Fifty years ago on June 11, 1967, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney established the first 5,000+ km distance record at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Since then, the legendary number has set the pace for technological innovations at the 24 Hours: once difficult to achieve, it is today a standard of excellence.
From 1967 to 1999, only eight winning driver line-ups reached and surpassed the 5,000-kilometer mark. Remember that after the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans, the CSI (Commission Sportive Internationale, former incarnation of the current FIA) limited prototypes to 3-liter engines (the engine of the Ford Mk IV winner in 1967 was a 7-liter). It would take the accommodating regulations of the Sport class for the Porsche 917 to see the light of day and beat Ford's record in 1971, setting a new bar that would remain intact until 2010.
Until 1999, it was certainly rare to reach the 5,000-kilometer cap and doing so required a perfect storm of high caliber performances and particularly favorable race conditions (namely weather). In 2000, Audi managed to exceed 5,000 kilometers for its very first win, a stunning hat trick. It was the dawn of a new era: of the last 18 editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 5,000-kilometer mark has been reached a whopping 15 times.
As of the second half of the 2000s (especially in terms of the Audi-Peugeot 2007-2011 duel), the chase for performance level amped up, literally and figuratively. In 2010, after Peugeot's four cars were forced to retire, Audi - despite being dominated that year in pure performance - established, along with its win at Le Mans, a new distance record (5,420 km) with winners Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller at the wheel.
Since 2012 and the arrival of hybrid technology for the LMP1 prototypes, two other records have been beaten. In 2015, André Lotterer (Audi) clocked a new in-race lap record at an average of 248 km/h. In 2017, at the age of 32, Kamui Kobayashi (Toyota) became, at an average of nearly 252 km/h, the fastest pole sitter in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, beating the record set by Hans-Joachim Stuck.
Though the distance record established by Bernhard-Dumas-Rockenfeller has yet to be beaten, the winners at the last four editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans have all surpassed 5,000 kilometers. A rare achievement at the end of the 20th century, the 5,000 km mark has become a prestigious norm in this century, a worthy representative of the technological advancements made in the last few years. No matter the era, it remains one of the strongest symbols of excellence and performance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Soon we will undoubtedly learn the names of the...24th driver line-up to reach this storied number.
Click below to learn more about the distance records set at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (full of list of the 23 driver line-ups to have reached and surpassed the 5,000-kilometer cap is included in the second article):
PHOTO (Copyright - Archives/ACO): The first British manufacturer to win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, at the 10th edition in 1924, Bentley is also a member of the prestigious "5,000 club" thanks to Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen and Guy Smith's victory in 2003.