On May 26 and 27, 1923, the public roads around Le Mans experienced the strain of vehicles racing across the asphalt within a 24-hour timeframe for the first time. At a time, during which most races were meant to measure the speed of manufacturer cars against each other, the former Automobile Club de la Sarthe – now the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) – chose a different path: A 24-hour race should test the endurance of vehicles – and the 24 Hours of Le Mans were born.
As the oldest endurance race, the 24 Heures du Mans tells more than its own history – it also is essential to the history of all those who have faced the race in the Département de la Sarthe. For motorsport and car manufacturers, Le Mans is more than a place. It is part of their own history. From innovations of participating manufacturers to impressive performances by the teams, and all the way to the personal fate of each driver – hardly anyone of them can escape the myth of Le Mans. Le Mans is an essential element of car history and has left its mark on Porsche as well.
In the Northwest of France, today's ACO placed the foundations of its own history: The Automobile Club de la Sarthe was founded in 1906 in Le Mans. 17 years later, the first 24-hour race took place. Even back then the participating manufacturers began to bring along innovations to help them win in France. After the Second World War, more manufacturers joined. Among them: Porsche in 1951.
Though the participation of Porsche was no coincidence, it was also not planned long ahead: During the Paris Motor Show in 1950, the French race driver and luxury car importer Auguste Veuillet talked with Ferry and Ferdinand Porsche. Not only did he become the first importer of Porsche cars in France, but he also suggested the participation of Porsche at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The partnership between Veuillet and Porsche was beneficial to both: While Porsche could test the 356 SL (Super Light) Aluminium Coupé over a long distance, Auguste Veuillet took place behind the wheel in a team with Edmond Mouche. The vehicle with the starting number 46 immediately won first in the class of vehicles with up to 1.1 liter displacement in 1951. Back then, no one suspected how the history of Porsche would become intertwined with that of Le Mans.
In 1955, the entire 24 Hours of Le Mans event was endangered: One of the participating vehicles had an accident, and besides killing the involved driver, over 80 spectators died as well. The organizer of the 24 Hours of Le Mans decided to completely rebuild the pit, where the accident had occured. The disaster also influenced the remaining motorsport world: the topic of safety became a prominent topic for all races and has remained a main concern during motorsport events.
With a greater sense for the dangers of motorsport, the 24 Hours of Le Mans returned in 1956. Porsche was also ready to start, this time with the Porsche 550A Coupé in the medium-sized engine class. With that, Porsche achieved the class victory, but also the fifth spot of the overall ranking.
1970ies: A time for changes.
The changes continued in the 1960ies, with the Ford Chicane being added to the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans to slow down vehicles heading into pitlane. These changes were desperately needed. Vehicle technologies improved throughout time and with that, the cars became faster. It was during this time that Porsche introduced new technologies of their own: In 1964, the light metal composite technology in the Porsche 904 and in 1969 the active aerodynamics in the Porsche 917. The latter would later enter the production series of the 911 Carrera from 1988 onwards.
After that, the brand was constantly among the top 10 of the following years and regularly took home the class victory – and with every victory, Porsche came closer to an overall victory. The first of which was made possible with the 917 Kurzheck (short-tail) in 1970 – despite the for Le Mans typical rainy weather. It was the beginning of the Porsche legend in Le Mans. Not only was the Porsche 917 one of the few vehicles with a roof in a mostly open car field. It also scored the first two spots on the podium with both variants – the long-tail and short-tail. Meanwhile, the third spot was won by the Porsche 908.
The 1970ies were more than just the century during which Porsche set the bar in Le Mans – it should become one of the most dominant eras of the brand. The Porsche Motorsport Team of the time would achieve five overall victories. Meanwhile, the Porsche 917 garnered great popularity, leading to multiple customer racing teams worldwide choosing this vehicle for multiple years.
