100 fascinating facts from a Centenary of Le Mans action (Part 5)

In the final part of our series looking at 100 years of Le Mans, which takes place from 10-11 June, we dig up some fascinating moments, anecdotes, stats and facts from the world’s greatest race - the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

81. AMERICANS AND EXCEPTIONALISM: While an American driver did not participate at Le Mans until 1939 there were American built cars present already in 1925 and arguably as early as the first race. Charles Montier, Ford’s sales agent in Paris took a Model T, lowered the frame and mounted on it a boat tail body. The Montier-Ford ran in both the 1923 and 1924 races. The first bona fide American built car was a Chrysler Model 6 in 1925.

82. THE AMERICAN DREAM: Between 1925 and 1931 a total of seven Chryslers raced, capped by a third and fourth place overall finish in 1928. Stutz was a significant manufacturer at the time and nine of their separately marketed Blackhawk models were entered at Le Mans from 1928 through 1932, the best showing being a fine second overall on its debut. Although largely forgotten, Willys was a fairly successful American manufacturer in the interwar period and two versions were entered by French teams in 1926. In 1933 and again in 1935 Prince Nicholas of Romania entered possibly the most extravagant and luxurious car ever to run at Le Mans, the Duesenberg SJ. It retired both times as did the American constructor, one of dozens around the world not to weather the Great Depression.

83. ‘LE MONSTRE’: No American marques ran at Le Mans again until 1950 and they returned with a splash. The country’s great sportsman, Briggs Cunningham, entered two Cadillacs, one a standard Coupe de Ville, which was large and unwieldy even by American standards and another that the French public affectionately named “Le Monstre”. It kept the basic frame but was topped by a tubular chassis and bodywork that was the product of early wind tunnel testing. Block-like yet offering low drag, the strategy worked and the duo finished 10th and 11th respectively.

84. HOT SHOTS: In 1951 there was a lone American car, one completely out of character from those shores. It was a Crosley Hot Shot, which at a mere 725cc was one of the smallest production cars built in the USA. Cunningham returned the following year, this time with three examples of the first of a series of cars from his own production line, the exquisite Chrysler hemi powered Cunningham C4-R. The lead car, with the patron co-driving, finished fourth, improving to third each of the following two years. Following a DNF in 1955 his company was shuttered and Cunningham switched to being an entrant of other brands.

85. FIRST ‘VETTES: There came another hiatus of American built cars, broken by a watershed moment in 1960 when the first Corvettes raced at Le Mans. There were four on hand, one from the stable of Lloyd Casner and the rest from Cunningham, one of which finished eighth and took a class win. American brands skipped a year but there came an unbroken streak from 1962 through 1976 with at least one USA identified car starting each time. It was the turn of Dearborn, Michigan with Ford powered cars either in the form of the Shelby Cobra or most significantly the GT40 series ushering in a golden era that featured four consecutive overall wins from 1966 through 1969. There were also American oddities during the 1960s such as the high-winged Group 7 based sports-racing one-off, the Chaparral, and the experimental turbine powered Howmet, as well as Shelby modified Mustang.

86. CORVETTE RETURNS: The more standard production based Corvette returned in 1968, enjoyed a class win in 1970, and maintained a continuous presence through 1976. That last year saw the most recent appearance of a proper NASCAR spec Stock Car, Hershel McGriff’s Dodge Charger. Another lull followed with only an IMSA based Chevrolet Monza in 1978. In 1981 and 1982 IMSA racer Billy Hagan built up a Chevy Camaro and managed a 17th overall and 2nd in class.

87. MODERN AMERICA: The coming of Group C and the de-emphasis of GT cars meant that it would be another dozen years before an American make again appeared at Le Mans, However, from 1994 through to today there has always been a Stars & Stripes presence. During the 1990s and into the 2000s the Viper was a mainstay of GT, winning its class from 1998 through 2000. There were examples from low volume specialty GT builders such as the Callaway Corvette (class win, 1995) and the tube-framed Saleen S7R (class win, 2010).

