These exploits that built the legend of the 24 Hours of Le Mans

They are the glorious heroes of a legendary race

These exploits that built the legend of the 24 Hours of Le Mans

They are the glorious heroes of a legendary race. Repeated winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans (Tom Kristensen, Jacky Ickx, Henri Pescarolo…), winner after an improbable scenario like Louis Rosier or even an unusual and famous competitor. Paul Newman was no trickster behind the wheel, second overall and first in class in the 1979 edition, for his only participation!

On the occasion of the centenary of the legendary race, on June 10 and 11, a look back at these incredible stories that have made the legend of the most famous motorsport event.

The American actor multiplied the starts in US Grand Touring races for nearly thirty years, starting in 1973. Brilliantly, winning the last of his four national SCCA titles at… 61 years old. He was already fifty-three when he took part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing with ex-Formula 1 driver Rolf Stommelen and team owner Dick Barbour an impressive red Porsche 935 Silhouette (number 70), looking like a 911 bodybuilder. Far from a role of composition, therefore: facing the factory Porsche 936 sports-prototypes and the pretty little French Rondeaus, there were around fifteen 935s of this type, at the start; only half finished the race, marked by many rainy passages. No small feat!

It must be said that on the other side of the Atlantic, the 24 Hours of Le Mans have always been appreciated and renowned. Land of mechanical exploits and wonderful human adventures. Like that of Louis Rosier, driving his 1950 Talbot almost alone for twenty-four hours, only leaving the wheel to his son for… two laps. Time to swallow a sandwich. In the lead from the 3rd hour, in the 6th (2 laps ahead), in the 12th (6 laps ahead), Rosier won by having "held the wheel of his Talbot for 23:49", wrote Maurice Henry in L'Équipe Monday, June 26, 1950. Despite a 44-minute stop in the early morning during which, guided by his mechanic Marcel Beauchet, he changed the rocker arm ramp of his engine before giving up the wheel for these famous two laps, Rosier regains the lead before the 18th hour! Ankylosed and half deaf on arrival, claiming "the record for fatigue" in addition to that of the distance covered, he will explain: "It was too serious. My son was unaccustomed to the race and could have lost time. It was not very indicated after my prolonged stop. Louis Rosier could have added that the famous regulation required him to give up the wheel for at least one lap!

The race with two – rather than three riders these days – is the one that Henri Pescarolo has always preferred. Rhythm, osmosis, confidence, challenge... This giant in the green helmet, record holder of participations (33 behind the wheel between 1966 and 1999 before entering his own cars), embodies the event and above all, the great period of the Matra. He knew it all: the feat of one night driving in the rain without a wiper in 1968 ("every pass was a lottery"); the horror of a car that flies off during testing, crashes among the trees and catches fire (1969); the disappointments and then the release of a triple victory (1972, 1973 and 1974) with Graham Hill and Gérard Larrousse. The second was undoubtedly the most beautiful, won after a hard fight against the prestigious Ferrari team. The Matra MS670B was not without problems, you had to go fast and at the same time watch the brakes and this Ferrari of Ickx-Redman who didn't want to let go. Cold sweat. In the Sarthe, the pilot also earned a nickname, infallible proof of popularity: "Pesca". Ten years after his last Matra victory, he won a fourth time with Porsche.

The runner Jacky Ickx was first a… walker. This is even how he made himself known. At the start of the 1969 24 Hours, the drivers were still racing across the track to reach their car, lined up on the cob, on the side of the pits. They hurriedly jumped behind the wheel, started the engine and started without taking the time to fasten their safety harness until the first refueling stop. Excessively risky! In 1969, therefore, for his third participation, a 24-year-old boy decided not to run like the others but to walk! To protest against danger.

Jacky Ickx… 'Monsieur Le Mans' forever, although his record of six wins was later broken by Tom Kristensen (nine). The Danish driver doesn't take offense at this honorary title which escapes him beyond the statistics, willingly paying homage to his eldest and in the end, keeping his… unrivaled track record to his advantage. He inaugurated it in the most beautiful way: first participation, first victory! What followed showed that it was not just a fluke. The small TWR-Porsche barquette he shared with two more experienced teammates - Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson - only crossed the finish line one lap (361) ahead of the McLaren F1 GTR of Frenchman Raphanel and Gounon. A very small gap, quite rare in this 24 Hour race and a record edition for the number of retirements, 31 out of 48 runners. But if the little Porsche-Joest had not valiantly held third position all night, it would not have been able to take advantage, in the morning, of the withdrawal of the two factory Porsche 911 GT1s...

Kristensen will begin his harvest of laurels with Audi and Bentley (2003) for six victories in a row between 2000 and 2005. As much as Jacky Ickx in his entire career! Undisputed car "captain", undisputed and listened to team leader. Kristensen was in all the victorious campaigns with Audi: the first R8 prototypes discovered, the first diesel engines at Le Mans, the first hybrid engines. He scored two more successes, in 2008 with the R10 TDI and in 2013 with the R18 e-tron quattro, benefiting from the formidable confidence of the Audi Sport team and the reliability of its cars. Tom has often ticked the right box. “The quality of the Audis, the one that saved us some victories, he recalls, was their ease of mechanical intervention. Whatever the problem, we had to be able to solve it. The mechanics changed a complete, pre-assembled rear axle (gearbox included) in less than five minutes at the pits. Another race against time.