At the same time, the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans would go through multiple changes: In 1972, the Porsche Curves were added to the layout and the Ford Chicane was expanded to become a double chicane, reducing the speed in the final section further. Those parts of the track utilizing public roads were also forced to change – such as the Tertre Rouge in 1979. The FIA also adapted on an organizational level: The characteristic Le Mans Start that saw drivers run to their vehicles, was switched to the rolling start that is still in use today.
Jacky Ickx, a Porsche driver of the time, had previously protested the dangerous Le Mans start by not running to his car like everyone else. Instead, he leisurely crossed pitlane, while his opponents shot past him.
1980ies: A time for icons.
The oil crisis would retrospectively prove to be a blessing in disguise for motorsport: Race events saw their relevancy endangered, but the introduction of the Group C rules proved to be spot on for the FIA. The rules dictated the maximum vehicle weight and fuel amounts, so that manufacturers had to develop their vehicle technologies further. For motorsport fans, the Group C is a thing of legends. It was under these rules that some manufacturers achieved record speeds on the track around Le Mans.
The speed of the participants on the track were also the reason why the organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans made the choice to include more changes to the track. After an additional chicane in the Dunlop Curve, the pitlane as it is still used today was also added – thus including a boundary between the track and pitlane. The city of Le Mans also made decisions that would influence the track: A roundabout should be added to the Mulsanne section. Therefore, an additional turn had to be added to bypass this public section.
For Porsche, the 1980ies would become their so far most successful: 1981 onwards, the brand would achieve seven subsequent overall victories. One of them would be for the 50th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. 1982, in the first race year of Group C, Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell lined up with the Porsche 956. It was also Porsche's first attempt to use a monocoque chassis. Despite all those new elements, Porsche Motorsport achieved the first five spots in almost all classes, while the first three overall spots were all won by Porsche 956 vehicles.
Beside the records, new Porsche technologies also entered the grid of the Circuit de la Sarthe: The Porsche dual-clutch transmission (Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe, PDK) – now in serial production – celebrated its first appearance in 1984, while in 1986, a combination of four-wheel drive, sequential turbo charging and manual transmission proved to be successful.
1990ies: A time of partnership.
After the great successes of the 80ies, Porsche Motorsport stepped back and placed their trust in customer racing teams. Dauer developed the Porsche 962 further and won the overall championship in 1994. Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) had the chance to construct their own prototype utilizing the engine of the Porsche 956. The WSC-95 was a full success: TWR achieved in 1996 and 1997 the overall victory.
Just a year later, Porsche returned to the track by the Sarthe river with the 911 GT1, participating in the GT1 class of the FIA. For the 50th anniversary of the Porsche brand, Porsche was rewarded with the 16th overall victory in the demanding 24-hour race.
The track itself went through its greatest change in 1990: The Hunaudières received its two chicanes after manufacturers partially ran over 400 kph on the straight. The difficulty of the Dunlop Chicane was also increased to slow down traffic further.
The new century: Time for a new team.
The changes to increase the safety on the Circuit de la Sarthe continued in the 2000s. While the Esses were expanded upon in 2002, the transitional track between the Dunlop Chicanes and the Esses received added curves. In 2006 further additions were made in the same section with more run-off area being added to the Dunlop Chicane and increased difficulty in the Esses.
Between 1998 and 2014, Porsche participated in the smaller classes of the FIA WEC. Due to the withdrawal from the prototype classes, motorsport development saw itself without a real engineering team. So, the moment the return to the LMP1 class was announced in 2011, the division had to be rebuilt from the ground up. On top of that, the new rules of the WEC made it clear that the development of the Porsche 919 Hybrid would be complex. The future drivers were involved at an early stage, and after the team missed out on the overall victory in 2014, they could achieve it in Le Mans from 2015 to 2017. Hat-trick!
Now, after a few years in the GT class, Porsche returns once more to the historic race track that unleashes a rollercoaster of emotions among drivers, engineers, mechanics and fans. For the centenary of Le Mans and the 75th anniversary of Porsche, the 20th overall victory is the greatest wish the team wants to fulfill with the Porsche 963.
We are keeping our fingers crossed!