For one weekend every year, hundreds of thousands of racing fans descend on the town of Le Mans to see the ultimate race of endurance, skill and the ability to balance speed with sustainability. Such is the demands of keeping a car racing it’s hardest for 24 hours straight, along with the forces put on a car on a track as brutal as Le Mans, that a bunch of innovations have had to been developed for cars specifically to cater for the race. Many of these innovations have filtered down to the cars we drive today, so if you ever have dreams of being a racing driver, you might be a tiny bit closer to it than you think.
In 1934, Alfa Romeo won the 24 hours of Le Mans Race with their 8C. It looked like this.
In 1939, frenchman Jean-Pierre Wimille drove his Bugatti Type 57 to victory at Le Mans. It looked like this.
By the time the war ended and the race came back 10 years later, Ferrari’s winning entry looked like this. I’m sure you can probably see a trend emerging by now.
Le Mans is a brutal track. It has some of the longest straights in motor racing, intersected by sharp turns that can take a car from it’s top speed to a quicker than you could imagine. Because of this, Aerodynamics became key. It’s weird to think of such a huge amount of progress happening in such a short amount of time, but this was the race that became a catalyst for a century of contouring, rounding and smoothing that not only filtered down to the sleeker cars we drive today, but resulted in last year’s winner looking like this.
Car companies often boast about how their cars incorporate “F1 Technology”. Every car however incorporates Le Mans technology in some way, shape or form. The need for efficient, consistent and reliable lighting during the night helped drive the evolution of headlights into what they are today. The first disk brakes, now a mainstay in almost every production car, were developed by Dunlop in 1953 to help Jaguar’s entry cope with the circuit’s harshest corners.
Going into the second half of the 20th century, cars like the Citroen DS were unveiled. Inspired by racing designs, these cars boasted sleek, rounded designs more reticent of a Spaceship than any automobile that had been produced before. These kind of cars re-ignited the imagination of the public and made the car desirable once more, and it can all be traced back to Le Mans.
The desire from companies like Ferrari, Jaguar and Porsche (amongst many others) to achieve prestige and glory over 24 hours of brutal racing drove the innovations that helped transform the public perception of the car. No longer was it something to go from A to B, no longer was it a status symbol. Over the course of the 20th century, the car became seen as a vessel to transport people into the future, and the legacy of innovation that Le Mans created was a major proponent of this continuing all the into today, both on and off the track.