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. Held since 1923, with only a break for World War II, it is easily the most famous and prestigious sports car race in the world, and the race that has made the sporting reputation of many famous car brands. Currently part of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), it is informally known as one part of the "Triple Crown of Motorsport", which consists of Le Mans, the Monaco Grand Prix, and the Indianapolis 500.
The Circuit de la Sarthe is very old, having been opened in 1923. It is also very long by modern standards, at 13.629 kilometers or 8.469 miles. Notable features include large sections held on closed-off public roads and the 6 kilometre (3.7 mile) long Ligne Droite des Hunaudières (the straight with the two chicanes). The chicanes were added in 1990 to stop the cars from flipping over or worse from sheer speed.
The layout divides up generally into several sections, each of which has changed in different ways since the circuit's inception. The Start/Finish area, Dunlop curve (marked by the famous Dunlop pedestrian bridge, styled to look like a giant tire), Esses, and Tertre Rouge corners are the main spectator areas at the start of the lap. This section also contains the shorter Bugatti Circuit, used all year round for domestic racing series and motorbike events (and a solo French Formula One Grand Prix in 1967)—this branches off from the esses and circles back behind the paddock to the Ford Chicane at the end of the Sarthe circuit. Originally in the 1920s, the course ran straight on (instead of taking a right kink at the Dunlop corner), much further into the city to a sharp hairpin. This section was bypassed after a few races, and would be totally unusable now as it is covered by tram lines and cut off by an autoroute flyover. Until 1986, the Dunlop corner was a flat-out right hander with zero runoff. A year later, a chicane was added for safety and the barriers have been progressively pushed back over the years. In 2002, the straight down to the left-right esses was replaced by another, wider left and right complex of corners, ostensibly to make the Bugatti circuit more flowing.
The six-kilometer Mulsanne straight is the most famous feature of the course—however, it has been split by two chicanes starting in 1990, and gradually enclosed by more barriers and fencing. A café early on the straight used to be a prime spot to watch the cars pass at speed but is now much more cut off by barriers when the track is being used, and the Mulsanne is now out of bounds for spectators. Being a public road, this section can be driven by any motorist when not closed off for the race, but these days, it's interrupted by several roundabouts (that the track bypasses) as the areas surrounding the track have become more urbanized.
At the end of the straight, the circuit makes a sharp 90-degree right onto another fast public road leg through the forest, reaching the fast left hand Indianapolis corner (named for its similarity to the corners at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and turning another sharp right at Arnage (in reality a crossroads hence the sharp 90 degree turn). The largest spectator area away from the pits is at this corner, though to reach it spectators have to use the exit roads that run under the track much further around the course. These sections have undergone the least changing of the circuit since its foundation, the course staying the same with only increases in runoff area sizes being added for safety.
The final section of the track runs through a section of custom built racetrack—the Porsche Curves—a sequence of fast sweepers built in 1972 to replace the very narrow and dangerous Maison Blanche ("White House") section, the original public road section that ran back to the start/finish through a very quick chicane around an old cottage. This part of the old course is also still used as a public road and provides access to the circuit parking lots. Being now quite an old part of the circuit in its own right, the Porsche Curves are quite narrow and lacking in run-off by modern standards and are considered a very challenging section.
The last feature of the track is the Ford Chicanes, first introduced in the late 1960s to reduce cars' speed past the pit lane. Curiously, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (the organization that manages the track) named two features of the track after Ford and Porsche, but there are no similar honors for Ferrari, Matra, Audi, Jaguar or Bentley. The area opposite the end of the pits is notorious as the site of a terrible disaster during the 1955 race; one of the Mercedes-Benz cars was launched into the crowd, killing the driver and 83 spectators. This disaster spurred the first great renovation of the circuit, when the old pit buildings were demolished and the whole section of track was widened. The mid-late 1950s pits lasted until 1991, when the current, much larger pit lane was constructed. In the 1970s, the ACO had originally planned to replace all the public road sections with parallel race track, but this plan never came to fruition, and one of the main continuing features of Le Mans is the amount of circuit that remains public highway when not being raced on.
Amazingly, given all the changes to the track over the last nearly 100 years, the fastest laps in modern times are comparable to when the circuit was almost all flat out blasts with only a few braking areas. For comparison, the pole position lap of 2017, 3:14.791 (set by Kamui Kobayashi in the #7 Toyota TS050) is only slightly slower than the all time pole record from 1971, 3:13.90 (set by Pedro Rodriguez in the #18 Porsche 917L), on a layout that is 0.16 kilometres longer and with about thirteen more corners.
