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.

Tropes associated with the Le Mans 24 Hours race:

  • Action Girl: The 24 Hours of Le Mans has some few female drivers. There are also a few all-women teams.
  • Anyone Can Die: This is auto racing so it's to be expected, but The Circuit de La Sarthe is the fourth deadliest track in the world with 25 driver deaths in its long history. The most recent being Allan Simonsen in 2013, on the third lap of the race. And then there's the Le Mans Disaster, where one driver and 83 spectators were killed in one accident.
  • Arch-Enemy: Many, especially among cars.
    • The Jaguar D-Type is this to Mercedes-Benz 300SLR.
    • Ford GT40 is this to Ferrari P series as well.
    • Many Group C cars, like Porsche 962 and Mazda 787B, are this to each other.
    • Audi against Peugeot was this until the latter stopped racing at Le Mans. More recently Toyota and Porsche have taken up the rivalry with Audi.
  • Badass Driver: A must-have quality for any winning driver.
  • Battle in the Rain: It always rains at Le Mans.
  • Boom Town: Le Mans was never really as popular as Paris, but the race helps popularize this city.
  • Boring Invincible Hero: Audi have won all but two of the Le Mans 24 Hour races outright since 2000, and one of those losses was to Bentley, a sister company in the VW Group.
  • The Cameo: NASCAR racing cars made a crossover appearance in the 1976 as contestants, with no success.
  • Cool Car: Any of the cars mentioned previously as notable.
    • The whole point of the GTE class is taking an already cool flagship sports car, and then building it from the ground up to be a racer capable of taking on the rigors of endurance racing.
    • The Porsche 956 Group C prototype, and its successor, the 962. Combined, these two cars won the Le Mans 24 Hours race six times back-to-back.
  • Character Tiers: Enforced. This is especially true in the modern GT-Endurance classes, which are explicitly divided into Pro and Amateur groups.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Until 1928, there was no individual winner for each race - the car that covered the longest distance over three consecutive races would win the Rudge-Whitworth Triennial Cup.
  • Golden Snitch: Played straight, as it is a double-points round for the FIA World Endurance Championship.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Justified, since the 56-car strong grid usually has three or four drivers assigned to each car.
  • Lego Car Parts: Despite the sheer speed of the Audi R8, this was it's most crucial innovation. The car was designed to be able to change parts very quickly so drivers could push hard for the whole race rather than having to drive conservatively to make sure nothing breaks.
  • Marathon Level: At just over eight and a half miles long, it's certainly no match for the Nurburgring, but the Circuit de la Sarthe is still longer than most modern circuits. And considering that they're racing on it for 24 hours straight.
    • At 6 kilometres (3.7 miles) long, the Ligne Droite des Hunaudières itself is longer than almost all F1 circuits.
  • No One Could Survive That: Allan Mcnish's sideways slam into the barriers in 2011 resulted in his Audi being shattered into bits, with basically only the chassis and cockpit remaining. He walked away from the wreck with just a cut on his arm.
    • Speaking of 2011 and Audi, Mike Rockenfeller's run-in with a GTE Ferrari during the night would result in his car also sliding sideways into the barrier. He also walked away.
    • The two flips that the Mercedes-Benz CL Rs performed in the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours race weekend were terrifying wrecks to watch, yet no one was injured in either case.
  • Palette Swap: Occasionally used in the case of teams entering multiple cars; the most common being different accenting colors for each car's livery.
    • Flying Lizard Motorsports, a GTE team that runs Porsches, did this with their cars for the 2011 race.
  • Power Limiter: As of 2014, two methods are used to keep the cars' power in check:
    • LMP1 cars can only use a certain amount of fuel per lap (averaged over three laps) to limit the amount of energy they can use and therefore the power the engines can produce.
    • The other classes use air restrictors in order to balance the various engines and cars competing in the race. This is especially prominent in the GTE class cars, which are actually less powerful than their production counterparts.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Many.
    • In 1960s, Ford is Blue Oval to Ferrari's Rosso Corsa.
    • Nissan was blue to Toyota's red in late 1990s.
    • Despite running silver and red cars, Audi Sport as a whole are the Blue Oni, while Peugeot and Toyota are the Red Oni, even though these two teams run blue paint schemes.
  • Spanner in the Works: If a safety car isn't what causes these for the teams, the weather can throw one.
  • Time Trial: These are used to determine the starting order for the race.