100 fascinating facts from a Centenary of Le Mans action (Part 1)
Photo: WEC

100 fascinating facts from a Centenary of Le Mans action (Part 1)

Roll up! Roll Up! You will not believe your eyes as you read these extraordinary Le Mans facts, and there are 100 of them to celebrate the upcoming centenary of the world’s greatest race.

This is the first in a five part series leading up to the big race from 10-11 June. No ranking, no chronological order, just first-class, intriguing facts and stats!

Here are the first 20...

1.     PRE-HISTORY: 12 years before the first 24 Hours of Le Mans was run, the Grand Prix de France used an early version of the Circuit de la Sarthe, which was 54 km in length, and used a longer version of the current straight, running from Ave George Durand at Le Tertre Rouge, to Ecommoy, before heading towards Saint-Mars d'Outille, Les Jouanneries and Parigne-l'Eveque. 

2.     TAKING FLIGHT: It is not atypical for racing circuits to have developed from aerodromes. Silverstone and Sebring are the two most successful conversions of surplus WWII airfields to motor racing. Le Mans only has a limited connection to aeronautics but its link is far more historically significant than the others. Le Mans is the site of the Wright Brothers first flights in Europe.

3.     20TH CENTURY BOYS: The first time that Le Mans was won overall by drivers born in the 20th century was in 1932 and covered both of the crew, Luigi Chinetti (17 July 1901) and Raymond Sommer (31 August 1906). Two years later, Philippe Etancelin (28 December 1896) became the last driver born in the 19th century to win overall. No driver born in the 21st century has yet to win the race.

4.     THE THIRD MAN? Did Ed Hugus ‘win’ Le Mans with Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory in 1965 but not get credited for it? An urban legend developed that nominated reserve driver for the Ford team Hugues did an early morning stint. While this has never been substantiated, many believe he was the ‘third man’ in 1965!

5.     BRANDY POWER! When Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt took a famous win in their Jaguar C-Type in 1953 but their preparation was unorthodox t say the least. The pair were disqualified for an administrative error by Jaguar and so the pair decided to drown their sorrows with copious amounts of local Brandy in a bar. Their herculean hangover soon cleared on race morning when it was discovered they had been re-instated in to the race. They went on to win and create one of the greatest legends in the century long history of the race!

6.     RHYTHM KINK: Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason competed in four Le Mans 24 Hours, scoring a best result of 18th in his first appearance in 1979 in a Lola T297. 1980 in a Dorset Racing Lola T297) , Group C prototypes (1983 in a Dome RC82 and 1984 ) and in the GT class (1982) , with an EMKA BMW M1 owned and also driven by Steve O'Rourke, the manager of Pink Floyd and Richard Down . Since then , Nick Mason has returned to Le Mans with his Ferrari GTO to the Le Mans Classic. He is also a regular at the two annual events at  Goodwood (in Great Britain), The Festival of Speed in July and the Revival in September , where he races many of the cars in his collection .

7.     SAIL OF THE CENTURY: The first Cadillacs to race at Le Mans were entered by Briggs Cunningham in 1950 and went on to finish 10th and 11th . Cunningham was at that time more renowned as a yachtsman. He would go on to skipper the Columbia yacht to victory in the 1958 Americas Cup race.

8.     WEDDED TO THE RACE: In 1987 then factory Toyota driver Masanori Sekiya decided to mark his third Le Mans appearance in a special way. He got married in Le Mans prior to the race start. There was no dream honeymoon however as he failed to finish with teammates Tiff Needell and Kazuyoshi Hoshino. Eight year later though he consummated his Le Mans experience by winning with Yannick Dalmas and JJ Lehto in the Lanzante run McLaren F1 GTR.

9.     STAR POWER! French screen legend Alain Delon starred at Le Mans in 1996 when he was the honorary starter. He wasn’t the only cinematic star to have done so though as famed director Luc Besson filled a similar role at the 2002 edition of the race.