Le Mans is a race for 'sports cars'—a definition that has varied over the years, with many different classes and rules coming and going. Generally speaking, the sports car aspect means the cars are usually thought of as cars with room for at least two seats (or at least theoretically anyway), wheels mostly enclosed by bodywork (unlike the 'open-wheelers' in F1 and Indycar), and the ability to race for 24 hours without major changes of components. In the 2000s, rules were tightened around changing components, as some manufacturers were coming up with large interchangeable sections to slot into a broken car in the garage.
Currently, there are four main classes that can be categorized in two different ways, depending on the nature of the car and its drivers:
- LMP (Le Mans Prototype) cars are purpose-built for endurance racing at Le Mans and other endurance races. 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 automakers (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 hybrid 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 use modified production sports cars, ranging from the Porsche 911 997 and the Ferrari 488 to the Chevrolet Corvette C8. While GTs aren't 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 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 with amateur drivers; only chassis that were used the previous competition year (or older) are allowed entry. As with LMP2 there are measures to prevent spending getting out of hand.
The GTs not being in contention for the overall win wasn't always the case. Until the early 1960s, all the cars on the grid were (mostly) road-legal cars, and even the most exotic frontrunners could still be shaken down on the open roads before the race. Then, in the mid-1960s, large increases in performance meant that the leading cars became the purpose-built prototypes that have mostly dominated since. However, the collapse of the World Sportscar Championship in the early 1990s (when rules were changed, pricing out the majority of the privateer entries and driving out many manufacturers) led to a dearth of entries and a revival of GT classes.
GTs won 3 times in the 1990s, though only one was really a true road car in spirit. In 1994 the overall honours went to a Dauer Porsche 962, entered through a loophole in the GT class, as the 962 prototype (which raced in the Group C class) had been turned into a very limited edition road car at the time—an impressive feat for what was effectively a 12 year old car, though not quite what the rule makers had in mind. The year after, 1995, 1st place went to a McLaren F1, the only victory for a true GT car. 1998 saw a Porsche GT1 take victory, but by then things had gotten outrageous in GT1, with manufactures exploiting loopholes such as building only one road car after the race and other peculiar practices, which resulted in the GT1 class being full of what were effectively prototypes.
In what seems to be a repeat of what happened in the early 1990s, a second top-class GT revival is planned for 2021, having once again been caused by ballooning costs associated with prototypes. The new Le Mans Hypercar class will see race cars based on road-going hypercars, with said in-progress hypercars supposedly being designed specifically with their racing counterparts in mind. Numerous manufacturers, most of whom already participated in the race before leaving, have announced their willingness to submit a car under these new regulations, including but not limited to Audi, Peugeot, Toyota, Acura, Porsche, ByKolles, and Ferrari.
- The Bentley 3-litre/4-litre/Speed 6: the first truly iconic cars of the race, sporting British Racing Green paint and driven to five wins by the so-called "Bentley Boys"—a group of wealthy young aristocrats, the kind of party animal sportsmen who epitomise the Roaring Twenties.
- The Alfa Romeo 8C: Not to be confused with the 2000s grand tourer, the old 8C was a low slung two-seater that won four straight races in the early 1930s, setting a new benchmark for high speed sportscars of the time.
- Jaguar C-Type: This was the first race car to make good use of disc brakes (instead of the more common drum brakes) to stop much more effectively (and produce less heat while doing so) than the opposition. It won twice in the early 1950s and was then followed by the Jaguar D-Type, which won the late 1950s Le Mans in four consecutive years; one of them was driven by Mike Hawthorne in 1955, when the aforementioned disaster occurred.
- Jaguar XJR-9: The V12 car that famously ended the winning streak of Porsche and humiliated its turbocharged competition by winning in 1988.
- The Ford GT40: Designed by Carroll Shelby—better known for his brand of performance cars—to compete with Ferrari's P cars, it achieved two one-two victories in 1966 and 1969. 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 GT40 was developed to compete against these cars. The 1967 Ferrari P3/4 is often named as the prettiest racing car ever built, though it failed to achieve the overall win in any races it entered. Ferrari's last overall win still stands as 1965.
