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Published on: June 21, 2023, 2:14 p.m.
The Race of the Century
  • The race is on

By Gautam Sen

The long-awaited Centenary race to celebrate the 100 years of the 24 Hours of Le Mans had all the right elements of spills, thrills, entertainment, excitement, and tension until the last minute, both on and off the track throughout the weekend on 10-11 of June. Suspense ran high throughout, with battles, bumps and run-offs keeping fans and teams on their toes until the very last lap on Sunday.

At the end though the 100-year-old race – usually recognised as the greatest race in the world – had the last word, as always. One could say that it was Le Mans who chose to crown Ferrari as the winner. The win comes after a very long drought of 58 years since the manufacturer’s last victory in the famous circuit of Sarthe.

In a closely fought finish, the Ferrari drivers (Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Antonio Giovinazzi, in the 499P Hypercar) had to fight off challenges from the likes of Toyota, Cadillac, Peugeot, and Porsche, as well as privateers such as the American Glickenhaus and the English Vanwall. Other significant carmakers (although in other less quick classes) competing included Aston Martin and Chevrolet Corvette.

By next year Audi, Alpine, Lamborghini, and several others will have developed cars to get into racing at Le Mans, joining the ones who are already there. Competition is therefore expected to get even more intense, belying predictions that this century old race had lived out its usefulness.

It was on the 27 May 1923 – a little over a hundred years ago – when Frenchmen André Lagache and René Léonard in a specially developed 3-litre overhead camshaft-engined Chenard et Walcker racing car, completed 128 laps of this street circuit – located near the French town of Le Mans – at an average speed of 92kph.

The most reliable automobile 

The Chenard et Walcker covered a total distance of almost 2,210km over 24 hours of continuous driving, proving that the French car was arguably the most reliable of sporting automobiles on sale then and establishing, in the process, a nature of competition which would contribute to the evolution of technical progress and promote the development of the automobile.

In 1922, Le Mans-based Automobile Club de l’Ouest (which still organises the race) announced the creation of a new type of competition, an endurance test – the world’s first 24 hours of racing. Many at that time believed that it was an insane concept, that the cars of that period wouldn’t last 24 hours of constant high-speed driving. Yet the Chenard et Walcker (along with 29 other cars) went on to complete the first race on that fateful day of May 1923, and the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans was born.

  • The Ferrari 499P that won overall

With a crew of two (later three) drivers per car who would rotate day and night for continuous racing, the first edition, with 33 teams, took place on the 26 and 27 May, with the Lagache/Léonard Chenard et Walcker winning. Another Chenard et Walcker came in at second place and a Bignan 11HP Desmo Sport came in at third.

A privately entered (but factory-prepared) Bentley 3 Litre driven by Canadian John Duff and Englishman Frank Clement came in fourth despite fighting for the lead for most of the race . The following year Duff and Clement were back in another privately entered Bentley 3 Litre, this time finishing first, ahead of the two Chenard et Walckers and the second and third placed Lorraine-Dietrichs, thereby inscribing the Bentley name in the history books.

Encouraged by their win, Duff and Clement were back once again in 1925, but their Bentley retired halfway through the race. In 1926, Bentley entered three 3 Litre Bentleys, but not one completed the race despite showing impressive pace. It would be in 1927 that Bentley (in the new 4 ½ Litre) would see victory again at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and then for the next three years go on to completely dominate the world’s greatest race and capture the headlines and the hearts of automotive enthusiasts the world over.

And just like these five wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans went on to establish the reputation and desirability of Bentley as a maker of one of the finest of sports cars in the world, this race also embellished or established the fame of several other great automotive sporting brands such as Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Bugatti, Delahaye, Jaguar, Porsche, and of course Ferrari (as we know well from the Ford vs Ferrari movie).

Therefore, it was indeed poetic justice that for the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans – in front of a record crowd of 325,000 spectators – it would be Ferrari once again winning the greatest of all races, in a close fight-off against the mass volume big money carmakers such as Toyota and Peugeot.