88. PANOZ POWER: The most famous low quantity producer of that period, Panoz, ran at Le Mans from 1997 through 2007, both in Prototype and GT form.  Other American Prototype class names played a small role with entries coming from the Mazda powered Kudzu and Ford engined Riley & Scott. To this can be added the P2 class Multimatic-Riley (2017) and the unique Delta Wing which ran under special sanction in 2012. More significantly, Cadillac made its first foray into the Prototype class with the Northstar LMP1 in 2000-2001. Cadillac returns to the top category in 2023 as one of two American badged makes in Hypercar, the other being the Glickenhaus.

89. CORVETTE LEGENDS: But it was “America’s Sports Car”, Corvette, which was the most iconic U.S. based car this century. The works entered team has been on hand every edition from 2000, accumulating nine class wins along the way. The recent past has also been marked by sporadic and sometimes troubled starts by the rekindled Ford GT program. They did record a class win in 2016 but a repeat in 2019 was cancelled by a post-race disqualification. 

90. UNITED NATIONS: The overwhelming majority of cars that have raced at Le Mans, indeed most race cars built and even more globally the automobile industry are focused historically on five countries; Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, and Japan. Nevertheless, a few entries have come from other nations:

            Belgium: Excelsior (1923)

            Czechoslovakia: Aero Minor (1949-1950), Skoda (1950)

            Sweden: Saab (1959)

            Switzerland: Sauber (1977-1993), Sehcar (1983), Rebellion (2014)

            Netherlands: Spyker (2002-2010)

            Denmark: DBA (2003, 2005)

            Spain: Epsilon Euskadi (2008)

            Russia: BR (2015-2019), Aurus (2019-2021) [rebadged Oreca]

            Canada: Multimatic-Riley (2017) [US-Canada collaboration]

91. SURVIVORS: The history of Le Mans is littered with marque names that no longer exist. A few are well remembered such as Talbot, Triumph, Delage, Delahaye, Austin-Healey, Frazer Nash and Osca. But the further back one goes the more obscure the names. Hardly any of the brand names of the 1920s even made it through the Depression. It is thus worth noting the first appearance of manufacturers which continue to exist today, even if under different corporate structures.

92. THE LIST: 1923, Bentley, (plus a special case for Bugatti, the name being revived by an unrelated entity in the 1990s, and also for Ford, a one-off Ford based special running in the first Le Mans 24 Hours)

            1925, Chrysler

            1926, Peugeot

            1930, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz, MG

            1931, Aston Martin

            1932, Citroen

            1937, BMW

            1938, Fiat, Morgan

            1949, Renault, Ferrari {continuous presence at Le Mans through 1975, 1977-1982, 1994-1999, 2002-2022)

            1950, Cadillac, Jaguar, Skoda, (plus a special case for Gordini—although no longer a distinct manufacturer, the name survives as Renault’s high-performance tuning arm)

            1951, Lancia, Porsche (With a continuous presence at Le Mans ever since)

            1954, Maserati

            1955, Lotus

            1960, Chevrolet, (plus a special case for Fiat-Abarth & Abarth—although no longer a distinct manufacturer, the name survives as Fiat’s high-performance tuning arm)

            1962, TVR       

            1963, Alpine

            1964, Ford

            1970, Ligier

            1975, Mazda, Datsun (as Nissan beginning in 1986)

            1976, Dodge

            1985, Toyota

            1994, Honda, (new) Bugatti

            1995, McLaren

            1997, Panoz

            1999, Audi

            2006, Lamborghini, Radical

            2009, Ginetta, Oreca

93. NOT ALONE: Le Mans has been part of a world or international championship for 46 of its 90 editions. This was the case almost continuously from 1963 through 1992, when it was part of the various iterations of the World and International Sportscar and Endurance Championships. Exceptions took place in 1956, 1975-1977, and 1989-1990, when for various reasons it was held outside the relevant championships. There was no appropriate international series through 2010.

