Considered as the world’s oldest active endurance racing event, The 24 Hours of Le Mans (French: 24 Heures du Mans) is flocked by more than 250,000 enthusiastic spectators each year.
The racing event is an endurance-focused sports car race held annually near the town of Le Mans, France. Unlike fixed-distance races whose winner is determined by minimum time, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is won by the car that covers the greatest distance in 24 hours.
The cars on this track can go up to 366 km/h (227 mph), and in prior events reaching 405 km/h (252 mph) before track modifications.
Racing teams must balance the demands of speed with the cars’ ability to run for 24 hours without mechanical failure.
The race is organized by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO). It is held on the Circuit de la Sarthe, composed of closed public roads and dedicated sections of a racing track. The event represents one leg of the Triple Crown of Motorsport, with the other events being the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans was frequently part of the World Sportscar Championship from 1953 until that series’ final season in 1992. In 2011, it was a part of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. Since 2012, the race has been a part of the FIA World Endurance Championship. In World Endurance Championship’s super-season of May 2018 to June 2019, the 24 Hours of Le Mans was both the second and the last round of the season.
Le mans started as a showcase for car manufacturers to prove the durability of their vehicles in competition, it has evolved into a high-speed chess match among top professional racing teams where strategy, teamwork, and great driving skill are as important as a car’s reliability and technological edge.
In Le Mans, four classes of cars compete side by side, which can make the racing confusing, but a team of knowledgeable TV commentators keeps the action sorted out for you. Le Mans is part of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes long-distance races in nine countries. Through the years, automobile manufacturers including Porsche, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Toyota, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar, and Chevrolet have invested tens of millions in their race teams with the hope of taking the winner’s laurels and basking in the marketing glory a win confers.
History of 24 Hours of Le Mans
The 24 Hours of Le Mans was first run on 26 and 27 May 1923, through public roads around Le Mans. Originally planned to be a three-year event awarded the Rudge-Whitworth Triennial Cup, with a winner being declared by the car which could go the farthest distance over three consecutive 24-hour races, this idea was abandoned in 1928. Overall winners were declared for every year depending on who covered the farthest distance by the time 24 hours were up. The early races were dominated by French, British, and Italian drivers, teams, and cars, with Bugatti, Bentley, and Alfa Romeo being the top brands. The race was cancelled in 1936 due to general strikes in France, and the outbreak of World War II in 1939 resulted in a ten-year hiatus.
Following the reconstruction of circuit facilities, the race was resumed in 1949 with renewed interest from major automobile manufacturers. 1949 was also Ferrari’s first victory, the 166MM of Luigi Chinetti and Peter Mitchell-Thomson. After the formation of the World Sportscar Championship in 1953, of which Le Mans was a part, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, Ja guar and many others began sending multiple cars backed by their respective factories to compete for overall wins against their competitors.
For the new decade, the race took a turn towards more extreme speeds and automotive designs. These extreme speeds led to the replacement of the typical standing Le Mans start with a rolling Indianapolis start. Although production-based cars still raced, they were now in the lower classes while purpose-built sportscars became the norm. The Porsche 917, 935, and 936 were dominant throughout the decade, but a resurgence by French manufacturers Matra-Simca and Renault saw the first victories for the nation since the 1950 race.
The rest of the 1980s was known for the dominance by Porsche under the new Group C race car formula that encouraged fuel efficiency. Originally running the effective 956, it was later replaced by the 962.
Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz returned to sports car racing, with Jaguar being the first to break Porsche’s dominance with victories in 1988 and 1990 (with the XJR-9 and Jaguar XJR-12 respectively). Mercedes-Benz won in 1989, with what was seen as the latest incarnation of the elegant “Silver Arrows”, the Sauber C9, while an influx of Japanese manufacturer interest saw prototypes from Nissan and Toyota.
In 1992 and 1993, Peugeot dominated the race with its Peugeot 905 as the Group C formula and World Sportscar Championship were fading in participation.
The circuit would also undergo one of its most notable changes in 1990, when the 5 km long Mulsanne was modified to include two chicanes in order to stop speeds of more than 400 km/h (250 mph) from being reached.
Following the demise of the World Sportscar Championship, Le Mans saw a resurgence of production-based grand tourer cars. Thanks to a loophole in the rules, Porsche succeeded in convincing the ACO that a Dauer 962 Le Mans supercar was a production car, allowing Porsche to race their Porsche 962 for one final time, dominating the field.
The strong manufacturer influence led the ACO to lend the Le Mans name to a sports car series in the United States in 1999, known as the American Le Mans Series, which ran until the end of the 2013 season after which it merged with Grand-Am to form the United SportsCar Championship.
