24 Hours of Le Mans
||This article's introduction may be too long for the overall article length. (July 2014)|
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (October 2011)|
|FIA World Endurance Championship|
|Venue||Circuit de la Sarthe|
|Most wins (driver)||Tom Kristensen (9)|
|Most wins (team)||Joest Racing (13)|
|Most wins (manufacturer)||Porsche (16)|
The 24 Hours of Le Mans (French: 24 Heures du Mans) is the world's oldest active sports car race in endurance racing, held annually since 1923 near the town of Le Mans, France, and is considered to be one of the most prestigious automobile races in the world. Commonly referred to as "the Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency," racing teams have to balance speed with the cars' ability to run for 24 hours without sustaining mechanical damage, and manage the cars' consumables, primarily fuel, tyres, and braking materials. The endurance of the drivers is likewise tested, as drivers frequently stay behind the wheel for over two hours before handing duties over to a relief driver during a pit stop. Drivers then grab what food and rest they can before returning to drive another stint. Current race regulations mandate that three drivers share each competing vehicle.
The race is organised by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) and runs on the Circuit de la Sarthe, a circuit containing a mix of closed public roads and specialist racing circuit meant to test two aspects of a car and driver: their ability to be quick and their ability to last over a 24-hour period. Competing teams will race in groups called classes for cars of similar specification, while at the same time competing for outright placing amongst all of the classes. Originally, the race showcased cars as they were sold to the general public, which were then called Sports Cars, compared to the specialised racing cars used in Grand Prix motor racing. Over time, the competing vehicles evolved away from their publicly available road car roots, and today the race is made of two classes: enclosed-bodywork two-seat Prototype sports cars, and two classes of Grand Touring cars, which bear much closer resemblance to the high performance sports cars sold to the public.
Competing teams have had a wide variety of organisation, ranging from competition departments of road car manufacturers (eager to prove the supremacy of their products) to professional motor racing teams (representing their commercial backers, some of which are also road car manufacturers attempting to win without the expense of setting up their own teams) to amateur teams (racing as much to compete in the famous race as to claim victory for their commercial partners).
The race is held near the height of the European summer in June, leading at times to very hot conditions for the drivers, particularly in closed vehicles whose cabins can reach uncomfortably hot temperatures with generally poor ventilation; rain, however, is not uncommon. The race begins in mid-afternoon, lasting through the night and following morning before finishing the next day, at the same hour as the race started. Over the 24-hour period modern competitors will complete race distances well over 5,000 km (3,110 mi). The present record is 5,410 km (3,360 mi), recorded in the 2010 race. It is a distance over six times longer than the Indianapolis 500, or approximately 18 times longer than a Formula One Grand Prix.
The race has over the years inspired imitating races all over the globe, popularising the 24-hour format at places like Daytona, Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps, and Bathurst. Presently, the American Le Mans Series and the European based Le Mans Series of multi-event sports car championships have been spun off from 24 Hours of Le Mans regulations. Other races include the Le Mans Classic, a race for historic Le Mans race cars of years past held on the Circuit de la Sarthe, a motorcycle version of the race which is held on the shortened Bugatti version of the same circuit, a kart race (24 Heures Karting), and a truck race (24 Heures Camions).
The race has also spent long periods as a round of the World Sportscar Championship, although Le Mans has always had a stronger reputation than the World Championship, and is presently a round of the FIA World Endurance Championship. The race is also known as a leg of the informal Triple Crown of Motorsport which links Formula One, IndyCar, and sports car racing to represent a career achievement for drivers. Additionally, it is seen as a leg of the Triple Crown of endurance racing, which links the three largest sports car races together, with 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Daytona forming the other legs. Since 1998, the American Le Mans Series held a second endurance race along with the 12 hours of Sebring every year called "Petit Le Mans" Petit Le Mans, as a 10-hour or 1000-mile American version of the Le Mans race and thus honoring the fantastic endurance event through dedication. In 2014, the Tudor Sports Car Championship (merger between the former American Le Mans Series which held races at Sebring and Petit Le Mans in Braselton, GA and the Rolex Sports Car Series which organized the 24 Hours of Daytona) will hold all three American races and several others in preparation for teams to race at Le Mans.
- 1 Purpose
- 2 The race
- 3 The circuit
- 4 History
- 5 Innovations
- 6 Successful marques and drivers
- 7 Accidents
- 8 Appearances in media
- 9 Vintage racing
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 External links
At a time when Grand Prix racing was the dominant form of motorsport throughout Europe, Le Mans was designed to present a different test. Instead of focusing on the ability of a car company to build the fastest machines, the 24 Hours of Le Mans would instead concentrate on the ability of manufacturers to build sporty yet reliable cars. This encouraged innovation in producing reliable and fuel-efficient vehicles, because the nature of endurance racing requires cars that last the distance and spend as little time in the pits as possible.
At the same time, due to the layout of the Le Mans track, a need was created for cars to have better aerodynamics and stability at high speeds. While this was shared with Grand Prix racing, few tracks in Europe had straights of a length comparable to the Mulsanne. The fact that the road is public and therefore not maintained to the same quality as some permanent racing circuits also put more of a strain on parts, putting greater emphasis on reliability.
