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24hrs of Le Mans: The greatest race in the world

Updated: Mar 24, 2021


I've been wanting to do this one for quite some time now. The 24hrs of Le Mans is the single oldest endurance race in the world, and certainly the greatest of all endurance races. It may even be the greatest race in the world, but that is debatable. But why? What makes it such a brilliant race? Well, I think it has to do with the history of the race, so I'll first explain the somewhat tragic history of the race, and why it is so respected.


The History

I'm gonna split this into various segments, because it is such an old race and it is just impossible to talk about the rich history of the race and do it justice in 1 paragraph.


1923-1939


The race first ran as Le Grand Prix d'Endurance in 1923, on a very old configuration of the Circuit de la Sarthe. As for the competitors, they were all major manufacturers of the automotive world at the time, including Bentley and Alfa Romeo. These 2 manufacturers won all but 3 of the races in this period. These ancient giants all had extremely similar designs for their cars: long tubular frames, big engine up front, open cockpit, bicycle tyres (basically) and drum brakes. There were no privateer teams back then, mostly because most had no car, so most couldn't race unless they were endorsed by the manufacturers of the cars. Honestly, this period is pretty empty by racing history standards, so I'm not gonna talk much about this period. Instead, I will let you know that the race went on a 10 year hiatus after the end of this period. Why? Well, just think. The year is 1939, and an angry German is about to unleash his hate on an entire planet.


1949-1969


This is when Ferrari's reputation as a creator of amazing race cars, cars that were, for a time, thought to be invincible on the track. Ferrari secured the first of their 8 victories in 1949, and the Maranello red dominated the circuit for almost 20 years after 1949. But the Prancing Horse faced some serious competition, and the legendary status of the race began to form. Some of the competition included the Jaguar D-Type and the Aston Martin DB.

But Ferrari had an answer: the 250. This car is now the single most expensive car in the world and one of the greatest ever to come out of Maranello. This period's most iconic car was not the 250 though, because the one of the greatest rivalry in motorsports grew in this period: Ford vs Ferrari. And the result was one of the most iconic cars in history: the Ford GT40 Mark IV, which dominated the rest of this time period, winning 4 consecutive events from 1966 to 1969.

And I think this is when the legendary status of the race was cemented. Why do I say that? It's because when we think of Le Mans, this is what we think of: a curvaceous, scarlet red Ferrari and a blue and white Ford GT40 racing into the night, crossing the line side by side. Le Mans became a truly legendary race due to the stories that arose from this period, and the legend of the race grew and grew. I believe that this period is perhaps the most important for Le Mans itself and truly created a legend. But a legend like this not only garners admiration. There is a certain respect that comes with these legends, respect that can only come around due to fear of something tragic. And Le Mans gained its respect due to tragic events. Im sure you have all heard of the tragic crash of Pierre Levegh in 1955. He lost control of his Mercedes and crashed into the stands of the fans. 83 people were killed, including Pierre himself. The legend only got enhanced from here honestly, but not in a good way. The race garnered a certain fear, but people still wanted to race. Like all holy sites, it was far from pure, and honestly still isn't, but fans still make the pilgrimage to the sacred lands of Le Mans. This period was the most important for Le Mans as a legend, but the next was probably the best for the cars themselves.


1970-1980



This period is famous for a significant increase in the aerodynamical development of all the cars. Some very famous cars and technical innovations came about from this era. Aerodynamic understanding skyrocketed as teams being to implement all sorts of whacky and new ideas to find performance. Ideas like streamlined bodywork and wings began to come up and be implemented and tested here. Porsche began their dominance of the race in this period, starting with the now famous 917K, a car with extremely streamlined bodywork. This was succeeded by the 935 and 936, all of which followed the same principle of streamlined bodywork, low weight and oversized engines for maximum performance around the famous circuit.

But Porsche weren't the only winners in this period. Rather appropriately, the French teams and manufacturers had a resurgence in form during this period, winning 5 of the races in this period. This period is, in my opinion, the best period for the cars, as multiple aerodynamic revolutions and ideas came about and were honed in this period. This period directly led to cars being designed in a more streamlined manner and an improvement in the ways wind tunnels were used. These methods still influence the way manufacturers use wind tunnels today, and helps improve both efficiency and performance of all cars to this day.