Many major automobile manufacturers withdrew from sports car racing after 1999 due to the high cost. Only Cadillac and Audi remained, and Audi easily dominated with the R8. Cadillac pulled out three years later, and attempts by Panoz, Chrysler, and MG to beat Audi all fell short. After three victories in a row, Audi provided engine, team staff, and drivers to Bentley, a corporate partner, which had returned in 2001. In 2003, the factory Bentley Speed 8s beat privateer Audis. The Chevrolet Corvette Racing Team and their C5-R won several times in the GTS class, finishing 1st and 2nd in 2001, 2002, and 2004. They finished 2nd and 3rd in 2003 behind Ferrari.
At the end of 2005, after five overall victories for the R8, and six to its V8 turbo engine, Audi took on a new challenge by introducing a diesel engined prototype known as the R10 TDI. Although not the first diesel to race, it was the first to win at Le Mans. This era saw other alternative fuel sources used, including bio-ethanol. At the same time, Peugeot decided to follow Audi’s lead and pursue a diesel entry in 2007 with their 908 HDi FAP.
Regulations were changed for 2014, notably with a requirement that all LMP1 cars must be closed-cockpit, some changes to the hybrid system, and the introduction of the slow zone system.
Porsche returned to Le Mans in 2014 with a new factory LMP1 program, and Nissan returned to run an LMP1 program in 2015. Audi withdrew from racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016 and Nissan after only one attempt in 2015.
Porsche won the race in 2015, 2016, and 2017 with its hybrid 919, and remains the most successful manufacturer at Le Mans, with 19 overall victories, including seven straights from 1981 to 1987.
In 2017, changes were made to the LMP2 regulations on cockpit and chassis, meaning all prototype cars must be closed-cockpit.
In 2018, Toyota won their first Le Mans with Fernando Alonso, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima driving. Toyota won the race again in 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022.
2020 also saw the race held behind closed doors for the first time due to the COVID-19.
2021 saw the introduction of the Hypercar class, a class which allows for Le Mans Hypercars and from 2023 onwards also LMDh cars to participate. 2021 saw the race once again being postponed, this time to August. For 2021 and 2022, non-hybrid LMP1 cars were allowed to participate as “grandfathered” LMP1 cars, although only Alpine would make use of this. Other entries in the hypercar class were Toyota and privateer team Glickenhaus. The new Hypercar regulations allowed manufacterers more freedom with the design, leading to cars such as the wingless Peugeot 9X8 which will enter in 2022. The LMP2 regulations were extended to 2024 with the next generation LMP2 cars, which are also used as chassis for the LMDh cars, is said to be introduced in 2025. 2025 will likely also see the introduction of hydrogen powered prototypes which will race for the overall victory.
24 Hours of Le Mans Winners
Tom Kristensen has won the event nine times, more than any other competitor. Jacky Ickx, the previous record holder, is second with six victories, and Derek Bell, Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro are third with five wins each. Kristensen also achieved a record six victories in succession from the 2000 to the 2005 editions.
Hurley Haywood had the longest wait between his first Le Mans win and his last. He first won in 1977 and last won in 1994, a span of 17 years and 5 days.
Alexander Wurz waited the longest between his inaugural victory at the 1996 event and his second win—following 12 years, 11 months, 29 days later—at the 2009 edition.
Luigi Chinetti is the oldest Le Mans winner; he was 47 years, 11 months and 9 days old when he won the 1949 event.
Wurz is the event’s youngest winner; he was 22 years, 4 months and 1 day old when he won the 1996 race.
There have been a record 33 victors from the United Kingdom, followed by France with 29 and Germany with 19. A total of four countries have produced just one winner.
Porsche have won the most races as a manufacturer with 19 since their first in 1970.
Audi are second with 13 wins and Ferrari are third with 9 victories. Porsche also achieved the most consecutive wins with seven victories in succession from 1981 to 1987.
German manufacturers have won a record 34 times amongst four constructors, followed by the United Kingdom with 17 victories amongst 6 manufacturers and France with 15 wins amongst 9 constructors.
Joest Racing are the most successful race team with 13 victories and the Audi R8 is the best race-winning vehicle with five victories.
As of the 2022 24 Hours of Le Mans, there have been 140 victorious drivers from 20 individual countries and 25 winning manufacturers representing 7 different nations in the race’s 90 editions.
The first two winners were André Lagache and René Léonard in 1923, and the most recent driver to achieve his first victory was Ryō Hirakawa in 2022.
Most years until 1985 saw two drivers per entry win before three participants per car became the norm from 1985 onwards.
Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller set the record for the farthest distance covered by a race-winning team, driving 5,410.713 km (3,362.061 mi) and completing 397 laps in an Audi R15 TDI plus in 2010. Frank Clement and John Duff hold the record for the shortest distance covered by a victorious squad, completing 120 laps and 2,077.34 km (1,290.80 mi) sharing an Bentley 3 Litre Sport in 1924.
The 24-Hours of Le Mans’ simple rule:
“The car that covers the greatest distance in 24 hours is the winner. It is the ultimate endurance test for man and machine.”