There are no fewer than 13 entrants under the French banner at this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, making up one of the strongest French challenges for all-out victory at the Circuit de La Sarthe. French teams have had their share of success at Le Mans since the event's debut in 1923, and with the 76th running of the classic French endurance race nearly upon us, this could be the year for another home win.
Indeed, Chenard and Walcker Sport won the first-ever running of the race. The French automotive company started by Ernest Chenard and Henri Walcker entered a 3-litre car driven by Renonard and Andr Lagache, both engineers employed at the company. Chenard and Walcker was eventually taken over by Peugeot in 1946.
In 1925 and 1926, Lorraine-Dietrich (a French automobile and aircraft engine manufacturer) won Le Mans with a Lorraine-Dietrich B3-6 car and became the first marque to win Le Mans twice and the first to win in two consecutive years. Gerard de Courcelles and Andre Rossignol drove to victory in the 1925 race with Robert Bloch and Rossignol successfully defending the title in 1926. Automobile production eventually became unprofitable for the company after the commercial failure of their 4,086 cc 20 CV model and they ceased production of automobiles in 1935.
In 1937, the all-French driver lineup of Jean-Pierre Wimille and Robert Benoist won in a Roger Labric run Bugatti Type 57G. Wimille along side Pierre Veyron repeated the victory in 1939 in a Bugatti Type 57S.
French car manufacturer Delahaye (started by Emile Delahaye in 1894) tried its hand at racing in the middle of the 1930s. American heiress Lucy O'Reilly Schell approached the company with an offer to pay the development costs to build cars to her specifications for rally racing. The Delahaye 135 S was born, bodied by Figoni et Falaschi, who had already produced bodies for a stable of Le Mans winners and endurance racers. In the hands of Eugene Chaboud and Jean Tremoulet the car won in 1938.
Louis Rosier and Jean-Louis Rosier won in 1950 in a Louis Rosier entered Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport. The Road-going version of the T26 was the world's fastest production chassis in its day. The team scored its greatest racing victory, taking the Le Mans win. Talbot was eventually taken over by Simca in 1959, which was in turn taken over by Chrysler in 1963.
The 70s were a good for French teams with three wins for Matra Simca and one for Renault. In 1972, Henri Pescarolo and Graham Hill won in a Matra Simca MS670 fielded by the Equipe Matra-Simca Shell team. For the 1972 season, the team concentrated on Le Mans with four MS670s entered. Two cars retired but Pescarolo/ Hill and Francois Cevert/Howden Ganley finished one-two.
The following year, with Le Mans celebrating the 50th chronological anniversary of the 24 Hours, Matra-Simca again entered a full quartet. Three MS670Bs and a '72 spec back-up. The 670Bs were pure Le Mans specials and the lead car finished six laps ahead of nearest competitors the Merzario and Pace Ferrari. Pescarolo took the win, this time partnered by Grard Larrousse in the MS670B.
In 1974, with sponsorship from Gitanes, a new MS670C car, and the withdrawal of main rivals Ferrari, Matra dominated sportscar racing, with Pescarolo and Larrousse winning a third Le Mans victory for the team. However, at the end of the year the company announced it was quitting the sport, and many of the Matra staff ended up at the new Ligier team, which took over the Matra V12 engines.
The Renault Alpine A442 was a sports prototype racing car, designed and built by Alpine, but funded and powered by Alpine's owners Renault. Specifically built to contest the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, variants were entered for the event in 1976, 1977 and 1978. However, the car suffered repeated mechanical failures in other races. In the 1976 Le Mans race the single car entered dropped out with engine failure before the mid-point of the race. Renault wanted to win Le Mans. For the 1977 campaign the Renault Sport works team entered three cars and an additional privately entered A442. None of the four cars reached the finishing line.
By 1978 Larrousse had moved up from works driver to manage the Renault Sport team, and the priorities for Renault were clear: win the prestigious Le Mans race, and then focus all the attention on repeating the success in Formula One. Renault ploughed a huge budget into developing the A442. The works team entered three cars, an old A442A, the bubble-canopied A442B and the A443. Privateer Ecurie Calberson entered a second A442A.
Two cars finished, the works A442A winning the race in the hands of Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud the privateer A442A took fourth place. After the final flag Pironi was too exhausted to climb up to the podium, where Jaussaud took the trophy alone. Following this all-French victory in the premier French motorsport event, Renault did indeed withdraw from sports car racing to concentrate their efforts on Formula One.
In 1980 Jean Rondeau became the only man to win the race in a car bearing his own name and design, a distinction he still holds. The Rondeau M 379 B, powered by a Ford-Cosworth V8 engine, driven by Rondeau and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud took victory in the 1980 24 Hours of Le Mans after fighting hard against the Porsche 908/80 of Jacky Ickx and Reinhold Joest. Teammates Pescarolo and Jean Ragnotti retired with engine problems during the night, but the Rondeau and Jaussaud car fought the elements to take overall victory by two laps. Rondeau's factory, like those of Courage and Pescarolo Sport, was based near Le Mans making it a true home victory for the team. In 1981 he entered five cars, finishing 2nd and 3rd. However, this was overshadowed by the death of Jean-Louis Lafosse in the early hours of the race after crashing out on the Hunaudieres straight.
1982 saw all three works M382s out before half distance, while his three all-new M482 cars retired early as well. Rondeau's team was wound up at the end of 1983 after main sponsor, elevator company Otis, withdrew its sponsorship of the French concern. The Rondeau car was last seen at Le Mans in 1988 when it was privately run in the hands of Pescarolo.
The most recent success by a French operation was by Peugeot Talbot Sport, which fielded Peugeot 905s, taking overall wins in 1992 and 1993. Peugeot Talbot Sport, under the direction of Jean Todt, launched the 905 project to compete in the 1991 championship using the new rules that were introduced in that year. The car had initially been unveiled in 1989 and was developed throughout 1990 before making its race debut in the final few races of the 1990 World Sportscar Championship season. It was a technically advanced car, featuring a carbon fibre chassis and a lightweight 3499cc naturally aspirated V10 engine. The engine design was similar to F1 engines of the time.
The 905 began its first full season in sportscar racing by participating in the 1991 championship. The new car proved to be a lot slower than the benchmark Jaguar XJR-14. Indeed, the XJR-14 was able to match the lap times of most contemporary F1 cars. The 905 was unreliable as well, and at the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans, neither entry lasted past the four-hour mark.
In 1992, though, the new 905B won the 24 Hours with Derek Warwick, Yannick Dalmas, and Mark Blundell. This win was followed by another in 1993 courtesy of Geoff Brabham, Christophe Bouchut, and Eric Hlary driving the Evo 1B version of the 905. The historic win saw the French team sweep the first three positions. Following this dominance, Peugeot pulled out of sportscar racing.