Useful Notes / 24 Hours of Le Mans

The 24 Hours of Le Mans (French: 24 Heures du Mans) is a twenty-four-hour endurance race held at the Circuit de la Sarthe, better known as Le Mans. Currently part of the FIA World Endurance Championship, it is part of the "Triple Crown of Racing" with the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco and the Indy 500.

The Circuit

The Circuit de la Sarthe is very old, having been opened in 1923. It is also very long, at 13.629KM or 8.469 miles. Notable features include large sections held on closed-off public roads and the 6 kilometre long Ligne Droite des Hunaudières, which is the straight with the two chicanes. The chicanes are a relatively recent addition, to stop the cars from flipping over or worse from the sheer speed.

The Cars

There are four main classes that can be categorized in two different ways depending on what the nature of the car and the drivers that will be racing it:
  • LMP (Le Mans Prototype) cars are purpose-built for racing at Le Mans and other endurance races only. Although they aren't necessarily more powerful than GTs (LMP2 cars can be less powerful than GT cars), LMPs produce much faster lap times because the high downforce they produce lets them corner faster and brake later.
    • The LMP1 class is where the factories (such as Audi and Toyota) and richer private teams compete. The factory cars are at least as technologically advanced as Formula One cars, as they both feature energy recovery systems and complex aerodynamics.
    • The LMP2 class is focused on privateer teams (that typically have backing from non-professional drivers), with cost-capped chassis and mandatory production-based engines. To reduce spending further, there are also limits on improvements that can be made to the cars' components and hybrid technology is banned.
  • The two GT Endurance (GTE) classes, which use modified production supercars, ranging from the Porsche 997 over the Ferrari F458 to the Chevrolet Corvette. While the GTs are not in contention for overall victories, they still provide a good show at Le Mans.
    • GTE-Pro cars are raced by teams of all-professional drivers. As with LMP1 this is the class where the factory teams compete, with their quickest and most reliable drivers showcasing the latest developments in GT racing.
    • GTE-Am cars are supposed to be identical to their Pro counterparts even though they are fielded by privateers, although in practice the factory cars are faster because they get the latest parts. As with LMP2 there are measures to prevent spending getting out of hand.
The GTs not being in overall contention wasn't always the way, with GTs winning 3 times in the 1990s, back when GTs were much faster than they are today. In 1994 the overall honours went to a Porsche 962, entered through a loophole in the GT class, an impressive feat for what was effectively a 12 year old car. The year after, 1995, 1st place went to a McLaren F1, the only victory for a true GT car, while 1998 saw a Porsche GT1 take victory, but by then things had gotten a bit silly in GT1, with manufactures exploiting loopholes such as building one road car after the race and other peculiar practices which resulted in the GT1 class being full of over performing freak machines.

Notable cars include:

  • Jaguar D-Type, which won the late 1950s Le Mans in four consecutive years, and one of them was won by Mike Hawthorn during 1955, when Le Mans Disaster occured.
    • Jaguar XJR-9: the car that famously humiliated its turbocharged competition by winning the 1988 edition of the race.
  • The Ford GT40, which the modern Ford GT is based on. Designed by Carrol Shelby to compete with the Ferraris. Two one-two victories. Designed by recently-deceased Carrol Shelby, who is better known for the Shelby brand of performance muscle cars. The Mk1 still looks pretty futuristic for a 1960s car, even for today, while the other three versions look more generic.
  • Ferrari P cars: The cars which the GT40 was developed to compete against.
  • Porsche 917/936/956/962: The cars that dominated the period between the Ford/Ferrari rivalry and the establishment of Group C, winning 12 races from 1970-1987.
  • Sauber Mercedes C9: The most successful of a series of cars comprised of advanced Sauber chassis/aerodynamics and powerful Mercedes engines. While it's predecessors weren't exactly reliable, the C9 combined speed and reliability to win the 1989 race.
    • Although 400+km/h speeds had been reached previously,note  it was the C9 consistently reaching these speeds that finally forced the organizers to introduce chicanes on the Hunaudières to slow the cars down.
  • Mazda 787B: The only Japanese and rotary-engined car to win the race so far. Instantly recognizable with its green-orange livery and its ear-piercingly loud engine noise, it is seen as an object of national sport pride in Japan.
  • McLaren F1 GTR: the racing variant of what was at the time the fastest road car in the world, it famously won the 1995 edition of the race defeating actual purpose-built prototypes.
  • Mercedes CLR: The Alleged Car of recent Le Mans history, because it flew off the track in front of a world-wide television audience.
  • Audi "R" series: The Boring Invincible Hero, Audi won 13 races from 2000-2015, with only Bentley,note  Peugeot and Porschenote  interrupting the streak in 2003, 2009 and 2015-16 respectively. Audi are also notable for being the first LMP1 manufacturer to use Boring, but Practical diesel engines. However, each car does have its own claim to fame:
    • Audi R8: Although it was not the first car to feature quick-change sub-assemblies, the way it was applied through the design coupled with great pace meant it won 5 Le Mans in 6 years, from 2000-2005.
    • Audi R10: The first diesel car to win Le Mans overall, winning from 2006-2008.
    • Audi R15: The current race-distance record holder, set in the 2010 race which saw all four Peugeot 908s succumb to mechanical issues despite lapping 3-4 seconds faster than the Audis
    • Audi R18: The winner of the closest racing finish in 2011, finishing 13.854 seconds ahead of the Peugeot 908
    • Audi R18 e-tron: The first hybrid car to win overall in 2012; also won in 2013 and 2014.
  • Toyota TS030/TS040: The only other LMP who's been able to remotely match Audi in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the last few years. The latter stripped the World Endurance Championship title away from the German team in 2014!

