24 hours of Le Mans is a famous sports car endurance race held at a course near Le Mans, France usually in early to mid June. The race was first held in 1923 and has been held annually ever since, cancelled only in 1936 and from 1940 to 1948.
The race is run on a non-permanent track, using mostly normal roads and a part of the permanent Bugatti track. A large number of cars race simultaneously in a number of different classes, the winner being the car that has covered the greatest distance in 24 hours of continuous racing. Each car has a team of three (or prior to the early 1980s two) drivers.
The race is more sadly known for the worst accident in the history of motor racing. In the 1955 race, a Mercedes being driven in the race by Frenchman Pierre Levegh crashed and went into the crowd, killing the driver and 80 spectators. Mercedes not only withdrew its other cars from the race, it withdrew from motor racing generally as a result, and did not return until 1987. That today's DaimlerChrysler Corporation, owner of the Mercedes marque, is still aware of and sensitive to this incident was evidenced by their re-withdrawal from sportscar racing in 1999 after their CLK sports prototypes caught air and backflipped three times at Le Mans. Aerodynamic modifications intended to prevent recurrence of the problem were implemented after the first incident, but these proved insufficient. Levegh's accident also prompted the government of Switzerland to ban circuit automobile racing, a ban which still remains in place.
The 24 hours of Le Mans was also famously featured in a 1972 movie, titled simply Le Mans, produced by and starring Steve McQueen. This film remains a classic which is still appreciated by racing fans. It was filmed on the circuit using genuine racing cars of the day.
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2 The circuit
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"Le Mans start"
The races used to begin with what became known as the "Le Mans start": cars ared lined up on one side of the track, drivers on the other, with the drivers running across the track to their cars as the race commences. Jacky Ickx made a pointed demonstration of the danger of this start in 1969, when instead of running across the track to his machine, he slowly walked, then entered in his car and locked the safety belt. The practice was discontinued in 1970.
The Le Mans start is also the reason why Porsche street cars continue to have their ignition switches on the left of the steering column rather than the more customary location on the right — this was easier to reach and enabled the driver to start the car more quickly.
The Le Mans Circuit de la Sarthe itself has undergone many modifications over the years. It is most famous for its long straight, known locally as Ligne Droite des Hunaudières, or in English as the Mulsanne Straight.
Unlike many other races where the speed in curves is more important than top speed, top speed was a critical parameter for being competitive in Le Mans. This led to special body designs like the "Long Tail" bodies pioneered by Charle Deustch and Robert Choulet. Braking at the end of the straight is also critical; the first use of disc brakes on a car was in a Jaguars racing in Le Mans.
The cars were reaching impressive speed in the straight, in 1971, during night practice, a Porsche 917 LH reached a top speed of 396.004 km/h.
During the 1970s top speeds decreased. New rules reduced the power of the engines and the evolution of aerodynamics allowed the engineers to improve the speed on a lap by increasing speed in curves and reducing top speed. This evolution was also favored by the drivers because it made the car easier to drive, giving to less violent in acceleration and braking and require less attention in the straight, this also bring less stress on the car. On 24 hours these are important benefits.
But by the late 1980s the fastest cars were reaching speeds of approximately 400 km/h (250 mph) in the straight, and the FIA felt that it had grown unsafe. Two chicanes were consequently put in place in time for the 1990 race to lower speeds. Near the end of this straight is an infamous hump, which gave flight to the Mercedes CLKs mentioned previously. This was flattened out during the winter before the 2001 race, again in the interest of safety. Although the hump remains, it is greatly diminished from what it was.
Other changes have included the replacement of the Maison Blanche ("white house") section with today's Porsche Curves, and the introduction of a new chicane in the Dunlop curve for 2002.
The most successful marque in the history of the 24 hour race is Porsche, with 16 overall victories (including seven in a row, from 1981 to 1987), followed by Ferrari with nine (including six in a row, from 1960 to 1965). The early years were dominated by Bentley, with four consecutive wins from 1927 to 1930.
In a personal spat between the two companies' owners, Ford won the race four times (1966-1969) with its GT40, built for the express purpose of defeating Ferrari, after founder Enzo Ferrari backed out of a deal to sell his company to Ford.
The 2002 edition, held on June 15 and 16, was won by Audi Sport Team Joest, with riders Frank Biela (Germany), Tom Kristensen (Denmark) and Emanuele Pirro (Italy). The same team and the same drivers had already won the race in 2000 and 2001, making for a unique hat-trick.
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