24 Hours of Le Mans - a centenary and many inspiring women later
There are those races which, by their magical and unpredictable course, do not leave you indifferent, which mark you and remind you why you love motorsport so much. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of those races.
As this legendary race celebrates its 100th anniversary, let's take a look back at its history and the inspirational women who've been a part of it.
On 26 and 27 May 1923, on a circuit near Le Mans, the very first 24 Hours of Le Mans race was held, organised by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO). The aim of this race? To stimulate and promote technical innovation and encourage the development of the automobile industry.
But the 24 Hours of Le Mans is much more than that. It’s also a history: that of accomplished drivers, valiant teams, victories, defeats... in short, the history of passionate people. Among them, some of the most inspiring women in motorsport. Whether they’re in the pits, in the grandstands or in the cars, they’ve helped make this race legendary.
Since the very first race, more than sixty female drivers have taken part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 1935, the race even had a record number of women at the start with 10 participants. 10 is also the record for the number of participations by a female racing driver held by Annie-Charlotte Verney.
There have also been several all-female line-ups since 1923: of the 4,298 crews that started, 27 were all-female, and the best finish by an all-female line-up was seventh place in 1930.
Over the decades, extraordinary female drivers have distinguished themselves by their courage and talent. Today, Females in Motorsport takes a trip down memory lane to highlight some of them.
Just imagine. It's 1930 and two women are starting the 24-hour race. Impossible, you say? Well, here are Marguerite Mareuse and Odette Siko who, on Saturday 21 June 1930, became the first women to participate in the 24 Hours.
Odette did not stop there, as she had a total of 4 participations and, as a true pioneer, achieved the best ranking ever for a woman driver in the 24 Hours of Le Mans by finishing fourth overall in 1932.
Odette Siko was moreover a French racing driver who competed in rallies in the 1930s, including the Monte Carlo Rally.
The 1970s, a decade of rising female drivers
During this decade, 13 female drivers took part in the 24 Hours. Among them, a well-known name: Lella Lombardi. The only female driver to have ever scored points in Formula 1, Lella made her first appearance in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the same year, 1975. She formed an all-female line-up alongside Marie-Claude Beaumont, driving an Alpine A441.
Christine Beckers is another of the great figures who have distinguished themselves in this legendary race. Actually, she’s a racing driver that distinguished herself in all disciplines: circuit (touring and prototypes), rally, rally-raid, hill-climbing, slalom, and even NASCAR in 1977, she took part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times between 1973 and 1977, and particularly distinguished herself there in 1974, alongside Frenchwoman Marie Laurent and Belgian Yvette Fontaine, by winning the race at the wheel of the Chevron Seiko in the 2-litre category.
In 1977, in partnership with Lella Lombardi, she obtained the best ranking for an all-female line-up in the competition to date (11th overall), and this despite a series of spins following a short circuit of the circuit breaker at more than 320 km per hour in the Hunaudières straight. In the middle of the night, she repaired her Inaltera alone, which cost her more than 2 hours of downtime, both on the track and in the pits.
Another highlight for women drivers in the 1970s was a remarkable class victory in the 1975 24 Hours for Christine Dacremont, Marianne Hoepfner and Michèle Mouton!
As Christine Beckers would say and proved, in the 24 Hours of Le Mans: “the women were far from just making up the numbers.
We don't talk enough about women who race, so those who would like to do so tell themselves that it's not possible. I did it because I saw a Grand Prix, the Belgian Formula 1 GP in which Maria Teresa de Filippis took part, and I saw a woman who was racing."
This is why it is so important to know the history, background and career of these pioneers, because women have always had their place in motorsport. So it's not a coincidence or a passing trend that girls are increasingly interested in the sport - but it's necessary to nurture that interest: SEE IT. BE IT.
Fewer participants, but not less talent.
In the 1980s and 1990s, women's participation in the competition was less significant. However, the women who did start the race did so impressively. Among the names to remember from this decade are some already well known ones: Désiré Wilson and Lyn St. James.
South African driver Désiré Wilson is one of the few women to have competed in the Formula 1 World Championship. She has also raced in the British Formula 1 Championship (Aurora AFX Formula 1 Championship) and won the 1980 Brands Hatch race, making her the only woman to have won a Formula 1 race. But this is almost anecdotal compared to the rest of her career.
She took part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times, in 1982, 1983 and 1991. In her second appearance, she finished seventh in the No. 18 Porsche 956, alongside Axel Plankenhorn and Jürgen Lässig. For her last participation in 1991, she teamed up with two other renowned female drivers: Lyn St. James and Cathy Muller.
Like Désiré, Lyn St. James' career cannot be easily summarised. She is one of only seven women to have qualified for the Indianapolis 500 and has two participations in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
For the centenary of one of the world's most legendary races, five women will be taking part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans: Lilou Wadoux, Doriane Pin, Rahel Frey, Michelle Gatting and Sarah Bovy. But, as the ACO says so well on its website, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the power of women is not limited to the wheel. They play vital roles as marshals, doctors, mechanics, strategists and engineers (to name but a few), such as Audi's Leena Gade, who played a crucial role in all three Lotterer/Fässler/Tréluyer victories.
The centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be held on June 10 and 11 2023. Be sure to watch and support the extraordinary women participating.
All photos and quotes are the property of the Automobile Club de l'Ouest. All our information comes from their official website.