Their passion for the 24 Hours of Le Mans knowing no bounds, track marshals hail from all over the world. Their history is part and parcel of Le Mans legend. We pay them a well-deserved tribute in this series that takes us from the pioneers of 1906 to today’s slow zones.
At the 1906 Grand Prix – which paved the way to the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the first track marshals were not volunteers at all! Soldiers from the Auvours military base, stationed on hilltops, gave a blast of their bugle to warn of the impending arrival of a race car. The din from the exhaust was almost muffled by the puff of dust churned up along the largely unsurfaced road.
The armies of marshals became more structured in the pre-war years, as witnessed by sepia-tinted photographs showing the “braves” standing in front of their “tipis” (tents provided by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest for the marshal posts and for the crews behind the pits). During the early editions, the marshals, considered responsible for monitoring the circuit at the time, were posted in the turns, at intersections, and other hazardous spots.
A pilot car did the rounds at regular intervals to collect their observations. Subsequently, up until the war, the marshals were stationed on either side of the track so that a car never disappeared from view. Interconnected by telephone, five of the ten rescue posts placed at equal distances around the track were staffed by doctors and surgeons. The ten special ambulances tending to track accidents had a priority evacuation route which showed its worth in 1933 when Odette Siko had a serious accident between Mulsanne and Arnage. After landing at the feet of a startled gendarme, she was whisked to a Le Mans clinic 12 kilometres away in just 17 minutes.
The first telephone set connected to the circuit command post was installed at Arnage in 1928. The marshals already had a precise, codified role in terms of their response actions and compliance with regulations as Louis Chiron, the champion from Monaco, found out to his cost in 1939. The marshals at post 35 (the racecourse entrance) spotted Chiron, who had run out of fuel, being been rescued by a can of petrol from Maurice Génissel, owner of the racecourse restaurant opposite. Chiron was thwarted by the marshals’ report and disqualified.
The Gendarmerie and the fire service of the day played a prominent role too, with their 4000 men fraternising with the ACO marshals.