It’s time for part three of Rear View Prints Ultimate Track Guide. This week we are taking a brief detour away from F1 to take a look at the home of endurance racing, the Circuit de la Sarthe. It is primarily known of course to be the venue for the 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race, which will be our main lens of analysis throughout this blog. As always with our track guides, we’ll kick you off with our infographic which will give you a brief look at key stats of the circuit over the years, including past winners and interesting historical data.
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Introduction to Circuit de la Sarthe
The Circuit de la Sarthe is located in Le Mans, Maine, France and is a semi-permanent track. It includes private sections that have been designed specifically for racing and competition, as well as public roads that run year round for local use. It also includes the short Bugatti Circuit which was used for the 1967 F1 French Grand Prix and won by three time Australian world champion Jack Brabham. It was not used again for F1 racing and now currently hosts the French motorcycle Grand Prix. The main Circuit de la Sarthe is characterised by its long straights, in particular the Ligne Droite des Hunaudières or better known in the English language as Mulsanne straight, which up until 1990 was 6km of pure explosive speed. These days it is interrupted by two chicanes, to limit the maximum achievable speed. Despite various restrictions and modifications put in place the track is still known for the immense stress put on cars, as the 85% of the lap is spent on full throttle. This also leads to considerable wear and damage on the brakes as vehicles must slow from over 200 mph to 65 mph to achieve a comfortable sharp turn towards the end of the Mulsanne straight.
History of Circuit de la Sarthe
Since its inaugural year in 1923, the Circuit de la Sarthe has undergone numerous modifications and alterations in line with keeping the track safer primarily for the 24 hours of Le Mans event. During the 1960s in particular, automobile speeds began to hit heights that have never been seen before causing fresh safety concerns for drivers. The Maison Blanche kink had become infamous over the years in writing off cars and claiming lives, none more noteworthy than the legendary John Woolfe who died behind the wheel of a 917 Porsche in 1969. Following this the circuit was modified a further 10 times in 1971 and 1972, culminating in the addition of quick Porsche curves bypassing Maison Blanche, part of the first straight and then all of the second straight between the pits and Maison Blanche. Despite all the changes made to the Circuit de La Sarthe over the years, due to advancements in engineering and technology the fastest lap record was still set as late as 2017 by Kamui Kobayashi at a pace of 3:14.791, beating the previous record by 2.096 seconds.
Most Successful Drivers on the Circuit de la Sarthe / 24 Hours of Le Mans
Tom Kristensen. Wins: 9
No surprises for guessing the first driver mentioned then as the great Dane Tom Kristensen. Proving so successful in his time racing at Circuit de la Sarthe that he actually achieved the nickname of “Mr Le Mans” himself. Managing 9 wins overall and an incredible 6 consecutively, his first win came in 1997 and his final one in 2013. Although he earned most of his career wins driving for Audi, he also achieved victories driving a TWR Porsche WSC-95 in 1997 as well as a Bentley Speed 8 in 2003. Interestingly, both times he drove a BMW he did not finish the race.
Jacky Ickx. Wins: 6
Ickx is officially the second most successful driver to take to the tarmac of Circuit de la Sarthe notching up an impressive 6 career wins at 24 Hours of Le Mans. His first victory came in 1969 where he drove one of the most iconic cars of all time in the Ford GT40. Outside of endurance racing he also regularly showed his flair driving in F1 from 1966 to 1978. However, it was the 24 Hours of Le Mans where Ickx would show his true prowess and talent as a driver.
Circuit de la Sarthe/24 Hours of Le Man’s Most Famous Races
1991 – David vs. Goliath.
The 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans saw Japan make history on the Circuit de la Sarthe in David and Goliath style. Nobody gave Mazda and their much touted “inferior” rotary engine a chance in hell of even competing in the 91’ Le Mans, let alone winning it. Except that’s exactly what they did. Mazda remain the first and only Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans, while driving a car that was the first and only non-piston engine ever to triumph at Circuit de la Sarthe too. Talk about defying the odds.