94. MODERN SERIES: In 2011 the pilot International Le Mans Challenge led the following season to the now well-established World Endurance Championship. Even when not part of any series, Le Mans is the sun around which all sports car and endurance racing has revolved.

            1953-1961, World Sports Car Championship

            1960-1961, FIA GT Cup

            1963-1971, International Championship for Manufacturers

            1963-1974, Challenge Mondiale

            1963-1964, International Trophy for Prototypes

            1972-1974 and 1982-1985, World Manufacturers Championship

            1978-1981, World Challenge for Endurance Drivers

            1986-1992, Sportscar World Championship

            2011, International Le Mans Challenge

            2012-date, World Manufacturers Championship

95. LAST LAP DRAMA: In 2000, Heading into the last half hour the Porsches of Wolfgang Kaufmann and Fabio Babini crashed. The suspension damage on Kaufmann’s car was too serious to continue but Babini made it back to the pits with a shattered windscreen. That was cleaned up but upon leaving the hood fasteners came loose and the bonnet flipped open. Babini drove slowly around peering out the window. Once again he made it back and further repairs were made. Then on the last lap the GT class leading Porsche of Bruno Lambert nudged Babini off into the gravel—the third incident proving unlucky for the Italian.

96. TESTING 1-2-3: The pre-race test days were first held in 1959. It was held as a courtesy to the teams and there was no formal tie with the race and few entry restrictions. Cars and drivers often took part that were not intended to be there at the race. It was held about two months before the 24 hours, with the mid-April date often providing cold and wet conditions. It was held in this manner though 1974. To make the event more attractive a mini-endurance race was added in 1971 to 1974, first of three and then four hours length.

97. TEST REVIVAL: The test was revived briefly in 1986 and 1987 with a pair of sprint races held the first time. After another hiatus the test days returned in 1993 and has been held since apart from 2009, 2010, and the Covid year of 2020. During the 1990s the sessions came to be taken more seriously. It was a chance for the stewards to observe teams that they considered marginal as to whether they should be given a full entry for the race. In some years reserve entries were allowed to take part, in others not. For most of this century it is required for the race entrant to participate in the test sessions. In the 1980s and 1990s the date of the tests was moved up to mid-May and since 2005 they have been held within two weeks of the main event.

98. CROSSOVERS: Valentino Rossi is attracting much attention thanks to having been a former world motorcycling champion. Two others preceded him; John Surtees (1961, 1963-1967) and Mike Hailwood (1969-1970, 1973-1974). Two World Rally Champions have raced at Le Mans, Colin McRae (2004) and Sebastien Loeb (2005-2006).

99. F1 CROSSOVERS: By about the late 1970s most people’s race calendars became too crowded to do both, but until then many an F1 champion raced at Le Mans. In addition to Surtees (the only champ on both two and four wheels) there were:

            Juan Manuel Fangio, 1950, 1951

            Alberto Ascari, 1952

            Mike Hawthorn, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958

            Phil Hill, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967

            Jack Brabham, 1957, 1958, 1970

            Graham Hill, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1972

            Jim Clark, 1959, 1960, 1961

            Denis Hulme, 1961, 1966, 1967

            Jochen Rindt, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967

            Jackie Stewart, 1965

            Mario Andretti, 1966, 1967, 1983, 1988, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2000

            Alan Jones, 1984

            Damon Hill, 1989

            Michael Schumacher, 1991

            Keke Rosberg, 1996

            Nelson Piquet, 1996. 1997

            Jacques Villeneuve, 2007, 2023

            Nigel Mansell, 2010

            Fernando Alonso, 2018, 2019

            Jenson Button, 2018

100. RECORD BREAKER: An adventure sport record holder was balloonist Steve Fossett who competed at Le Mans in 1993 and 1996. Fosset lived a remarkable life and set 91 aviation world records and 23 sailing records including circumnavigating the globe nonstop and unrefuelled in 76 hours, 45 minutes in the GlobalFlyer, setting the record for the longest flight by any aircraft in history with a distance of 25,766 statute miles (41,467 km).

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Complied by Sam Smith and Janos Wimpffen