The first ever winners - Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard (Chenard & Walcker Sport 3-Litre) are on the left
1926, and the Le Mans start is becoming a familiar sight
1927, and the Bentley Boys era hits its stride. This is Sammy Davis en route to victory
Woolf Bernato and Bernard Rubin share success in a Bentley in 1928
The four-strong Bentley team in London prior to taking a third victory in the race in 1929
The final win in a run of four for Bentley in 1930. Note the 'catch fencing'
1931 and another British victory, but the Bentley era is over. Earl Howe and Tim Birkin win in an Alfa 8C
1935, and Alfa's run of four wins is ended by the Lagonda team
Post-war the race resumed in 1949 with Luigi Chinetti and Lord Selsdon taking a first win in the race for Ferrari
1951: crash barriers are still for wimps while the Jaguar C-type proves it is fast as well as beautiful
Jaguar won the race from 1955-57, but had Ecurie Ecosse to thank for the latter two. This is the D-type in 1957
The Aston Martin DBR1 was victorious in 1959
Only Ford and Ferrari won Le Mans in the 1960s. This is the 275P in 1964
Ford took four straight wins to see out the decade. This is the winning GT40 in 1968
1970 and Porsche takes its first win. Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood won in the 917K
Henri Pescarolo and Graham Hill (pictured in second) kick-started an era of French victories in 1972
1975 and a chap called Derek Bell puts himself on the map (with team-mate Jacky Ickx) in the Mirage-GR8-Ford
As Alpine gears up for a road car comeback, we'll be hearing more about its 1978 Le Mans victory
The Porsche 935 K3 looked fast in a stills photograph en route to the win in 1979
Between 1981 and 1987 Porsche won every Le Mans race. This is the Joest-run 956 in 1985
The Porsche 962C took victory in 1987; Derek Bell was among the winning drivers
In 1988 Jaguar sensationally ended Porsche's winning streak, with Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace piloting the Jag
Mercedes got in on the act – via Sauber – in 1989, taking victory with the C9
Jaguar was back on the winner's rostrum in 1990, with Martin Brundle among the driving force
Mazda took a hugely popular – and unexpected win – in 1991, with Johnny Herbert on the driving force
Two Brits – Messrs Blundell and Warwick – played starring roles in Peugeot's 1992 win
They came, they saw, they conquered: McLaren stunned GT racing in 1995
1996-1998 signalled another period of Porsche domination; this is the TWR Porsche WSC-95 in 1997
BMW's V12 LMR showed speed and efficiency to take the victory in 1999
The dawn of a new era; Audi took its first win in 2000, but few expected its domination to last so long
Bentley did interrupt sister firm Audi's run of glory, with victory in 2003
At last! In 2009 a non-VW Group marque won again, with Peugeot taking a popular home win
Last year Toyota provided a brief but determined challenge; Audi still won though
The Le Mans 24 Hour race celebrates its 90th anniversary this weekend. Over those years the race and its winners have acquired heroic status, and it has earned the reputation of one of the three blue riband events in the motorsport calendar, alongside the Indy 500 and Monaco Grand Prix.
No doubt, its irresistible pull to fans and manufacturers alike is down to its round-the-clock duration – although Le Mans certainly isn’t the longest FIA-sanctioned endurance event because the Dakar Rally frequently approaches 6000 miles in length.
Since the inaugural 1923 race was won by Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard in a 3-litre Chenard & Walcker, not only has the configuration of the Circuit de la Sarthe varied but the cars have got quite a lot faster. Two traditions have remained, however: the race is held in June and starts in the afternoon on a Saturday.
Two marques dominated the race in its early years, and between them Alfa Romeo and Bentley won nine of the first twelve events. Alfa Romeo’s success at Le Mans ended when the handsome 8C 2300 took the chequered flag in 1934, but Bentley eventually returned to the winner's rostrum, taking a famous one-two in 2003 with the Speed 8, 73 years after its last win. By way of comparison, the winners' average speed of 75.88mph in the Bentley Speed 6 that year compared to an average of 133.17mph come 2003.
Post World War Two, Ferrari took its first win with the 140bhp, 650kg 166MM in 1949. Then, after Le Mans became part of the World Sportcar Championship calendar in 1953, a wider range of manufacturers began to show interest. The established marques were joined by Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz (which was winning F1 races courtesy of Juan-Manuel Fangio at the time) and Jaguar, which won several times with the ultra-aerodynamic C- and D-types.
Competition increased the rate of innovation and by the mid-1950s the cars were averaging more than 100mph over the 24 hours. During this time one of the worst accidents in the history of motor racing happened. Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR left the track after hitting Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey at 150mph. The ensuing accident killed 83 spectators. More stringent safety measures were duly introduced, but the top speed of Le Mans race cars was already approaching 200mph.
Ferrari stamped its authority on the race during the 1960s, winning six races with cars that are amongst the most sought-after collectors' items today. In particular, variations of the 250 Testa Rossa, which won the 1960 and 1961 races, now fetch seven figures at auction.
At the end of that decade two unfortunate things happened to Ferrari: Ford and Porsche. Ford's GT40 took four straight wins at a time when the fastest Le Mans cars were still homologated from road-going versions. After Jacky Ickx helped the American company take its final Le Mans victory to date, Porsche led the charge of purpose-built prototypes that were faster than anything that had come before. Porsche took its first Le Mans victory in 1970, and the average speed of 138.13mph, set by Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep, remains unsurpassed.
Porsche cars continued to win race after race throughout the 1980s, with the Group C prototypes that maximised fuel efficiency, before the ‘Silk Cut’ Jaguar XJR-9LM won in 1988. Powered by a 750bhp, 7.0-litre V12, the Jaguar came within 1mph of Porsche’s record speed average from 17 years earlier.
With the speeds climbing, in 1990 the most significant of several track changes were introduced when two chicanes were put in to break the Mulsanne Straight. The concern was that at speeds in excess of 250mph any crash or collision would almost certainly kill any drivers involved.
In the 1990s two victories in particular stood out: Mazda’s win with the rotary-engined 787B makes it the only Japanese manufacturer to scoop top honours, while McLaren’s victory with the F1 GTR proved once again that reliability, and not outright pace, was essential for victory in endurance racing.
With the exception of Bentley’s magnificent win in 2003 and a solitary Peugeot victory in 2009, modern Le Mans has belonged to Audi, which has dominated the race with the R8 and R10 TDI, the first ever diesel to win. Audi won in 2012 with the diesel-hybrid R18 E-tron quattro.
A repeat result looks likely again this weekend, unless Toyota springs a surprise and shows enough race pace to overcome the faster Audis. But as our picture gallery shows, the race has a habit of throwing up unpredictable and hugely entertaining results more often than most events.
Additional reporting by Richard Lane