On the eve of CREVENTIC’s 18th annual 24-hour motor race at the Dubai Autodrome, Joe takes a contrasting look back at one of the most gruelling endurance races ever-held: the 84-hour ‘Marathon de la Route.’
Words – Joe Bradley
Images – Petr Frýba and Mazda
These days, the global motorsport season kicks off every January with the annual Hankook 24H DUBAI in the United Arab Emirates. This will be the 18th running of the 24-hour endurance epic, and will no doubt, given the quantity as well as quality of the teams that have already signed up, be its usual test of strength and stamina in the truest sense of #ThisIsEndurance.
But what was the longest-ever motor race? This is a question I pondered recently, as if running a race car and a team of people twice around the clock wasn't enough of a challenge.
I recently discovered an event called the Marathon de la Route, an epic 84-hour endurance race run between 1965-1971. It was an event, fittingly referred to by competitors as ‘the world’s longest motor race,’ that pushed both car and driver to literal breaking point, both mechanically and psychologically. And with some truly bizarre and unique rules, it was certainly one of the most demanding motor sport events ever held.
The discovery of aerodynamics in the mid-to-late ‘60s increased performance of racing cars, and it was only a matter of time before ‘open’ road racing ceased to be run on public roads. This brought about the birth of the Marathon de la Route, and the first of these new 84-hour races took place from 24 - 28 August 1965 around the daunting Nürburgring in Germany.
Competing at the Marathon de la Route was like driving three and half Le Mans 24-Hours back-to-back, meaning the only competitors really used to this length of race duration were rally drivers (the result was a lot of crossover between driving disciplines). The event also appealed to major manufacturers, who were more than willing to subject their vehicles to such a tortuous test, as it gave them an ideal opportunity to test their cars and any new components.
Quite a few years ago I coined the phrase ‘endurance races are won on the pitwall.’ None more so than the 24H SERIES, with its complex pit stop and refueling strategies to consider alongside the use of the Code 60 process. However, the complexity of our races pale into insignificance when comparing them to The Marathon, which bore some of the strangest, but also the most interesting rules, of any motor sport event of the time, or indeed today.
Teams for instance had to complete the same number of laps in the final 12 hours as they had done during the first 12 hours, but during the first four hours, you could take a maximum of 30 minutes to complete one lap (one tour of the combined North and South circuits was 28.265km). After that, competitors had to complete at least one lap every 24 minutes, and any teams that exceeded this time were disqualified.
Interestingly, refueling was done using a normal petrol pump, while tyre and driver changes were completed at each team’s designated pitbox. Exactly as we do it in the 24H SERIES. Every stop in the pits exceeding one minute though resulted in a one-lap penalty deducted from the team’s total count. This meant pit stops were very short, and repairs could only be carried out in one of three ways. Firstly, a driver could do any repairs out on the track with the spares and tools he carried in the car. Herbert Linge, who won the event in 1968, is quoted as saying, “we found a lot of parts around the circuit. Sometimes you might find a drive shaft in the woods, or drivers, who lost a fan belt after driving for 20 hours, would find a fan belt somewhere in the hills, and would put that in the car for later.”
Another option was for the driver to carry out repairs in a dedicated area away from the pits – a kind of parc fermé – with a team engineer or technician looking on and offering advice. The latter though had to stand outside of the designated area, and could not bring tools or parts to help with the repairs. No penalty was incurred if repair work was done in parc fermé, but as the driver had to cruise past his pitbox to reach this area, he’d effectively started a new lap. Even if he could pull into this area to work on the car, the driver would still have to complete his lap in under 24 minutes, potentially leaving his repair incomplete.
The third repair option was to stop in the pits where it was possible for two people – perhaps the driver and one mechanic, or two mechanics – to work on the car. This still had to comply with the 24-minute rule in mind, and with the lost lap penalty being applied for every minute stopped in the pits, a car was only allowed to be stationary in the pits for up to 20 minutes, beyond which the team would be disqualified.
However, in order for the teams to affect repairs on their cars over 84 hours, a relief window was provided where repairs could be done for a period of up to twenty minutes where no penalty would be incurred. This window of opportunity occurred between laps 75 and 80, again between laps 150 and 155, then between laps 225 and 230, and also between laps 300 and 305. If a team could ‘save’ up their repairs for a distance of 75 laps – approximately every 2,120 km – then these repairs could be carried out without a penalty.
All nice and clear?
Didn’t think so. Indeed, by the early ‘70s, the complexities of the event, plus Porsche’s 1-2-3 dominance with its 914/6 at the 1970 event, meant entries numbers and spectator interest were dwindling. This, despite later races being upped to 86 hours!
I'll stick with the 24 Hour races run as they are today, thank you very much!
You can also check out Joe’s column in our magazine for the 2023 Hankook 24H DUBAI, available for download below.