Tyres are screeching, the crowd is clamouring and thunderous engines are hurtling their way around the track. Some of the most celebrated drivers ever to compete are sweating through their race suits; putting their careers, reputations and lives on the finish line to come up victorious at Le Mans while the night is black, the rain heavy and the world’s most powerful cars are straining at their cambelts to take the chequered flag.
As the oldest and one of the most legendary endurance races in the world, Le Mans has been attracting the best drivers and manufacturers in the business for almost 100 years. And, unlike most motor races, where competitors push to cross the finish line first, this grand prix of endurance and efficiency sees the top title go to the car that covers the greatest distance over the course of one supercharged day. As such, the race hinges as heavily on intricate equations and tactical driving as it does on sheer, unflinching nerve.
The 24h of Le Mans has always been full of drama, just like the first edition in 1923 predicted. When the tricolour fell — the French flag waves at the start line of Le Mans, not the traditional green flag — the inaugural race set the pace for the thrills and spills of years to come. Captain John Duff and his Bentley took the brunt of the difficulties. Early on, an errant stone took out one of his two headlamps. And, as the team hadn’t brought a spare, they had to push on into the night regardless. After a close miss with an 11-horsepower Bignan Desmo Sport, Duff’s Bentley was once again struck by gravel — and his fuel tank punctured.
Racing intuition prevailed, and the Canadian — who had been gravely wounded during the First World War’s Third Battle of Ypres at Passchendaele — left his car and ran the four miles back to the pits to alert his co-driver, Frank Clement. Clement then slung two cans of fuel over his shoulder, took a cork to bung the tank and commandeered the local gendarme’s bicycle. He cycled to the stricken car, effected the repair and the pair won the race. The Bentley Boys later returned the bicycle.