Table of Contents
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the ultimate test of a racing driver’s mental and physical endurance. The famed circuit at Le Mans, halfway between Paris and the west coast in Northern France, contains about 8.5 miles of grueling asphalt.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is arguably the most well-known race in the FIA’s World Endurance Championship or FIA WEC. It has been a part of this championship since 2012.
A Basic Introduction
- The track itself is known as the Circuit de la Sarthe.
- It features the infamous Mulsanne Straight, which is called Les Hunaudières is French. It features two new chicanes, called Forza and Michelin, to slow the cars down a little.
- There are four categories of car: LMP (Le Mans Prototypes) are the top types, divided into LMP1 and LMP2. There are also two other types in the GT (Grand Tourer) class, divided into GT Endurance Pro and GT Endurance AM classifications.
- Each car will have three drivers. Some teams fielded only two drivers per car up until the 1980s, but this was deemed too dangerous.
- Over 250,000 spectators flood to Le Mans to watch this historic race.
- In 2019, the 24 Hours of Le Mans was won by the drivers Fernando Alonso, Sébastien Buemi, and Kazuki Nakajima, who drove for Toyota Gazoo Racing. They won after the race leader, Lopez, slowed in the 23rd hour to check a puncture, but it turned out not to be there at all. Gutted.
- 62 cars raced in 2019, with a total of 186 drivers.
What is the 1955 Le Mans Disaster?
Before we get started, there is an important piece of history that needs to be addressed: the 1955 Le Mans disaster.
On a somber note, the 1955 Le Mans disaster is thought to be the biggest disaster ever in motorsport history. An official death toll is unknown, as the French police files have never been opened, but it’s estimated that between 65 and 130 people died – probably somewhere around 80. Almost all of them were spectators.
The tragedy happened when a series of events led Frenchman Pierre Levegh to crash into the back of an Austin Healey, which smashed into the wall, killing one spectator. The driver of the Austin survived. Levagh’s Mercedes rose into the air, using the back of the Austin like a ramp.
It blew up when it crash-landed into the embankment at 125 mph. Parts of the car then flew into the crowd at colossal speeds, killing or seriously maiming hundreds of people in the grandstand. Levagh died instantly. The race continued, despite the horrendous conditions, with the podium going on with champagne as usual.
Mercedes immediately withdrew from all motorsport, not venturing back into the field until 2009, when Mercedes bought a 75% in Brawn GP and began competing (very successfully after a few years) in Formula 1 again.
Since the disaster, there have been many safety improvements to ensure that such an event never happens again.
Endurance, Endurance, Endurance
This race is as much about the endurance of drivers as it is about the endurance of the cars.
The cars must be built to incredible qualities. In the majority of motorsports, engines, and other parts of the power train, are not built to last more than a few races. For example, as of 2018 in Formula 1, each car may only go through three engines per year.
This was introduced as an effort to try to make Formula 1 teams use more reliable and durable engines. This means that one engine has to last approximately 15 hours, give or take, of flat out racing, qualifying, and practicing. There are, however, big gaps in between the races where the engine can be looked after.
By contrast, in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the engines must be running almost continually flat out for 24 hours straight. This means that the engines have to be as reliable as possible.
And then we come to the drivers. If you’ve ever tried staying awake for over 24 hours, you’ll know it’s not easy, but certainly possible. However, you must then factor in the fact that you will be driving at extreme speeds for up to 6 hours at a time (although most drivers will do about 2 or 3 hours in one stint). There are regulations in place which limit how long a driver can spend racing out on track for each period – this is for health and safety. These limits are lowered if the temperature is above 32 degrees Celsius in the cockpit, as this is shown to reduce driver performance.
Each driver must race for at least six hours of the 24-hour race – any less than this, and the car will be disqualified.
How Do the Drivers Deal with Exhaustion?
Drivers use whatever techniques individually work for them to keep their reactions as sharp as possible.
All drivers will learn endurance techniques in various ways. Many find that endurance running and other exercises like this produces some of the needed qualities to aid them with their racing.
In theory, it’s possible to sleep for about 5 hours of the total 24, but most drivers get much less than this. They will use therapy lamps and exercise bikes to keep themselves awake when they are waiting in the bungalows.
It is often very difficult for them to switch off after having got out of the car. Because your brain is in such a high level of concentration all the time, it’s difficult to relax and force yourself to sleep. Every time there’s an announcement of a crash or a breakdown on track, drivers must force themselves not to be too worried about whether or not it is their car, as this will prevent them from getting the rest they need.
After the race finishes, most drivers will party into the evening and then sleep until late morning the next day.
What is a Force Majeure?
This is when an event happens that is outside the control of the teams taking part. An example of this might include a heavy hailstorm or an animal on the track. If a car breaks down, this is considered the team in question’s responsibility, and there will be no force majeure.
Qualifying to Finish the Race
- A car should cross the finish line when the chequered flag is waved unless the stewards have enforced a force majeure.
- A car must have covered at least 70% of the distance covered by the car in first place at the end of the race.
When 75% of the race time has elapsed (18 hours), a car must have covered at least 50% of the distance of the car in first place.
- The last lap must be completed in 6 minutes or less unless there is force majeure in force.
- In 2016, Toyota was leading the race but broke down on the last lap. Although the driver, Kazuki Nakajima, managed to limp the car across the finish line, it was not classified as it failed to complete the last lap in under 6 minutes. This meant that the team did not get any points, and its result did not count, despite technically finishing first. Since then, a time penalty is given to cars who do not complete the last lap in six minutes, rather than disqualification from the class.
- Particularly at night, visibility can be extremely poor. To know when corners are coming, some drivers just count in their heads.
- In 1927, the Bentley team won by very nearly 350 km.
The record lap time at the 24 Hours of Le Mans was set in 2017 by Kamui Kobayashi driving for Toyota, with a time of 3:14.791.
- In the 1960s, there was a memorable struggle between Ford and Ferrari to win the famous race. This feud led to the infamous Ford GT being developed and a period of dominance from Ford.
- The famous Mulsanne Straight measured 5.8 km before two chicanes were added to reduce driver speed. In 1988, Roger Dorchy was recorded traveling at over 400 kph, which is about 248 mph.
- Spectators are not allowed down the sides of the Mulsanne Straight, due to the intensely high speeds the cars reach at this point of the circuit.
- In most races, endurance, or otherwise, you will find just one safety car. At Le Mans, however, there are three. This is because the track is so long. They are spaced equally around the circuit, and all leave the track about the same time to be as fair as possible.
- The tradition of spraying champagne started at the 1967 Le Mans when American driver Dan Gurney attempted to remake a situation that had happened the previous year when the cork popped off the bottle and sprayed the crowd a little. Since then, the “champagne shower” happens on almost every motorsport event’s podium in the world.
When is the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2020?
The race begins at 15:00 on Saturday, 13th of June, and finishes at 15:00 on Sunday, 14th of June. This will be the 88th 24 Hours of Le Mans.
We would certainly recommend going to see it if you possibly can. It’s, without a doubt, one of the most spectacular events in motorsport and certainly worth adding to your bucket list.