There are many motor sporting events that have been classics for years, each event represents history for the many years that it has taken place. Indy car has the Indianapolis 500, NASCAR in the United States with the Daytona 500 and Formula 1 has the Monaco Grand Prix.

But this weekend, the biggest event in sports car racing will take place, and it is in its 100th year of existence. It is the 24 Hours of Lemans, and considering it is not the actual 100thrace, due to a labor strike in 1936, in addition to nine years of being interrupted because of the Second World War, it began in 1923, when the average speeds were just under 120 kilometers an hour.

The event never really took off in popularity until after the year 1949, when Lemans began to indulge fans in the sport of motor racing. People wanted to see plenty of excitement. By 1955, the speeds of the major manufacturers were starting to increase, and teams like Ferrari, Mercedes and Jaguar were the favorites for that year’s race. However, the fatal accident of Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh made the officials there widen the track, and in addition, moved the stands further back from the circuit, following the effects of Levegh’s accident, which fatally injured 82 spectators.

Pierre Levegh launches his Mercedes after striking Austin Healy's Lance Macklin during the 1955 race. Along with Levegh, 82 spectators lost their lives. Photo by Fly Akwa

Afterwards, both Mercedes and Jaguar pulled out of the sport, and with that, Ferrari began to dominate throughout the 1960’s. It was only a failure to take over the Scuderia by the American Ford Motor Corporation that gave the Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A group the opportunity to take on the Italian manufacturer and win the race from 1966-69. In that final year, Porsche finished a close second in a car that was nearly disqualified from scrutineering. The most popular Porsche ever made, the 917, won the following seasons in 1970 in 1971. In 1972, a French aerospace company, Matra, entered their cars after winning a couple of seasons in formula 1, and took a trio of wins before Mirage-Ford won in 1975.

But Porsche returned to win for the next two years before after three years of trying, Renault finally triumphed in 1978. But the French manufacturer withdrew after that race, and Porsche won again the following season. The only private group won in 1980, with Rondeau taking the only victory in its existence. But Porsche returned and until 1988, won every race.

But Jaguar and Mercedes both returned to racing that same year, as the Tom Walkinshaw-led team won the Coventry -based group for the first time in decades. Mercedes followed in 1989 and 1990 with the Sauber unit taking the wins. The third French team in history, Peugeot, won for the next two seasons, before a change of having Porsche and Mercedes taking victories in the 1990’s before the emergence of Audi, who, with Tom Christensen, won the most Lemans victories to date, with Nine. In that time, Peugeot broke their streak with wins a couple of times, before Porsche returned and another group, Toyota, who tried many times to win at Le Sarthe and failed, began to battle each other by 2015. With Audi out of the picture, Porsche and Toyota were the only two involved in trying to capture this classic race.

The most exciting Lemans in history occurred in 2016, when with one lap to go, Toyota, who had their car leading most of the race, broke down with hydraulic failure, giving Porsche a victory at the last moment. But when Porsche withdrew in 2018, Toyota had to competition, and took every race until this season, with the centenary event.

Leading into this centenary event, the circuit has been changed many times, with a chicane put in at the start of the track leading to the Dunlop bridge; the Ford chicane, which leads to the start /finish line; two chicanes on the Mulsanne straight that was implemented in 1990, and finally the North stands, which were constructed in 1991. All these were built for safety standards and updated.

But there is future competition as the new hypercar class has Porsche back, along with Cadillac, along with the emergence of Ferrari, Peugeot, Vanwall and Toyota all returning. In addition to Alpine (Renault) and Lamborghini entering next season, a new class of sports cars, GT 3, will be coming later, and will make the centenary event enjoyable and continue for many years.

By Mark Gero

Denmark's Tom Christensen has won the most Lemans more than any driver, with nine victories. Ferdi Kraling Motorsport Photo