CIRCUITS: LE MANS

Name: Le Mans

Juan-Manuel Fangio, Le Mans 1955

Juan-Manuel Fangio, Le Mans 1955 

 © The Cahier Archive

The town of Le Mans was the home of the first major Grand Prix race in 1906. The name had been used before at Pau but the Grand Prix de l'Automobile Club de France was the first big circuit race. The track was totally different to the one used today and was laid out on public roads to the east of the city, linking Le Mans with the towns of St. Calais and La Ferte Bernard. It was 65 miles in length. The race was held over two days and was won by Ferenc Szisz, a Franco-Hungarian driving a Renault. The Grand Prix de l'ACF then moved to a variety of other tracks prior to World War I before returning to Le Mans in 1921. This was a new circuit laid out to the south of the town, running from the suburbs of Le Mans down the main highway to the village of Mulsanne and then back to Le Mans via the village of Arnage. The 1921 race saw Jimmy Murphy become the first American to win a Grand Prix in Europe, overcoming terrible pain (from an accident in practice) to take his Duesenberg to victory.

The international fame of Le Mans was not to be based on Grand Prix racing, however, but rather on the 24 Heures du Mans which was held for the first time in 1923.

The race has always had a British flavor to it, dating back to the Twenties when Bentley used it to promote the company's products and the Bentley Boys won four 24 Hour races, Woolf Barnato establishing a record that is unlikely ever to be beaten -- three wins in three starts. It was at Le Mans in 1933 that Tazio Nuvolari won his only start in the great race, beating Luigi Chinetti by just 400m. In the late 1930s the race witnessed a series of French victories, notably for the Bugatti Tanksin 1937 and 1939.

After a break during and immediately after the war, the race returned in 1949 and has run uninterrupted ever since. The 1952 race saw heartbreak for Pierre Levegh, who had a four lap lead, having driven single-handed, only to see his car break down just two hours from the flag. The Fifties saw the emergence of Jaguar, although the 1954 race saw victory go to the Ferrari of Froilan Gonzalez and Maurice Trintignant by just 90secs over the chasing Jaguar of Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton.

It was at Le Mans in 1955 that the sport suffered its greatest disaster when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes flew into the crowd killing the driver and at least 83 spectators. Across the world races were canceled and there were bans on racing in several countries, notably in Switzerland, where the sport has never been re-established.

But the Le Mans 24 Hours continued and Jaguar's success was renewed until 1957. In 1958 Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien won, signaling the beginning of a Ferrari-dominated era. In the early 1960s Ford decided that it wanted to win the great event and arrived in 1964 to take on Ferrari. Two years later Henry Ford II was present to see Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren head a stage-managed finish for the company, with another Ford driven by Ken Miles and Denny Hulme right in the winning car's slipstream. In 1967 AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney were first home.

That year the Automobile Club de France came up with the strange idea of holding the French GP on the new Bugatti circuit. This included the famous start-finish line but the return leg (built for the racing school) was tight and twisty. There were only 20,000 spectators to see Jack Brabham's victory in a Brabham-Repco. The French GP never returned.

The Le Mans 24 Hours went on with Jacky Ickx winning his first race (sharing his Ford GT40 with Jackie Oliver) in 1969, the pair winning by just 120 meters. Two years later, the 1971 race was the fastest ever, before changes at Arnage slowed the lap times, with Gijs van Lennep and Helmut Marko averaging 138mph in their Porsche 917.

In the 1970s France's motor racing industry boomed and there were victories at Le Mans for Matra, Renault and in 1980 Rondeau. But after that it was Porsche domination throughout the 1980s until the return of Jaguar as a serious threat in 1985. It was the era of Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell; the Belgian winning six victories, the Englishman five. The 1988 event was the greatest race of the modern era with Porsche and Jaguar head to head for the full 24 Hours, and emotional scenes when Jaguar returned to the victory podium.

Jaguar, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz battled in the late 1980s but in the 1990s, as sportscar racing weakened, Peugeot Sport became the dominant force, scoring a 1-2-3 finish in 1993. The emphasis shifted away from the big factories to smaller teams in the late 1990s with McLaren and TWR winning races but manufacturer interest increased towards the end of the century with BMW winning the 1999 event and Audi dominating after that.

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