A guide to the Le Mans classic and the history of the sport

A guide to the Le Mans classic and the history of the sport
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a gruelling endurance race held in Le Mans, France. Predominantly comprises teams from major vehicle manufacturers, such as Mercedes, Ford and Ferrari, the race features incredible prototype sports cars designed to run almost continuously for 24 hours.

As one of the greatest motoring events in the world, the team at RAC European Breakdown Cover has put together some history of Le Mans and its sister event, the Le Mans Classic which starts today.

Le Mans Classic

The Le Mans Classic started in 2002 and represents a 'retrospective' of one of the legendary races of the world, meaning it is essentially a modern race that includes vintage cars from the bygone era of 1923 to 1979, which tkes place on the famous Le Mans circuit.

This original concept acts as an homage to an ingenuity-filled era of motror sport that not only hugely influenced modern-day racing but also technological advances in aerodynamics. 

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The drivers who literally risk their lives behind the wheels of cars, which are often older than they are, display a level of skill not often seen on our race circuits, helping the crowds to realise that mastering these machines each time is far from an easy affair.

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The essentials of the sport are effectively the same, even decades later: speed, control, and competitive spirit. However, the driving technique differs with every race as the age and era of the vehicles changes dramatically.

8,000 classic cars and around 110,000 enthusiasts regularly descend upon Le Mans to witness more than 400 competing cars, all of which have participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans between 1923 and 1979. The event is now one of the largest European Car Club gatherings and is certainly a sight worth seeing this weekend.

Le Mans History

The 24 Hours of Le Mans was first run on the 26th and 27th of May in 1923 using a closed public road circuit around the town of Le Mans. Early manufacturers present included Bugatti, Bentley and Excelsior (sometimes known as Bayliss-Thomas), and the first race featured 33 cars.

The serious nature of the competition led to early advances in aerodynamics and other design innovation, with each manufacturer aiming for faster and faster speeds – particularly on the straights.

Despite being postponed for 10 years from 1939 due to the onset of the Second World War, the race returned in 1949 and featured the first entries by Ferrari – including a winning vehicle with the first V12 engine seen at Le Mans. 1950 saw the introduction of diesel cars, alongside vehicles from Jaguar and Cadillac. 

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The 50’s continued the themes of innovation and growing popularity, with at least 60 cars competing throughout the decade, as well as the first use of radio communication between cars and pits. Also at this time, cars started to switch to closed bodies with further aerodynamic innovations, and disc brakes (first used by aircraft) were introduced.

The 60s and 70s saw the introduction of American manufacturers such as Ford and, after a number of tragic accidents, big changes to both the race and the vehicles.

The 80s belonged to Porsche, which won all five categories in 1982 and got eights cars in the first eight places in 1983.

Fuel efficiency eventually became the order of the day, with the 90s seeing more and more exotic prototype sports cars being built specifically for Le Mans, as well as entries from Japan.

The dawn of the new millennium saw a downturn for the race, with many major manufacturers pulling out. 2000 to 2005 was dominated by Audi, one of the few remaining manufacturers, although hotly contested. Audi later gained the first win with a diesel engine prototype, known as the R10 TDI, and the move towards hybrid engines to extend fuel economy began.

In the last decade, the race has become part of the FIA World Endurance Championship, and has seen a resurgence in popularity and manufacturer entries. New technology continues to come to the race, with several successful electric hybrid engines being employed, and advances in aerodynamics and active safety systems.

The Le Mans 24 Hour race continues to be a hugely popular event, full of clever technology and an impressive history for each of the teams competing.