A history of the 24 hours of Le Mans

June 28th 1907, the purpose built Brooklands circuit has recently opened in the United Kingdom. The time is 6pm and automobile enthusiast Selwyn Edge is setting off on an incredible challenge to break the world record for an endurance run. The 60hp Napier’s target is to beat the endurance record of 651 miles.

The record attempt was an incredible success, Selwyn Edge covered 1000 miles that day in 14 hours, 54 minutes and 15 seconds, going on to set a total distance record of 1581 miles, at an incredible average speed of 66mph.

Now fast-forward to 1923, Motorsport on circuits is becoming better established. Monza has just opened in Italy, the Indianapolis 500 has been run each year since 1911 and the Brooklands Twelve—a format of two 12-hour races run in tow with one another with no overnight stage—is established as one of the endurance highlights of Europe. The Mille Miglia wouldn’t be established until 1927.

In May, the inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Grand Prix D’endurance took place. The aim of Le Mans was different to that of Grand Prix racing in that cars taking part in the race where as close as possible to cars available on the road, as opposed to the built-for-function grand prix machinery of the era. Le Mans was and is ultimately a reliability contest, the tourers that raced at Le Mans in the era even carried ballast to equate to additional passenger weight, additionally showing the relevance of the race-to-road car innovation.

The original Circuit de la Sarthe was 10.7 miles in length, identical to the one used in the 1921 French Grand Prix and the winning format was different to the one established in the following years, with the Rudge-Whitworth cup triennially awarded to the winner, from 1925 this would become Bi-annual before a winner would be determined each year since the 1928 running of the race.

The first year attracted 33 entries, mostly of French origin, with the Chenard-Walcker entry of Rene Leonard and Andre Lagache taking victory. It seems almost strange to think that the company is almost forgotten and lost in the history of automobile racing, after such as impressive feat.

The most famous entrant, arguably, from the first Le Mans is the Bentley 3-litre, driven by Canadian, Captain John F.Duff and Frank Clement to fourth overall. The attempt would begin the legend that became the Bentley boys.

The Bentley Boys

The most famous Marque of the early years at Le Mans and arguably in the history of the race is Bentley. The Bentley boys are seen as wealthy enthuists using W.O Bentley’s machines within motorsport. The boys would race the Brooklands Double Twelve, The Le Mans 24 hours and a myriad of other high profile events, throughout the 1930’s however the famous success of the manufacturer is at Le Mans with four consecutive victories between 1927 and 1930.

The Bentley victories did not come easy, however, as the 1927 edition of the race involved a remarkably unusual accident involving all three of the lead Bentley’s. The accident was described in detail in the motoring review from the Sydney Mail in early 1928. L.G Callingham found his way blocked upon entering the corner by a stranded car, forcing him to hurl his Bentley into a ditch on the right, which resulted in him being ejected from the car. The second Bentley followed into the ditch, again being ejected from the car. Thankfully both drivers where not seriously hurt.
Then the third bentley, driven by Automobile journalist Sammy Davis, came along. Aware of the upcoming incident as he arrived on the scene, he managed to reduce speed and although his car still suffered severe damage, he was able to continue—with the assitance of his co-driver and some repairs—to victory in the 1927 race, the first for Bentley at Le Mans since 1924.

1928 would see another win for Bentley, however it would also see a change in the world of motorsport. The French Grand Prix would be cancelled due to insufficent support from Manufacturers and the 1928 Grand Prix season would be ultimately be poorly supported as well.

Meanwhile Le Mans began to thrive, new entries from Aston Martin, Lagonda and Chrysler chassis entered in 1928, whilst the Tourist Trophy would be revived in Belfast, Ireland, running to touring type cars regulations.
In the rest of the world of motorsport, speed was the order of the day throughout the sport. Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell where breaking the land speed records. Segrave broke the 200mph barrier in March 1927, only to be surpassed by Campbell in 1928 at 206.9 mph on Daytona Beach. Whilst at Le Mans, Bentley was breaking record after record, with the speed average increasing year on year, as well as breaking distance records, further proving that automobile progress through motorsport was in full effect.

It would be 1929 that Bentleys finest hour at Le Mans was achieved. The Bentley boys would secure the top four places—with mechanical perfection being achieved by the company—breaking a speed average of 74 mph.

The race would see an adaption to the circuit, removing the area of the track where the cars went through the town of Le mans, by building a link route. It would be the first major change in the style of the track, since the race had begun, although not a complete bypass.
1930 saw a new challenge to Bentley when they entered the 6.6 litre Bentle Speed Six superchargers, aptly named “The fastest lorries in the world” by Ettore Buggati. Mercedes Benz entered the race with the 7.1 litre Mercedes Benz SS with the companies lead driver Rudolf Caracciola partnering with Christian Werner.
Caraccoila would go on to lead the race early on from the Bentley’s. The epic duel for the lead would be between Barnato and Caraccoila, lasting until 1am when the battery and generator on Caracciola’s Mercedes failed resulting in the withdrawal of the car 10 hours into the race, ending the incredible duel and leaving Bentley to claim its fourth consecutive victory.

Unfortunately it was announced in July 1930, that Bentley as a factory effort would no longer continue in motorsport, tellin the press “Sufficent data had been acquired”. It would be the end of an era for the Le Mans 24 hours and a reason for withdrawal echoed for years to come by manufacturers throughout motorsport.

The Wall Street crash would ultimately spell the end for Bentley as it was sold to Rolls-Royce in 1931. What Bentley had achieved, however, was incredible for Le Mans in establishing its presence as an event, and one that had the potential to develop relevance to manufacturers in improving road car technology, a trait that stays close to the event.

The successor to the crown at Le Mans would be the italian Alfa Romeo company, dominating the race from 1931 until 1934. In 1932, The track was modified with a full bypass installed, completely cutting out the town of Le Mans and creating the famed corners of Dunlop and Tetre Rouge, as well as establishing a shape the circuit is more closely associated with today.

Alfa Romeo’s drivers included Tazio Nuvolari who would win the 1933 Le Mans 24 hours, whilst Lagonda took the prize back into Britain’s hands in 1935. The race would be cancelled for 1936 due to a french strike. After which Ettore Bugatti’s eponymous company and rival french marque Delahaye would bring home the honours to France between 1936 and 1939 before the race was brought to a halt for the outbreak of World War II.

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