1981-1993


Porsche were very dominant in this period. I really do mean it. Out of the 13 races in this period, Porsches won 7 of them. That is insane, but why? Why did they win so much? This has to do with the introduction of a new class to Le Mans, called Group C. Group C was a new class designed to encourage fuel efficiency while being ultra-fast. Porsche's cars used heavy turbocharging and therefore had the necessary power and fuel efficiency required for Group C. This made them very dominant, and Porsche held a monopoly of the top step of the podium for quite a long time. The factory team didn't win all the races, as they sold 956s and 962s to privateers, and they all won in those 8 years.

But come 1988, someone destroyed that monopoly. Jaguar's underrated and under-appreciated XJR-9 and later the XJR-12 in 1990. They were the first to end Porsche's dominance of the race, and opened the flood gates for other teams to win the race. In between the 2 Jaguar wins, Mercedes claimed their only win in 1989, with the Sauber designed C9. Rather fittingly, the last 2 victories of this French race in this period were by Peugeot, who had actually broken a record in 1988. In that year, they achieved a ridiculous 406 kph down the Mulsanne Straight.

That is the single fastest speed ever achieved at Le Mans, and directly led to the additions of the chicanes in the straight, just for safety reasons. But this period's most memorable victory wasn't Peugeot's victory. No, it was actually a victory by the Japanese. Mazda claimed a victory in 1991, with the now iconic 4-rotary Mazda 787B. This victory was the first victory for a Japanese manufacturer in Le Mans, and also showed the world how amazing rotary engines could be. No, I won't explain as I have much more interesting things to talk about.



1994-1999


This was a unique period for Le Mans as the Group C class was canned when the World Sportscar Championship was canned. The teams could no longer run expensive, custom-made prototypes in the Group C class. How did the teams combat this? Left with no other option, the teams were forced to use heavily modified and upgraded versions of their road cars, the dawn of what I'm going to call the GT-protoype era. The cars were called GT-prototypes cars because they were evolved forms of road cars. But the rules had an exploitable loophole regarding homologation, and as a result Porsche won the 1994 race in a modified 962, which was a purpose built Group C car, not an evolved road car. So yeah, they dominated the race. In 1995, the loophole was closed, and the winner was a car that was more road car and not people would consider a GT-prototype race car. The McLaren F1-GTR was just a lightly modified McLaren F1, so lightly modified that it looked almost exactly like the road version, just with a big wing. Yet the McLaren won that race, proving just how amazing the car was, beating purpose-built Le Mans cars. The following years saw wins by Porsche(again) and BMW won the 1999 race, although that is overshadowed by the now infamous Mercedes CLR crashing out in spectacular fashion, flying over the barrier and doing multiple flips before heavily chasing down on among the trees.

The reason for the crash was determined to be a major design flaw in the CLR, which came about due to Mercedes pushing their car to a point of aerodynamic instability. Essentially, the CLR had a rather short wheelbase so that it could have bigger diffusers. But that made the car very pitch sensitive and it would rock backwards and forwards under braking and acceleration. As the air passed underneath the car, it started to push the front of the car up further, and due to the bumpy nature of the circuit, at certain points the angle could become so big the car would take off and fly, which is what happened. This period ended with the FIA mandating a minimum wheelbase for the cars and certain aerodynamic restrictions being applied on the cars. Thankfully, no car has flipped like that since then so I think the rule changes worked.


2000-present


This is the last period I will cover and there really isn't much to say here. Sure, there were a lot of rules changed to make Le Mans what it is today, but in general, the modern era of Le Mans has been characterised by the dominance of German manufacturers Audi and Porsche, with occasional wins for Bentley and Peugeot in between. Recently however, both of those teams left the top class of Le Mans, and the race has been dominated by Toyota since 2017. The race has had some tragic moments, most notably the death of Allan Simonsen in 2013, but it has also had joyous and legendary moments, like Porsche beating Audi in 2015 and ending Audi's monopoly on the top step of the podium. Or Toyota's first win in 2017, the first win for a Japanese manufacturer since 1991. This period is still Le Mans at it's finest, proving that this is a race that will never die.



That is an overview of the history of the race, so now let's look at the modern-day Le Mans and how it is run.