The demand for fuel economy created by the oil crisis in the early 1970s led the race organisers to adopt a fuel economy formula known as Group C, in which the amount of fuel each car was allowed to use during the race was limited. Although Group C was abandoned when teams were able to master the fuel formulae, fuel economy was still important to some teams as alternative fuel sources appeared in the early 21st century, attempting to overcome time spent during pit stops.
These technological innovations have had a trickle-down effect, with technology used at Le Mans finding its way into production cars several years later. This has also led to faster and more exotic supercars due to manufacturers wishing to develop faster road cars for the purposes of developing them into even faster GT cars.
The total entry has usually consisted of approximately 50 competitors. Each car is required to have at least two seats, although in recent years only the ability to place a second seat in the cockpit has been required; the seat itself has not. No more than two doors are allowed; open cockpit cars do not require doors. Beginning in 2014, all cars in the premier LMP1 category must have a roof due to safety concerns, and open-cockpit cars will only be allowed in the slightly slower LMP2 category.
Although all cars compete at the same time, there are separate classes. A prize is awarded to the winner of each class, and to the overall winner.
The number of classes has varied over the years, but currently there are four. Custom-built Le Mans Prototypes (LMP) are the top two classes, LMP1 and LMP2, divided by speed, weight, and power output. From 2011, the next two classes are production-based grand tourer (GT) classes, GT Endurance Pro and GT Endurance AM. Both of these classes utilise the LM GTE, or "Le Mans Grand Touring Endurance" regulations. Although the top class is the most likely to provide the winner of the race, lower classes have won on occasion due to better reliability.
Originally, there were no rules on the number of drivers of a car, or how long they could drive. Although almost all teams used two drivers in the early decades, some Le Mans drivers such as Pierre Levegh and Eddie Hall attempted to run the race solo, hoping to save time by not having to change drivers. This practice was later banned. Until the 1980s, there were teams in which only two drivers competed, but by the end of the decade, the rules were changed to stipulate that at least three drivers must drive each car.
By the 1990s, due to the speeds of the cars and the strain it put on drivers, further rules were added to improve driver safety. Drivers could not drive more than four hours consecutively, and no one driver could run for more than fourteen hours in total. This reduced driver fatigue during the races.
Unique rules and traditions
Although the 24 Hours of Le Mans was part of the World Sportscar Championship for most of its existence, it has regularly had rules which differed from those used in other series, partly due to the length of the event. Some rules are for safety reasons, while others are for the purposes of competition.
For many decades, cars were required to run at least an hour into the race before they were allowed to refill fluids for the car, such as oil or coolant, with the exception of fuel. This was an attempt by the ACO to help increase efficiency and reliability. Cars which could not last the first hour without having to replace lost fluids were disqualified.
Another rule unique to Le Mans is that cars must be shut off while they are being refueled in the pits. Based not only on the notion that it is safer and less of a fire hazard to do so, this also allows for another test of reliability, because cars have to test their ability to restart many times under race conditions. Another element of this rule is that mechanics are not allowed to work on the car or its tyres while it is being refueled, which has led teams to adapt innovative ways in which to decrease the time of these lengthy pit stops. As an exception to this rule, drivers are allowed to get out of the car and be replaced by another driver during refueling.
There are various long-standing traditions at Le Mans, including the waving of the French tricolor to start the race. This is usually followed by a fly-over featuring jets trailing blue, white and red smoke. A similar flag tradition is the waving of safety flags during the final lap of the race by track marshals, congratulating the winners and other finishers.
Le Mans was the venue for the first known instance of a winning driver celebrating by spraying champagne instead of drinking it. When Dan Gurney won the 1967 race with co-driver A.J. Foyt, the two drivers mounted the victory podium and Gurney was handed a magnum of champagne. Looking down, he saw Ford CEO Henry Ford II, team owner Carroll Shelby and their wives, as well as several journalists who had predicted disaster for the high-profile duo. Gurney shook the bottle and sprayed everyone nearby. Gurney autographed and gave the bottle of champagne to a Life photographer, Flip Schulke, who used it as a lamp for many years. He later returned the bottle to Gurney, who keeps it at his home in California.
The first race was held on 26 and 27 May 1923 and has since been run annually in June with exceptions occurring in 1956, when the race was held in July, and 1968, when it was held in September due to nationwide political turmoil earlier that year (see May 1968). The race has been cancelled ten times: once in 1936 (labour strike during the Great Depression) and each year from 1940 to 1948 (World War II and its aftermath).
The race weekend also usually takes place on the second weekend of June, with qualifying and practice taking place on the Wednesday and Thursday before the race, following an administrative scrutinizing of the cars on Monday and Tuesday. Currently, these sessions are held in the evening, with two separate two-hour sessions held each night. A day of rest is scheduled on Friday, and includes a parade of all the drivers through the centre of the town of Le Mans.
A test day was also usually held prior to the event, traditionally at the end of April or beginning of May. These test days served as a pre-qualification for the event, with the slowest cars not being allowed to appear again at the proper qualifying. However, with the cost necessary to transport cars to Le Mans and then back to their respective series in between the test and race weeks, the test day was moved to the first weekend of June for 2005. The notion of pre-qualifying was also eliminated in 2000, when all competitors invited to the test would be allowed into the race.
The Le Mans Legend races have also been part of the schedule since 2001, usually running exhibition races during qualifying days, a few hours prior to the sessions for the Le Mans entrants.
