Le Mans: Before the 24
Before 1923 — John Gordon Bennett’s Coupe Internationale – better known as the Gordon Bennett Trophy – is why it all began, because his rules permitted just three national teams from each country. By 1904, the pressure from 29 hopeful French teams to represent "la belle Republique was sufficient to cause the Automobile Club of France to host a pre-Coupe Internationale elimination race.
The demands from manufacturers forced the creation of the French Grand Prix – a race distinct and separate from the Bennett Trophy, standing on its own merit. The venue was a 64.12-mile triangular loop of public roads east of the medieval city of Le Mans, an important center of the French insurance industry and the home of the newly chartered Automobile Club de la Sarthe.
The inaugural Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France was held over two days – June 26-27, 1906 – a weekend. The 32 cars representing 13 marques from three nations departed the starting line at the Pont de Gennes at 90sec intervals on the RN 23 side of the rough triangle of roads.
After 769.40mi of racing, Ferenc Szisz’s Renault won the 1906 marathon at the astonishing speed of 62.887mph. The top of the official results page read like a who’s who of Edwardian GP racing: 32min behind Szisz was the 130hp Fiat of Felice Nazzaro. His teammate Vincenzo Lancia, the man who would found Italy’s first true high technology automaker, was fifth.
For 1907, the Grand Prix de l’ACF went to Dieppe. In 1913, it moved again, this time to Amiens, and to Lyon for the infamous triple humiliation of 1914 at the hands of Mercedes’ Christian Lautenschlager, who led a three-car Mercedes sweep. Afterwards, there was barely time to celebrate Bastille Day before the commencement of The Great War.
Le Mans and the renamed Automobile Club of the West (Automobile Club de l'ouest or A.C.O.) , the largest and most powerful auto club in France, hosted the subordinate Grand Prix de France for cars and motorcycles from 1911 to 1913. The course, on a mercifully abbreviated 33.35-mile loop of public roads ran from the Pontlieue hairpin in Le Mans’ eastern suburbs, down the almost straight RN 158 that the English call Mulsanne and the French call Hunaudieres.
The Grand Prix de l’ACF returned to Le Mans in 1921. The new, drastically revised and further shortened 10.72-mile course began near the present starting line, still spearing into the eastern suburbs of Le Mans to the Pontlieue hairpin, then straight back to Tertre Rouge, down Hunaudieres to Mulsanne before the run back to the start. With the exception of the appalling road surface, the ancient 10-mile circuit would be recognized almost instantly by any contemporary Le Mans fan.
Grand Prix rules of the day were a bizarre mixture. Then the ACF, through Charles Faroux, editor of the Paris-based La Vie Automobile, informed the American AAA contest board that the rules for the most important race in France – indeed the most important race in Europe – would adopt the existing three-liter Indianapolis formula. Thus American marques would be welcomed with enthusiasm – of which there was precious little in Indianapolis (the motor capital of America in 1921) for the distant prospect of grand prix road racing at Le Mans.
At the final yawning moment, W.F. Bradley, Duesenberg’s European agent, with funding from the Franco-American spark plug magnate Albert Champion, arrived at the ACF’s Paris offices in the Place de l’Concorde with the entry fee for a quartet of Duesenbergs. The 1921 GP de l’ACF at Le Mans was, literally, on.
It was an extraordinary race, perhaps the first truly modern grand prix with all the requisite components of a contemporary F1 race: a genuine tire war, a crude but extraordinarily effective brake bias control system, the foreshadowing of the pre-select transmission and remote-shifting system, the first hint of modern tire and pit stop strategy and deep and formal professional race team organization.
The extraordinarily well supported and efficient Duesenberg team won the day, with tough little Jimmy Murphy and riding mechanic Ernie Olsen (pictured above at the finish) crushing the Ballots – the pick of the experts – of superstars Jules Goux and Ralph de Palma. To the cold and silent horror of their hosts, Duesenberg with their Oldfield Cord Firestone tires put three of its four cars in the top six.
The first American invasion of Le Mans was a stunning but unpopular success. The Star Spangled Banner was not played for Murphy and Olsen, who had won and set the fastest lap on en route.
Strasbourg would host the 1923 GP de l’ACF and George Durand, Secretary of the A.C.O., needed a suitable replacement for Le Mans. He envisioned a thoroughly unique race to promote the reliability and practicality of production touring cars. His brilliant theories not only created the 24 Hours of Le Mans but also presaged the entire Grand Touring concept.
In October 1922 he traveled to Paris and met with Charles Faroux at the Paris Motor Show to share his ideas. Faroux validated the concept and suggested Durand consider the ideas of Emile Coquille who had suggested a night race to force the development of automotive electrics and lighting. Faroux went further suggesting an eight-hour race starting in daylight and finishing in darkness. The day/night format would highlight and promote the development of electric lights at a time when automotive electronics were barely out of the acetylene lamp era, but the format would also draw paying spectators.
Durand made the mental leap and scrapped the eight-hour concept, opting instead for a daunting 24 Hour race, spanning an entire weekend just as the original Grand Prix de l’ACF had in 1906. When he posited his plans to Coquille, the French representative of the British Rudge-Whitworth detachable wire wheel system was smitten with the idea of a day long touring car race featuring the cars, equipment, accessories, fuels and lubricants normal motorists could actually buy. He committed 100,000 Francs and created a trophy – The Rudge-Whitworth Cup.
Charles Faroux ‘s ultimate contribution was the language of the regulations, which formalized the concept of homologation: a paragraph requiring the presence of actual production models at the circuit during the race was included. Ultimately a formal document swearing that 30 such examples had indeed been produced was deemed sufficient, and the process of homologation, and all that went with it, was created.
The new Le Mans rules reached even further. Racing sports and touring cars had to conform faithfully to the manufacturer’s catalog specifications. The 1100cc class required just two seats, but the bigger, more powerful cars had to be four-seaters with 60kg of ballast aboard representing each absent "passenger”.
Faroux’s rulebook was merciless and more than a little obtuse. Each car by class – there were six – would travel a mandated minimum distance: 503mi for 1,100cc voiturettes; the big six-liter cars had to travel 968mi with eliminations every six hours for any car not meeting a specific percentage of the appropriate fractional minimum distance.
During the 24 Hours, all work was to be done by the driver, with tools and spares carried aboard. Refueling took place only in the pits by one of the drivers, with fuel supplied by the A.C.O., but there was no rule requiring any sort of minimum fuel economy. However, the most bizarre notion was the Triennial Cup format that crowned no winner of the Rudge-Whitworth Trophy until the conclusion of three 24 Hour races.
Faroux’s regulations set Le Mans on its own course, and the Grand Old Man of Le Mans who drafted those original rules and forged Le Mans’ seminal concept remained the Clerk of Course until 1956.
With the civic formalities out of the way and the entry fee checks deposited, the A.C.O. chose May 26-27, the spring weekend when continental Europe changed to Summer Time, for the inaugural event. The weather gave no hint of summer.
Of the 35 entries all, save three, were from France. Two Belgian Excelsiors featured the largest engines and began the charming and hierarchical Le Mans tradition of assigning the cars competition numbers based upon descending engine displacement. The lone British entry came from John Duff, Bentley’s London agent. W.O himself was unenthusiastic about the Le Mans event but agreed to act as pit manager for his man Duff and Bentley’s works driver Frank Clement.