How is the race run these days?


These days, you can't think of Le Mans as 1 race, because the cars vary so drastically across the field. So instead, think of Le Mans as 4 races run on 1 track. This is because of the cars, whose performance varies significantly based on the category or class it is eligible for. There are 5 different classes, and the performance of the cars and drivers in each class is very different, to the point that cars of 2 different classes cannot effectively compete with each other for a multitude of reasons. And yes I know I said 4 races with 5 different classes of cars, but you will understand shortly. Also, there are multiple entry restrictions, but they are too complicated to go into right now. All you need to know is that there are multiple classes of cars that race at Le Mans.


Let me explain the differences between the classes of race cars first. There are 3 classes of "Prototype cars" and 2 classes of "GTE cars." I will explain the LMPs now.


The Prototypes, or LMPs


The Le Mans Prototypes (or LMPs) are cars that bear almost zero resemblance to road cars. These cars are designed to be punished for hours upon hours straight without failing, making them even more impressive technical feats than F1 cars in some respects. Like I said, there are 3 classes of LMP cars: LMP1, LMP2 and LMP3. There are some common regulations for all the cars: any and all mechanical parts of the car must be covered by bodywork. The cars must be a closed cockpit design and there needs to be enough space to seat 2 people in the cockpit.



The true rocket ships are the LMP1s. These cars have very few regulations on the engine and aerodynamics of the cars. Manufacturers are allowed to design the car in any way they want and use any engine they please. The LMP1 class allows entrants to run a non-hybrid powertrain (where the engine has a maximum allowed displacement of 5.5L), or a hybrid powertrain with no restriction on engine displacement. To balance out the powertrains, the minimum weight of the hybrid entries is higher than that of non-hybrid entrants, but regardless, LMP1 is still a very unrestricted class and although the cars look somewhat similar, they are incredibly different. Another unusual thing about LMP1 cars is that 4-wheel drive hasn't been banned for this particular class of race cars. 4-wheel drive has many advantages, including better traction out of a corner and earlier power application, but it does struggle with weight, as 4-wheel drive requires more components and is generally more complex than 2 wheel drive. In LMP1, there are no restrictions on the drivetrain, so manufacturers are free to experiment with whatever they want, making it one of the least regulated (comparatively) forms of motorsport in the world.



After those rocket ships come the aeroplanes of LMP2. They are nowhere near the speed of the LMP1 cars, because of the regulations. The regulations mandate that LMP2 cars be almost 30 kg heavier than the heaviest LMP1 car. Furthermore, the LMP2 cars have a mandated engine, a homologated 4.2L V8 that all LMP2 cars must use. It can produce around 600hp and is fairly light as far as V8s go. As an engine, it is impressive, but it's 600 hp is a far cry from the 1000+ hp of the LMP1 cars, which are also lighter as previously mentioned. Because of this, the LMP2s are nowhere near the performance of the LMP1s. As of 2020, there are only 4 manufacturers of LMP2 chassis, but more than 4 teams. This is because LMP2 is more cost-effective than LMP1, but it is still an ultra fiercely contested race class.



The slowest of the LMP class of cars are the LMP3s, but they are still much faster than the GT cars. They are designed as an entry level class for Prototype racing, and are significantly slower when compared to LMP1s and 2s. The LMP3 class is almost exclusively for rookies to prototype racing and help them get accustomed to prototype racing. The LMP3 cars have a higher minimum weight than any other of the LMP classes. That means they are slower than the other 2 LMP classes, but still amazingly fast cars. This is the newest class of LMP cars, so only 4 manufacturers provide the chassis for the cars, and the cars are mandated to have a 5L Nissan V8 to keep the playing field relatively even. This class exists primarily to find the best drivers so that they can be hired by the bigger teams in LMP1 and 2. The LMP3s are not actually raced at the Le Mans race itself, but they are classified as Le Mans Prototypes, so I felt they were worth talking about. They race in the European and Asian Le Mans series, championships that take these cars to races around the aforementioned continents. These cars are still very impressive, and serve as a more than adequate entry class into Prototype racing without pushing drivers to the breaking point just yet.


Those are the the LMP cars, now it is time to discuss the other class of cars that race in Le Mans these days, the GTE cars.



