Rivalling Indianapolis as the most famous racing circuit in the world, Le Mans can undoubtedly lay claim to the distinction of hosting the most famous race in the world. The 24 Heures du Mans has been an annual institution since 1923, the only interuption being in 1936 (due to the poor state of the economy) and from 1940 to 1948 (World War 2).
Racing had been held in the Le Mans area by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) since 1906, but the familiar layout we see today derives from a 10.71 mile course from Pontlieue to Mulsanne and Arnage, first used in 1921.
The circuit rose to international prominence thanks to the 24 Hour race, the origins of which can be traced back to a letter recieved by Georges Durand, secretary of the ACO, on October 9, 1922. It was from Emille Coquille, director of the French subsidiary of Rudge Whitworth Wheels. Coquille offered 100,000 francs to help the ACO to organise a race - and set no stipulation as to the format.
Seizing on the offer, the ACO decided on an endurance test for production cars to help drive technology forward. The first race took place on May 25 and 26 1923 and was won by Lagache and Léonard in a Chenard-Walcker. Amazingly, 30 of the 33 starters made it to the finish.
In 1926 a fierce argument broke out between the ACO and some of the landowners on which some of the facilities were built. The ACO moved its main grandstand and paddock to a racecourse adjacent to the circuit but by the following year a financial agreement was reached and the circuit returned to normal. That year also saw the Pontlieue to Mulsanne section asphalted and car parks for some 3,000 vehicles constructed.
The first major alteration to the circuit layout was made in 1929, when a link road was inserted to bypass the section through the Pontlieue suburbs. The Rue du Circuit left the Pontlieue road 440 yards before the houses and joined the Route Nationale to Tours via two right-hand bends. However, by 1932 even this had been rendered unsuitable for the racing cars, with the section leading to it considered too narrow to be safe. As a result, the ACO purchased a strip of land from the pits to Tertre Rouge, constructing the Dunlop Curve and the famous Esses as a new link road.
World War 2 provided an unhappy interruption to proceedings, with the circuit taken over during the German occupation to serve the airstrip which ran alongside. It took until 1948 to revive the circuit and the race resumed the following year. While the roads had survived the war intact and in good condition, all of the circuit facilities had been razed and needed to be re-built. Five new covered gradnstands were constructed, along with a new pit building and shops, with restaurants and bars soon also springing up.
The grimmest episode in motor racing history unfolded at Le Mans in 1955, with a tragic crash marring the great race's history. The Mercedes of Pierre Levegh collided on the pit straight with Lance Macklin's Austin-Healey and was launched into the air before exploding into the embankment, killing the unfortunate Levegh and 83 spectators. Mercedes withdrew from the race - and from international motorsport at the end of the year - and question marks were raised as to whether motor racing itself was safe to continue.
Changes were immediately put in place for the 1956 race, which was held a month later than usual in July to allow them to be completed. The pits were moved further back from the track and the pit straight widened. Spectator enclosures were moved back and safety barriers installed, while two new subways were inserted for pedestrians and cars.
In 1965, a new short course was constructed - named the Bugatti Circuit - which allowed racing to continue without the need to disrupt the Route Nationale. Twisty and relatively short, it utilises the pit straight and Dunlop Curve, before turning right ahead of the Esses and rejoining at the pit straight. It was used once by Formula One for the French GP in 1967 and proved unpopular but has since proved a more lasting home for motorcycling events.
The Ford Chicane was inserted at the final corner in 1968, while further changes were made during 1971-72, when the ACO began eliminating many of the sections of public road from the course. The narrow section after Arnage through Maison Blanche to the Ford Chicane was replaced with a new, wider stretch incorporating the Porsche Curves.
Minor changes occurred in 1979 when Tertre Rouge was tightened to accommmodate a new ring road built around the town. Then in 1986 Mulsanne Corner was also slightly recongfigured to avoid a newly-constructed roundabout.
The next set of changes included the incorporation of several chicanes to slow speeds. In 1987 a chicane was inserted at Dunlop Corner, while the famous Mulsanne Straight finally succombed to chiacanes in 1990, being effectively split into three shorter blasts. The bumpy chicanes were not popular with drivers but became a necessary evil when top speeds crept over the 250mph mark. In 1991 Arnage and Indianapolis were also lightly modified to provide extra run-off.
A decade passed until the next changes. In 2001 the crest at the Mulsanne Kink was eased following several infamous 'flips' by Mercedes sportscars in previous years. This included a spectacular effort by Peter Dumbreck during the 1999 race, when he miraculously escape injury after landing in an area that had only been cleared of dense trees weeks before...
In 2002 a new left-right-left kink was added just after the Dunlop Bridge, while the Bugatti circuit's Virage de la Chapelle will be moved closer to the famous bridge. The changes allowed greater run-off to be provided for the circuit's motorcycle racers.
More revisions have followed for 2006, with the Dunlop Chicane tightened further in another bid to lower speeds. Despite all the revisions, Le Mans retains its draw for spectators, drivers and manufacturers alike.
For one weekend every year, a small town in north-west France suffers a massive invasion of Motorsport fans. The reason is to see the greatest race in the world - the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The endurance of man and machine is unique, and draws a wide range of drivers and teams from around the Globe. The event is draped with history, the French countryside seeing much glory and pain over the years. A visit to Le Mans is a must for any true Motorsport fan, the party atmosphere is electric.