were running with the slowest 3L cars the Lolas and the private Alfa Romeo.

Ferrari swapped the lead with Matra through the next four hours, but Pescarolo could repeat his victory with Gérard Larrousse as co-driver.

1974 Last victory for Matra

In 1974 Ferrari retired from endurance racing. Matra had developed the 670 into a more aerodynamic version, the 680. Three 670 and one 680 were entered.

John Wyer entered two Gulf-GR7s.

Henri Pescarolo/Gerard Larousse's Matra 670 was leading at dawn.

Around 10:00am the 911 Turbo Carrera that had held second place lost its fifth gear, that made the car lose around 40 seconds per lap to the leading Matra.

But just before 11:00 a.m., Pescarolo had a gearbox failure. The Matra gearbox problem was easy to repair, but the diagnosis had consumed 30 minutes. When Pescarolo returned to the race, he had lost 45 minutes. The Porsche 911 Turbo was now in the same lap, which was a great achievement for a road-car derivative car against all those prototypes.

It rained during the final hour. Pescarolo managed to build a six-lap lead over the Porsche by the end. It was Matra’s and Pescarolo's third consecutive Le Mans victory. At the end of the season Matra announced its retirement from racing.

1975 Last victory of the Wyer team

In the wake of the Oil Crisis, Le Mans introduced rules in 1975 regarding fuel consumption, the CSI reacted by excluding the 24 Hours from the World Championship for Makes.

Running at lower RPM to match the fuel limitation a Cosworth DFV engine could be reliable on 24 hours. John Wyer had planned his retirement but he couldn't resist to the opportunity to win in Le Mans again and he chose not to retire this year and to make Le Mans the sole race of the Gulf team program for the 1975 season. Two new Gulf GR-8 were designed and constructed especially for Le Mans, these were largely a derivative of the Gulf GR-7 with a new bodywork giving an up-to-date aerodynamics optimized for Le Mans and fuel efficiency.

The new rule was also an opportunity for Guy Ligier who had previous experience in racing a Cosworth at Le Mans. As Matra had withdrawn from competition, Ligier managed to acquire the services of Matra's engineer Gérard Ducarouge, and the sponsorship of Gitanes. The team was preparing his entry in Formula 1 for 1976, this left limited financial and engineering means for Endurance racing. Ligier made the choice to run the race with the experienced Ligier JS-2's chassis retrofitted with DFV engines and Hewland gearboxes. In terms of performance the Gulf prototypes were clearly superior to the Ligier that were initially designed in 1971 as Maserati-powered road-cars and hacked as Cosworth-powered Prototypes in 1975. Achieving superior reliability was the sole chance for the team to gain advantage over the Gulfs. Ligier chose to run some races of the World Championship before le Mans as tests runs for the Cosworth-powered JS-2.

Gulf entered 2 GR-8's in Le Mans while Ligier entered 2 JS-2 Cosworth and one JS-2 Maserati. Both rivals had seriously downgraded their DFV engines: the Gulf had around 380 hp (280 kW) while the Ligiers had 420 hp (310 kW) to compensate some of their handicap.

Alpine-Renault entered one 2.0 L A441 with an all women team. As 2.0 L cars weren't much restrained by fuel limitation this car was a serious outsider.

The rest of the opposition consisted in a brand new and very aerodynamic-looking Lola T380-Cosworth for Alain de Cadenet and Chris Craft and several Porsche 908s.

Without surprise the two Gulfs took the lead of the race. Schuppan and Jaussaud had an alternator failure and went six laps down to teammates Ickx and Bell.

Near midnight the de Cadenet Lola was in third position, when it lost its entire rear bodywork in the straight, Francois Migault hit it at full stride with his Ligier. After nearly an hour's repairs, the Ligier coupe retired. The Lola carried on; by luck the engine cover had missed the rear wing completely.

Not long after 2:30 p.m. Ickx pitted to repair a broken exhaust, the repairs were completed as the remaining Ligier entered the lead lap.

It was later revealed that the winning Gulf had also a serious differential problem but the experienced John Wyer managed to hide his anxiety. Ligier had the false conviction that everything else went as planned for the leading Gulf and missed the opportunity to put more pressure on the leaders to push them to mechanical failure.