- Porsche 917/935/936/956/962: These cars dominated the period between the Ford/Ferrari rivalry and the first half of the Group C era, winning 12 races from 1970-1987.
- The 917 was a Short-Lived, Big Impact car, reaching 362 kph (225 mph) on the Mulsanne straight and winning the race twice (both for privateer teams) before rule changes outlawed it and its Ferrari 512 rival. The 936 was an open-top successor based on the 917 that won twice.
- The concurrent 935—whose most famous incarnation, the 935/78, is famously nicknamed "Moby-Dick"—was a highly souped-up variant of the 911 road car designed more for GT "silhouette" racing that took the overall victory in 1979.
- The Group C 956/962 won six consecutive times (1982-1987), helped by a huge number of privateer entries racing the official Porsche team and leading to the car dominating the starting grid.
- To demonstrate the racing mettle that Porsche had, this is an ad that ran after the 1983 race.◊
- They have a Spiritual Successor in the 919 Hybrid, which debuted in 2014 and went on to win the race in 2015 (including setting the fastest lap since the chicanes were introduced) and 2016.
- Matra MS670: The small French marque won three years in the early 1970s, but these were in the years after the ultra-quick movie star Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 speedsters had been outlawed by rule changes, and the smaller, slower Matra cars could not hope to be as impressive after larger engines were reintroduced in the late 1970s.
- Sauber Mercedes C9: The most successful of a series of cars comprising advanced Sauber chassis and aerodynamics and powerful Mercedes engines. While its predecessors weren't exactly reliable, the C9 combined speed and reliability to win the 1989 race, the last with the full-length Mulsanne Straight. Although 400+ kph 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.
- Aside from the Sauber, Mercedes has a star-crossed history in the race. They won in 1952, with the first ever closed-cockpit car to do so. Then in 1955 they brought their fearsome 300 SL (a car that had recently proven its pace by winning the epic Mille Miglia road race in Italy) to race the Jaguar D-Type, only to see the aforementioned disastrous crash. The disaster put Mercedes off from motorsports for many decades, then in the late 1990s, history nearly repeated itself with the Mercedes CLR. Though beautiful, its aerodynamics were fatally flawed, and it's known as The Alleged Car of recent Le Mans history. During the race, in front of a worldwide television audience, it left the ground of its own accord on a high-speed kink in the track before flipping through the air multiple times and crash-landing on the other outside of the track, fortunately in an area with no spectators, and with the driver unhurt. And this was the third time it had backflipped on its own during the event; a smaller flip in practice was only overlooked slightly because the TV cameras didn't see it, and an earlier flip in the race left one of the CLRs (and Mercedes' lead driver) upside down on the track.
- Mazda 787B: In 1991, the 787B made itself known as the first Japanese and so far only rotary-engined car to win Le Mans. Instantly recognizable with its green-orange livery and the ear-piercingly loud scream from its engine, it is seen as an object of national motorsports pride in Japan. It held its distinction of being the only Japanese winner for 27 years until Toyota finally broke their streak of poor luck in 2018.
- Peugeot 905/908: The upholder of French pride in the 1990s and 2000s, Peugeot has three wins—two with the bulletproof 905 under the eye of future Ferrari F1 boss Jean Todt, and one with the much more temperamental 908 in the 2000s. The latter brought some much-needed competition to Audi, but kept breaking down along the way before finally outdoing them in 2009.
- McLaren F1 GTR: The racing variant of what was at the time the fastest road car in the world, it famously won in 1995 defeating actual purpose-built prototypes. It also gave McLaren the distinction of having won Le Mans, Indianapolis and the F1 World Championship as a manufacturer, putting them alongside Mercedes in that regard.note
- Audi R series: The 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 is 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 wasn't 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 races 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, the R15 won 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, the e-tron also won in 2013 and 2014.
- Toyota TS030/TS040/TS050: The only other LMPs that were able to remotely match Audi and Porsche in the 2010s. The TS040 stripped the World Endurance Championship title away from the German team in 2014.
- They are a Spiritual Successor to the Toyota GT-One (TS020), the car in which Keiichi Tsuchiya and his teammates placed second in 1999. The TS020 was itself a Spiritual Successor to the TS010, which also came second in the 1992 race.
- The second-place streak was tragically continued in 2016, with the TS050 leading the race comfortably with three minutes remaining, only to slow down and ultimately stop on the penultimate lap with a turbocharger failure, allowing Porsche to take the lead and the win. Two years later, however, they dominated the race, hook, line and sinker, to take home a memorable 1-2 finish despite the lack of competing hybrids, and finally take the win over 30 years after their debut attempt in the 1980s.