Traditionally until 2008, the race started at 16:00 on the Saturday, although in 1968, the race started at 14:00 due to the lateness of the race on the calendar. In both 1984 and 2007, the start time was moved ahead to 15:00 due to the conflicting French General Election. In 2006, the ACO scheduled a 17:00 start time on Saturday, 17 June in order to maximize television coverage in between the FIFA World Cup games. Since 2009, when the race took place over 13–14 June that year, it starts at 15:00 local time (13:00 GMT).
Originally, the race results were determined by distance. The car which covered the greatest distance was declared the winner. This is known to have caught out the Ford team in 1966. With a dominant 1–2 lead, the two cars slowed to allow for a photo opportunity at the finish line, with Ken Miles slightly ahead of Bruce McLaren. However, since McLaren's car had actually started much farther back on the grid than Miles's, McLaren's car had actually covered the greatest distance over the 24 hours. With the margin of victory determined to be eight metres, McLaren and his co-driver, Chris Amon, were declared the winners. The decision cost Miles and Denny Hulme a victory. Miles had already won the other two endurance races at Sebring and Daytona. With a win at Le Mans, he would have become not only the first man to win all three, but the first to win them all in the same year. Miles was one of the oldest racers on the circuit, and was killed in a crash later that year. The greatest distance rule was later changed when a rolling start was introduced, and instead, the winner is now the car that has completed the greatest number of laps.
To be classified in the race results, a car is required to cross the finish line after 24 hours. This has led to dramatic scenes where damaged cars waited in the pits or on the edge of the track close to the finish line for hours, then restarted their engines and crawled across the line to be listed amongst the finishers. However, this practice of waiting in the pits was banned in recent years with a requirement that a team complete a set distance within the last hour to be classified as a finisher.
Another rule instituted by the ACO was the requirement that cars complete 70% of the distance covered by the overall winner. A car failing to complete this number of laps, even if it finished the race, was not deemed worthy of classification because of poor reliability or speed.
Le Mans start
The race traditionally began with what became known as the Le Mans start, in which cars were lined up in echelon along the length of the pits. Up to and including 1962, cars were lined up in order of engine capacity, but from 1963, qualifying times determined the line up. The starting drivers stood on the opposite side of the front stretch. When the French flag dropped to signify the start, the drivers ran across the track, entered and started their cars without assistance, and drove away. This became a safety issue in the late 1960s when some drivers ignored their safety harnesses, which were then a recent invention. This led to drivers running the first few laps either improperly harnessed due to attempting to do it while driving or sometimes not even harnessed at all, leading to several deaths when cars were involved in accidents due to the bunched field at the start.
This starting method inspired Porsche to locate the ignition key switch to the left of the steering wheel. In a left-hand drive car, this allowed the driver to use his left hand to start the engine, and his right hand to put the transmission into gear, which in turn shaves off a few tenths of a second.
Another method for speeding up the start was developed by Stirling Moss. His car was waiting with first gear already engaged. When he jumped in, he switched the starter on without depressing the clutch. The car was immediately jerked forward by the starter motor, but the engine did not start due to low RPM. After a few seconds of motion, he then pushed the clutch down, allowing the engine to speed up and start while the car was moving.
Feeling this type of start was unsafe, in the 1969 race, Jacky Ickx opposed it by walking across the track while his competitors ran. Although he was nearly hit by a faster competitor's car while walking, Ickx took the time to fasten his safety belts before pulling away. Privateer John Woolfe died in an accident on the first lap of that race. Ickx went on to win.
The traditional Le Mans start was changed for 1970. Cars were still lined up along the pit wall, but the drivers were already inside and strapped in. At the dropping of the French tricolor, the drivers started their engines and drove away. Since 1971, when the previous method was done away with, a rolling start (sometimes known as an Indianapolis start) begins the race.
The circuit on which the 24 Hours of Le Mans is run is named the Circuit de la Sarthe (Circuit of the Sarthe), after the department that Le Mans is within. It consists of both permanent track and public roads that are temporarily closed for the race. Since 1923, the track has been extensively modified, mostly for safety reasons, and currently is 13.629 km in length. Although it initially entered the town of Le Mans, the track was cut short in order to better protect spectators. This led to the creation of the Dunlop Curve and Tertre Rouge corners before rejoining the old circuit on the Mulsanne. Another major change was on the Mulsanne itself in 1990, when the FIA decreed that it would no longer sanction any circuit that had a straight longer than 2 km. This led to the addition of two chicanes, reducing the time that the cars spent travelling at very high speeds on the old 6 km long straight. The addition of the chicanes was another safety precaution after the WM P88-Peugeot of French driver Roger Dorchy had been timed at 405 km/h (252 mph) during the 1988 race.
Due to the shorter length of the straights, top speeds at Le Mans are now generally around 205 mph (330 km/h).
The public sections of the track differ from the permanent circuit, especially in comparison with the Bugatti Circuit which is inside the Circuit de la Sarthe. Due to heavy traffic in the area, the public roads are not as smooth or well kept. They also offer less grip because of the lack of soft tyre rubber laid down from racing cars, though this only affects the first few laps of the race. The roads are closed only within a few hours of the practice sessions and the race, before being opened again almost as soon as the race is finished. Workers have to assemble and dismantle safety barriers every year for the public sections.
