ŠKODA’s only appearance at the world-famous 24 Hours of Le Mans race came 70 years ago in the extremely rare ŠKODA SPORT and one of the only two prototypes ever built will make a return to the same event in 2021.
On 24 June 1950, a Saturday, the ŠKODA factory team finally made it: The enhanced version of the 1101 Sport was positioned diagonally in front of the pit wall of the 13.65km ‘Circuit des 24 Heures’, ready for the Le Mans start at 16.00 hrs, which was still common at that time – the drivers lined up on the opposite side of the track ready to sprint to their racing cars at the signal, jump in, start the engine and speed off. It was not until 1970 that this practice was abolished for safety reasons.
Even the works team of the French racing car specialist Gordini had little chance with their six cars in the race against the ŠKODA SPORT, which for a long time came fifth in the overall standings. That was all the more astonishing because the small but proud Czech team had built their racing car with the simplest of means.
In 1950 Europe was in the middle of the Cold War, the ‘Iron Curtain’ had divided the continent in half. So ŠKODA came from a literally different world when the automaker decided to take part in the Le Mans 24-hour race. It was there that the works team of the Czech company, ‘AZNP’ met the elite of international racing. ŠKODA trusted its already remarkable motorsport tradition and was victorious on the high-speed course in Sarthe with the ŠKODA SPORT.
Everything was going swimmingly until 2.25 am when a simple piston retention circlip catastrophically snapped – the classic ‘penny-part defect’ – led to engine damage. Since the racing cars could only be repaired with the spare parts and tools that were on board in the event of damage on the open track, this meant the end for the courageous team from Mladá Boleslav.
From today’s perspective, it seems utterly incredible how much courage, ingenuity and motorsport enthusiasm the engineers and mechanics had to muster to build a racing car in the midst of the post-war chaos in 1949, which was to compete in one of the most famous races in the world in 1950.
When ŠKODA competed in Le Mans in 1950, for example, the toughest endurance race in the world was still taking place without a single German manufacturer, who, like many other manufactures steered well clear of the difficulties involved in such a mammoth engineering task.
With the hope of doubling their chances with two cars the following year, the team set out on their way back to Mladá Boleslav – sadly things were not to be. The 1950 race has remained ŠKODA’s only appearance in the French 24-hour classic to this day. Nevertheless, the race the following year proved how fast the ŠKODA 1100 SPORT really was; In 1951, Porsche made its Le Mans debut, also in the 1.1-litre class, and the lap times of the Porsche 356 lagged behind those of the ŠKODA from the previous year.
The motorsport department continued its development of the sports car and the two ŠKODA 1100 SPORT engines were given ever more powerful engines. The crowning glory of the search for performance was a carburettor version with 120 hp and an astonishingly powerful engine delivering an impressive 190 hp. In 1953, after a few aerodynamic modifications, the Le Mans car set a Czech speed record of 160.1 km/h in the class up to 1,100cc.
Today this unique historic vehicle is privately owned by a very special family and is in the best possible hands there. The grandfather of the current owner, Michal Velebný, was none other than Josef Velebný, one of the fathers of the ŠKODA SPORT.
Several generations of the family have worked in development and body construction at ŠKODA, and Michal Velebný now coordinates the restoration and maintenance of the vehicles in the museum. For him, the ŠKODA SPORT represents nothing less than the fulfilment of a long-cherished childhood dream, as his grandfather was responsible for the body shape and left Michal Velebný hand-signed construction plans. “The car was thought to be lost for a long time” he reports. “I only found him after a long period of detective work by talking to old drivers, which then took several years before the vehicle was fully operational again.”
The ŠKODA SPORT will make a welcome comeback in the famous 24-hour race and the racing rarity from Mladá Boleslav is already considered one of the stars at the Le Mans Classic 2021 when the most legendary historic vehicles of this incomparable race venture back on the famous track.