Le Mans: Royalty & Race Cars
by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
Although Le Mans was home to Henry II Plantagenet, King of England, and other high-ranking noblemen, the city is best known for its race car royalty. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the world’s oldest motorcar endurance race. Held every June since 1923, the event is equivalent to driving from Los Angeles to New York in 24 hours at top speeds, averaging 205+ mph (330 km/h).
Competition is brutal. Both drivers and cars are equally tested. And although three drivers share responsibility for each competing vehicle, drivers often spend two hours or more behind the wheel before being relieved. Action in the pit is also frenetic, as mechanics work to service and repair the cars.
The route circuit includes the Le Mans track as well as closed public roads running through the surrounding Loire countryside. Conditions in the summer provide yet another test, with hot temperatures and frequent rain.
Not surprisingly, the unsparingly difficult environment has produced tragedy on more than one occasion. The worst incident at Le Mans was in 1955 when more than 80 spectators and driver Pierre Levegh were killed. Only two drivers have died since, the most recent in 1997.
The most successful car manufacturer by far is Porsche with nineteen victories. Audi is next with eleven, although they recently ended their participation in the race. Ferrari follows with nine. The most successful driver of all time is Tom Kristensen of Denmark, who has eight wins.
Another Le Mans claim to fame is the “Champagne Spray.” In 1967, when drivers Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt won, they were handed magnums of champagne. Instead of drinking, the two sprayed bystanders, who included Henry Ford II and several journalists, who had written negative articles about the occasionally brash Americans. And thus a new sports tradition was born!
The competition at Le Mans has also produced a number of automotive innovations, including lighter, more aerodynamic body designs; disc brakes; seat belts; turbochargers; and alternative fuels, just to name a few of the creative breakthroughs.
For more information and tickets, see Le Mans Race.
A NOBLE LINEAGE
Meanwhile, back a few years, in the 11th century, Le Mans was the site of another competition — this one much deadlier. The Counts of Anjou and the Dukes of Normandy, under England’s William the Conqueror, battled for control of the region.
Eventually, the two sides fought to a standstill. As a sign of goodwill, Geoffrey Le Bel Plantagenet married Mathilde, daughter of Henry I and granddaughter of William the Conqueror.
Their son, Henry II Plantagenet, became King of England, and one of the most powerful rulers of the 12th century. Henry in turn, married Eleanor of Aquitaine, France’s Queen Consort. Eleanor bore Henry eight children, three of whom would become kings, including Eleanor’s favorite, Richard I, the Lionhearted.
Both marriages were conducted at the magnificent Le Mans cathedral, Saint-Julien du Mans. Built in the 11th century, the current cathedral is especially known for its spectacular flying buttresses, each of which split into a Y-formation, to create a kind of lacework in concrete.
The nave at Saint-Julien du Mans consists of 20 stained glass windows from the mid-12th century. Several windows have been dated to 1120, making them the oldest stained glass in France.
Some 47 angels — singing, playing instruments and composing music — decorate the ceiling of the Virgin Mary’s Chapel. Several of the instruments, such as the phylactery and rotulus, were discovered anew when the ceiling was restored.
Outside, the great cathedral, visitors can see the contributions of even earlier residents, the Romans, who settled in the area in 47 BC. Roman design and architecture is visible in the walls surrounding the old town. An amphitheater built in the 3rd century still stands as well.
So, before or after enjoying the high-speed races, be sure to take time to slowly wander the ancient streets of Le Mans. You’ll enjoy every leisurely step!