- For a list of individual race reports, see Category:24 Hours of Le Mans races.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans was first run on 26 and 27 May 1923, through public roads around Le Mans. Originally planned to be a three-year event awarded the Rudge-Whitworth Triennial Cup, with a winner being declared by the car which could go the farthest distance over three consecutive 24 Hour races, this idea was abandoned in 1928 and overall winners were declared for each single year depending on who covered the farthest distance by the time 24 hours were up. The early races were dominated by French, British, and Italian drivers, teams, and cars, with Bugatti, Bentley, and Alfa Romeo being the dominant marques. Innovations in car design began appearing at the track in the late 1930s, with Bugatti and Alfa Romeo running highly aerodynamic bodywork in order to run down the Mulsanne Straight at faster speeds. In 1936, the race was cancelled due to general strikes in France, then with the outbreak of World War II in late 1939, the race went on a ten-year hiatus.
Following the reconstruction of the circuit facilities, the race was resumed in 1949 with renewed interest from major automobile manufacturers. 1949 was also Ferrari's first victory, the 166MM of Luigi Chinetti and Peter Mitchell-Thomson. After the formation of the World Sportscar Championship in 1953, of which Le Mans was a part, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and many others began sending multiple cars backed by their respective factories to compete for overall wins against their competitors. Their competition sometimes resulted in tragedy, as in an accident during the 1955 race in which Pierre Levegh's car crashed into a crowd of spectators, killing more than 80 people. The incident led to the widespread introduction of safety measures, not only at the circuit, but elsewhere in the motorsports world. Following the accident, the entire pit complex was razed and rebuilt further back allowing the pit straight to be widened, although there was still no barrier between track and pit lane. However, even though the safety standards improved, so did the speed of the cars; the move from open-cockpit roadsters to closed-cockpit coupes resulted in speeds of over 320 kilometres per hour (200 mph) on the Mulsanne. Ford entered the picture, taking four straight wins before the 1960s ended and the cars, and the race, changed substantially.
For the new decade, the race took a turn towards more extreme speeds and automotive designs. These extreme speeds led to the replacement of the typical standing Le Mans start with a rolling Indianapolis start. Although production-based cars still raced, they were now in the lower classes while purpose-built sportscars became the norm. The Porsche 917, 935, and 936 were dominant throughout the decade, but a resurgence by French manufacturers Matra-Simca and Renault saw the first victories for the nation since the 1950 race. This decade is also remembered for strong performances from many privateer constructors, with two scoring the only victories for a privateer, in the decade. John Wyer's Mirage won in 1975, while Jean Rondeau's self-titled chassis took 1980.
The rest of the 1980s was known for the dominance by Porsche under the new Group C race car formula that encouraged fuel efficiency. Originally running the effective 956, it was later replaced by the 962. Both chassis were affordable enough for privateers to purchase them en masse, leading to the two model types winning six years in a row. Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz returned to sports car racing, with Jaguar being the first to break Porsche's dominance with victories in 1988 and 1990 (with the XJR-9 and Jaguar XJR-12 respectively). Mercedes-Benz won in 1989, with what was seen as the latest incarnation of the elegant "Silver Arrows", the Sauber C9, while an influx of Japanese manufacturer interest saw prototypes from Nissan and Toyota. In 1988 too, a W.M.-Peugeot set up a new record speeding at 405 km/h (252 mph) in the Ligne Droite des Hunaudières, famous for its 6 km (3.7 mi) long straight. Mazda would be the only Japanese manufacturer to succeed, with their unique rotary-powered 787B winning in 1991. For 1992 and 1993, Peugeot entered the sport and dominated the race with the Peugeot 905 as the Group C formula and World Sportscar Championship were fading in participation.
The circuit would also undergo one of its most notable changes in 1990, when the 5 km long Mulsanne was modified to include two chicanes in order to stop speeds of more than 400 km/h (249 mph) from being reached. This began a trend by the ACO to attempt to slow the cars on various portions of the track; although speeds over 320 km/h (199 mph) are still regularly reached at various points on a lap.
Following the demise of the World Sportscar Championship, Le Mans saw a resurgence of production-based grand tourer cars. Thanks to a loophole in the rules, Porsche succeeded in convincing the ACO that a Dauer 962 Le Mans supercar was a production car, allowing Porsche to race their Porsche 962 for one final time, dominating the field. Although the ACO attempted to close the loop hole for 1995, newcomer McLaren would win the race in their supercar's first appearance thanks to the reliability of the BMW V12 powered F1 GTR, beating faster yet more trouble-prone prototypes. The trend would continue through the 1990s as more exotic supercars were built in order to skirt the ACO's rules regarding production-based race cars, leading to Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Nissan, Panoz, and Lotus entering the GT categories. This culminated in the 1999 event, in which these GT cars were faced with the Le Mans Prototypes of BMW, Audi, and Ferrari. BMW would survive with the victory, their first and only overall Le Mans win to date, whilst Mercedes left sportscar racing indefinitely due to a number of problems involving fatal aerodynamic flaws with their CLR.
This strong manufacturer influence led the ACO to lending the Le Mans name to a sports car series in the United States in 1999, known as the American Le Mans Series, which ran until the end of the 2013 season after which it merged with Grand-Am to form the United SportsCar Championship.
Many major automobile manufacturers withdrew from sports car racing after the 1999 event, because of the cost involved. Only Cadillac and Audi remained, and Audi easily dominated the race with their R8. Cadillac pulled out of the series after three years, and although Panoz, Chrysler, and MG all briefly attempted to take on Audi, none could match the R8's performance. After three victories in a row, Audi provided engine, team staff and drivers to their corporate partner Bentley, who had returned in 2001, and the factory Bentley Speed 8s were able to succeed ahead of privateer Audis in 2003.
