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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 2, 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, it is informally known as one part of the "Triple Crown of Motorsport" which includes the race as well as the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500.

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The Circuit

The Circuit de la Sarthe is very old, having been opened in 1923. It is also very long by modern standards, 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 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 tyre), Esses and Tetre 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 1 Grand Prix in 1967) - this bypasses from the esses back behind the paddock to the Ford Chicane at the end of the Sarthe circuit. Originally in the 1920s the race course ran straight on instead of turning right at Dunlop corner and ran much more 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.

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The 3.7-mile/6 km Mulsanne straight is the most famous feature of the course, though since 1990 it has been interrupted by two chicanes, and gradually enclosed by more barriers and fencing. A cafe 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 live and the Mulsanne is now out of bounds for spectators. Though being a public road this section can be driven by any motorist during non-racing sessions but these days the road is interrupted by several roundabouts (that the racetrack bypasses) as the areas surrounding the track have become more urbanised.

At the end of the straight the circuit turns sharp right through another fast public road leg through the forest, reaching the fast right hand Indianapolis corner (named for it's 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 are the least changed of the circuit since it's beginning, the course staying the same with only increases in runoff areas being added for safety.

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The final section of the track runs through a section of custom built racetrack - the Porsche Curves - a sequence of fast swerves 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 pits 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 car parks. Being now quite an old piece of circuit in it's 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 Chicane, first introduced in the late 1960s to reduce the cars' speed past the pitlane complex. Curiously the French organisors named two features of the track after Ford and Porsche but there are no similar honours for Ferrari, Matra, Audi, Jaguar or Bentley. The area opposite the end of the pits is notorious as where the terrible disaster of the 1955 race happened when one of the Mercedes team cars was launched into the crowd, and this disaster spurred the first great renovation of the circuit when the old pit buildings were demolished and the whole section of track widened. The 1950s pits lasted until 1991 when the current, much larger, pit lane was constructed. Originally the organisers in the 1970s had planned to replace all the public road sections with parallel race track, but this plan never came to pass, and one of the main continuing appeals of Le Mans is the amount of circuit that remains public highway.

Amazingly given all the changes to the track 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 is only slightly slower than the all time pole record from 1971, 3:13.90, on a layout that is 0.16 kilometres longer with about thirteen more corners or chicanes in it.

The Cars

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 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 fact 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 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. Until the early 1960s all the cars on the grid were (mostly) road legal cars, and even the most exotic front runners could still be shaken down on the open roads before the race. Then in the mid-1960s great leaps forward 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 design 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, 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 Bentley 3 litre/4 litre/Speed 6: the first truly iconic cars of the race, sporting British Racing Green 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.
  • Alfa Romeo 8C: A low slung two-seater that won four straight races in the early 1930, setting a new benchmark for high speed sportscars of the time.
  • Jaguar C-Type, the first racing car to make good use of disc brakes to stop much more smartly than the opposition. Won twice in the early 1950s and 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 Hawthorn in 1955, when Le Mans Disaster occurred.
    • Jaguar XJR-9: the V12 car that famously broke the domination of Porsche and 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 Carroll Shelby, better known for the Shelby brand of performance muscle cars, to compete with the Ferrari P cars (see below). Two one-two victories. 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. The 1967 Ferrari P3/4 is often named as the prettiest racing car ever built, though it did not win the race and neither did it's successors. Ferrari's last overall win still stands as the 1965 race.
  • Porsche 917/936/935/956/962: The cars that 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 the Short-Lived Big Impact car, being the first car to break 240 mph on the Mulsanne straight and winning the race twice (though neither time for the "factory" team entry) before rule changes outlawed it and it's Ferrari 512 rival. The 936 was an open-top successor based around the 917 design and won the race twice. The concurrent 935 - whose most famous incarnation, the 935/78, is famously called "Moby Dick" - was a highly pumped-up variant of the 911 road car designed more for silhouette GT racing but it won overall in 1979. The Group C 956/962 won six straight (1982-1987), helped by a huge number of privateer entries racing the official Porsche team meaning the car dominated the starting grid.
  • Matra [MS670]: Overshadowed by Awesome: The small French marque won three Le Mans in the early 1970s but these were in the years after the ultra-quick movie star Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 speedsters had been made obsolete by rule changes, and the smaller, slower Matra cars could not hope to be as impressive.
  • 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, the last with the full uninterrupted Mulsanne Straight. 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.
    • Aside from the Sauber, Mercedes have star-crossed history in the race. They won in 1952 - the first ever closed coupe car to do so. Then in 1955 they brought their fearsome 300 SL (a car that had recently proven it's pace by winning the epic Mille Miglia road race in Italy) to race the Jaguar D-Type, only to see a multiple crash launch one of the team cars into the grandstand, with terrible loss of life. The Le Mans Disaster put off Mercedes from motorsports for many decades, then in the late 1990s history nearly repeated itself with the Mercedes CLR. Though beautiful, it was fatefully flawed and is known as The Alleged Car of recent Le Mans history. During the race, in front of a worldwide television audience, it took off 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 side of the trees, fortunately in an area where no one was standing, and with the driver unhurt. And this was the second time it had back flipped on it's own during the event, a smaller flip in practice was only overlooked slightly because the TV cameras didn't see it.
  • Mazda 787B: The first Japanese and so far only rotary-engined car to win the race. 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. It held it's distinction of being the only Japanese winner for 27 years until Toyota finally broke their duck in 2018.
  • Peugeot 905/908: The upholder of French pride in the 1990s and 2000s, the Peugeot team have 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, a car which brought some needed competition to Audi, but kept breaking down along the way before finally lasting in 2009.
  • 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. It also gave [McLaren the distinction of having won Le Mans, Indianapolis and the F1 World Championship as car constructor, putting them alongside Mercedes in that regard. note 
  • Audi "R" series: The Boring Invincible Hero, Audi won 13 races from 2000-2015, with only Bentley,[[note]]a sister company of Audi 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/TS050: 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!
    • They are a Spiritual Successor to the Toyota GT-One (TS020), whom Keiichi Tsuchiya and his teammates got the second place in the 1999 season. 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 to go, only to slow down and ultimately stop on the penultimate lap with a turbo failure, allowing Porsche to take the lead and the win. 2 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.

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 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 skiier 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 rumour 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 together for so many races but he had to rely on none of his co-drivers stuffing it in a barrier 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; Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela, like Kristensen 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 much the race became a specialised event with little of the 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 Indy 500 has (as of 2018) only been one by one driver - Graham Hill. Hill is also the only driver to win another triple - with the F1 World Championship instead of Monaco. The other world champions to win Le Mans are Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, Jochen Rindt, and Fernando Alonso. Alonso is the only active current driver able to win the triple with the F1 championship and Monaco GP already on his record. Juan Pablo Montoya can currently win the triple including Monaco.

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.

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