24 hours of Le Mans - 5 things to know about France's famous car race

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24 hours of Le Mans - 5 things to know about France's famous car race
The North American Racing Team Ferrari 275 LM car N°21 rides to victory, in June 1965 during the 24 hours of Le Mans car race. (Photo by AFP)

This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance-focused sports car race, held each year near the town of Le Mans, France.


Saturday, June 10th will represent the 100th anniversary of the start of one of the world's most famous motor vehicle races - the 24 Heures du Mans (24 Hours of Le Mans).

Here are the five things you should know about this internationally recognised sporting event;

The world's oldest, active endurance racing event, in the home of organised motor racing - France has a long history of car racing. In fact, it was the location of the first organised automobile competition in 1894, which went from Paris to Rouen.

But the 24 Hours of Le Mans is special outside of its French roots - the competition is a test of endurance more than speed. The goal is to cover as much distance as possible in the 24-hour period, which requires technical skill, teamwork, and a vehicle able to continue running at top speeds for hours and hours on end.


The race runs the 'Circuit of the Sarthe' from Saturday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. Taking place in June, conditions can be hot and rainy, forcing drivers to adapt. 

The longest distance covered to date was by the Audi R15+ TDI in 2010, which managed 397 laps - or a total of 5410.713 km.

READ MORE: MAP: The route of the 2023 Tour de France

It has taken place annually since 1923, with some exceptions - Drawing crowds of over 250,000 people to the small city of Le Mans in north western France - the 24 hours of Le Mans only been cancelled once, aside from during World War II. In 1936, depression-era strike action led to a tense political situation in France, causing the race to be cancelled. Between 1939 until 1949, the race was put on pause due to World War II and its aftermath.

Since then, it has only been postponed - not cancelled - during times of reconstruction, unrest (like the aftermath of May 1968), and again during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The most catastrophic motor racing accident ever happened during the event - In 1955, a major crash led to the deaths of 83 spectators and French driver, Pierre Levegh.

At least 180 people were injured, after huge pieces of car debris - a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR - flew into the stands. After this accident, Mercedes-Benz pulled out of motor racing for several decades. In reaction, Switzerland even banned motor racing, a ban which lasted for almost seven decades and was only lifted in 2022. 

After the tragedy, there were extensive track improvements, meant to assure that history would never repeat itself. Over the years, there have been new safety rules introduced as well - for example, cars must now have at least three drivers, and none of the drivers is allowed to do more than 14 hours worth of driving in total. 


The return of Ferrari - In the early 1960s, Ferrari made history with several consecutive wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans - in fact, a Hollywood biopic film titled "Ford v. Ferrari" covered this part of the race's history, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale. But in 1973, Ferrari stopped competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This year - 2023 - will mark the first time in 50 years since the last time Ferrari competed in the competition.

The birth of the Champagne shower - In 1967, after winning the race, American Dan Gurney popped open a bottle of Champagne and unintentionally started the Champagne shower tradition, in pure joy after winning the competition, by placing his thumb where the cork had gone and shaking. These days it is a common tradition for the winners of motor sports competitions (although in our opinion a dreadful waste of one of France's best products). 


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