At the end of 2005, after five overall victories for the R8, and six to its V8 turbo engine, Audi took on a new challenge by introducing a diesel engined prototype known as the R10 TDI. Although not the first diesel to race, it was the first to win at Le Mans. This era saw other alternative fuel sources being used, including bio-ethanol, while Peugeot decided to follow Audi's lead and also pursue a diesel entry in 2007 with their 908 HDi FAP.
The 2008 24 Hours of Le Mans was a race between the Audi R10 TDI and the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP. After 24 hours of racing, the Audi managed to win the race by a margin of less than 10 minutes. For the 2009 24 Hours of Le Mans, Peugeot introduced a new energy-recovery system similar to the KERS used in Formula One. Aston Martin entered the LMP1 category, but still raced in GT1 with private teams. Audi returned with the new R15 TDI, but this time, Peugeot prevailed, taking their first overall triumph since 1993.
The 2010 running reaffirmed the race as a test of endurance and reliability. In adjusting their cars and engines to adhere to the 2010 regulations, Peugeot chose overall speed while Audi chose reliability. At the end of the race, all 4 Peugeots had retired, 3 due to engine failure, while Audi finished 1-2-3.
The 2011 and 2012 races were marred by a series of accidents. In 2011, in the first hour, the defending race winning Audi entry, being driven at the time by Allan McNish, crashed heavily, barrel rolling into a tire wall shortly after the Dunlop Bridge. During the night, another Audi driven by Mike Rockenfeller crashed in similar fashion between the Mulsanne and Indianapolis corners. Neither driver was injured, nor were any spectators. The third Audi entry driven by Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer, and Benoît Tréluyer won the race. The 2012 race saw two factory Toyotas replacing Peugeot (who had withdrawn from racing) enter, but one of the Toyotas flipped at Mulsanne Corner shortly before sunset. Driver Anthony Davidson suffered two broken vertebrae, but was able to exit the car under his own power. The other Toyota retired with mechanical difficulties shortly after sunset, giving Audi another Le Mans victory.
A second ACO-backed series was also formed, similar to the American Le Mans Series, but concentrating on Europe. The Le Mans Endurance Series (later shortened to Le Mans Series) resurrected many well known 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) endurance races, and was followed by the Asian-centered Japan Le Mans Challenge in 2006.
In 2011, the race became the premier round of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, an attempt to make a world championship for endurance racing again. In 2012, the race became the centerpiece of the FIA World Endurance Championship, the successor to the ILMC. The 2012 event was the first time the race was won by a hybrid electric vehicle, which was the Audi R18 e-tron quattro .
As of 2014, Porsche remains the most successful manufacturer with a record 16 overall victories, including a record seven in a row. After Audi's recent dominance of the event, Porsche returned to Le Mans in 2014 with a new factory LMP1 program to challenge Audi. Toyota has fielded competitive cars since 2012, and Nissan has announced plans to run an LMP1 program in 2015.
Over its lifetime, Le Mans has seen many innovations in automotive design in order to counteract some of the difficulties that the circuit and race present. These have either been dictated by rules or have been attempts by manufacturers to outwit the competition. Some have made their way into the common automobile and are used nearly every day.
One of the keys to Le Mans is top speed, caused by the long straights that dominate the circuit. This has meant cars have attempted to achieve the maximum speeds possible instead of relying on downforce for the turns. While early competitors' cars were street cars with their bodywork removed to reduce weight, innovators like Bugatti developed cars which saw the beginnings of aerodynamics. Nicknamed tanks due to their similarity to military tanks of WWI, these cars used simple curves to cover all the mechanical elements of the car and increase top speed. Once Le Mans returned after World War II, most manufacturers would adopt closed bodies which were streamlined for better aerodynamics. A notable example in the changes brought about by aerodynamics are the 1950 entries by Briggs Cunningham. Cunningham entered two 1950 Cadillac Coupe de Villes, one nearly stock and the other completely rebodied in a streamlined aluminum shape developed by aeronautical engineers from Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation. The streamlined car looked so unusual that it was nicknamed "Le Monstre" by the French press. The smoothing of body shapes and fairing-in of various parts of the machine brought about by the continual search for reduction of aerodynamic drag led to a separation from Grand Prix cars, which rarely had large bodywork.
As the years went on, bodywork became all enveloping, while at the same time lighter. The larger bodywork with spoilers were able to provide more downforce for the turns without increasing the drag, allowing cars to maintain the high top speeds. Extended bodywork would usually concentrate on the rear of the car, usually being termed long tail. The bodywork also began to cover the cockpit for less drag, although open cockpits would come and go over the years as rules varied. Aerodynamics reached its peak in 1989, before the Mulsanne Straight was modified. During the 1988 race, the crew of a Peugeot powered W.M. prototype taped over the engine openings, allowing Roger Dorchy to set a recorded speed of 405 km/h (252 mph) down the Mulsanne in a publicity stunt, although the car was almost undrivable elsewhere on the circuit and the engine was soon destroyed from a lack of cooling. However, for the 1989 event, the Mercedes-Benz C9 reached 398 km/h (247 mph) under qualifying conditions.