10.  VERSITILE CHAMPS: Only five F1 world champions have triumphed at La Sarthe. They are Mike Hawthorn (1955), Phil Hill (1958, 1961 and 1962), Jochen Rindt (1965), Graham Hill (1972) and Fernando Alonso (2018 and 2019).

11.  GRAND PRIX GREATS: 12 other Grand Prix winners have won the race. They are Jose-Froilan Gonzalez, Maurice Trintignant, Ludovico Scarfiotti, Lorenzo Bandini, Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney, Pedro Rodriguez, Jacky Ickx, Didier Pironi, Jochen Mass, Johnny Herbert and Michele Alboreto.

12.  LUNAR LE MANS! The total distance covered by the winning cars from 1923 through 2022 is 396,885.038 kilometres. This means that the 400,000 mark will be passed this year. Were the collection of winning cars be one spacecraft, it would have begun its return journey to earth from the moon a couple of years ago.

13.  MUST-SEE: In 2012 the American sporting website “Bleacher Report” published their ‘bucket list’ of the world’s top 25 events based on a variety of criteria. Understandably, the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games were first and second. The 24 Hours of Le Mans was third!—from an American “stick & ball” group!—ahead of the Super Bowl, Masters, Wimbledon, Kentucky Derby, World Series, Stanley Cup, Tour de France, Boston Marathon, Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500.

14.  TOPPINGS: Open top cars have been banned since 2017. For nearly all of the previous years the field saw a mix of open and closed tops. Throughout this era soft convertible tops were illegal. However, in 1925 soft tops were compulsory and had to be in the erect position for the first 20 laps. Partly for this reason, this edition was the first to employ the “Le Mans start”, with drivers running across the track at the drop of the flag. This technique (sans soft tops!) continued through 1969.

15.  PIN POWER: Doriane Pin will become the 65th woman to race at Le Mans this June. The Prema LMP2 driver joins a long list of top female racers and will be the 22nd from France.

16.  TRAILBLAZZERS: The first two women to enter Le Mans were Odette Siko and Marguerite Mareuse in 1930 as they paired-up together. Siko then went on to finish a brilliant fourth in 1932 becoming the highest placed female finisher in the race. She also took victory in the 2-litre category in her Bugatti T40 she shared with Louis Charaval.

17.  PHOTO FINISHES: There have been 11 instances where the second place car finished on the lead lap. Four of these were non-competitive as both cars were from the same team, including the closest gap, officially measured at 20 meters between the two Fords in 1966 (until the 1990s a complex formula was used to determine the actual distance covered). The closest competitive finish was Jacky Ickx (Ford GT40) holding off Hans Herrmann (Porsche 908) by a mere 120 meters in 1969. 

18.  Most recently, Toyota team hybrids have twice accomplished a same lap finish, in 2019 and 2022. The last same lap finish by competing cars was in 2011 when Andre Lotterer (Audi) edged Simon Pagenaud (Peugeot) by 14 seconds. It was also Audi over Peugeot in 2008 but by almost a full lap. The rival Audis of Team Goh and Team Veloqx finished 1-2 in 2004 with a 41 second margin.

19.  There were two same lap finishes in the pre-war era. The 1935 edition ended with a sizable gap but the 1933 race enjoyed possibly the most exciting conclusion ever. It featured three passes for the lead over the final lap between the rival privately entered Alfa Romeo 8Cs of Tazio Nuvolari and Luigi Chinetti with the former winning officially by 400 meters.

20.  APPLE OF HIS EYE: When factory Lola driver Peter Ashdown raced a Lola Mk1 in the 1960 race he had a unique way of re-energising. “The Mk1 was so much slower in a straight-line compared to the Ferraris and Aston Martins that when they lapped me on the Mulsanne I just pulled over and I would have a nice bag of apples to munch on as I got on with my own business,” he told Lola Cars back in 2008!”

Compiled by Sam Smith and Janos Wimpffen