Number 285: The 2017 Le Mans Issue
If there’s one lesson to be taken from 84 previous editions of racing’s greatest endurance event, it’s this: Le Mans will always be Le Mans. Technology, sports science, safety and the track itself will continue to evolve, but the basic challenge remains much the same today as it did when André Lagache and René Léonard won the inaugural race in 1923. The 24 Hours of Le Mans asks more of a team and its drivers than any other single event.
Toyota offered a poignant reminder of that last year when its lead car broke down just a lap away from the checkered flag, a first win eluding it yet again. The world’s biggest manufacturers can bring massive budgets and resources to bear, but at Le Mans that isn’t necessarily enough.
Sometimes though, it is. By the standards of the time, Ford’s Le Mans program in the 1960s was larger – way larger – than Toyota’s is now, and 50 years ago, that firepower delivered all-American glory when FoMoCo, Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt and Shelby American combined to deliver the Blue Oval a second successive win.
Despite shocking luck in previous visits to Le Mans, Gurney’s part in the win was in some ways expected, given that he was already regarded as one of the best road racers of the era. But Foyt’s natural habitat was ovals, and his contribution to the victory offered another reminder that the greatest drivers tend to be versatile drivers.
That versatility has become harder to replicate in today’s more isolationist environment – which is why the entire racing world has been so energized by Fernando Alonso’s plans to race in the Indy 500. The circumstances that led to the deal were unique, and moonlighting will remain the exception rather than the rule for the foreseeable future. But the fact that two million people worldwide tuned in on May 3 to watch Alonso lap the Speedway alone for his Rookie Orientation Program proves that when something like this does happen, the whole sport wins.