Held in summer at the Circuit de la Sarthe, in a small town called Le Mans (200 km from Paris), the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the longest active and most prestigious endurance race in the world. The concept is simple: race for 24 hours straight and go as far and as fast as you can. The car that has covered the most number of laps is the winner. The concept challenged manufacturers to produce not only high performance but also reliable cars.
The 1930s saw the likes of Bugatti and Alfa Romeo fight for gold. As the world went to war in 1939, Le Mans took a 10-year sabbatical. And when it came back, the auto world scenario had changed. You had the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes and Jaguar all going shoulder to shoulder. This increased competition would also lead to tragedy with an accident during the 1955 race. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR of Pierre Levegh crashed into a crowd of spectators, killing more than 80 people. Mercedes-Benz would re-enter racing only 30 years later. The crash led to widespread safety measures being brought in, but the measures also made the cars faster. Closed cockpits meant the cars could do over 330 kmph on the 6-km Mulsanne straight.
Ferrari dominated the 1960s until Ford came up with the iconic GT40 to prove a point or two. Ford won for four years straight, before Porsche took over and made Le Mans a bit monotonous for the next 20 years or so. Manufacturers like Jaguar, Renault and Mercedes did ruffle Porsche’s feathers by winning the odd race, but none could sustain its momentum. Around this time, manufacturers and private racing teams started building prototype racing cars specifically for Le Mans. This took racing to a whole new level and in fact, bumped down production cars to a lower class. This was also the time when Le Mans’ glamour quotient went up several notches, with the launch of a film starring Steve McQueen in 1971.
Porsche’s dominance in the sport ended when Audi released the R8 in 2000. By the end of 2005, after an impressive five victories for the Audi R8 (piloted by Tom Kristensen, 8 times winner at Le Mans) and six to its V8 turbo engine, Audi took on a new Le Mans 24 hours challenge by introducing a diesel engine prototype car known as the R10 TDI. And that won for the next three years, till Peugeot trumped it with the 908 Hdi in 2009.
Over the last 14 years, Audi has been a pioneer as far as Le Mans is concerned, winning this year's race comfortably too. But this is a world where every split second counts, where things can change really quickly and who knows, 2013 might be a different ballgame all together!