The sun dyes itself orange as it sets over periwinkle skies adorning the view of the Dunlop Bridge, with howling engine notes reverberating from a distance. Streaks of red lights adorn the windscreen scenery as they reach a corner, seen only by the drivers. Race teams putting their sweat and blood on the line as they put their cars to survive (and win) in what is considered as one of the most gruelling races in the world.
These are usually what you may expect in most races around the world, but in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, you get see a lot of them.
The race represents one leg of the “Triple Crown of Motor Sports,” along with Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix, as all three races show high prestige, and requires a tremendous amount of skill to participate. The race runs annually, mostly in the middle of June, and is operated by Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the largest automotive group in France, which traces its origins back to the city of Le Mans. It is also sanctioned by Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), and is one of the legs of the FIA World Endurance Championship.
The gruelling nature of Le Mans can make it “The Mount Everest of Motor Sports,” the pinnacle of sports car racing.
The city of Le Mans, France, is the venue of this 24-hour endurance race, hence its name. It is the capital of the province of Maine, which has old buildings and cathedrals.
The race starts at 4 p.m. at noon and ends at the same time on the next day, with its maiden race started in 1923. For the 2017 season, it ran from June 17 to 18.
Circuit de La Sarthe
The Circuit de La Sarthe, also known as Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans, is the very racetrack solely used only for the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
The 13.629-kilometer track comprises mostly public roads, but there is a race specific portion of the track that is part of the Bugatti Circuit, which connects the public roads into a long racetrack.
As the race lasts for 24 hours, carmakers undergo intense research and development into their cars to not only go fast on high speed sections of the track (such as the Mulsanne straight), but last for the duration of the race without a hitch, in which even one mechanical damage can severely affect the outcome of the race. The Mulsanne straight, a 6-kilometer long straight, can put serious stress in the engine, as most of the time the engine is at full throttle. At the end of the straight lies a sharp corner, including a kink and a hump, at the village of Mulsanne, putting the stress on the vehicles’ brakes and suspension as well.
The very nature of the track design may intimidate carmakers and drivers alike, as it is built to test the limits, durability and efficiency of both car and driver. It is often called as the “Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency” for that reason.
Various modifications of the track have been made, addressing concerns on increasing vehicle speeds and safety. The old track, which was triangular, was pushed to its limits as vehicle speeds increased, which, starting with Pierre Marechal’s crashing in 1949 and resulting in a series of fatal high speed crashes over the years.
Despite the number of modifications to the track, the track had a fair share of accidents, the latest being Allan Simonsen’s crash in his Aston Martin Vantage GTE in 2013, staying true to its dangerous, high speed character.
The race in the pages of history
The first races on the track were held in 1920, a motorcycle race run by the Union Motorcyliste de France, which ran from Pontilieue suburbs of Le Mans to the Mulsanne straight and back to the suburbs. The original circuit measures 16 kilometers and proved to be a machine breaker.
In 1922, the idea for a 24-hour race was born, when Georges Durand, the ACO secretary during the time, received 100,000 francs from the French subsidiary of Rudge Whitworth Wheels Co. That money helped pave way to the first 24-hour race in 1923, with the purpose of proving the manufacturer’s worth in making reliable cars to the public. He proposed the race with ACO President Gustave Singher and journalist Charles Faroux, and they quickly agreed. Faroux then made the rules and regulations for the race.
Racing continued in the 1930s until the start of World War II, where ACO halted racing activities when the Nazis invaded France. In 1948, the circuit continued operations as France was slowly recovering from the war, and in 1949 began the post-war era, in which a private Ferrari team composed of Peter Mitchell Thomson (Lord Selsdon) and Luigi Chinetti won the race. This was a big achievement for the Prancing Horse, as it won the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio races the same year.
In 1955 came the most tragic event in the history of not only in Le Mans, but the whole of racing history. Pierre Lavegh’s Mercedes 300SLR collided with Lance McKinley’s Austin-Healey 100S as it attempted to overtake Mike Hawthorn’s Jaguar D-Type. As the Mercedes lost control and crashed past the banking, the burning parts flew on the air, killing 83 spectators and injured many others. The subject sparked many debates until now, apportioning the blame. Mercedes-Benz then withdrew from racing as a result of the incident until 1988, and the track got extensive modifications in 1956, including a wider pit road, and bigger barriers between the road and the grandstands.
The 1960s saw a long, bitter rivalry between Ford and Ferrari, which became legendary. While Ferrari dominated most of motor sports, it was in the brink of financial difficulty. Henry Ford 2nd offered a deal with Enzo Ferrari to acquire the Prancing Horse and accepted it. However, Ferrari was disgusted that Ford wanted Ferrari’s motor sports business to be given to Ford, and broke the deal. It was then that the bitter rivalry started, and Ford came up with the GT40, which won the races at Le Mans for four straight years from 1966 to 1969, defeating Ferrari’s V12 powered 330 P4.
Porsche started winning in Le Mans with the 917 in 1970s, and was considered to be one of the most iconic racing cars as it also dominated Can-Am racing. It would continue with the 934, 935 and the 936, which were all based off from the 911. It would later dominate the races at Le Mans for almost a decade with the 956 and the 962 in the 1980s, which earned the Stuttgart marque notoriety for winning the most number of 24 Hours of Le Mans races, including in the late 1990s and its recent win in 2016 with the 919 Hybrid LMP1.
Mazda would later snag a win in the prestigious race in 1991 with the 787B, and is the only Japanese car manufacturer that would win the 24 Hours of Le Mans as of time of writing. Mazda was also the only winner that didn’t use a conventional power unit, using its rotary engine technology. McLaren then won in 1995 in an F1 GTR, with a lower class than its competitors. It gained the advantage over 17 hours of rain, and was able to best more powerful competitors such as Porsche.
It was in 2000 that Audi started dominating the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with 13 wins under its belt until 2016. The year 2015 saw an unconventional entry from Nissan with the front-wheel drive GT-R LM NISMO, which produced bad results.
The rulebooks change every year, and so do the racing machines. Today, the top class LMP1 machines feature hybrid technologies which not only allowed for better efficiency but also better speed coming out from the corners from its Kinetic Energy Recovery system. A new class, Garage 56, was introduced in 2012, has futuristic looking cars that may serve as the future for car manufacturers entering motor sports. So every race serves as a stepping stone for manufacturers to improve their cars and continue innovating, with the technologies getting introduced eventually in road vehicles.