Circuit de la Sarthe - the place of the greatest motorsport stories
The Circuit de la Sarthe, also known as Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans or simply Le Mans Circuit, is one of the most famous and recognizable racing tracks in the world. Of course, it was because of the unique race which took place there since 1923 – the 24 hours of Le Mans race. The circuit is named after the department La Sarthe, in which Le Mans is located.
The most famous circuit for the most famous race
Since 1923, the 24 hours of Le Mans became the most prestigious event in the world of racing. The circuit, on which the race took place, had fifteen extensive modifications in that period, from original 17.262-km long circuit, on public roads only, to current 13.629-km layout from 2007, which combines permanent racing circuit and public roads.
Three major milestone years were 1932, 1965 and 1990. In 1932, the circuit was no more entering the town Le Mans and was shortened to 13.492 km. In 1965, the permanent Circuit Bugatti was built and added to the route. In 1990, two chicanes were added to the famous Mulsanne Straight, to decrease maximum speed and increase safety.
The motorcyclists were first who raced at Le Mans
The story about Le Mans circuit and Le Mans 24-hour race started in 1920 when the first motorcycle race was organized there by the Union Motocycliste de France. The race took place on a triangular course from Pontlieue (a suburb of Le Mans) to Mulsanne and back. The circuit was 17.262 kilometers long.
33 cars at the start of 1923 24 hours of Le Mans
The idea of automobile race was born in 1922, among the officials of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which was founded in 1906. They had an offer of the Rudge-Whitworth wheels company for sponsorship of the race. Because of that, the inaugural 24-hour race was also named the Coupe Rudge-Whitworth.
The historic day was May 26, 1923, when 33 cars of 18 different manufacturers started in the first ever 24 hours of Le Mans race. Thirty of them finished the race, the first winners were Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard in the Chenard-Walcker Sport. They made 128 laps (2209 km) with an average speed of 92 km/h.
In 1932, the circuit left Le Mans’ suburb
In 1929, the circuit was slightly shortened, to avoid Pontlieue suburb. The new circuit was 16.340-km long. The next change followed in 1932, again to avoid the area with growing population. The new link road was built, from today’s Dunlop Curve to the Mulsanne Straight, and the new corner Tertre Rouge was created. The famous Dunlop bridges were also built at this time.
The new circuit was 13.491-km long and it was the base for all later layouts. The six-kilometer Mulsanne Straight became one of the main characteristics of the track because it was the place of the speeds bigger than on any other race track. The Mulsanne Straight was named after the village Mulsanne, which was located at the end of the straight, but the original name was Ligne Droite des Hunaudieres. The straight was a part of the D338 department road.
The World War II stopped the racing activities
The racing continued through the 1930s, until 1939 and World War II. In 1936, the race was canceled due to a workers strike. In the period between 1928 and 1930, Woolf Barnato made a historic achievement, winning three times in a row, driving Bentleys. Some other famous winners in that time were Raymond Sommer, Luigi Chinetti and Tazio Nuvolari.
Ferrari’s first victory in 1949
In 1949, the racing at Le Mans resumed. The roads survived the war in good condition, but all the buildings had to be rebuilt. The first post-war race took place on the pre-war circuit and the first winners were Luigi Chinetti and Peter Mitchell-Thomson (Lord Selsdon) in the #22 Ferrari 166MM. In a fact, the real winner was Chinetti, as he drove for 23 and half hours. It was the first ever victory for Ferrari at Le Mans.
The biggest tragedy in a motorsport history
In 1953, the race became the part of the World Sportscar Championship. In 1955, the biggest tragedy in the world’s motorsport history happened. More than 80 people were killed and 120 injured after Pierre Levegh‘s Mercedes 300 SLR collided with the Austin Healey of Lance Macklin and went into the crowd near the start-finish straight.
Further modifications after Le Mans catastrophy
The tragedy caused modifications on the track. Barriers between track and grandstands became bigger and the pit straight was widened, but the pit straight and pits remained unseparated for the next 15 years. In 1971, the Armco barriers and wall were added to separate the pits from the track. The 1956 modifications included a change of a radius of the Dunlop curve, so the track was shortened to 13,461 meters.
The Bugatti Circuit was opened in 1965
The idea of building a permanent racing circuit was growing few years and finally, in 1964, the construction began. The 4.4-km long Bugatti Circuit was opened in 1965. The track was designed by Charles Deutch and it featured eleven turns, using pits and paddock facilities of the 24-hour circuit.
Brabham won F1 Grand Prix at Le Mans
In 1967, the Bugatti Circuit hosted it first and only Formula One event. The winner of the 1967 French Grand Prix was Jack Brabham. It seemed that drivers didn’t like the circuit, many of them criticized the layout, so Formula One never returned to Le Mans. In the following years, the Bugatti Circuit became one of the venues of the Motorcycle Grand Prix races and in 2017, it was still on the MotoGP calendar.
Although it wasn’t popular in the first days, after many modifications in the following decades, the Bugatti Circuit became one of the busiest circuits in Europe, with more than 330 days of activity during the year. Some of the events where 24-hour races for trucks and motorcycles.
Maison Blanche Circuit was built in 1976
In the 24-hour race for cars, the next changes on the main circuit followed in 1968, when a new chicane was added before the pit entrance – the Ford chicane. In 1972, the Maison Blanche area was redesigned, with an addition of few turns, including Porsche curves and double chicane before the entrance to the pits. The length of the circuit was increased to 13,640 meters.