The Gulf GR-8 driven by Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell finished the race at the first place having led the race during the 24 hours. The other Gulf had mechanical problem finished third leaving the second position to a Ligier piloted by Guy Lafosse and Guy Chasseuil. The gap between the winning Gulf and the Ligier was only one lap. Reinhold Joest, Jürgen Barth and Mario Casoni were fourth in their aged Porsche 908/3.

1976 First victory for the Porsche 936

Regulation for Le Mans were changed again. Fuel limitation was removed Group 5 cars were allowed to compete with Group 6 cars. All the best car were new, Porsche entered two 936 and one 935. The Alpine-Renault A-442 T made also his first appearance in Le Mans, only one car was entered. The new Porsche 936 turbo won.

1977-78 Porsche vs. Renault

The Porsche 936 turbo won again in 1977 against the Renault and Mirage Renault, with extraordinary driving efforts by Jacky Ickx. In 1978, the Renault V6 turbo finally managed to beat the German cars, and Renault concentrated on their F1 effort.

1979 Porsche 935's victory

The Porsche 935 turbo, a high-powered version of the Porsche 911 road car, dominated endurance racing in the late 1970s, being entered by many Porsche customer teams all over the world. The German-based Kremer team managed to win Le Mans, which is a remarkable success for a car based on a 15 year old road car design. Actor Paul Newman finished second in Dick Barbour’s Porsche 935.

The prototype opposition consisted mainly of Ford M10s but this wasn't an official return of Ford, these cars were derived from the 1975 Gulf GR-8: Ford France and a consortium of French Ford dealer funded the ex-Wyer Team, a Cosworth DFV V8 was installed in the chassis for the occasion.

1980 Rondeau's victory

Porsche again sent no works Group 6 cars, in order to not compete against their many customers in their 935 Group 5 cars. The lone Group 6 Porsche, a Martini-sponsored roadster entered by Joest for Reinhold Joest himself and Jacky Ickx, was christened the 908/80, but looked much like the 1977 version of the 936. For a long time it was believed to be a hack on a 908 chassis but it was recently discovered that it was in fact built on a real 936 replacement chassis, the 936-004. As Porsche didn't wish to be in the business of selling 936s to customers the secret was kept by using a 908 chassis number plate.

The 908/80 was favorite but Porsche could also count on many 935, five Group 5 plus eight IMSA GTX, including three cars from the Sebring-winning Dick Barbour team. Most of the opposition was in the GTP class: three WM Peugeot and a trio of local heroes, the Le Mans-built Rondeaus-Cosworth.

The start was the probably wettest ever in Le Mans. Ickx laid back in his roadster until he could actually see something else than the fog created by closed-cabin cars: Porsche 935s, BMW M1s and Rondeau coupes.

John Fitzpatrick was leading with Dick Barbour's Porsche 935. Hans Stuck had shoved his BMW M1 from 26th to second by 5:00pm. At that time Jean Rondeau had two of his made-in-Le Mans homebrew cars in the top 10.

When the rain decreased Ickx and Joest picked off one car after another. By the end of the third hour Joest found himself in the lead. When Ickx was back in the car he broke the fuel injection pump belt. But Joest had planned wisely, there was a set of basic tools and a spare belt in the car. Ickx restarted just 14 minutes later but this was enough to lost the lead.

At nightfall a Rondeau was leading the race but Ickx began the chase. By 1:00 a.m. Sunday, the 908/80 was on the same lap as the leaders. Two hours later, they were ahead and began to leave the coupe behind. After numerous lead changes caused by refuelings and scheduled maintenance on the cars around 7:00 a.m., the Joest Martini Porsche had built a solid lead.

But the Joest team had underestimated the Rondeaus, they didn't expect the Cosworth to be reliable. As a result Joest and Ickx ran not fast enough and at 10:00 a.m. when the 908/80 had a gearbox failure, like the works 936s in 1977, they had not built up a large enough advance and the Rondeau of Jean Rondeau himself and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud gained the lead with an advance of three laps. Ickx had to begin a third chase.

When Jaussaud took over from Rondeau with an hour and a half remaining, the Rondeau had still a two laps advance but the Porsche was running faster. With 35min left to race, the rain returned. Ickx pitted for wet tyres while Jaussaud kept the slicks. Jaussaud had made the right choice and remained on the lead. However there was a final surprise : As the rain became heavier in the last lap Jaussaud lost the control of his car. By luck the Rondeau did not hit anything.

For the first time a driver had won Le Mans on a car bearing his own name. At the end of the race Ickx announced his retirement.

