Saturday brings the 24 Hours of Le Mans, arguably the greatest sports car race on the planet. We love Le Mans for the utter audaciousness of a 24 hour race, the ultimate test of speed and reliability. Le Mans grabbed our attention at an early age and never let go.
Although Audi is expected to take top honors in the LMP1 class with one of its four entries (two diesel hybrids, two non-hybrid diesels), 18 cars have entered the P2 ranks and the GT class promises legendary sports car match-ups, including Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Corvette.
Andre Lotterer claimed provisional pole in the No. 1 Audi E-tron Quatro. An Audi sweep of the front row was interrupted by Toyota, with its new gasoline hybrid. This is the first pole position for a hybrid at Le Mans, although Toyota (like others before it) have already noticed the diesel advantage. ”I’ve realised that the petrol engines are definitely much weaker,” Wurz told AUTOSPORT. “It shouldn’t be on the same power as a diesel because it’s a smaller powerplant so it’s better for aero, but the current gap is still too big.”
My how times have changed. Le Mans in 2012 is a far cry from the early days of the race, run over public roads at ridiculous speeds with primitive safety equipment. As part of our ongoing series on the evolution of the race car, as seen at the Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival, we took a look at Le Mans machinery of the 1950s and 1960s.
Sports car racing in the early 1950s is exemplified by the Jaguar XKD, shown below. The XKD had a 3.5 liter engine and first appeared at Le Mans in 1954. Jaguar won it all at Le Mans in 1955, although that race was marred by a tragic accident that took the lives of 83 spectators.
This example (chassis XD604) was built for the 1956 season, and a similar car run by Ecurie Ecosse actually won at Le Mans that year. The car, designed by Malcolm Sayer, featured a 3.4 liter straight-six engine, disc brakes, and an early use of the monocoque chassis design.
Within a few years, the XKD was obsolete and a new generation of cars – and designers – were battling it out. The Lotus 11 shown below raced at Le Mans in 1958, retiring in the 19th hour. This car was noticeably lighter than the Jaguars that came before it, employing Colin Chapman’s “lighter is faster” philosophy. The car weighed about 1000 lbs with an 1100 cc engine.
The Jaguar E-type debuted at Le Mans in 1962. The 3.8 liter lightweight finished in the top 10 in its first effort, commanded by Bob Grossman and Briggs Cunningham. The example below (889488) was rebuilt extensively as shown in the photo gallery that accompanies the link.
In 1963, an Anglo-American contender arrived: the AC Cobra. Carroll Shelby had the idea of mounting a Ford V8 in an AC chassis manufactured in England. The resulting product – the Cobra – became the stuff of legends. Often copied, imitated, recreated or “continued”, these cars are iconic and represent American muscle at its finest.
For 1964, Ford arrived at Le Mans with the GT40. Constructed for the sole purpose of upstaging Ferrari, the car won at La Sarthe in 1966 and again in 1967-1969, after which it yielded to the Porsche 917. It represented a bumper period for American sports car racing, as legends like AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney made their mark on French soil.
These were mammoth sports cars fitted with 4.7 liter V8 engines and, later, seven liter engines. With 500 hp, these cars could hit 220 mph on the Mulsanne. The car you see below started life as a Ford press car and was actually painted gold! It was converted for historic racing.
Eagle Westlake engine.
As the 1960s drew to a close, Porsche rose to new heights at Le Mans. The 910 (below) was an interim car between the 904 and the 907. Officially a 906, the 910 is an under-rated gem of a sports car (and street legal at the time).
This is an ex-works car, raced in 1967 at the Targa Florio (chassis 910-25).
As the 1960s drew to a close, sports car racing faced a daunting new force: the 917. Even as Porsche was about to unleash its next Le Mans-killer, the 1970s promised new challenges. Porsche was so successful with the 917, the rulebook was re-written just to stop it. Add in a looming fuel crisis, and the days of massive engines were over. Small was to become the new big.