Until 1976, the Bugatti Circuit was busy enough to force the officials to build one more permanent race track. It was the Maison Blanche Circuit, situated near to the main course between Porsche Curves and the Ford Chicane. The multiple variations of the new circuit were mostly used for racing schools. In 2015, the Porsche Experience Centre was opened there.
In 1990, the infamous chicanes was added to Mulsanne straight
The changes of the Tertre Rouge Corner, Mulsanne Corner and installation of the Dunlop chicane followed in 1979, 1986 and 1987, but the biggest of all changes came in 1990. The reasons were speeds too big and too dangerous for safe racing, but also the FIA’s decision that homologated tracks couldn’t have straights longer than 2 kilometers.
Roger Dorchy set the record speed of 405 km/h
In 1988, Roger Dorchy managed to speed up to 405 km/h at Mulsanne Straight, driving the WM-P88. The car was specially created to broke a speed record because the team knew they had no chance in the race. The record would never be broken, because in 1990, two chicanes were installed at the Mulsanne Straight. It slowed down the maximum speed, decreased the average lap times but also gave the drivers new spots for overtaking.
The current length is 13,629 meters
The length of the track with new chicane was 13,600 meters. In 1990, a new entry into the pit area was also installed. It was the preparation for major reconstruction of the pit buildings in 1991. Next cosmetical track changes followed in 1997 (Dunlop chicane), 2002 (Dunlop and Esses), 2006 (Dunlop curve) and 2007 (Tertre Rouge). Since 2007, the track length is 13,629 meters.
Sixty garages since 2016
The number of garages was increased to 56 in 2007. The ACO had a plan to built four more garages until 2017 race, but they finished a project a year earlier, so 60 cars participated in the 2016 24 hours of Le Mans race. It is the first time since 1955 that 60 cars appeared at the grid.
Kristensen and Ickx – 15 wins together
The race track itself wouldn’t be so famous without famous cars and drivers. In 84 editions of the 24-hour race between 1923 and 2015, we saw so much fantastic events, breathtaking battles, epic victories and devastating tragedies, so it’s almost impossible to abstract just a few stories because every single race deserves to write a book about it. But, let’s remind you to some of the biggest names, events and numbers which made the history of the Circuit de la Sarthe so great.
The absolute record holder, with nine victories at Circuit de la Sarthe, is Tom Kristensen, ahead of Jacky Ickx with six wins. Three men scored five wins – Derek Bell, Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro, and three men triumphed four times – Olivier Gendebien, Henri Pescarolo and Yannick Dalmas.
Kobayashi and Toyota set the fastest lap ever
After Woolf Barnato scored three wins in a row in the early days of the race (1928-1930), the next driver with three consecutive wins came 32 years later. It was Olivier Gendebien in 1962. Five more drivers repeated that achievement, but Tom Kristensen surpassed them all with six consecutive wins between 2000 and 2005.
The man who won two times (in 1986 and 1987), but made a fastest ever lap at Circuit de la Sarthe, was Hans-Joachim Stuck. In 1985, he rounded the 13.626-km circuit for 3min 14.80sec, with an average speed of 251.815. He was driving the stunning Porsche 962C. The previous record time (3.13.9) of Pedro Rodriguez, was set on shorter track in 1971, so the average speed was 250.069 km/h. In the modern era, with chicanes at the Mulsanne straight, Kamui Kobayashi set the record in 2017, driving a Toyota TS050 Hybrid, with a lap time 3.14.791 and an average speed of 251.9 km/h.
Seven wins in a row for Porsche and nineteen in total
The Porsche 962C was the car which won at Le Mans in 1986 and 1987, but it was just the end of the biggest winning streak for any manufacturer at 24 hours of Le Mans. Porsche won seven times in a row between 1981 and 1987, with three different cars (936, 956 and 962C). Porsche is also the most successful manufacturer in general, with nineteen overall wins.
First diesel-powered Le Mans winner was Audi R10 TDI
Audi follows with 13 wins, including two streaks of five consecutive wins, first time from 2004 to 2008, and the second time between 2010 and 2014. Audi won at Le Mans with five different cars, including the first ever diesel-powered car R10 TDI.
Ferrari is third on the list with 9 overall wins, but the second on the list of consecutive wins with 6 triumphs between 1960 and 1965. In the Ferrari’s golden age, the winning cars at Circuit de la Sarthe were 250 Testa Rossa, 330 TRI/LM Spyder, 250P, 275P and 250LM.
Ford returned to celebrate 50th anniversary of maiden victory
After Ferrari’s domination, the age of Ford followed, with four consecutive wins from 1966 to 1969, achieved with various versions of Ford GT40. In 2016, fifty years after its maiden victory at Le Mans, Ford returned to the Circuit de la Sarthe, opening the new chapter in the story which began half a century ago.
In 2023, the Circuit de la Sarthe will celebrate its 100th birthday. Until then, we will see few more exciting races and witness a new great motorsport stories with new actors.
Video : Allan McNish explains Circuit de la Sarthe
Address: Circuit des 24h du Mans, Automobile Club de l’Ouest, 72019 Le Mans, France
Phone: +33 2 43 40 24 24
Official website: www.lemans.org