24 Hours of Le Mans - more commonly referred to as Le Mans 24, is the biggest competition in endurance racing. Le Mans has a history dating back nearly one hundred years and is often called the most prestigious sports car race.
As one of the biggest competitions in endurance racing, the 24 H Le Mans traditionally takes place in June each year in Le Mans, France. The race sees approximately sixty cars on the track, each team competing to prove the endurance of their drivers, each manufacturer competing to show off the advancement of their vehicle technology, and each driver competing for placement and a cash prize.
24H Le Mans is the world's oldest endurance motor racing event and the oldest endurance race in the world. The Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) or the Automobile Club of the West is responsible for organizing the race.
24H Le Mans began in 1923 and originally started as a way for car manufacturers to show off how durable their cars could be in competition. Since it began, however, the 24H Le Mans race has continued to evolve.
Eventually, the 24H Le Mans race has grown into a game of strategy where a car's technological advantage, reliability, and driver's strategy all come into play.
24H Le Mans differs from other races in several ways - three of the most significant differences are how drivers win the race, the regulations governing the cars and drivers, and the sheer amount of endurance needed to compete.
In most motorsport races, the winner is the competitor that makes it around a course of a fixed distance in the fastest time. 24H Le Mans differs from these traditional races; however, since the winner is the competitor that covers the most distance over 24 hours.
In addition to how the winner of Le Mans is determined, this event is unique because it does not just consider speed. Drivers in 24H Le Mans must balance their speed with the mechanical integrity of their car so that they can outlast competitors.
For example, a driver may hit some of the highest speeds in the race but maintaining those high speeds can also overtax the car making it less likely that the vehicle will make it through the full 24-hours.
The last of our three significant distinctions between 24H Le Mans and other races is the endurance required of the drivers in the race. For 24-hours, drivers and cars are both pushed to breaking point as they strive to cover the most laps.
24H Le Mans traditionally takes place in the second week of June - with few exceptions.
The 24H Le Mans takes place at the Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France. The Circuit de la Sarthe road course is 13,626 km - or 8,467 mi - long and has 38 turns.
From 1923 through 2006, the 24H Le Mans start time was 16:00 on Saturday except for:
In 2020 the race started at 14:30 local time before it was moved back to 16:00 for the 2021 race.
The Le Mans 24 start time is always noted in Bravo time or Central European Summer Time as this is the French time zone.
Approximately sixty competitors take part in 24H Le Mans each year. These cars fall into a certain number of “classes”. Occasionally, the number of classes in Le Mans changes, but currently, there are four.
There are four classes of car that take part in the 24H Le Mans:
The Hypercar is the newest top-class taking part in Le Mans. Two car types fall into this class – the Le Mans Hypercar from 2021 and the Le Mans, Daytona from 2022.
Officials introduced the Le Mans Hypercar to the competition in 2021, and all cars once categorized as “LMH” had to be built according to the Le Mans technical regulations to compete. Officials introduced new rules for LMH cars in 2021. The new LMH technical regulations offer more opportunities for manufacturers by lowering the cost of vehicles.
Lowering the cost of cars with the new LMH rules does not just open the market for more car manufacturers; it also increases the competition in the race.
Officials also plan to introduce the LMDh Hypercar class in 2022. Under LMDh regulations, the entire car except for the body, the hybrid system, and the internal combustion engine must be the product of one of the following chassis manufacturers:
LMP2 stands for Le Mans Prototype 2, and under LMP2 regulations, this car is a closed-cockpit prototype. The LMP2 class is open to privateers, and there are four approved vehicle constructors:
Under LMGTE PRO class regulations, this car is a two-door road-legal sports car, should focus on a balance of performance adjustments, and this class is open to professional drivers and works teams.
Under LMGTE AM class regulations, this car is a two-door road-legal sports car, should focus on a balance of performance adjustments, and this class is open to amateur drivers.
Each team taking part in the 24H Le Mans must have three drivers who rotate through the car during the race. Drivers switch positions during pit stops when the pit crew refuels the vehicle and changes the tires.
To enter the Le Mans 24H, a team must first qualify and the drivers must drive during the dark hours of qualifying so they will be ready for the night hours of the race.
Qualification and practice both take place late in the week preceding the Le Mans race, after which officials inspect the cars taking part in the event. On these qualifying days, spectators can watch exhibition races that take place during the daytime.
On the Friday before the race, the drivers take part in a parade through the city.