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 paying "gentleman" drivers who may have the speed to match the pros, if not the consistency.
- Bronze drivers consist of 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're 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 (only four hours every six, or 14 hours total, can be spent behind the wheel 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 Patrick Dempsey, Nick Mason from Pink Floyd, and Paul Newman, who finished 2nd overall in 1979. Stars from other sports have also taken part, recently including soccer star Fabian Barthez, Olympic track cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, and French skier Luc Alphand. Contrary to popular belief, and despite his name being synonymous with the race (see below), Steve McQueen never officially raced in the event for real. (Though unconfirmed, rumor has it that he may have surreptitiously driven stints in 1970 while filming his movie.)
Among the professional ranks of drivers, the record for most victories stands to Denmark's Tom Kristensen with nine overall wins, including an incredible run of six straight from 2000 to 2005—five for Audi and one for Bentley in 2003. This record might be nearly impossible to beat—not only does a driver's car have to be quick enough to win and hold itself together for so many races but he has to rely on none of his co-drivers crashing even once. Next up, with six, is the long time record holder Jacky Ickx from Belgium, who shared three of his wins with 5-time winner Derek Bell. The other two 5-timers are Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela—like Kristensen, they also owe their stats to the invincible Audi juggernaut of the 2000s, as all their wins came in the silver cars.
Notable in the list of winners is the absence of many stars of other disciplines of racing, showing how specialized the race became with little crossover with Formula One and American racing as it had until the 1960s. With the exception of Jacky Ickx, many of the top Le Mans winners are drivers who saw little success in F1 or never even had an opportunity to race. The aforementioned "Triple Crown" of Le Mans, Monaco and the Indy 500 has, as of 2020, only been achieved by one driver—Graham Hill. Hill is also the only driver to win another "Triple Crown" (with the F1 World Championship instead of Monaco). The other F1 world champions to win Le Mans are Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, Jochen Rindt, and Fernando Alonso. Juan Pablo Montoya, who is currently active and driving for Penske in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, can currently win the Triple Crown, including Monaco.
The race is held nonstop from Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon on the third weekend of June (the 24th weekend of the year) (except for 2020, when it was pushed back to the third weekend of September due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic).
Originally, the race began with the "Le Mans Start", where drivers took their marks outside their cars and had to dash into their seats, start their engines, and peel off as fast they could. This was extremely dangerous and caused many accidents (some fatal) because drivers neglected to properly strap in to save precious seconds. Because of this, modern Le Mans races opt for a safer rolling start. Some historical races that take place at Le Mans continue to use the classic start, however.
As in other multi-class endurance races, cars from all classes are on the track simultaneously. While blue flags are shown to slower cars to warn them of faster cars approaching from behind, 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 (or being navigated by faster traffic in slower classes) without losing too much time is a key aspect of doing well in the race. It is almost guaranteed for a car to encounter problems, either due to mechanical failures or driver mistakes. As long as the car isn't totaled 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 repair it and get it 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 final lap of the race, and every car that has completed 70% of the class leader's distance before crossing the finish line 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.
- The 2019 film Ford v Ferrari (titled ''Le Mans '66'' in several other territories) focuses on how American engineer Carroll Shelby and British-born driver Ken Miles developed the Ford GT40 to compete and win against Ferrari in 1966.
- Both the Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport series contain LMP and GT cars, with the former being the fastest cars in the games (barring Formula 1 cars and bleeding-edge concepts like the Red Bull X2010). The Circuit de la Sarthe features in later installments of both series (debuting in GT4 and FM3 respectively).
- 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.
- Sega made an arcade game based on the race for 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.
- Le Mans 24 Hours, also known as Test Drive: Le Mans, was published by Infogrames for multiple consoles in 2000. This game is notable for its endurance mode, where the Le Mans race can be played out over several hours.
- Project CARS features both LMP classes with real cars and Original Characters designed by the WMD Community underneath the fictional monikers of RWD and Marek. There is also a Prototype 1 and 2 class featuring track cars such as such as the Radical SR-3/SR-8 or the Caterham SP/300.R, as well as historic classes such as LMP900, which features cars like the Bentley Speed 8, and the GR.C class that features the Sauber-Mercedes C9 as mentioned above. There is an actual 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.