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.
  • LMP (Le Mans Prototype) 1 and 2, where the seriously cool Le Mans Prototype cars race. The P1 class is where the factories (Such as Audi and Toyota) and richer private teams compete, whereas most private teams stick to P2. While LMP1 is almost unrestricted in terms of costs and technology, LMP2 is cost-capped and production-based engines are mandatory.
  • The two GT Endurance 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.
    • 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:

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.
  • 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 instalments 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.