The LM-GTE cars



What makes this so very different from the LMPs is that they are pretty much identical to road cars. I'm serious, just look for a picture of GTE race cars and then their road legal counterparts. Minus a big front splitter and rear wing in some cases, they are virtually identical to their road counterparts. That is because the regulations state that the car must "have an aptitude for sport with 2 doors or 2+2 seating, open or closed, which can be used perfectly legally on the open road and available for sale." Translation: a road legal car with certain safety modifications due to the dangers of high speed racing. Those include, but are not limited to, removing the airbags (all of them), electrical cutoff and the addition of a FIA grade roll cage.


Another important regulation on the cars and their eligibility to race are the Homologation rules. The Homologation rules refer to the number of cars a manufacturer must produce before that car is eligible to be transformed into a race car. To keep this fair and allow a lot of manufacturers to compete in the race, the rules are different for companies of different sizes. A company is defined as small if its production capability is lower than 2000 cars per year but more than 1 car a month. To make one of their models eligible for racing, 25 road-legal models must be made before-hand. A manufacturer is defined as big if it can produce one car a week and must make 100 road-legal versions of their car before it can become a GTE-class car.


As for the engine, the regulations state that it can not be bigger than 5.5L if it is naturally aspirated or 4.0L if it is supercharged or turbocharged. This is to keep the playing field somewhat even as a turbocharged or supercharged engine is obviously going to produce far more power than a naturally aspirated one, so keeping those engines smaller than the others means that the power output can stay somewhat similar and keeps the playing field a little more even.


The 2 classes of GTE cars refer to the drivers allowed, not the car specifications. For the GTE-Pro class, only experienced drivers are allowed into this class, with teams being allowed a free choice of driver lineup for each car. When compared to the GTE-Am class, things are a little different. This is, as expected, a class for amateurs to get accustomed to racing in and as a result, all GTE-Am cars must have a team of 2-3 drivers, with 1 of the drivers being either a bronze or silver medalist, so that the newer drivers can get some advice and learn by watching. Until 2018, there used to be a rule stating that GTE-Am cars had to be built to the previous year's specifications, but that rule was scrapped, mostly to increase the speed of the cars.


Honestly, that is everything you need to know about the cars in the Le Mans 24 hours, but not what they contributed. Buckle up, as the last thing I will talk about are the innovations that came up during the nearly 100 years this race has been run for.


The important Innovations


Due to the nature of the track, there are really only 2 aspects of the cars that were focused on. Those 2 aspects were aerodynamics and the motors the cars used. Given the nature of the track, these were the most important parts of the car and the ones that would give the greatest pace when properly developed. Let's start with the engine as that is simple.


The engines

The technology improvements for the engines were not limited to just increasing power output, but also fuel efficiency. It makes sense when you think about it, as this is a 24 hour race and the less times you have to stop for refuelling, the more time you can spend on track and the quicker you can be in general. So the engines evolved to be more powerful and fuel-efficient due to a combination of material science and a improvement in the understanding of thermodynamics. There were other technologies that appeared to improve power though.


One of those ideas was to not run piston engines so some really stupid ideas came about as a result. The 60s are known for being crazy, and that is reflected in the racing. I mean, who thought it was a good idea to use jet engines for power? Apparently, this was a good idea to some people in the 60s, because twice in the 60s did teams run cars with a turbine engine. They both ended in abject failures as the engines were far too heavy and consumed way too much fuel to be considered any sort of good. So that idea died in about 5 seconds. A more successful non-piston engined runner in the Le Mans 24hrs was Mazda and their Wankel Rotary engine.

This engine was known to be significantly more powerful than any piston engine, but it was horribly unreliable and very difficult to get the best out of, so it took many years of development until the Rotary engine stood on the top step of the podium in 1991. The fact that this is the only time a non-piston engine ended up on the podium shows how difficult it is to make a non-piston powered car to work properly.


Those were the only times non-piston engines ran in Le Mans, with teams opting to look for power elsewhere, such as in the fuel they used. The fuel has evolved over the years, with biofuels constituting a bigger and bigger percentage of the fuels used by the Le Mans entrants. This helped improve both power and fuel efficiency from the 80s onwards. And diesel was also used to improve performance from the 50s, mostly due to fuel economy, allowing the cars to run longer without pitting for fuel.