1981 Last victory for the Porsche 936

The great surprise of 1981 was that Ickx was back, the Porsche factory entered a 936 again with Ickx/Bell winning. Porsche had a new program for the future Group C regulations in 1982 and had persuaded Ickx out of retirement.

The main reason for entering Le Mans was to test a new engine for the upcoming new car. This engine was 2.6 L engine which was derived from a never raced Indianapolis engine.

Ickx shared an updated 936 with Derek Bell.

All the race was run in very hot weather, but the engine test was successful : After the first hour, Ickx and Bell had built a large advance and remained at lead for the rest of the race. They won by an even greater margin than in 1976.

The sole incident for the winners occurred after the end of the race. In fact Derek Bell never crossed the finish line, he was removed from the car by fans and carried to the podium. On the podium Derek Bell asked for water to refresh himself but the only beverage available was champagne, thus Bell drank champagne, at least until he lost consciousness.

1982-1987 The Porsche 956/962 years

For 1982, the new FIA Group C rules were in effect. The new Porsche 956 was introduced just before scrutineering, and took all 3 podium places according to their starting numbers 1-2-3. In the following years, the 956 (later the longer 962 IMSA version) dominated, and the Porsche factory team was even beaten by its own customers, like the Joest team in 1984 and 1985.

Although not widely noted at the time, Mazda's 1983 12th place finish (and C Junior class win) in their 717C marked that company's run to the podium in 1991 with the Wankel engine.

1988-1990 The Jaguar and Mercedes years

Big names of the past, both Mercedes and Jaguar returned to Endurance racing, and won races.

1991 The Rotary engine Mazda

The very loud Mazda's 787B, powered with a "rotary" Wankel engine, won in 1991. It was the first (and to date, only) Japanese car to ever win overall at Le Mans, as well as being the only non-piston engined car to achieve victory.

Mazda had been running at Le Mans since 1974, with a series of rotary-powered cars, starting with the RX-7. The company took 12th and a C Junior class win in 1983 with the 717C, but was less successful with the 727C and 737C. The company's performance had improved, though, with the 757 and 767/B claiming four consecutive GTP class wins from 1987 through 1990.

1992-1993 The Peugeot years

The Group C rules for endurance racing were in effect for many years. The fuel consumption was limited, and different kind of engines very used. Despite the success of these rules, they were changed: F1-like engines (3500 cc normally aspirated) where introduced. Peugeot won twice at Le Mans, team leader Jean Todt left to become the team boss of Ferrari F1 team.

1994-1998 The GT years

Unhappy with the FIA rules that did not do much good to endurance racing, the ACO made its own rules. The changes incorporated allowed heavily modified road cars the ability to race. Thus, in 1994, the Le Mans 24 Hours had racing versions of road going supercars like the Ferrari F40, the McLaren F1, and the Jaguar XJ220 competing.

The 1994 race was, however, won by a car that had its roots in a 10 year old design. Jochen Dauer exploited an unusual quirk in the regulations at the time, building a single road-going version of the 962 in order to allow his Porsche 962s to be homologated. With factory support, the "Dauer" Porsche 962s won the 1994 24 Hours race.

The 1995 race was won by a McLaren F1 GTR. The car was dominating the International Sportscar Championships in various non-manufacturer backed teams.

The 1996 race was, ironically, won again by a Porsche that was not exactly a Porsche outright. Porsche themselves sent a team with to compete in the GTP class with a new mid-engined 911 with the intent of winning the race, along with the fleet of McLaren F1s and Ferrari F40s. The Joest racing entered the car that won. This prototype was born from the shell of a TWR designed Jaguar Group C racing car, modified to an open top design by Tom Walkinshaw Racing, and fitted with a Porsche 962 engine. The resulting TWR-Porsche WSC 95, while not being the fastest car on track, it won when the manufacturer-backed teams hit mechanical troubles.

The 1997 race was won by the same car, beating teams from Porsche, BMW (now running 2 McLaren F1 GTRs), Nissan, Lotus, Lister and Ferrari. Once again the TWR-Porsche car was not the fastest on track on the day, but when trouble hit the other teams, it was there to take the victory.

