This year marks the centenary of the renowned Le Mans 24-hour race, a test of car and driver that has gained worldwide fame.
Throughout its 100-year history, the legacy of Bugatti has been intertwined with this prestigious event, dating back to its first participation in 1923.
Bugatti’s Debut at Le Mans: A Promising Start
In its inaugural year, Bugatti entered two Brescia 16S cars, driven by Max de Pourtalès and Sosthène de La Rochefoucauld. The Brescia boasted a lightweight design and exceptional reliability, standing out during a time when racing cars were often large and unwieldy.
Despite enduring rain throughout the entire 24-hour race, de Pourtalès and de La Rochefoucauld secured a remarkable top-10 finish. This promising start foreshadowed the formidable potential that Bugatti would bring to the world of endurance racing.
Bugatti Defying Stereotypes: Women Compete at Le Mans
Bugatti returned to the Circuit de la Sarthe, the historic venue of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in 1930. The privately-owned Bugatti Type 40, entered by Odette Siko, took to the track. Siko and her co-pilot Marguerite Mareuse formed an all-female duo, challenging the prevailing belief that women were incapable of completing such a gruelling race.
With determination and skill, they piloted their Bugatti Type 40 to a commendable seventh-place finish. This extraordinary feat showcased the presence of daring women competing at the highest levels of motorsport in Bugatti vehicles, alongside icons like Hellé Nice and Eliška Junková.
A Roller Coaster Ride: Bugatti’s Mixed Fortunes
Over the years, Bugatti experienced a mix of triumphs and setbacks at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Despite achieving solid performances with sixth place in 1932, ninth place in 1934, and fourteenth place in 1935, the ultimate recipe for a Le Mans podium finishes eluded them. However, everything changed in 1937 in the most astonishing way.
The Birth of the “Tank” and Bugatti’s First Victory
In response to new regulations introduced by the race organizers in 1936, Bugatti quickly developed a new race car: the Type 57 Grand Prix, later known as the Type 57G. This exceptional car was designed for top-level motorsport, featuring a 3,266cc in-line eight-cylinder engine capable of delivering 170 PS.
The car’s chassis was meticulously punctured with holes to reduce weight, while its streamlined magnesium-alloy body encased even the wheels, earning it the endearing nickname “Tank.” On the famous back straight of the Circuit de La Sarthe, the Type 57G reached a top speed of nearly 220 km/h (135 mph).
The talented French driver Jean-Pierre Wimille harnessed the full potential of the Type 57G Tank. In 1937, partnered with Robert Benoist, a top French driver of the interwar period, Wimille achieved a stunning victory. They completed the race, covering approximately 100km more than the second-place car, demonstrating Bugatti’s technical brilliance and pioneering approach. This triumph not only marked Bugatti’s first victory at Le Mans but also set a new distance record, with Wimille and Benoist completing an impressive 3,287 kilometres in a single race.
Wimille’s Dominance Continues
Wimille’s mastery of the Type 57 was far from exhausted. Although Bugatti faced technical difficulties and had to withdraw from the 1938 race, they returned to Le Mans in 1939 with Pierre Veyron as Wimille’s co-driver. They brought an enhanced version of the Type 57G, known as the Type 57C, to the track.
Beneath the streamlined body of the Type 57C, an upgraded 8-cylinder engine produced around 200 PS, enabling speeds of over 255 km/h on the straight sections. Bugatti optimized various components, including the weight reduction of the round, pontoon-shaped bonnet, and the fine-tuning of the rear axle and crankshaft.
From the start of the race, the Bugatti faced fierce competition from Raymond Sommer in a new Alfa Romeo. Sommer led the race initially, but Wimille drove exceptionally, taking clean lines through the curves while preserving his tires and brakes. As the night progressed, the cars pushed their limits with increasing speed.
Sommer and Wimille’s intense battle for first place was soon joined by Louis Gérad and Georges Monnert, driving for Delage. However, their race car succumbed to strain, forcing them to stop in the pit lane on Sunday morning due to an engine problem. Meanwhile, Pierre Veyron continued to push the Type 57C ‘Tank’ lap after lap.
Wimille and Veyron covered an impressive distance of 3,354 kilometres (248 laps) over the 24-hour race, on the track spanning almost 13.5 kilometres per lap. Their outstanding achievement secured an impressive victory, with the Bugatti achieving an average speed of 139 km/h. The second-place car finished three laps behind, and the third-place car was nine laps adrift. Out of the 42 cars that started the race, only 20 crossed the finish line. Ettore Bugatti himself later highlighted that the mechanics never had to open the bonnet during the race, as the reliable 8-cylinder engine performed flawlessly.
Bugatti’s Return and Future Aspirations
With the outbreak of World War II, the 24 Hours of Le Mans went on a ten-year hiatus. Bugatti’s presence at this renowned race was absent until 1994, precisely 55 years after their last victory. Unfortunately, the Bugatti EB110 Super Sport, the car that participated, encountered an accident caused by a technical issue and was unable to complete the race.
In the present year, as the 24 Hours of Le Mans celebrates its centenary, Bugatti once again graces the Circuit de la Sarthe. The highly anticipated public debut of the Bolide will feature a track lap on Saturday afternoon, marking a significant milestone in Bugatti’s ongoing legacy at Le Mans.
The history of Bugatti at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is filled with legendary triumphs, pioneering spirit, and groundbreaking innovations. From their promising start in 1923 to their astonishing victories with the Type 57G “Tank,” Bugatti has left an indelible mark on the endurance racing world. As Bugatti returns to Le Mans to celebrate this iconic race’s centenary, the brand’s unwavering commitment to pushing boundaries and pursuing excellence continues to shine brightly on and off the track.