Racing 101, Part 4: 24 Hours of Le Mans Primer

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
Racing 101, Part 4: 24 Hours of Le Mans Primer

It’s been over a year since I wrote a “Racing 101” piece, and with warm-ups complete for a big race today, I thought it was high-time to get back to helping expand readers’ knowledge, understanding, and interest in different aspects of racing. So everyone settle in, get out your paper and pencil, and take notes as we take a look at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

Introduction:

This weekend will see the greatest of all sport-car races-the 76th running of the 24 Heures Du Mans, or 24 Hours of Le Mans. This marathon tests man and machine to and beyond the breaking point, as drivers pilot their vehicles around eight-plus miles (yes, I said “eight”) of road course at the Circuit de le Sarthe in Le Mans, France. Le Mans is located 186 kilometers (115 miles) from Paris. 

Speed Channel will provide 16 hours of coverage of this race, from the start at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Saturday morning, breaking for NASCAR coverage during the course of the day, then resuming broadcasting the balance from 9 p.m. through 9:30 a.m. Sunday. 

“Organized on a regular basis since 1923, it is the biggest sporting challenge for car manufacturers because it is based on ‘being the best over 24 hours.’” (lemans.org)

If you’re a fan of racing, especially the history of it, and have never tuned in for the 24 Hours, I highly recommend it. There is international flavor, four classes of amazing racing machines, speeds upwards and over 200 miles per hour, and the test of time and elements. Rain is fairly common during this time of year in France, making conditions treacherous for the competitors. Consider that over half of the race course is on what are public roads the remainder of the year.

For those of you with a Playstation game console, the old and new course at Le Mans are available to drive on Gran Turismo (versions 3 and 4 I believe) and is replicated in exquisite detail. It is quite thrilling to take a lap around the circuit, especially in an Audi R10 Diesel or the Corvette C6R.

Purpose:

The following is taken directly from the web site for the 24 Hours of Le Mans (www.lemans.org), and list the reasons that the race exists. 

- Sporting: Endurance racing tests performance over an extended time

- Technology: Endurance racing is the best test of technological achievement

- Spectator appeal: Endurance racing has an emotional appeal for the spectator that is continually renewed

- Media Interest: The history of Endurance racing is rich in stories of drivers, cars and manufacturers 

History:

The first 24 Hours was run in 1923, and Frenchmen Andre Lagache and Rene Leonard won the race in a Chenard et Walcker Sport, powered by a 3-Liter In-line 4-cylinder engine. The pair complete 128 laps and covered a distance of 2209.5 kilometers, or 1325.7 miles over the 17.262 km course. 

The early races were dominated by Italians, Britons, and French nationals. Americans would break through with their first win in 1966, when Ford was bound and determined to show their ability to compete with Ferrari head-to-head. Fords would win four straight, with four different teams of drivers in the ’66-’69 time frame. 

The record distance covered was in 1971 by a German Porsche 917K, having completed 5335.313 km (3021.19 miles) in the 24 hour time. 

Porsches were very successful through the 1980s and 1990s, until Audi rolled out the R8 and took wins in 2000-2005, broken only in 2003 by a Bentley Speed 8. In 2006 the R8 was replaced by the R10 diesel-powered car, and they have won two straight with co-drivers Frank Biela, Emanuell Pirro, and Marco Werner taking the crowns. Last year their Audi showed 5029.1 km, or 3017.46 miles after the checkered flag flew. 

Course:

The Circuit de la Sarthe is a combination of race course and public roads, which increase the mechanical stress on the cars over the 24 hour duration. Since the first running in 1923 the course is now in its 14th version at 13.65 km in length, with modifications made to improve driver and spectator safety. 

The most recent major changes were the addition of two chicanes to the 5 km long Muslanne Straight, bringing it into line with FIA requirements for sanctioning. 

Being the majority of the circuit is on public roads, and these are open close to race time and immediately following, the hazards of fluids and debris on the course are factors the drivers must deal with. Workers erect and disassemble safety barriers prior to and after the race is completed. 

There is a circuit within the circuit-the Bugatti Circuit is used for motorcycle and car racing and is a proper race track. If Formula 1 moves its French Grand Prix away from Magny-Cours, this is one of the options for courses the race could relocate to.

Comparison with Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona:

The 24 at Daytona is the best-known sports-car race here in the United States, but involves a different class of cars and organizing body than does Le Mans. 

Daytona is organized by the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) and has two classes of cars: Daytona Prototype (the exotic-looking bubble-top cars with chassis by Riley, Crawford, and Dallara, and power by Pontiac, Ford, Porsche, Lexus, and BMW) and Grand Touring (featuring racing versions of high-end sports cars such as Porsches, Ferraris, Corvettes, Mustangs, etc.) 

The race takes place in the confines of the Daytona International Speedway, and is classified as a “roval” or a combination of a road course and an oval. This event is the start of Daytona Speedweeks. It is arguable the greatest gathering of racing talent from across the spectrum, with the Rolex drivers being joined by NASCAR, Indycar, and other drivers from around the world. 

24 Hours of Le Mans is organized by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. There are two major series that come together to take part in this annual event, Le Mans and American Le Mans (governed by IMSA). 