Another source of power were the engine add-ons that were used. There are only 2 that can be used: Superchargers and Turbochargers. The first one to appear was the supercharger in 1929. It did improve power, but it also lowered the fuel efficiency because those things work by force-feeding the engine more fuel so that it produces more power. They were still effective though, and are still being used today. The other, and more common engine add-on that was used from 1974 onwards is the turbocharger. It provides more power than a supercharger and with time, smaller, turbocharged engines were proving to be more fuel efficient and more powerful than the naturally aspirated engines on the grid. The technology that was developed then is still being implemented today, showing how influential that tech was and still is.


The last power innovation was Hybrid technology. Hybrid powertrains were allowed on LMP1 cars from 2009 onwards and since then, the most well funded teams have been running hybrid powertrains. This is a big issue with Hybrid systems as the technology is expensive, even for major manufacturers. But people are still willing to spend money on hybrid power systems because of the serious performance advantage that comes with it. The performance gain revolves around what I like to call a hybrid boost. Essentially, the teams can program the electric motors to receive a lot more electric power than normal and give the teams a boost in overall power. This allows the teams to increase their top speed on straights and the beauty of this is that the cars won't be unstable in the corners. This is because the boost system increases the maximum power output of the motors while not affecting the minimum power output. These systems have dominated the race since 2009 and if you look at a list of the LMP1 class winners from 2009 onwards, most, if not all of them, are powered by a hybrid powertrain. The development of these Hybrid systems was very important, and they have made their way into everyday life where most hybrids can trace their technology to the LMP1s who ran these systems in the most extreme environment.


Those are the most important engine and powertrain innovations that came about due to Le Mans and almost all of them have made their way into everyday life. There was one other area of the cars that significantly developed over time, and that was the aerodynamics of the cars.


The Aerodynamics


The aerodynamics evolved over time to be less draggy and the cars have evolved to cut through the air more easily and create far less drag over the years. The idea initially came about thanks to, of all companies, Bugatti. They pioneered the smoother bodywork with the Type 57G "tank car" in 1937, so called for it's tank-like appearance. it dominated the race and teams now understood how important aerodynamics were in a car, as the Bugatti wasn't exactly the most powerful car on the field, yet it smashed the competition. Since then, the teams evolved the cars to be more and more streamlined to minimise drag while ensuring there was enough drag to stop the car after the long straight. But how has this impacted our daily lives? Well, the more streamlined a car is, the greater the fuel economy believe it or not! If you think about it, it does actually make sense. A streamlined car requires much less power to get and keep moving than a very draggy car, and therefore uses less fuel. This aerodynamic knowledge is being used in every car being built these days to maximise fuel economy. That is how Le Mans has improved the aerodynamics of the worlds cars.


Those are all the important innovations from Le Mans and how they made their way into our daily lives. Of course, the innovations only came about due to the nature of the track, so I will talk about it now.


Le Circuit de la Sarthe



The Circuit de la Sarthe is a hybrid of public roads and purpose built sections of track, making it very different from other tracks and one of the most unique tracks in the world. It is an extremely bumpy track, and there are sudden elevation changes and small hills for the cars to rocket through. Initially, the track was just a oversized triangle, with no real uniqueness amazingly. But as time went on, the track evolved to what we have today, a track where nearly 85% of the time you are full throttle. I will take you on a tour of the 30+ corner track, and explain the difficulties or peculiarities of each section as they come.



The Pit Straight

Fairly self explanatory and the scene of many formation finishes. The Ford GT40s in 1966, the Ferraris before them, the Porsches in 2015. But this is also a place of agonising heartbreak. In 2016, Kamui Kobayashi's Toyota TSO5O GTO broke down on the last 3 minutes of the race, and ground to halt just after the start/finish line. The most painful thing of all was that a full lap of Le Mans was a little over 3 minutes at the time, so the Toyota broke down on the last lap of race. But other than those scenes, the pit straight is just that, the straight with the pits next to it.


Dunlop curve/chicane

This famous turn is called the Dunlop curve due to the fact that the Dunlop Bridge is directly overhead. this is one of the most iconic images of Le Mans: the cars going flat-out up the rise and under the bridge before breaking heavily for the chicane after that.



