Nearly 100 years after its first race, we take a deep dive into the history of Le Mans, the innovation it’s sparked, and the influence it has on the world.
Innovations made on the racetrack oftentimes trickle down into mainstream cars. Features like disc brakes, fog lights, and fuel injection all got their start on the racetrack before they were incorporated into everyday cars driven by the public. Interestingly enough, all three of those innovations and many more were first used at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This race in the heart of France is the most famous in the world for a number of reasons. Today, we break down some of the incredible history, innovations, and influence the 24 Hours of Le Mans has had on the world around us.
The genesis of the 24 Hours of Le Mans dates all the way back to 1906 when a French newspaper, Le Petit Journal, partnered with French automakers to put on the first French Grand Prix. It featured just 32 entrants and the course was a whopping 66 miles per lap. Most notably, it was located just east of the town of Le Mans.
Over the next decade or so, French interest in racing continued to grow. Many Grand Prix were held in the country, but all focused on a set distance, oftentimes hundreds of miles. By the early twenties, organizers started to plan a race that would test a car’s reliability as well as its speed. In 1923, that race was born as the first 24 Hours of Le Mans held at a race track known as Circuit de la Sarthe, which is made up of both closed racing course roads and public roads.
The originally 24 Hours of Le Mans was run on May 26th and 27th and initially was planned as a three-year event. The plan was to have the same teams compete each year and at the end of every three races, the team with the most cumulative distance covered would be the winner. Thankfully, that idea was scrapped in 1928. The race has continued in one form or another every year since then, aside from two interruptions.
The first was in 1936 when a massive worker strike caused the race to be canceled and again from 1939 to 1949. This, of course, was due to World War II which ultimately saw the German Army commandeer the racetrack and use it as an airport. Today, Circuit de la Sarthe stands as one of the few race tracks still in wide use to survive heavy bombing during the war.
From 1949 to 1954 the race grew in popularity and status. Porsche joined the race with their first factory-backed team in 1951. They won immediately with a very special version of the Porsche 356 that had been built with much lighter materials and with a much smaller footprint than other factory cars. To date, nobody has as many wins as Porsche with its 19 total 24 Hours of Le Mans victories.
In 1955, tragedy struck as a Mercedes-Benz driven by Pierre Levegh was involved in a strange accident that caused the car to fly into the air and outside the track into the spectator area. It was such a weighty moment in the sport that Mercedes pulled out of racing altogether and crowd safety became a major focus moving forward.
What is often forgotten is that the race was continued despite the accident due to fears of the exiting crowd slowing emergency vehicles. Then, late in the early morning, after all of the top brass at Mercedes had been contacted and informed of the accident, Mercedes teams willingly quit the race despite running in first and third positions at the time. They wouldn’t return for more than three decades.
In 1966, the famous finish of three Ford GT40 models shocked the world. It ended a six-year streak of Ferrari victories (who hasn’t won since) and was the start of four consecutive Ford wins. In 1969, after those triumphs, Ford backed out of racing across the world. They would return though, but more on that later.
In 1970 and 1971, Porsche was back on the top of the podium with the 917K model, the latter of which did so in historic fashion. It set a distance record of 397 laps or 3,315 miles that would stand until 2010. From 1972 to 1974, French cars won the race on their home track, the first time this had happened since 1950. Two years later with the fuel crisis in full effect, entrants and fans for the race began to dwindle. Seizing an opportunity for wide interest, Le Mans organizers invited two NASCAR entries to the field. Neither managed to finish the race though.
The 1980s saw more dominance from Porsche with seven straight victories and a streak that was only halted by two hallowed Le Mans winners. First was the Jaguar XJR which won in 1988 and then the return of Mercedes with its revolutionary Sauber C9 winning in 1989.
The 90s featured some of the most historic wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans history. The first major triumph being the Mazda 787B, not only the first Japanese winner of the race but also the first rotary-powered winner. Then in 1995, McLaren beat the entire field with its F1 GTR. In 1999, BMW shocked the world with its wild winner, the V12 LMR.
In 2000, Audi started a string of dominance by winning five of the first six races of the decade with the R8, that would only be interrupted three years in by the shockingly fast Bentley Speed 8. In 2006, Audi introduced the R10 TDI, a diesel-powered race car that went on to win the next three races before being beaten in 2009 by the Peugeot 908. The R10 TDI from 2010 still holds the record for the longest distance ever covered at the race, 3,362 miles. Between 2000 and 2014, Audi won all but the two races lost to Bentley in 2003 and Peugeot in 2009.
In 2015, Porsche began a three-peat of wins in the 919 Hybrid that runs, until 2018 when Toyota and its TS050 Hybrid took over. Since then, Toyota has won every 24 Hours of Le Mans race, including this year when they used a new car, the GR010 Hybrid, for the victory. Toyota is so smitten with the car that there’s even talk of a homologated road car that might be built for production at some point in the future. One final notable victory was the 2016 Ford GT1, which won in its LM GTE Pro category after an absence dating back to the last factory-backed team in 1969.
Disc brakes are on every single car sold here in America today because they’re more reliable, stronger, and less prone to failure than their drum cousins. They date all the way back to 1953, when Jaguar was willing to use them on their C-Type. The car was so fast (and therefore capable of slowing down safely) that it set a record for the fastest average speed ever at the time, 106 mph, and the team captured the top two spots as well as fourth.
Fog lights were first created and used in 1926 at 24 Hours of Le Mans and it was the constraints of the race that ultimately required them. Many races of the day were held during daylight hours only. That meant that race cars didn’t need functional headlights since nighttime would come only after the race was finished. In addition, mist or fog covers the track most mornings. The introduction of the fog lamp allowed its team to capture all three podium spots in 1926, but the lighting innovation didn’t stop there. In 2011, Audi used exceptionally bright LED headlights to allow their R18 TDI drivers to get the upper hand, leading to another win and, just a few years later, to LED headlights incorporated in road cars around the globe.
The first instance of active aerodynamics was introduced in 1967 by American racing company Chaparral on their 2F. While the car itself didn’t finish the race due to transmission failure, it displayed a clear advantage over fixed-wing counterparts. Today, active aerodynamic parts like active grille shutters can be found on cars and trucks all over the world.
Alternative means of speed have also been championed by the race. Audi proved the diesel could also be fast and efficient with that record-setting win in 2010, but they also did the same for hybrid technology. All the way back in 1998, Don Panoz entered a hybrid race car at Le Mans and though he failed to qualify, it was a sign of things to come.
In 2012, the Audi R18 e-tron Quattro proved that hybrid cars could dominate. Since then, every single winner has been powered by a hybrid drivetrain. That includes cars from both Porsche and Toyota that use similar systems.
Beyond technological advancement to improve road cars, the 24 Hours of Le Mans has served as a large influence on the automotive world around us. Today, many races emulate the formula set at Le Mans as they take place over a full 24-hour span. Just a few of the most notable are held at gorgeous Spa Francorchamps, the Nurburgring in Germany, and historic Daytona Speedway each year.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans race has also been a standard-bearer of safety both for spectators drivers. After the incident in 1955, tracks across Europe shut down until suitable safety measures could be implemented. Switzerland still employs the ban on almost all racing series outside of EV-only events. Over the years, crash structures, safer driver compartments, and more rigorous standards have led to safer racing as well. Much of that same technology exists in the cars we drive today.
Racing will never be a sport with zero chance of injury, but almost nothing in this world can really claim that either. Racing does however always drive innovation, it sparks the imagination, and it questions old ideas of where the limit of speed, reliability, and technology really fall. The 24 Hours of Le Mans started that trend nearly 100 years ago, and its influence is only growing.