The Ferrari 499P is a car that was competing in the fastest class, the one known as Hypercar (formerly known as the LMP1 class). The 16 Hypercars from seven manufacturers – Ferrari, Porsche, Toyota, Cadillac, Peugeot, Glickenhaus and Vanwall – with most fielding debut models, provided very close competition, with the lead changing several times.

  • Not only are tyres changed and the car is refuelled but also drivers' change takes place

The next quickest class is the LMP2 category, which were all racing machines made by French race car manufacturer Oreca. The winner in this class was car number 34 run by Inter Europol Competition, with Jakub Smiechowski, Albert Costa, and Fabio Scherer sharing the driving.

A Corvette won in the very popular LMGTE class for supercars from the likes of GM, Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Porsche, which had been converted into racing bolides. This year was the final appearance of the Gran Turismo Endurance (GTE) class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans before the arrival of GT3 from next year onwards. A tense race, it became a matter of survival, as several accidents and technical hitches put out 12 of the 21 contenders.

Noteworthy was the relentless tussle for top place in which the all-women team of Iron Dames – Sarah Bovy, Michelle Gatting and Rahel Frey – played a dominant part, although ultimately the Corvette drivers (Nicky Catsburg, Ben Keating, and Nicolas Varrone) ended up on top. 

Ferrari has done it, again 

Of course, all the excitement was for the overall win. With the flag-off at the traditional 4pm on Saturday, the first few metres confirmed impressions formed during free practice and qualifying. The Ferrari 499P and Toyota GR010 Hybrid Hypercars were both fast and immaculately well prepared. After starting in third place, Sébastien Buemi shot straight into the lead in the number #8 Toyota GR010 Hybrid before reaching the Indianapolis corner. Mike Conway was just as determined in the sister car. 

But it wasn’t a case of Toyota versus Ferrari (a repeat of Ford vs Ferrari…?), Peugeot too were in contention, and did take the lead a couple of times, and even the occasional good runs from a couple of Porsches had the race leaders worried. But it was the number #8 Toyota GR010 Hybrid and the number #51 Ferrari 499P which kept everybody guessing until the final stretch. An inexhaustible tit for tat ensued, as the two heavyweight marques went blow for blow.

With the win on Sunday the 11 June, Ferrari has totted up as many as ten victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, topping off their previous titles earned in 1949, 1954, 1958 and from 1960 to 1965. Winning the ‘race of the century’ is particularly special. Not only will the Maranello-based firm have the added privilege of keeping the unique Centenary Trophy, specially made by the Monnaie de Paris in conjunction with Rolex, but it will provide fans of the marque some boasting points, given the brand’s terrible showing at F1 over the last few years.

  • Polish Ferrarista Magdalena Blachowiak is a recent convert from F1 to Le Mans fan

    Polish Ferrarista Magdalena Blachowiak is a recent convert from F1 to Le Mans fan

In fact, the comparison with F1 is interesting. Not only does the 22-race F1 circus cost the teams billions, with results which could depend upon several situations beyond the control of the driver or the team, it does not even cover the total race distance that the 24 Hours of Le Mans manages to do… in a day, which is over 5,000km!

At average speeds that are higher than F1. In fact, until the late 1980s, it was possible to hit speeds of over 400kph on the famous straight of Hunaudieres; since then two chicanes were introduced to slow down the cars.

Not only is the race the ultimate test of machine and man, the 24 Hours of Le Mans has also been a testbed for new technologies. Turbochargers and superchargers, along with disc brakes, air brakes and aerodynamic wings were just some of several new technologies either introduced, or tested, or refined during the various races. For a few years now, Le Mans has been the proving ground for hybrid technology; a hydrogen fuel cell car ran too, and for this year’s race all the cars ran on e-fuel.

Strong arguments why both sports car manufacturers as well as mainstream carmakers are coming back to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Of course, there is not the slightest sign of an Indian carmaker there, despite the significant presence, over 5 years, from 2012 to 2017, of an Indian driver, 39-years-old Karun Chandhok, who finished a very commendable fifth in the 2015 edition of the race. Let’s hope this changes soon. 

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