A wide variety of engines have competed at Le Mans, in attempts to not only achieve greater speed but also to have better fuel economy, and spend less time in the pits. Engine sizes have also varied greatly, with the smallest engines being a mere 569 cc (Simca Cinq) and the largest upwards of 8000 cc (SRT Viper GTS-R). Supercharging was an early innovation for increasing output, first being raced in 1929, while turbocharging would not appear until 1974.
The first car to enter without an engine run by pistons would be in 1963, when Rover partnered with British Racing Motors to run a gas turbine with mixed success, repeating again in 1965. The American Howmet Corporation would attempt to run a turbine again in 1968 with even less success. Although the engines offered great power, they were notoriously hot and uneconomical for fuel.
Another non-piston engine that would appear would be a Wankel engine, otherwise known as the rotary engine. Run entirely by Mazda since its introduction in 1970, the compact engine would also suffer from fuel economy problems like the turbine had, yet would see the success that the turbine lacked. After many years of development, Mazda finally succeeded in being the only winner of the race to not have a piston-powered engine, taking the 1991 event with the 787B. Rotary engines were banned by the ACO following Mazda's win.
Alternative fuel sources would also play a part in more normal engine designs, with the first non-gasoline car appearing in 1949. The Delettrez Special would be powered by a diesel engine, while a second diesel would appear in the form of the M.A.P. the following year. Although diesel would appear at other times over the race existence, it would not be until 2006 when a major manufacturer, Audi, would invest in diesels and finally succeed, with the R10 TDI.
Ethanol fuel appeared in 1980 in a modified Porsche 911, taking a class win. Alternative biological fuel sources would return again in 2004 with Team Nasamax's DM139-Judd. In 2008, the use of biofuels (10% ethanol for petrol engines and biodiesel respectively for diesel engines) were allowed. Audi was the first to use next generation 10% BTL biodiesel manufactured from biomass and developed by partner Shell.
From 2009 onwards, the Le Mans regulations new from the ACO allow hybrid vehicles to be entered, with either KERS or TERS (Kinetic/Thermal Energy Recovery System) setups, however the only energy storage allowed will be electrical (i.e. batteries), seemingly ruling out any flywheel-based energy recovery systems. Cars equipped with KERS systems were allowed to race in 2009 with specific classification rules. Since 2010, they are able to compete for points and the championship. In 2012 the first victory of an KERS equipped car was recorded. The Audi R18 e-tron was equipped with a flywheel hybrid system from Williams Hybrid Power, which when activated drove the front wheels. Usage of this type of KERS was only allowed in specified zones after the car has accelerated to at least 120 km/h. Therefore no advantage of the four-wheel-drive could be gained on acceleration out of corners. In the same year, Toyota also started with an hybrid car, the TS030 Hybrid which used the KERS to power the rear wheels. Therefore, its usage was not restricted.
With increased speeds around the track, brakes become a key issue for teams attempting to safely bring their cars down to a slow enough speed to make turns such as Mulsanne Corner. Disc brakes were first seen on a car when the Jaguar C-Type raced at Le Mans in 1953. The Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR would introduce the concept of an air brake in 1955, using a large opening hood on the rear of the car.
In the 1980s, anti-lock braking systems would become standard on most Group C cars as a safety measure, ensuring that cars did not lose control while still moving at approximately 320 km/h. By the late 1990s, reinforced carbon-carbon brakes would be adapted for better stopping power and reliability.
Successful marques and drivers
- For a list of winning drivers, teams, and cars, see List of 24 Hours of Le Mans winners.
Over the years, many manufacturers have managed to take the overall win, while even more have taken class wins. The most successful marque in the history of the race is Porsche, which has taken sixteen overall victories, including seven in a row from 1981 to 1987. Audi is next with thirteen wins, and Ferrari follows with nine, also including six in a row from 1960 to 1965. Since 2000 the Audi marque has dominated the event, winning overall 13 times in 15 years it has participated. Audi and Team Joest have had two hat-tricks, the first being in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Jaguar has seven wins, while Bentley, Alfa Romeo, and Ford all managed to win four races in a row, with Bentley recording two other victories in other years as well. The only Japanese marque to win the race so far has been Mazda, although nearly every major Japanese manufacturer has made attempts at the race. Mazda's 1991 victory is the only win by a rotary engine, one of Mazda's hallmarks.
Three drivers stand apart for their number of victories. Initially Jacky Ickx held the record at six, scoring victories between 1969 and 1982, earning him an honorary citizenship to the town of Le Mans. His frequent racing-partner, Derek Bell, trailing by a single win, with 5. However, Dane Tom Kristensen has beaten this record with nine wins between 1997 and 2013, including six in a row. Three-time winner Woolf Barnato (1928 to 1930) and American racing legend AJ Foyt (1967) are still the only drivers to have won every Le Mans they participated in.
Henri Pescarolo has won the race four times, and currently holds the record for the most Le Mans appearances at 33. Japan's Yojiro Terada, currently still active as a driver, holds the record for the most Le Mans starts without an overall win. Graham Hill is the only driver to win the so-called Triple Crown of Motorsport which is defined as winning the Indianapolis 500 (won by Hill in 1966), Monaco Grand Prix (1963, 1964, 1965, 1968, 1969) and the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1972)
With the high speeds associated with Le Mans, the track has seen a number of accidents, some of which have been fatal to drivers and spectators. The worst moment in Le Mans history, in which more than 80 spectators and driver Pierre Levegh were killed, was during the 1955 race. In the shock following this disaster, many major and minor races were cancelled in 1955, such as the Grand Prix races in Germany, Spain and Switzerland (the latter as a reaction having banned motorsport round-track races throughout the entire country; the ban was only lifted in 2007). This accident brought sweeping safety regulations to all motorsports series, for both driver and spectator protection.