The drivers

A 4-tier system is used to classify drivers based on skill and results, which are based on definitions of "professional" and "amateur" drivers:
  • Platinum drivers are considered the best of the best - previous Le Mans winners, former/current Formula One or Indy Car drivers, "factory" drivers (who drive for one manufacturer only) and other drivers that have consistently done well in high profile racing series.
  • Gold drivers, while not quite reaching the heights of their platinum counterparts, are professional drivers who still produce good performances regularly in a variety of races and cars.
  • Silver drivers are the top amateur class, consisting of young talents starting out in sportscars and "gentleman" drivers (who fit in driving around work or other commitments) who may have the speed to match the pros, if not the consistency.
  • Bronze drivers are slower gentleman drivers, very old former professionals or other amateur drivers that have little to no prior experience of endurance races to call on.
Because of the length of Le Mans, drivers are put in 3-man teams, with some classes (LMP2 and GTE-Am) requiring at least one Silver or Bronze driver who also has to spend a certain amount of time in the car. This extra demand results in drivers being drafted in from other series just for Le Mans to compliment the drivers who regularly take part in endurance races. Regardless of which ranking a driver is given or whether they are regular endurance racers or not, to do even remotely well at Le Mans, they have to be very badass. While all drivers have to take mandated breaks (you're only allowed to be in the car for four hours every six and 14 hours total due to concerns about driver fatigue), there is still the fact that it won't be long before they have to get back out on track. Amongst the amateur drivers some celebrities have appeared, including Steve McQueen and Patrick Dempsey.

The race itself

The race is held non-stop from Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon on the third weekend of June (the 24th weekend of the year). As in other multi-class endurance races, cars from all four classes are on the track simultaneously. While blue flags are shown to slower cars to warn them of faster cars approaching, unlike in other series the slower cars are not required to move out of the way - the onus is on the faster car to get past quickly and safely. This can lead to situations where a prototype is held up behind two or more GT cars battling for position who don't want to let the prototype past in case they lose time to each other, and navigating slower traffic without losing too much time is a key aspect of doing well in the race. During the race it is almost expected for a car to encounter problems, either due to mechanical failure or driver error. As long as the car isn't totally wrecked or immobile (and doesn't present an immediate danger to other entrants), the driver is allowed to bring the car to the pits so the pit crew can attempt to fix it and get the car back out as soon as possible. With so much time spent in the pits (both for regular pit stops and to make repairs), Le Mans can be won or lost as much in the pit lane as it can be on track, so efficient pit crew and an astute engineering crew are just as important as good drivers and a fast, reliable car. At the end of the 24th hour, the lap the leading car is on becomes the last lap of the race, and every car that has completed 70% of the class leader's distance and completes a lap at the same time as the leader's last lap is classified as having finished the race.

Le Mans in fiction:
  • The film Le Mans, obviously.
  • In the film A Man and a Woman, Jean-Louis is a race car driver who suffers a serious wreck at Le Mans.
  • Sega made an arcade game based on the race for the arcades, featuring six top Le Mans racers, dubbed Le Mans 24. Konami previously made another video game based on the race, WEC Le Mans 24.
  • Both the Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport games contain LMP and GT cars, with the former being the fastest cars in the games (barring formula cars and high-end concepts like the Red Bull X2010). The Circuit de la Sarthe features in later installments of both series.
  • GRID allows you to race the Le Mans 24 Hours at the end of every season. If you feel like it you can also set up an actual 24 hour race on the Circuit de La Sarthe.
  • Project CARS features LMP 2 and LMP 1 both with real cars and OriginalCharacters designed by the WMD Community underneath the fictional monikers of RWD and Marek. There is also a Prototype 1 and 2 class featuring cars such as such as the Radical SR-3/SR-8 or the Caterham SP/300.R, there are also historic classes such as the LMP 900 that features cars such as the Bentley Speed 8 or the GR.C class that features the Sauber C9 Mercedes-Benz as mentioned above. There is an actual 24 Hours of Le Mans you can get invited to in the career but even at 1% time progression, it will take you upwards of two hours. The game suggests streaming if you plan on a whole twenty four hour race.