The Le Mans 24 Hour race celebrates its 90th anniversary this weekend. Over those years the race and its winners have acquired heroic status, and it has earned the reputation of one of the three blue riband events in the motorsport calendar, alongside the Indy 500 and Monaco Grand Prix.
No doubt, its irresistible pull to fans and manufacturers alike is down to its round-the-clock duration – although Le Mans certainly isn’t the longest FIA-sanctioned endurance event because the Dakar Rally frequently approaches 6000 miles in length.
Since the inaugural 1923 race was won by Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard in a 3-litre Chenard & Walcker, not only has the configuration of the Circuit de la Sarthe varied but the cars have got quite a lot faster. Two traditions have remained, however: the race is held in June and starts in the afternoon on a Saturday.
Two marques dominated the race in its early years, and between them Alfa Romeo and Bentley won nine of the first twelve events. Alfa Romeo’s success at Le Mans ended when the handsome 8C 2300 took the chequered flag in 1934, but Bentley eventually returned to the winner's rostrum, taking a famous one-two in 2003 with the Speed 8, 73 years after its last win. By way of comparison, the winners' average speed of 75.88mph in the Bentley Speed 6 that year compared to an average of 133.17mph come 2003.
Post World War Two, Ferrari took its first win with the 140bhp, 650kg 166MM in 1949. Then, after Le Mans became part of the World Sportcar Championship calendar in 1953, a wider range of manufacturers began to show interest. The established marques were joined by Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz (which was winning F1 races courtesy of Juan-Manuel Fangio at the time) and Jaguar, which won several times with the ultra-aerodynamic C- and D-types.