The four classes of cars are Le Mans Prototype 1 and 2 (LMP1 and LMP2), and Le Mans Grand Touring 1 and 2 (LMGT1 & LMGT2). The LMP1 class features a number of rear-engine, open-cockpit cars, with wings on the rear to create downforce at high speed. Last year Peugeot mounted an effort to de-throne Audi, and their closed-cockpit diesel-powered entries fared well for their maiden 24. 

The LMP2 class has similarly-designed machines that are smaller, lighter, and have less power. This is the class Roger Penske’s Porsche RS Spyders have dominated in the American Le Mans series. His drivers will compete in the race, but Penske is yet to enter his DHL-sponsored cars. 

LMGT1 and GT2 have racing versions of exotic sports cars. Corvette Racing has been dominant in the GT1 class, with their yellow and black paint schemes taking honors for the better part of the past decade with the C5R and C6R models. They have been challenged by Aston-Martin, with the British Racing Green DBR9s giving chase, only to fall short, unless the Vettes suffer failures or are handicapped by added ballast to slow them down. A Saleen and a Russian team with a Lamborghini Murcielago will also vie for the LMGT1 title this year. 

LMGT2 will possibly the most competitive and entertaining race to watch, as racing Porsche 911 GT3s, Ferrari F430s, and Spyker C8 sports cars duke it out for bragging rights. 

Interesting Tidbits: 

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the first known place where champagne was sprayed by the winner. This occurred in 1968 when A.J. Foyt, Jr. and Dan Gurney won in a Ford GT40. Gurney sprayed Henry Ford II, team owner Carroll Shelby, their wives, and a number of journalists (who predicted the duo would fail miserably) who were standing nearby. 

The race was first held in May, but was moved to June, and is traditionally held the second weekend of the month. It was held in July in 1956, September in 1968, and was canceled in 1936, and during 1940-1948 for World War II. 

A car must cross the finish line to be counted in the race results. Originally, the winner was declared by distance covered. This created controversy in the finish in 1966, when the Ford team crossed the line 1-2 in a photo formation. But the trailing car was declared the winner because it started farther back on the grid, and thus covered 8 meters more than the leading car. Now, the winner is based on laps completed. 

The entrants in the field of 55 cars are invited to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Teams can qualify in based on performance in prior races and in the Le Mans and American Le Mans Series. 

Analysis & Predictions: 

LMP1: Audi has everything to lose, having reigned supreme for the better part of a decade at Le Mans. Peugeot has been faster in practice and qualifying, with the cars starting one-two-three on the grid. The locals want to see their country’s cars best the German intruders (no history there, you think?). Reliability for the French machines hampered the effort last year, as speed is vital, but reliability is everything in the 24. Audi would have finished 1-2 had it not been for a wheel separating from one of the R10s, resulting in a crash and retirement. 

I’d really like to see Peugeot de-throne Audi, but in just their second year, it will take either a quantum leap in reliability or bad luck for Audi, for the Frenchies to win. Give the Audi R10 a third-straight win. 

LMP2: The Porsche Spyder RSs are phenomenal racing machines, but tend to have bugs that just kill the reliability over distance. Watch for Sachaa Massen, one of Penske’s pilots, in the blue Team Essex RS. The Judds, Radicals, and Zyteks will be playing chase, and if the Porsche can minimize time in the pits, I’d bank on Massen. 

LMGT1: Two words: Corvette Racing. 

Look for Canadian Ron Fellows to retire if he and co-drivers Johnny O’Connell (American) and Jan Magnussen (Denmark) can pull off the win. They’ll have to beat their team car with Olivier Beretta, Oliver Gavin, and “Mad” Max Papis, but if the drive shaft, which gave the team fits in 2007, has been improved, look for the photo op of the two Corvettes coming across the line in victory. 

Alas, don’t count out the Aston-Martins. They’ve shown some speed, and have worked diligently to catch the Americans. But unless the ‘Vettes break, I think the Brits are going to go home flustered once again by the Yanks. 

For the locals, Corvettes are popular, and Luc Alphand Aventures will field two French C6Rs. 

LMGT2: Wow… This is going to be a great race. The best competition comes across the pond from the American Le Mans Series, where the Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsches have gone toe-to-toe with the Rizi Competizione Ferraris, at times banging doors in brilliant finishes (2007 12 Hours of Sebring). The combination of Mika Salo and Jaime Melo were unstoppable last year in ALMS, but FLM have made huge strides to catch the Red Stallion. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if these two cars were to stay together for the duration, unless something extraordinary were to happen, which would blow up the rivalry, I’d like to see this come down to the last lap when the clock hits 24. 

I’m going to go with Jorg Bergmeister and the Flying Lizard Porsche in this fight. 

Conclusion:

Well race fans, I hope perhaps I’ve expanded your knowledge of arguably the greatest sports-car race on Planet Earth. If you’re a fan of endurance racing, or like to see cars turning right and left, or perhaps want to root on your countrymen or a team, then tune in to the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Speed Channel here in the U.S. or www.lemans.org for live timing and scoring as the race progresses. For more information on the race, its history, and the circuit, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/24_Hours_of_Le_Mans. 

Enjoy the race.

Class dismissed!

Load More Stories
Formula 1

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.