Man has probably raced in competition since the dawn of time, and no matter if it was on foot, horseback, or chariot, speed and distance have always been the major factors. The invention of the automobile brought about a new form of racing seemingly from the moment the second car was ever produced.
While history credits Karl Benz of Germany with the invention of the first automobile in 1885, it was in nearby France that auto racing was born. In 1894, a scant nine years following the creation of the horseless carriage, the first recorded organized auto race was held from Paris to Rouen, and the sport has grown with ferocity ever since.
It is somehow poetic that the past five years have seen a German/ French rivalry at the oldest endurance racing event in the world. In the countryside just south of the city of Le Mans lies the Circuit de La Sarthe (so named for the nearby Sarthe River) where since 1923, men and their machines have competed in the Grand Prix of Endurance and Performance, or more widely known as The 24 Hours of Le Mans.
This year marks the 79th running of the event (there was a ten year hiatus during the two World Wars that ravaged Europe) but through it all the French have held fast to their love of auto racing, and since 2008, French automaker Peugeot has sought the top step of the podium at their homeland event. A zenith they have not reached since 1993.
Porsche is easily the most dominant marque to ever compete at Le Mans with sixteen victories to their credit, but their German counterpart Audi is rapidly closing the gap. The 2011 running was win number ten for Audi despite losing two of their three cars early on, and the lone survivor held off three Peugeot challengers just seconds behind. When you consider the factors of day, night, temperature, rain, and driver changes, those feats become all the more amazing.
This legendary race fires my senses and imagination like no other, simply because of its monumental scope. There are other forms of racing that tax the limits of man and machine, but most of those are cross-country or rallye-type events. The 24 Hours of Le Mans stands tall as a road racing challenge that forces a balancing act among unpredictable variables both human and mechanical.
Each car must have three drivers, and no driver may remain in the car longer than four hours at a time. Consider the fact that most drivers run roughly three hours for any other major event and then are not back in the car for days, whereas at Le Mans they will have to be rested, sharp, and ready to drive again in six hours.
The race does not stop for weather conditions, so wind, overcast skies, glaring sunlight, and driving rain must all be dealt with not only by the driver but by the engineer as well. Tire selection for the given conditions is absolutely critical if the car is to maintain competitive speeds.
While each of the four classes of cars that are on the circuit simultaneously varies in power, speed, and driver skill, they all must be able to finish the race on an allotted amount of fuel. Make the engine too thirsty in the quest for power and risk running out of fuel by the end of the day. It is in this arena where Audi has changed the face of competition at Le Mans.
In 2005, Audi turned loose an innovative beast like no other, the mighty R10 TDI. The gasoline powered R8 that preceded the R10 had already won the event four times, but now this direct-injected, turbocharged diesel pounded its opponents into submission like Thors’ hammer. The R10 was such a game changer that manufacturers like Peugeot were motivated to produce diesel performance engines in order to remain contenders. The past few years have raised the question if a gasoline car will ever win Le Mans again.
The R10 TDI and the Peugeot 908 are only the latest in a long list of pioneer efforts that have stormed the asphalt at La Sarthe. Windshield wipers, better headlights, disc brakes, aerodynamic body designs, and engine/ transmission durability have all seen their test beds at Le Mans.
Even the celebration of victory has its birthplace on the podium here as Dan Gurney was the first driver to shake a bottle of champagne and spray the crowd in celebration. These and many others are the images that have created memories and legends in the French countryside.
The list of driver’s names that have stood on the top step and hoisted the trophy reads like a hall of fame; Tazio Nuvolari, Phil Hill, A.J. Foyt, Bruce McLaren, and the incredible Jackie Icyx, who until the domination of Audi stood alone with six 24 Hour victories. Today however, one driver stands above all others with an almost unbelievable eight wins; the phenomenal Danish Audi driver Tom Kristensen, who is now referred to as “Mr. Le Mans.”
Despite Kristensens’ achievement, I would be remiss to not mention driving legend Graham Hill, the only man to ever conquer the Triple Crown of Motorsports. To win the Indianapolis 500, the Monaco Grand Prix, and with it the Formula One Championship, and then prevail at Le Mans is a monumental feat, and most likely why it has never been repeated.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans has broken its share of hearts, taught its hard lessons, and bestowed its sweet laurels like no other racing event in the history of the automobile. It pays fervent homage to the nation it calls home, and for almost a century has captured the dreams and visions of both drivers and racing fans alike. Someday I hope to make the pilgrimage to the straights of Mulsanne, to the grassy woods of Arnage, and to stroll the walkway of the famed Dunlop Bridge. Like Ulrich Baretsky, chief engineer of engine design for Audi, I savor the chance to climb to the uppermost tier of the grandstands and watch the sunrise, set to the music of horsepower and speed.
Le Mans, pouvez vous de phase pour toujours!