24 Hours of Le Mans : a chance for the French to shine

Rétromobile will kick off the festivities for the centenary of the most prestigious endurance race in the world. An opportunity to discover that over the course of its 90 editions, French manufacturers and workshops have often distinguished themselves in this corner of western France. 

A look back at the history of motorsport in France

A history book will open before the visitors to the Rétromobile exhibition this coming February. The history of a heroic era, written largely in black and white and regularly revisited in sepia photographs or on film reels. Motorsport was already well established when, beneath the glass roof of the Grand Palais where the 1922 Motor Show was being held, Georges Durand, secretary of the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, Charles Faroux, a sports journalist working for L'Auto, and Emile Coquille, director of the company Rudge-Whitworth, laid the foundations for a new 24-hour event known as the "Endurance Grand Prix".

A few months later, on 26 May 1923, 33 cars representing 17 makes and three nations turned up at the 17.262 km track marked out in the middle of the countryside, east of Le Mans, under rules that would almost make you smile today. The event, strictly reserved for production cars, included a certain number of obligations such as completing at least twenty laps with the roof closed for open top cars, carrying a ballast that varied according to the weight of the car, attaining a minimum average speed depending on engine capacity, and observing an interval of at least twenty laps between stops to fill up with water, fuel or oil. It was not planned to draw up a classification at the end of the 24 hours, and the cars that made it through qualified to compete in the second round of the Rudge-WhitworthTriennial Cup. On the track, as soon as the flag was lowered, the enthusiasm and motivation of the drivers was unstoppable, and while there was no officially announced finishing order, it was indisputable that the Chenard & Walcker 3-litre of André Lagache and René Léonard were the first ever victors of this race. Fourteen French wins and numerous class victories would follow, spread over the next hundred years.

Chenard & Walcker

In 1925 and 1926, the laurels went to Lorraine-Dietrich while the following year, victory narrowly eluded the 3-litre Aries nicknamed "La Punaise" (the bed bug). Small Salmsons flanked a Bentley on the podium. It was not until 11 years later that a French make once again had its name inscribed in the list of winners. In the meantime, a proper general classification was introduced. After the mid-1930s, the regeneration of the Formula Sport enabled France to improve its record with an impressive treble. Bugatti, with its 57 G and 57 C tanks, entered its name in the winners' book in 1937 and 1939.

Bugatti tanks 57 C

Between these two editions, another French brand, Delahaye, which put on a show of force with seven cars, pulled off a double. At the time, Le Mans was truly a French affair, since Talbot also distinguished itself in the 1938 edition and the following year, the best car on the track for a full 20 hours was a Delage. Le Mans is the race that manufacturers and teams absolutely want to win. This event became a formidable image vector, an accelerator of progress for car builders and a sensational human adventure.

After the Second World War  

The Second World War put sport on hold for the time being. The engines were not to start up again until 1949. A year marked by the participation of the Delettrez brothers with a diesel engine vehicle. The following year, France was back atop the podium with the Talbot T26 GS by Rosier father and son. The performance did not go unnoticed: Louis Rosier won solo, leaving the wheel to his son Jean-Louis for only two laps and following a 40-minute pit stop to change a rocker arm.

Talbot T26 GS

In 1952, Pierre Bouillin, known as "Levegh", was well on his way to emulating Rosier behind the wheel of his Talbot barquette, but with 70 minutes to go, an engine failure wiped out his efforts. Some would say that Levegh, who did not relinquish the wheel for the entire race, had over-revved.

While the 1950s saw foreign makes sharing the GC victories, the performance index ranking became the preserve of Panhard. At a time when no French make was capable of playing the leading roles in the general classification, over a period of fifteen years, successively Monopole, Panhard-Monopole, DB Panhard and CD-Panhard finished top of the performance index ten times. In 1959, the ACO created a classification called the "energy efficiency index" which took into account the average hourly speed, the weight and the fuel consumption, without taking into account the engine capacity. Here again, the small French cars - CD-Panhard, then René Bonnet and Alpine-Renault - were going to have serious reasons to believe.


But it would take some time before the Marseillaise could be heard again on the podium. Starting in 1962, when the divorce between Charles Deutsch and René Bonnet occurred, with Jean Rédélé's Alpine, technically supported by Amédée Gordini, French motor sport gathered momentum. Faced with the escalating power of Ferrari, Ford and Porsche, the 3-litre V8 of the Dieppe-based sport-prototypes seemed a little too tame. The most realistic hopes of a French victory rested on Matra.

With the support of Marcel Chassagny, the chairman of Mécanique Aviation Traction, and his associate Sylvain Floirat, the young managing director Jean-Luc Lagardère launched a comprehensive motorsport programme encompassing single-seaters and sports-prototypes. Matra gave itself the resources to succeed with the development of a 12-cylinder 3-litre engine. It made its debut at Le Mans in 1968 in the type 630 chassis. In the rain, a heroic Pescarolo took the Matra to second place before retiring with a puncture. The performance was impressive enough to persevere. It would subsequently pay off. Following the decision to exclude 5-litre Sports cars, the 3-litre prototypes from Vélizy reaped the rewards of their outstanding preparation and reliability. Between 1972 and 1974, Matra, supported by Simca, registered three victories. The manufacturer could retire with its head held high and leave the place to Renault who dreamt of winning the Le Mans classic with its supercharged V6 engine. The diamond-trademarked company succeeded at the third time of asking.

Matra x Simca

In 1978, the pair Didier Pironi - Jean-Pierre Jaussaud toppled the ogre Porsche, their A 442 barquette winning the right to parade down the Champs-Elysées. In the shadows, sponsored by the wallpaper manufacturer Inaltera, a young Le Mans native dreamt of challenging the great names of motor sport. Jean Rondeau achieved his goal in 1980 following several years of hard work and self-sacrifice. Teaming up with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, he won the race in the rain, pipping Jacky Ickx's Porsche. Inspired by Rondeau’s success, the WM team, created by two Peugeot technicians, Gérard Welter and Michel Meunier, also started to believe. In 1988, their prototype driven by Roger Dorchy and powered by a Peugeot V6 PRV set a new speed record in the Hunaudières. The speed was recorded at 405 km/h to accompany the launch campaign of the Peugeot 405, but the WM had in fact clocked 410 km/h. With the addition of two chicanes in 1990 on the famous straight, the record remains unbeaten to this day.

Early 1990's : introduction of new race regulations

The introduction of new race regulations at the beginning of the 1990s prompted Peugeot to take up the challenge of Le Mans. After a year of breaking-in, the lion of Sochaux won two consecutive races (1992 and 1993) with its famous 905 sports-prototypes powered by a 3.5 litre V10. The Franche-Comté make returned at the end of the 2000s to make its HDI diesel technology triumph with the 908.

Peugeot 908

Since 2009, the last time a French car won Le Mans, the Marseillaise has not been heard on the podium. In the meantime, Henri Pescarolo has come close to adding his name to the list of winners of the Sarthe event once again, but this time as a team. In 2005 and 2006, one of his protos finished second. As for the French drivers, who always start the race in great number, they have contributed to making the French flag shine since 1923.

We are very pleased and proud to unveil the first exhibition that will allow you to rediscover some of the most beautiful vehicles of French manufacturers and craftsmen who have often been famous in the Sarthe.

You will find this unique exhibition in Hall 1 of the Retromobile Show from February 1st to 5th 2023.