The fastest qualifying lap time of a car determines the start position of the car on the grid - no matter which of the 3 drivers sat the lap time. Drivers then take a formation lap behind a track safety car before taking their place on the track for a rolling start.
During the race, drivers stop approximately every forty-five minutes to refuel and to change out tires. If necessary, the pit crew will also assist with swapping out the driver during a pit stop. Switching out a car's driver can be complicated because it sometimes requires the pit crew to change the driving seat.
Le Mans regulation forbids any single driver from driving for more than fourteen hours during the race, and each time must rotate three drivers during the race.
It used to be that the winner of Le Mans was the car that covered the most distance and which crossed the finish line first. As of 1971, officials recognize the car that covered the most distance while racing after completing the final lap as the winner. To accommodate the addition of the rolling start, officials had to make this new winner of the race rule alteration.
After completion of the race, the winner of each class receives a prize, and the overall winner is also recognized.
But perhaps most sought after is the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watch that the winners receive.
Le Mans 2011 - Race - Audi R18 TDI #2 at Mulsanne. Alessandro Prada from LE MANS, FR, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Although the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) or the Automobile Club of the West currently organizes the 24H Le Mans, the race began before the ACO existed and so began in Le Mans with the Automobile Club de la Sarthe.
In 1897, Paul Jamin won the Paris-Dieppe race, and together with Amedee Bollee and with the assistance of the Automobile Club de France, they organized a local 65-mile race. The race took place on public roads and included Le Mans, Saint-Calais, and La Ferte Bernard. Titled the Grand Prix de l’ACF, the race had twelve laps and spread over two days.
Officials recognize the first Grand Prix as the Grand Prix de l’ACF. These officials would later rename the Grand Prix de l'ACF as the French Grand Prix.
It would not be until after World War I that the Automobile Club de France created a shorter public route circuit south of Le Mans. Georges Durand – then chief secretary of the ACO – tire manufacturer Emile Coquille, and magazine editor Charles Faroux designed the first Le Mans 24 Hours event.
The very first Le Mans 24H took place on May 26th , 1923.
24H Le Mans has been canceled ten times – in 1936 during the great depression and 1940 through 1948 due to World War II.
The cars at 24H Le Mans can have top speeds of over 200 mph! Although drivers only hit these top speeds at the longest stretch of straight road.
The fastest race lap done in the 24H Le Mans was completed in 3:17.297 by Englishman Mike Conway with a Toyota TS050 Hybrid. Conway set this lap record in a Toyota TS050 Hybrid in 2019.
Le Mans makes up one part of the FIA World Endurance Championship which features multiple long-distance races worldwide. Currently included in the championship are:
The FIA World Endurance Championship is an international endurance racing championship that first ran in 2012. Officials created this championship to replace the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.
The Fia World Endurance Championship is sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) and organized by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO.)
Each year ten titles are given out during the FIA championship. Four of the FIA titles are world championship titles and include:
Titles awarded during the FIA World Championship are awarded based on a point system – the team with the most points win. Drivers that come in place two through ten earn points on a sliding scale.
Le Mans is also one of the three achievements required for the triple crown motorsport achievement alongside the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix.
The Triple Crown of Motorsport is not an officially recognized achievement but refers to a driver winning
Each of these three courses was once part of the FIA World Championships.
In the history of the Triple Crown, only one driver has completed the Triple Crown – Graham Hill.
There have been many great moments in Le Mans history, but there have been some very tragic events as well.
The most well-known accident in Le Mans history is the 1955 Le Mans disaster. On June 11, 1955, driver Mike Hawthorn pulled his Jaguar in front of Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey before slowing for his pit stop.
To avoid hitting Hawthorn, Macklin pulled out from behind him, but he inadvertently swerved in front of Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR driver Levegh.
Levegh struck Macklin, and his car launched up and over a protective barrier while traveling at 125 mph. During the crash, Levegh’s car impacted twice with the spectator area before it disintegrated. Levegh was launched onto the track and died instantaneously.
The 1955 Le Mans tragedy caused eighty-four deaths and one hundred and twenty nonfatal injuries. There was an official government inquiry into the crash, and while many still debate the ultimate cause of the crash, the consensus is that the older track was to blame as it was not strong enough for such a race.
The 24H Le Mans is a significant race in the auto racing sport and is coming up on its one-hundredth anniversary! Over the past century, Le Mans has seen many great racers come and go, and as racing evolves, it promises to see many more!