As prestigious car races go, Le Mans is up there with the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500. The heights of Formula 1 usually take most of the spotlight, but this famous race in the heart of France is still regarded as the ultimate test for a racing driver.
Careers have been made and broken on the roads of the La Sarthe circuit, while the dangers of the race remain very much apparent as we have seen already at the beginning of this year’s Le Mans week.
For those new to the Le Mans spectacle, we’ve devised a guide to what makes it one of the biggest races in motorsport.
Where it all began
Le Mansis the world’s oldest active sports car race in endurance racing. The day-long race was first run in 1923 after being set up by Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) and is held in the middle of June each year. The endurance element is obviously the key factor of Le Mans, with the race’s record race distance currently standing at 3,360 miles from the 2010 event; that’s 18-times longer than a regular Formula 1 race.
Known as the Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency, Le Mans is the biggest test in finding the perfect balance of consistent speed and mechanical stronghold. The early days saw manufacturers such as Bugatti, Bentley and Alfa Romeo dominating the race at the hands of the best British and Italian drivers. Le Mans has been cancelled on two occasions, the first being after France went on national strike in 1936 and then following the breakout of the Second World War, the race went on a 10-year hiatus.
Many people not too familiar with Le Mans may not be aware that the track itself goes by the name of Circuit de la Sarthe. One unique element that makes La Sarthe stick out over other circuits is its public roads that make up large sections of the track, most notably the famous Mulsanne straight.
Over the years, La Sarthe has been constantly modified in order to make the track either safer as the cars got faster, with chicanes a popular addition to the circuit to slow the cars down on the straights. Despite this, full throttle is used during 80-85% of a lap and average speeds often reach 140mph by the leading cars. A lap of the current CIRCUIT N° 15 configuration in use for 2014 runs at a length of about 8.5 miles.
Vehicles used during the first races at Le Mans were what we would perceive as classic open-top sports cars; these were dangerous and very much vulnerable to the elements. Through the years, the cars become the pinnacle of what could be achieved in motorsport and engineering as a whole; as aerodynamics took priority, it became a race in itself to be the best at punching the most efficient hole in the air at 130mph+.
Today sees three classes of cars: LMP1, LMP2 and the GTE cars (the GTEs split into Pro and AM). The LMP classes sees what is possible, within regulation, of what can be built for competition, while the GTE cars are the world’s best sports and supercars transformed into thoroughbred racers. The main focus is always with the main LMP manufacturers Audi and Toyota doing battle in most recent races, with the former having achieved 13 titles since appearing on the scene. However, the most successful Le Mans team has returned, with Porsche entering its first LMP cars for several years and present a clear threat to the established teams with its 919 Hybrid.
As you might imagine, Le Mans drivers in the 1920s and 30s were your usual gentleman racers that more or less laughed in the face of imposing danger that such a race may exude at every corner. The modern era, on the other hand, sees drivers as much more calculated beings that take on the track more methodically and use every portion of technology to their advantage.
Tom Kristensen, the veteran Audi driver, has competed in every Le Mans race in the last 17 races and has won on a record nine occasions. The Dane will once more take to one of the Audi R18s that he will share with two other drivers for the 24 hours. Following his retirement from Formula 1, former Red Bull racer and all-round good guy Mark Webber is back at Le Mans for the first time since his terrifying crash in a Mercedes in 1999; racing for Porsche, Webber will be competing among the main players of the race. In the GTE AM class, meanwhile, former Manchester United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez will compete in his team’s Ferrari 458.
The dangerous side of Le Mans
Like most motorsport series, Le Mans presented a large threat to safety, largely as a result of the massive speeds achieved by the cars involved. Unsurprisingly, there have been numerous crashes and catastrophic moments in the 91 years the race has been around. Audi driver Loic Duval has already shown us the dangers of Le Mans with his crash in practice which left his R18 in bits and the Frenchman in hospital with cuts and bruises.
The most notable and appalling moment at Le Mans - and all of motorsport - was in 1955 when Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes took flight following a collision and ploughed into the main grandstand on the main straight. The accident killed not only Levegh, but also 83 spectators and remains the worst motorsport incident in history. Even the modern era of Le Mans has seen large accidents, but with a large safety focus now in the sport, fatalities are very rare; although, last year’s race saw the first death at La Sarthe since 1986 when Allan Simonsen’s Aston Martin took a heavy impact at the beginning of the race, with the Dane succumbing to his injuries later in hospital.
The most recognisable accidents came in 1999, where Mark Webber flipped his Mercedes CLR-GT1 during both testing and the warm-up just hours before the race. The German team were adamant the issue had been resolved; however, during the race, Peter Dumbreck’s CLR also went airborne and subsequently flipped several times before coming to rest in the trees in the area beside the track. Amazingly, neither driver was hurt on any instance, but Mercedes soon withdrew from the event.
One very special trophy
Well, this is what it’s all about. In most motorsport competitions, never mind any other sport, you’ll probably see many nice trophies, but none are as extravagant as the Le Mans trophy.
Carried around in a designer Louis Vuitton case, the Le Mans trophy is the size of a young teenager and is certainly fitting for a race that lasts 24 hours. The No. 7 Toyota took pole position in Thursday’s qualifying, and just after 2pm on Sunday afternoon, you’ll see the magnificent work of art that is the Le Mans trophy on the La Sarthe podium surrounded by the three victors, whoever they may be.