The world’s greatest auto race is not the Daytona 500, the Monaco Grand Prix or even the Indy 500. It’s the 24 Hours of Le Mans and it starts on Saturday.
As the name implies, it’s a 24-hour endurance race, which takes place in Le Mans, France, but it is so much more than just that. The race has taken place annually since 1923 — only pausing in 1936 due to a strike in France and from 1939-1948 due to the outbreak of World War II.
It has since become one of the greatest motor races in the world, easily on par with the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. Drivers race in teams of three from 3 p.m. on Saturday to 3 p.m. on Sunday. The team which covers the most distance wins. This means the cars have to be incredibly quick, but also reliable and efficient. Drivers and crews are pushed up to and beyond their limits.
Finishing Le Mans is a massive accomplishment. Winning might as well be a moonshot.
The course is called Circuit de la Sarthe and is comprised of a mix of closed public roads and dedicated racing roads, totaling nearly eight-and-a-half miles in its present configuration. It’s known for its incredibly long straight, called the Mulsanne Straight, which was nearly four miles in length before two chicanes (small turns) were added to slow cars down. Before the chicanes were added in 1990, the fastest cars would regularly hit over 230 mph on the Mulsanne.
What was it like in the past?
Over the years, it has attracted some of the best cars and drivers. It’s also been home to some of the fiercest battles and rivalries. In the 1920s and 1930s automakers like Bentley, Alfa Romeo and Bugatti made names for themselves, with Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and especially Jaguar dominating the first 15 post-war years.
The 1955 edition race saw the worst tragedy in motorsports history [warning: graphic link] when a Mercedes-Benz crashed into the back of an Austin-Healey and launched into the crowd, killing 130. The race continued and was won by a Jaguar.
The mid-1960s saw the intense battle between Ford and Ferrari, spurred on by Henry Ford II’s anger at Enzo Ferrari’s refusal to sell his company. This led to four years of Ford domination with its legendary GT40 and some of the greatest racing the world had ever seen.
Porsche won for the first time in 1969, establishing a domination that ended in 1998 with their 16th win. From the 1970s to the 1980s, cars got increasingly faster and manufacturers pioneered technologies like turbocharging and dual-clutch gearboxes that soon made their way into the road cars we drive every day.
Audi won for the first time in 2000 and has won every year since, save for 2003 and 2009 with Bentley and Peugeot taking the top spot, respectively. The years of Audi’s domination have seen the cars turn into technological masterpieces, with the fastest cars all now employing hybrid tech in some capacity.
The race has attracted some of the greatest racers in the world, and if you can believe it, a couple of celebrities. Steve McQueen raced here while making the film Le Mans, Patrick Dempsey has been a regular fixture and Paul Newman managed a 2nd place overall finish in 1979 behind the wheel of a Porsche 935.
What is racing for 24 hours like?
In a word, insane. It’s one of the ultimate challenges in all of motorsports. It’s longer than an entire Formula 1 season in just a day.
Since it’s 24 hours, the drivers will experience varying visibility, temperature and weather and will be constantly fighting fatigue. Adding to this is the fact that the course itself is so big, the weather can be wildly different from one end to the other. A driver could come in for a pit stop and have dry-weather tires installed, only to find that it’s down-pouring on the other side of the track.
I can’t think of any sporting event which poses this much challenge to man and machine.
What kind of cars will be there this year?
The race is divided into four classes with two for Prototypes (non-production cars) and two for GT cars (race cars based on road cars). There’s Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP1) for the fastest cars, LMP2 for slower prototypes, GT Endurance Pro and GT Endurance Amateur.
LMP1 is generally the most-watched class, but this year the competition will be especially intense.
Audi will be running a new version of its dominant R18 e-tron Quattro, which combines a 4.0 liter turbocharged V6 diesel engine with a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) that harvests the energy a car makes under braking and turns it into electricity that powers a motor which gives power to the front wheels.
Porsche is looking to reclaim its dominance with its 919 Hybrid, which also uses a KERS system like the Audis, but with a 2.0 liter V4 gasoline engine, making a total of 900 horsepower. Only one of Porsche’s two cars finished last year, nabbing a 5th place spot, but in this year’s practice and qualifying, Porsche has been the fastest.
Toyota has been challenging Audi at Le Mans since 2012, but it hasn’t managed a victory. However, Toyota’s TS040 racer won the World Endurance Championship last year, so there’s no doubt its a quick car.
Then there’s Nissan; the company basically threw out the rulebook on making a race car and started from square one with its GT-R LM.
All successful Le Mans racers have their engines mounted in the middle of the car right behind the driver, with either the rear or all wheels receiving the engine’s power. This provides the best balance of handling and traction. Nissan decided to do the exact opposite. Why? For a detailed, nerdy explanation check out the write-up in Racer, but the simple explanation is aerodynamics.
Turning a normal race car backwards allowed the engineers to develop a “flow-through” aerodynamic system that allows the car to slice through the air more precisely than its competitors. This should help when barreling down the Mulsanne at over 200 mph.
The main action will between cars from those four teams, but the rest of the classes should provide some excellent racing too.
Do I have to watch all 24 hours?
Not at all. If you’re up for it, by all means, but most people just watch for a bit during the day and follow along on social media when they’re away from their screens.
That’s the beauty of a 24-hour race: You can tune in whenever you like, and you’ll definitely catch some great action.
So how do I watch?
Glad you asked! If you have a cable subscription with Fox Sports, you can watch as the race alternates between Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 or the whole thing on the Fox Sports Go app. (Note: See Fox’s schedule.)
The Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the association that organizes the race, has an app for iOS and Android devices which costs $9.99 to download where you can watch the whole race. If you don’t want to watch, Radio Le Mans is always excellent and you can stream here.
The race starts at 9 a.m. ET (3 p.m. local time), so plan accordingly.
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