There are a number of motor races that could claim to be be the “world’s greatest motor race” – the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500, the Dakar Rally or the Daytona 500 would all make a strong claim. But for me, there is no contest: it’s the 24 Heures du Mans (24 Hours of Le Mans), sometimes known as the ‘Grand Prix of Endurance’.
Le Mans mixes huge speeds with huge engineering challenges, bravery with strategy, and endurance with aggression. And the 56 cars are watched by over a quarter of a million spectators competing in their own endurance event – trying to stay awake for the whole race.
The roll call of manufacturers who have won at Le Mans is essentially a Who’s Who of the automotive world. Porsche has won more than any other, with Audi just behind. Despite not entering a factory squad since the 1960s, Ferrari sits third on the all-time winners list. But there’s also Alfa Romeo (back when Enzo Ferrari ran the team, before starting his own outfit), Aston Martin, Bentley (whose reputation was created on the Circuit de la Sarthe in the 1920s and 30s), BMW, Bugatti, Ford, Jaguar, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, McLaren, Peugeot and Renault. Many others have tried and failed, but keep coming back for more. The world’s largest car company, Toyota, has had several attempts over the years but fallen short each time. Maybe 2015 will be its year, but it faces towering rivals in Audi (13 wins in the last 15 years) and Porsche. Nissan has built a bespoke car for Le Mans, aimed at maximising performance on the long Mulsanne and Indianapolis Straights – even though it will be compromised on every other race track in the rest of the World Championship.
Drivers all want to win Le Mans as well. Former F1 drivers Mark Webber, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima are contenders for outright victory, while Nico Hulkenberg will be squeezing a quick 24 Hours of Le Mans in between the Canadian and Austrian GP weekends. Audi has traditionally preferred to select drivers with considerable sports car and GT experience, rather than F1 stars, and has a fearsome line up of talent in its three cars.
Even Hollywood loves Le Mans. Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey has raced there on a few occasions, and is back this year. Paul Newman actually finished second in 1979, and Steve McQueen made an entire movie (below) featuring considerable footage from the 1970 race.
The Circuit de la Sarthe – a unique challenge
First held in 1923, the race is run on a mixture of public roads and specialist racetrack. The Circuit de la Sarthe links the southern tip of the town of Le Mans with the villages of Mulsanne and Arnage. It is a very long track by modern standards, stretching for over 8.5 miles (13.629km, to be exact). There are long straights where the cars regularly exceed 200mph, sweeping curves and tight chicanes. Unlike night-time F1 races where the whole circuit is lit up like daylight, only certain sections of Le Mans are lit at night, meaning that the cars plunge into darkness down the straights every lap for nearly eight hours, guided only by their headlights. That might sound fine for a normal car at 70mph on a motorway, but at three times that speed it’s almost flying blind (below).
A Grand Prix season in one day
The winning car at Le Mans this year will cover the equivalent of 17 Formula One Grand Prix races in one day. It will take three drivers working in shifts to maintain a perfect consistency to win the race. The winning car will make up to forty pit stops throughout the race. Modern racing cars are so reliable that they can be driven virtually flat-out for the whole 24 hours, so cruising around gently (hoping that everyone else will break down) is no longer a winning strategy. One small slip from a driver or a mechanic can undo a year’s worth of preparation.
Big speeds, big dangers
As you would expect from an epic motor race that has been running for nearly a century, there have been some big crashes with some tragic results. The worst accident in motor racing history occurred on the pit straight at Le Mans in 1955, when a Mercedes, Austin and Jaguar got tangled.
The Mercedes 300 SLR was launched into the air and landed in the crowd, killing over 80 people (the final tally has never been conclusively proven). Mercedes-Benz withdrew from all motor sport for nearly 30 years as a result, and safety standards were overhauled around the world. Most recently, popular Danish driver Allen Simonsen was killed in 2013 when his Aston Martin spun sideways into a barrier at high speed.
Audi had two scares in the 2011 race, when first Allan McNish (below) and then Mike Rockenfeller endured massive crashes as a result of collisions with slower backmarkers. Mercedes had a nightmare year in 1999, with three separate incidents of its cars taking off into the sky at massive speed. With memories of 1955 still painful, they have not been back to Le Mans since.
An endurance event for the fans as well
Over a quarter of a million race fans congregate on the town of Le Mans each June for the 24 hour race – usually over 50,000 from Great Britain. Car clubs of all flavours will head down in cavalcades, others use the Eurostar and excellent local tram service, while the wealthy will touch down at Le Mans airport just across from the track’s main gate. The build up starts on Friday afternoon in the town centre for the drivers’ parade, and from then on it’s a massive weekend of partying interrupted only by a motor race starting at about 3pm on Saturday.
Many fans will attempt to stay up for the whole race, while others will try to get some sleep in a tent located just a short distance from the track (hint – it’s not exactly peaceful sleeping next to an active racetrack…). There are plenty of bars, concerts, fireworks, raves and other entertainment, and on Sunday morning it seems strange to find that there is still a race going on.
This year, I am lucky enough to be joining the Pistonheads crew on their annual Le Mans pilgrimage. The plan is for plenty of pics to be posted to The Car Expert’s Instagram account, live tweets from the race weekend, and a race report of sorts when I eventually return (and can hopefully remember what happened). Follow TCE’s progress with #PHLM15 on Instagram, Twitter and here on the website.