Friday, June 5, 2015

"If It's June, It Must Be LeMans."

...with my apologies to the romantic comedy movie "If This Is Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium."

LeMans is an excuse to do a couple of (upcoming) posts about the Porsche 917 which, in a larger sense, are about racing sports car development.  But first, a post about my fascination with LeMans itself.   It is of course the grand-daddy of endurance races.  Daytona also lasts 24 hours, and Sebring for 12, but most of them last 6 hours.  LeMans remains the toughest.

The first LeMans was in 1923 and the point of it, more or less, has always been to demonstrate  speed and reliability.  Before World War Two, the regulations limited entrants to bona-fide production cars. The Bentleys which dominated the race around the turn of the 1930's were four-seaters.  They also inspired the Brits' fascination with LeMans--right up to the present--in an era when England had nothing to offer for Grand Prix starting grids.  And thus the English-language sports car press, and thus (probably) mine.

Given its emphasis on (theoretically) streetable sports cars, LeMans has always been the playground of manufacturers, who wanted to improve and market their wares.  It established Ferrari more than his early Mille Miglia wins.  Besides Bentley, it established Jaguar and Aston Martin.  It was the first international race entered by Porsche, and class wins put Porsche on the map.  They turned the 550 Spyder into a series-produced race car, for sale to private entrants.  Everybody wants to win LeMans. Ask Ford.  Ask Corvette.  Ask Mazda, Nissan, Toyota, Audi, and Peugeot.

With the addition of the Ford Chicane, the Porsche Curves, the Mickey Mouse esses around the Dunlop Bridge, and the
chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight, modern LeMans is a shadow of its former flat-out self.  But still a car-killer.

The oldest, early 1920's course, went right into downtown LeMans to double-back onto the Mulsanne Straight at the
Pontieue Hairpin, seen here.  This was deemed too dangerous for spectators.  So the course was truncated to its still
long distance of over 8 miles by taking it through the fast right-hand sweeper at the Dunlop Bridge, through the
"old esses," to Tetre Rouge.  More than half of the current circuit remains public roads except for race week.

Can a 4-seater touring car win LeMans?  Yes, if it's a Bentley.  I'm not sure where this picture was taken.  It looks like
Mulsanne Corner.  If so, the houses were long-gone by the postwar era.

Speaking of production cars... Yes, Briggs Cunningham ran Cadillacs at LeMans in 1950.  In white-and-blue American
national racing colors (but no support from General Motors).  One was DNF and the other was well-back in the results
after mechanical problems, mostly brakes.  (Duh... )  Cunningham guessed that Caddy's big new overhead-valve V-8
might give the Europeans all they could handle.  Except for the brakes, he was very nearly right.

The once-famous "LeMans Start," in which drivers had to run across the road, jump in, start the car, and move off, wasn't
purely a gimmick.  The idea was that LeMans was for production cars that could self-start when the driver pushed a
button or turned a key.  For most of the history of the race, only consumables like gas and oil could be added.  The
cars had (and have) to be able to race through the night and in rain--effectively (if you wanted to win).  The
traditional Le Mans Start was abandoned only after 4-point seat belts became standard (because many
drivers would do the standing start and worry about fastening their belts only later in the first few
laps).  This picture is of 1964, the first of Ford's two debacles at LeMans.  Ford came back to
win the race for four years running, 1966-1969.

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