Almost all decades in which Le Mans has been run have seen their fair share of horrific accidents, such as in 1972 when Swede Jo Bonnier was catapulted into a forest surrounding the circuit after hitting a privately entered Ferrari near the Indianapolis section; Bonnier was killed instantly. The 1980s was a decade where some of the race's worst-ever accidents occurred. Although there were now Armco barriers along the straight, there were still no chicanes on the Mulsanne straight – the place where almost all of the worst accidents took place during that time. The prototypes, most of which were equipped with very powerful turbocharged engines in those days, were capable of doing 240-250+ mph (387–403 km/h) before reaching the kink and would still be doing the same kind of speeds at the end of the 3.6 mile (6 km straight) – and even through the kink, which was a flat-out bend for all the cars on the track. In 1981, Belgian Thierry Boutsen crashed horrifically on the Mulsanne straight in his WM-Peugeot, killing a marshal, and in the same race Frenchman Jean-Louis Lafosse was killed also on the Mulsanne straight when his Rondeau steered very suddenly to the right and slammed into the Armco barrier on the driver's side at extreme speeds. The 1984 race saw British privateer John Sheldon crashing at more than 200 mph (320 km/h) at the Mulsanne Kink; his Nimrod-Aston Martin tore right through the Armco barriers and went into the trees. The explosion that occurred during Sheldon's impact with the barriers was so violent that even the woods next to the track had been set on fire. Sheldon survived with severe burns, and a track marshal was killed instantly and two other marshals were severely injured. American Drake Olson ran over some of the strewn bodywork from Sheldon's car, and he crashed heavily too. Olson went into severe shock after the crash, although he too survived with minor physical injuries. A similar accident in 1985 befell Briton Dudley Wood in practice in a Porsche 962. The impact of the car against the Armco, considering Wood was doing more than 230 mph (371 km/h), was so hard that it even cracked the engine block. Fortunately, Wood survived without injury. In the same year, John Nielsen flipped his Sauber-Mercedes while going over the Mulsanne hump at more than 220 mph (355 km/h). The car landed on its roof and was destroyed, but Nielsen escaped without injury. In 1986, Jo Gartner drove a Porsche 962C and crashed into the barriers on the Mulsanne straight, then the car rolled multiple times, vaulted some Armco barriers, hit and knocked down a telegraph pole, and went into trees next to the track. The 32-year-old Austrian was killed instantly. And in 1987, American Price Cobb crashed hugely in a works Porsche 962C after slipping on some oil during Wednesday practice. During the heavy impact, the fuel tank exploded and the car burned to the ground; Cobb escaped without injury.
Gartner's fatal accident remained the most recent death in the race itself until the accident of Allan Simonsen in 2013, however, there was the fatality of Sebastien Enjolras in 1997 during a practice session.
In one of the most recognizable recent accidents, calamity would once again strike Mercedes-Benz, although without fatality. The Mercedes-Benz CLRs which competed in 1999 would suffer from aerodynamic instabilities that caused the cars to become airborne in the right conditions. After initially happening at the Le Mans test day, Mercedes claimed they had solved the problem, only to have it occur again at Warm Up hours before the race. Mark Webber was the unlucky driver to flip the car on both occasions. The final and most damaging accident occurred during the race itself when Peter Dumbreck's CLR became airborne and then proceeded to fly over the safety fencing, landing in the woods several metres away. No drivers were badly hurt in any of the three accidents, but Mercedes-Benz quickly withdrew their remaining entry and ended their entire sportscar programme.
In 2011, two horrific looking accidents would occur to two of the three factory Audis running in the LMP1 class. Near the end of the first hour, the No. 3 car driven by Allan McNish collided with one of the Ferrari GT class cars resulting in McNish's car violently smashing into the tyre wall and being thrown into the air at the Dunlop chicanes, resulting in pieces of bodywork flying over and nearly hitting many photographers on the other side of the barrier. In the eleventh hour of the race, another massive accident would occur this time to the No. 1 car driven by Mike Rockenfeller when he also appeared to have contact with another Ferrari GT car. On the run up to Indianapolis corner, Rockenfeller's Audi was sent into the outside barrier at well over 170 miles per hour (270 km/h). Only the main cockpit safety cell of the car remained along with major damage being done to the barriers that needed to be repaired before the race was resumed. Audi had switched to a closed-cockpit car starting in 2011-a decision that had been credited in how nobody in either of these accidents was injured, despite both chassis' being written off. Cars continue to advance in safety over the years, with the recently released 2014 regulations stating that all cars must be closed-cockpit as a direct result of the 2011 accident.
In 2012, Anthony Davidson, driving for the returning Toyota team in a Toyota TS030, collided with a Ferrari 458 Italia of Piergiuseppe Perrazini, and became airborne before crashing into the tyre barrier of the Mulsanne Corner at high speed. The Ferrari also ended up in the barrier, flipping and coming to a halt on its roof. Davidson suffered broken vertebrae from the impact.