1998 was the first of two years where car manufacturers were seriously involved in the Le Mans 24 Hours. The two teams that were seriously involved in the FIA GT Championship (Porsche with their 911 GT1-98 and Mercedes with their CLK-GTR) sent their two car teams. Along with this, Porsche provided full manufacturer support to 2 cars running an updated version of the TWR-Porsche cars. Toyota sent three of their new, extremely fast GT-One racing cars, BMW contracted WilliamsF1 to design an open top car (running 2 of them), while Nissan sent 4 of their R390 GT1 cars. The US were again represented properly with a two car team from American magnate Don Panoz, his own GTR-1 powered by Ford engines. Porsche won the race as the faster cars from Mercedes and Toyota retired with mechanical difficulties and accident damage.

It was rumoured that Porsche's retirement from Sports Car Racing, in particular the Le Mans 24 Hours, was part of a deal that was made between Porsche and Volkswagen. Volkswagen chief executive Ferdinand Piech, a former chief executive at Audi as well, a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche and also involved in the development of the Porsche 917, did not want Porsche competing with Audi in the near future (Audi is owned by Volkswagen). As could be seen after this, Porsche and Volkswagen developed a sports utility four-wheel drive chassis to be used by both companies (as in the Porsche Cayenne and the Volkswagen Touareg). Development of a new Porsche racing car was stopped, and then redeveloped for road use as the new Carrera GT.

1999 The Race of the Century

1999 was another year when manufacturers involvement was high. Porsche did not send a team to contest this year, leaving teams from Toyota (with 3 updated GT-Ones), Mercedes (with 3 Mercedes CLRs), Audi (with 2 open topped R8Rs and 2 closed roof R8Cs), Panoz (with 2 of their new LMP-1 open topped prototypes), BMW (with 2 new Williams-designed LMRs) and Nissan (running a R391 and a Courage C52 with a Nissan engine). The race was overshadowed by a second Mercedes withdrawal from Le Mans, although no fatalities were recorded this time. Their new CLR racecars, while being very quick, suffered severe aerodynamic flaws causing accidents where the cars literally flew off the track and into the sky and cartwheeling through the air in three separate incidents, the most specatcular during the race which was captured on camera. This forced Mercedes to withdraw from the race. Once again, it wasn't the fastest car that won, as the Toyota GT-Ones again hit accidents and mechanical problems, and the BMW team was able to secure a victory before their entry into Formula 1.

From 2000 on: the Audi years

After 1999, when it could be argued that the Le Mans 24 Hours was at its height in popularity, interest in the race itself waned amongst manufacturers, as most either had moved to other sports (BMW and Toyota had either started or were starting in Formula 1, Mercedes concentrated on Formula 1 and the new DTM) or the parent company was encountering financial difficulties (as Nissan was at the time).

For the 2000 race, there were some manufacturers involved, with a marked increase in involvement from the United States of America. Audi returned with an all new R8 chassis, mated to a new engine that exploited their new FSI technology. From the United States, Chrysler sent a team of two cars using Reynard 2KQ chassis and running Mopar-badged engines, while Cadillac (an arm of General Motors) arrived with a four car attack using their "Northstar" chassis, while Panoz Motorsports continued entering its LMP-1s. Audi's efforts, prepared by seasoned team Joest Racing, dominated qualifying and the race as the other manufacturer teams struck serious trouble, and easily won the race. Key to Audi's victory is the ability to replace broken subassemblies quickly; specifically, the transmission, which takes a great deal of punishment by the thousands of shifts required at Le Mans. Instead of engaging in the usual, somewhat futile effort to build a transmission which will survive this treatment, Audi instead designed the car so that they were able to replace broken transmissions in ten minutes during the race.

Audi's defence of its 2001 victory was once again pretty much a walkover, the R8 being faster than the few privately run R8s and the all-new Bentley EXP Speed 8 racing cars. Ironically, these cars used similar mechanical equipment as the Audi R8s, as Bentley is owned by the VW group as well. In the racing saloon GTS category, a heated rivalry began when Chevrolet's Corvette C5R defeated Prodrive's Ferrari 550 Maranellos in the race.

2002

The 2002 edition, held on June 15 and 16, was won by Audi Sport Team Joest, with drivers Frank Biela (Germany), Tom Kristensen (Denmark) and Emanuele Pirro (Italy). The same team and the same drivers had already won the race in 2000 and 2001, making for a unique hat-trick. In GTS Class, the Corvette C5Rs again defeated the Ferrari Maranellos and were keen on a hat trick of their own.

