le mans history

Death and Petrol: The high-octane history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans

For almost 100 years, the most daring, dangerous race in the world has captured hearts and broken dreams. We take a spin through its most iconic moments...

It is 1966. Tyres are screeching, the crowd is clamouring and thunderous engines are hurtling their way around the track. The night is black, the rain heavy and the world’s most powerful cars are straining at their cambelts to take the chequered flag. Some of the most celebrated drivers ever to compete are sweating through their race suits; putting their careers, reputations and lives on the finish line to come up victorious at Le Mans’ 34th Grand Prix of Endurance.

It’s one of the most important events in motorsport history. And, for this one night in the mid-1960s, the Circuit de la Sarthe burned with competition. It was a tyre-streaked, petrol-drenched, adrenaline-fuelled pressure cooker of a contest — and one that shifted international racing into a dangerously high gear. Over half a century later, a Hollywood film last year told the story of that race; examining the rivalry of Ford v Ferrari, and telling the fraught tale of out-engineering and one-upmanship that saw Ford’s GT40 finally snatch victory out of Ferrari’s fierce Italian jaws.

But this race was memorable for more than its outstanding title fight. 1966 was also the year the immortal Jacky Ickx took to the fabled circuit for the first time, and the first race for Frenchman Henri Pescarolo — who went on to compete in the race a record-breaking 33 times. It was an event charged with fiery collisions, dawn downpours and blown engines. It was as dangerous a motor race as you could imagine — or, in other words, just another 24 Hours of Le Mans.

le mans history
Image courtesy of Klemantaski Collection

As the oldest endurance race in the world, Le Mans has been attracting the best drivers and manufacturers in the business for almost 100 years. And, unlike most motor races, where competitors push to cross the finish line first, this grand prix of endurance and efficiency sees the top title go to the car that covers the greatest distance over the course of one supercharged day. As such, the race hinges as heavily on intricate equations and tactical driving as it does on sheer, unflinching nerve.

And it’s been this way since the very first race. In 1923, after the Automobile Club de l’Ouest drew up the rules of the race, a flurry of excitement immediately whipped the event up into a phenomenon. Acetyline floodlights were borrowed from the French Army to line the corners of Arnage and Pontlieue. Gravel, dirt and tar were shipped in to seal the roads, and radios were tuned to a special broadcast of classical music — from the Eiffel Tower — to score the impending drama.

And drama there was. When the tricolour fell — the French flag waves at the start line of Le Mans, not the traditional green flag — the inaugural race set the pace for the thrills and spills of years to come. Captain John Duff and his Bentley took the brunt of the difficulties. Early on, an errant stone took out one of his two headlamps. And, as the team hadn’t brought a spare, they had to push on into the night regardless. After a close miss with an 11-horsepower Bignan Desmo Sport, Duff’s Bentley was once again struck by gravel — and his fuel tank punctured.

Racing intuition prevailed, and the Canadian — who had been gravely wounded during the First World War’s Third Battle of Ypres at Passchendaele — left his car and ran the four miles back to the pits to alert his co-driver, Frank Clement. Clement slung two cans of fuel over his shoulder, took a cork to bung the tank and commandeered the local gendarme’s bicycle. He cycled to the stricken car, effected the repair and the pair won the race. The Bentley Boys later returned the bicycle.

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