In 2013, Danish race driver Allan Simonsen died at the hospital shortly after a crash into the barriers at Tertre Rouge. At the point at which the car collided with the guard rail, a mature tree was touching the barrier, such that the guard rail had none of the give it was designed to allow.
Appearances in media
The 1964 event plays a critical part in the Academy Award winning Un Homme et Une Femme, in which the wife of the driver hero commits suicide when she mistakenly thinks that he has been killed in an accident during the race.
The 1969 event, known for its close finish, was documented in a short film titled La Ronde Infernale. This was given a limited cinema release, but is now available on DVD.
The race became the center of a major motion picture in 1971 when Steve McQueen released his simply titled Le Mans, starring McQueen as Michael Delaney, a driver in the 1970 event for the Gulf Porsche team. Likened to other motorsports films such as Grand Prix for Formula One racing and Winning for the Indianapolis 500, Le Mans is the best known film to center on sports car racing. It was filmed during the race using modified racing cars carrying cameras, as well as purchased Porsche 917s, Ferrari 512s and Lola T70s for action shots made after the race. The Porsche 908 which served as a camera car in the race actually finished, yet was so far behind the winners due to lengthy reel changes during pit stops that it was not classified in the results.
A modern film not centering on Le Mans yet featuring events from the 2002 race was Michel Valliant, about a French comic book motorsports hero. Again using two camera cars to tape action during the race, the French film was not as widely accepted as Le Mans had been. The 1974 TV show The Goodies also featured an episode entitled The Race, involving a comedic trio attempting to run Le Mans.
More recently, a documentary film called Truth in 24, narrated by Jason Statham, covered the Audi team in its effort to win a fifth straight title in 2008. The race features prominently as the film covers the racing season leading up to the Le Mans race.
The race has also been used for several video games over the years, some of which have allowed players to compete for the full 24 hours. Although most used the Le Mans name itself, the PlayStation 2 game Gran Turismo 4 also included the Circuit de la Sarthe and allowed players to run the full 24-hour races with and without the chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight. The race then returned in Gran Turismo 5 for the full 24 hours, but with the chicane version only. The race can be raced in both A-spec and B-spec modes. The race returned again in Gran Turismo 6, but it has been renamed 24 Minutes of Le Mans in the Super Class series of races in which the race lasts 24 minutes. The Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC game Race Driver: Grid also includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the end of each in-game season albeit being only 24 minutes in length by default. However, the player can also choose to compete in the race for different lengths of time ranging from several minutes to a full 24 hours. The track also appeared in the Xbox 360 games Forza Motorsport 3 and Forza Motorsport 4, and the upcoming Xbox One game Forza Motorsport 5, but are not raced in the full 24 hours in their respective career modes. The circuit can also be found in the online PC game rFactor, with various versions available for players to download including 1967 (with no chicanes on the Mulsanne, the old Maison Blanche section, and no Ford Chicane), 2004 and 2012.
Motors TV covered the Le Mans 24 Hours in the entirety in 2006 and 2007. This included coverage of the scrutineering, qualifying, driver parade, warm up and the whole race. In the United States, Fox Sports 1 airs complete race coverage live either on-air or online through a combination of coverage from the French host broadcaster and their own pit reporting crew. In 2008, Eurosport secured a multi-year deal to show the entire race including the qualifying and the motorcycle race. Every hour of the 2008 race was broadcast in segments on the main channel and on Eurosport 2, however in recent years, a couple of Hours have been missed due to scheduling clashes with other sports. In addition, live streaming video was provided on Eurosport's web page, albeit not for free. But since 2009, Eurosport and Eurosport 2 has been covering non-stop between those two channels, all 24 hours of action. In Australia, the 2012 race was shown live and in full online by Ten Sport.
The race is also broadcast (in English) on radio by Radio Le Mans. Broadcast from the circuit for the full 24 hours, as well as before and after, it offers fans at the race the ability to listen to commentary through radio. Radio Le Mans is also broadcast through internet radio on their website. You can also listen to live race coverage through Satellite radio on Sirius XM Radio.
Since 2001, the ACO has allowed the "Le Mans Legend" event to participate on the full Circuit de la Sarthe during the 24 Hours week. These exhibition races involve classic cars that had previously run at Le Mans or are similar to ones that had. Each year, a particular era of cars may participate, with the featured era changing from year to year. Though most drivers in this event are amateurs, some noted professional drivers have appeared to race cars they had previously run, such as Stirling Moss and Derek Bell.
Starting in 2002, the "Le Mans Classic" has been held as a biannual event on the full 13 km circuit in July. The races take place over a full 24-hour day/night cycle, with starts on set times allowing cars from the same era to compete at the same time. A team typically consists of a car in each class, and the team with the most points accumulated over five or six classes is declared the overall winner. The classes are based on the era in which the cars would have competed. The exact class requirements are re-evaluated for every event, since for each event, the age for the youngest entries is shifted by 2 years. In the first event, five classes ran more short races; later events have featured six classes running fewer but longer races. Drivers are required to have an FIA International Competition license to participate. This event also includes a large concourse and auction.
- 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans
- 24 Hours of Le Mans (motorcycle race)
- 24 Hours of LeMons
- Endurance racing
- Le Mans 24 Hours video games
- List of 24 Hours of Le Mans winners
- List of 24 hours of Le Mans records
- Triple Crown of Motorsport
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- Le Mans official website
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