The 24 Hours of Le Mans is unquestionably one of the most prestigious and grueling endurance races anywhere in the world.
Last year, National Geographic compiled a list of the 10 best sporting events in the world. In the number 1 slot was the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That means it beat the Super Bowl, the World Cup and the Olympics. Some of these might be more popular than Le Mans, but it is the opinion of National Geographic, as well as quite a few race fans, that Le Mans is the better event. Agree or disagree, Le Mans is most certainly of huge importance in the racing world.
The first 24 Hours of Le Mans, also known as the Grand Prix of Endurance, was held in 1923 on closed public roads near the French town of Le Mans. Today the race is still held partially on public roads, but some specially-built racing roads now also make up the Circuit de la Sarthe. The winner of the race was and still is whichever car can cover the most ground over a 24-hour period. The course is 8.469 miles long, which makes laps of the circuit among the longest in motorsports. Of course, this being an endurance race, that only seems appropriate.
Unsurprisingly, the years leading up to WWI saw wins from both Alfa Romeo and Bugatti, but this was also a race where Bentley decided to show off its racing prowess, and together with one win from 2003, Bentley has a total of six overall wins. Following the war, Le Mans was mostly a contest between Jaguar and Ferrari until the early Sixties when Ferrari came to dominate, eventually giving way to a Ford takeover. There followed a period of mostly Porsche victories, with a few from other manufacturers thrown in. Today, the race is dominated by Audi, which has 11 overall wins, although this still falls well short of Porsche's 16.
Recent years saw Peugeot threaten this dominance, and even claim a win in 2009. But it was short-lived, and although Toyota's return to Le Mans could be a threat to the four rings, it was not a threat which prevented Audi from getting a 1-2-3 finish in the most recent running of the race. The only time a Japanese manufacturer has won Le Mans was in 1991 when Mazda won with a prototype powered by a four-rotor Wankel engine, an awesome piece of machinery. Not everything which Le Mans is famous for is positive, though. In 1955, the race saw the biggest disaster in the history of motorsports.
A collision on the track caused a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR to be flung into the crowd of spectators in several parts and at high speed. In addition to the heavy engine and a hood which decapitated a number of spectators like a blade, the car's magnesium bodywork caught fire. The driver, Pierre Levegh, was killed instantly, and the official figures are 83 spectators killed and 120 wounded. However, this figure has been disputed, and it is claimed to be much higher. It has been suggested that French officials only counted French citizens in the official reports, hence the discrepancy, but it is difficult to determine the exact truth.
The challenge of endurance racing is to balance speed, reliability and fuel economy. A good showing in two of these areas has often been able to compensate for a lack in the third. Consider the case of the Audi car which suffered from a faulty transmission during the 2000 race. The car pulled into the pits and the crew was able to swap in an entire new transmission and Audi still took a 1-2-3 finish. But these days, the top teams are able to develop cars which deliver all three qualities. This has meant diesel and/or hybrid drivetrains for teams like Audi, Peugeot and Toyota.
This necessity to deliver on all three fronts means that endurance racing is seen by many as being the most relevant to consumers. While F1 is impressive, endurance racing does a far better job of showing off the qualities which consumers actually want in a car, inasmuch is possible in a race. So important is Le Mans to the racing world that although it is in fact part of a series, it is often treated by both teams and fans as a standalone event. When it comes to bragging rights, winning at La Sarthe is considered more important than winning the whole series. But one thing is for certain, there is no one race which is more important than Le Mans.