The top 10:

  1. Biela/Kristensen/Pirro - Audi - 375 laps
  2. Capello/Herbert/Pescatori - Audi - 374 laps
  3. Krumm/Peter/Werner - Audi - 372 laps
  4. Wallace/Leitzinger/Van De Poele - Bentley - 362 laps
  5. Beretta/Lamy/Comas - Dallara Judd - 359 laps
  6. Sarrazin/Montagny/Minassian - Dallara Judd - 359 laps
  7. Ara/Dalmas/Katoh - Audi - 358 laps
  8. Lammers/Hillebrand/Coronel - Dome Judd - 351 laps
  9. Taylor/Angelelli/Tinseau - Cadillac - 344 laps
  10. Boullion/Lagorce/Bourdais - Courage Peugeot - 343 laps

2003

After 3 wins in a row, the Audi factory team officially did not take part, in order to let their newly acquired British sister marque win. Bentley, with an Audi engine and support from Audi works team Joest, won its first Le Mans title since 1930 and Danish driver Tom Kristensen set a record with his fourth straight victory in the 24-hour endurance race. The Bentley team of David Brabham, Mark Blundell and Johnny Herbert finished second, ahead of customer Audis. In GTS Class, the Prodrive Ferraris spoiled both the Corvette's 50th Anniversary and the hat trick by winning GTS Class.

2004

Bentley did not return, so the race was left to the Audi customer teams, which managed a 1-2-3.

Once again, Tom Kristensen was in the winning car, an Audi entered by the Japanese team Goh, setting a record fifth straight victory in the 24-hour endurance race. He now ties Jacky Ickx with 6 overall wins.

The GTS Class Corvettes avenged their loss to Ferrari on their anniversary last year by winning GTS class in 2004. The Corvettes and Ferraris have proven to be huge fan favorites, but both cars were aging, and will be replaced for the 2005 season. Chevrolet is returning to Le Mans with the new Corvette C6R, while Prodrive will field the Aston Martin DBR9. The GTS class has been renamed GT1 starting in the 2005 season.

2005 Audi vs. Pescarolo

One of the attractions of the week-end was the presence of Rally World Champion Sébastien Loeb in the team of the Pescarolo n° 17. Reportedly Loeb did much of his preparation for the race by running practice laps around the circuit in the Sony Playstation 2 video game Gran Turismo 4 aboard a private jet. The fourth edition of the game includes two variations of the Le Mans Circuit de la Sarthe - one with the chicanes along the Mulsanne Straight and one with the original, unaltered straight-away of over 3 km in length.

In Le Mans like in whole France the weather is exceptionally hot this week-end with temperature over 30°C.

The hot weather caused an high rate of mechanical failures as well as several race incidents.

The Pescarolos took the lead at startup with n°16 running exceptionaly fast.

One of the surprises was that the Aston-Martins GT were faster than the prototypes on the straight.

The Pescarolo n° 17 was plagged by incidents, a hit with a Panoz, a deflated tire that distingrated the rear bodywork and finaly the loss of a spoiler. All these misadventures happened while Soheil Ayari was driving. However Loeb proved to be able to drive as fast his teamate for his first race on a closed track.

The n° 16 lost the lead on a gearbox failure causing a long pit stop. The car dropped around the 14th position. However as the race was neutralized at that time the impact of the pit stop remained limited.

The n° 16 managed to reach the second position at sunrise, establishing a lap record in the night.

At 14h 00 the Lehto/Werner/Kristensen Audi R8 entered by Champion Racing was leading Collard/Boullion/Comas Pescarolo by only one lap. Since 12h 45 the Pescarolo was lapping fairly consistently at approximately 5 seconds per lap faster than the Audi. If the Pescarolo kept up the pace the finish promised to be extremely close.

At 14h 30 the Pescarolo came in for a pit stop and was pulled into the garage to deal with overheating issues. The car was back onto the track before long, with Eric Comas as driver. The advance of the Audi was then 2 laps and the Pescarolo was then lappiing in the same times than the leading Audi to avoid overheating. This dashed all hopes of beating the Audi on the track, the last hope for Pescarolo was a failure on the leading Audi that didn't happen.

Tom Kristensen set an absolute record of seven victories including six in a row, pulling ahead of legend Jacky Ickx who has a total of 6 wins, equal only to Kristensen's winning streak.

Winners

External links

da:Le Mans de:24-Stunden-Rennen von Le Mans eo:24 Horoj de Manso fr:24 heures du Mans it:24 ore di Le Mans ja:ル・マン24時間レース

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