1999 – A Platinum Line Up
If you’re looking for some competition and a grid stuffed to the brim with quality, there’s no better example than the 1999 Le Mans. Audi began to stake a claim as a competing manufacturer by finishing third behind BMW and Toyota in an extremely tightly contested race. Nissan and Mercedes also competed, with the latter having a horrible design flaw exposed in their CLR which resulted in incredible footage like this. The driver at the time, Peter Dumbreck, miraculously escaped completely injured.
1969 – Ickx’s Revolutionary Walk
- JW Automotive
- JW Automotive
The 1969 Le Mans was less about brands and manufacturers and more about the drivers themselves. Or, one driver in particular at least, Jacky Ickx. Ickx famously walked across the start of the Circuit de la Sarthe, got into the front of JW Automotive’s beautiful Ford GT40 and intentionally took his time belting up in protest of the competitions less than stellar safety rules. Because of this, he started way in the backfield. It didn’t matter however. Somehow Ickx managed to finish first anyway and made a point well proven in the process. Not surprisingly, this would be the last year with the unique Le Mans style start. No more would drivers be forced to run across a track and do their belts up as soon as possible, as safety became more and more important as the years went on.
Circuit de la Sarthe/24 Hours of Le Man’s: In the Driver’s Words
“The trick at Le Mans is to get the car ‘in the window.’ Everything is critical: the tyre pressure, the brake temperature, and that means you have to push the car a lot to get it into the window – it’s about getting everything to work right and getting the car to flow through the corners.” – Tom Kristensen
“My proudest moments are beating Ferrari for the World Championship in 1965, and working with Ford to win Le Mans in 1966 and 1967.” – Carroll Shelby
“My last race was at Le Mans in 2000, my first race was in 1959, so I dodged a lot of bullets along the way, I can tell you that.” – Mario Andretti
“Le Mans is such a great race because you can never do anything alone. You have to work as a team member. And being a team member makes you a better person.” – Tom Kristensen
Circuit de la Sarthe Trivia
A total of twenty-two drivers have tragically died while racing on Circuit de la Sarthe, with the most recent being Allan Simonsen in 2013. Fellow Dane and Le Mans legend went on to win the 2013 race and dedicated it to Simonsen’s memory.
Porsche are by far and away the most successful brand to race at Circuit de la Sarthe and the 24 Hours of Le Mans competition. They have racked up a total of 19 wins from 1970 to 2017.
The top speed achieved on Circuit de la Sarthe is a monstrous 407 km/h (253 mph) achieved by Roger Dorchy with a WM P88-Peugeot in 1988. WM Peugeot famously knew they had no chance of winning the race, but believed they had engineered a car that was able to hit top speeds of 400 km/h, and thus nicknamed the entry “Project 400”.
Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton won the Le Mans race in 1953, but wildly enough that might have been the most tame part of their time in the competition. The team were kicked out before being reinstated, during which they went on a alcohol fueled bender in which they were still tipsy when the race began. To top it off, before their eventual victory, Hamilton drove into a bird on the famous Mulsanne Straight and broke his nose. Top stuff.
Current F1 driver for Renault Sport Nico Hülkenberg made his debut on the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2015 driving for Porsche. How did he do on his first outing I hear you ask? Not bad. He won it.
You might know Hollywood legend Paul Newman more for his acting prowess than motorsport skill, but did you know he finished second overall at the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans driving a Porsche 935? Don’t quit the day job, eh?
That marks the end of another edition of our Ultimate Track Guide. Once again, we hope you’ve genuinely enjoyed our break down of another iconic track in motorsport history, even if this time it wasn’t F1 related! As always, whatever you think of the blog, let us know on twitter, facebook or instagram. We want to know your opinions too, we write to engage with the community after all. Don’t forget, if you’re a particular fan of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans race you can grab our bespoke print here, a fantastic tribute to the track and exclusive to Rear View Prints. If you’re still not satisfied and are thirsting for more car content, check out how you can get 12 TOTALLY FREE wallpapers for your phone, tablet, desktop, laptop or whatever gadget you desire! Available below right now! See you next time.