The Le Mans 24 Hours is, quite simply, one of the greatest motor races in the world.
Held at the Circuit de Le Sarthe in central France since 1923, it is truly a theatre where legends are born.
When a circuit is immediately recognisable from the mention of a corner; Tertre Rouge, Mulsanne, Arnage, then you know that place is something special and some 250,000 people congregate, from all over the world, for a week in June, to see the latest history written.
Like a select number of other places on the planet the very mention of the city it is held within means one thing to most, Le Mans IS the Le Mans 24 Hours.
It isn’t the oldest, or the longest-running race but its sheer relevance, introducing, testing and proving new technologies, has kept the factories interested. And the racing they have produced has kept the crowds building for more than eight decades.
The track is unique, with large sections still using public roads to bring a very special atmosphere, with 200mph+ speeds, day and night, rain, or shine! There have been major changes, principally to improve safety, as speeds have shot forward, but the character of Le Mans prevails.
Even today the mere mention of some of the legendary winners creates powerful mental images in the minds of millions, whether that be the “Bentley Boys” of the 1920s, Jaguar in the 1950s, of the titanic battle between Ferrari and Ford in the 1960s. The 1970s witnessed the iconic Porsche 917s and Matra’s patriotic flourish, followed by the Group C years, when slippery, powerful and beautiful sportscars from the likes of Porsche, Jaguar and Mercedes Benz dominated endurance racing for a decade.
Into the 1990s Mazda made headlines and created a legend, with the first and at present only Japanese win, before the rulemakers tampered, grid numbers tumbled and Peugeot made their own legend with the 905.
McLaren blasted the great race into the modern era with a win for their astonishing F1 in 1995, as the big factories again started to take an interest. Porsche and BMW came out the best of the bunch before Audi took arrived at La Sarthe … and have simply dominated ever since.
The 21st century has seen the Ingolstadt-based marque smash records, but always with new tech, destined for the road. A glorious comeback win apiece for Bentley and, in 2009, Peugeot, broke the Audi strangle-hold in the diesel era, and were the only other chapters in an epic entitled ‘The Audi Years’
They aren’t done yet, but Porsche is now back on the scene, and so too is a resurgent Toyota. It is a new era of 1000 bhp+ hybrid cars, huge performance, record breaking speed and other-worldly acceleration.
Beyond their cars the drivers too that have become legends: Ickx, Bell and Pescarolo conquered Le Mans and, in the modern era, those legends continue to emerge, none more so than the extraordinary achievements of Tom Kristensen – nine overall win, six of which were consecutive in a career that saw him on the top step of the podium for TWR Porsche and Bentley, but most of all for Audi.
He is now known to millions as ‘Mr Le Mans’ but ask Kristensen and he will always respond that it is the place, the track, and most of all the event that is the true legend … Le Mans