The Forest Esses

A series of high speed left-right flicks that maintain the essence of the circuit: high speed. The cars are thrown in to a very technical section of the track and try and navigate these turns while overtaking another car sometimes.



Tertre Rouge

One of the most well known corners on the track, Tertre Rouge is a tricky one. The reason why is because it is a deceptively slow yet deceptively fast corner. Go in too slow, you lose a very important exit and ruin your lap, guaranteed. Go in too fast, you hit the wall and damage your car, and ruin your lap. Its a tricky corner that requires a near perfect judgement to ace.



Mulsanne Straight

Known in France as the Ligne Droite des Hunaudières, this is probably the most famous piece of tarmac in the world. It used to be over a mile's worth of flat out racing, but now there are chicanes installed for safety reasons, because the speeds were getting a little scary. Regardless, this is probably the single most iconic piece of the track, and images of cars overtaking and re-overtaking each other down the Mulsanne Straight will be forever etched into peoples minds.




Mulsanne Corner

This corner is named after the town of Mulsanne right next to the corner itself and is one of the slowest sections of the track, as this is basically a 90 right directly after the longest straight on the track. Sitting on the grass near the corner, you get a fantastic view at night, where the cars brake disks will be glowing orange as they slow down from over 200 mph.


Indianapolis Corner

Named after the American oval track, the run from Mulsanne to Indianapolis is the fastest section of the track as the entire section is downhill, and the cars can hit speeds of over 210 mph before braking heavily for another slow corner, and you will get the same incredible view of the cars as you get if you sit near the Indianapolis corner.



Arnage Corner

The slowest part of the track, Arnage is a 90 degree corner with very little margin for error as the walls are fairly close here. But given the slow nature of the section, this is actually not a half bad overtaking spot as the cars are going so slow, they can get side by side fairly easily, but it's not a guaranteed overtake here because defending is fairly easy. You definitely want to exit this corner first though, as the next section of the track is impossible to go side by side in.



Porsche Curves

This is a flat out section of the track with the cars doing nearly 200 mph on corner entry. Take time to process that if needed, as it is ridiculous. This is pretty much the most difficult and dangerous section of the track as a mistake here can be fatal. Even with modern safety features, this is not a safe corner, and drivers experience significant lateral forces every time they go through here. Couple that with the 24 hour nature of the race and the fact that drivers often race continuously for 7-8 hours and you can see why these corners are feared and yet loved.


Corvette Curves

Named after the famous American car, this section is more of a continuation of the Porsche Curves but they are very different. For one, they are much slower than the Porsche Curves and therefore much easier. But the walls are closer, so the margin for error isn't any bigger than in the Porsche Curves.



Maison Blanche

Translating to white house, but not named after the White House, this corner is actually an abandoned road located in between the Porsche and Corvette Curves. It's just a small kink in the road, but its one of the most important spots on the track as this is one of the few corners to receive very few changes, with the current layout being traceable as far back as the 70s.



Ford Chicanes

A series of 2 chicanes towards the end of the lap, the Ford Chicanes were added towards the end of the 60s and named after the American giant's domination of the race in the late 60s. These were installed for safety reasons, as the speeds coming to the pits was getting excessive and scary.


After that, the cars turn back on to the famous pit straight, with the LMP1s going on to repeat this 8.467 mile ordeal in little over 3 minutes 15 seconds, showing just how fast these cars actually are.



That is everything that needs to be known about this race. Regarding the race's future, the LMP1 class is being replaced with the LMH (Le Mans Hypercar) class, which is essentially the same thing as a LMP1 car. The LMP2 class is changing to the LMDh (Le Mans Daytona h) class. This is a hybrid of a LMP car and a car competing in the American Le Mans series called a Daytona Prototype International (Dpi for short). The rules are going to be virtually identical to the LMP2 class, but the cars are now hybrids, carrying a small battery pack and electric motor combination. Details about these new classes are a little vague, but they are detailed enough to make these assumptions with confidence. But if I were you, I wouldn't be worried. This race is damn near 100 years old and has been run almost 90 times by this point. It has endured WW2 and the entirety of the Cold War and still exists today, no matter what. It has endured a lot and still stands as possibly the brightest jewel in the motorsports Triple Crown.


This is the single greatest race in the world.

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