By Stefan Kristensen
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November 15, 2021
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24 Hours of Le Mans

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.  

What is the 24 Hours of Le Mans?

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.

When is Le Mans 24?

24H Le Mans traditionally takes place in the second week of June - with few exceptions.

  • The first 24H Le Mans took place on May 26 and 27th, 1923.
  • The 1956 24H Le Mans took place on July 28 and 29th, 1956.
  • The 1968 24H Le Mans took place on September 28th and 29th, 1968.
  • The 2020 24H Le Mans took place on September 19th and 20th, 2020.
  • The 2021 24H Le Mans took place on August 21st and 22nd, 2021.

Where is 24H Le Mans?

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.

Le Mans 24 Start Time

From 1923 through 2006, the 24H Le Mans start time was 16:00 on Saturday except for:

  • 1968, when officials changed the 24H Le Mans race start time to 14:00
  • 1984, when officials changed the 24H Le Mans race start time to 15:00
  • 2006, when officials changed the 24H Le Mans race start time to 17:00
  • 2007, when officials changed the 24H Le Mans race start time to 15:00.
  • 2020, when officials changed the 24H Le Mans race start time to 14:30.
  • Finally, from 2007 to 2019, officials set the race time at 15:00.

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.

How Many Cars take Part in 24H Le Mans?

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.

What Classes of Cars Take Part in 24H Le Mans?

There are four classes of car that take part in the 24H Le Mans:

  • Hypercar.
  • LMP2.
  • LMGTE PRO.
  • LMGTE AM.
Hypercar

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:

  • Oreca
  • Multimatic
  • Ligier
  • Dallara
LMP2

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:

  • Dallara
  • Riley-Multimatic
  • Oreca
  • Onroak
LMGTE PRO

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. 

LMGTE AM

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.

24H Le Mans 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.

The Event

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. 

  • Each driver who competes in 24H Le Mans receives 7,000 euros (just over $8,000.) 
  • The winner in each category wins 10,000 euros ($11,450.) 
  • The overall winner receives 40,000 euros ($45,800.) 
  • The overall second-place winner receives 25,000 euros ($28,600.)
  • Third 20,000 euros ($22,900.)
  • Fourth 15,000 euros ($17,177.) 
  • Fifth 12,000 euros ($13,740.)

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

The History of 24H Le Mans

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.

Has 24H Le Mans Ever Been Cancelled?

24H Le Mans has been canceled ten times – in 1936 during the great depression and 1940 through 1948 due to World War II.

How Fast Do Cars Go At 24H Le Mans?

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.

What is the Fastest Race Lap Done in the 24H Le Mans?

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 and the FIA World Endurance Championship

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:

  • 6 Heures de Spa-Francorchamps at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.6 Hours of Monza at Autodromo Nazionale di Monza.
  • 8 Hours of Bahrain at the Bahrain International Circuit.
  • 8 Hours of Portimao at the Algarve International Circuit.
  • 24-Hr of Le Mans at the Cirquit de la Sarthe.

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:

  • GT World Endurance Drivers’ Championship.
  • Hypercar World Endurance Drivers’ Championship.
  • Hypercar World Endurance (Manufacturer's) Championship.
  • GT World Endurance Manufacturer’s Championship.

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 and the Triple Crown of Motorsport

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

  • The Indianapolis 500
  • The 24 Hours Of Le Mans
  • The Monaco Grand Prix

Each of these three courses was once part of the FIA World Championships.

  • The Indie 500 was part of the World Manufacturers’ Championship from 1925 to 1928. The Indie 500 was also part of the Formula One World Championship from 1950 to 1960.
  • The 24 Hours of Le Mans was part of the World Sportscar Championship from 1953 to 1992 (barring 1956 and 1975 – 1979.) Le Mans has also been part of the FIA World Endurance Cup since 2012.
  • The Monaco Grand Prix has been a part of the Formula One Championship since 1950 (Barring 1951-1954, and 2020.)

In the history of the Triple Crown, only one driver has completed the Triple Crown – Graham Hill.

Le Mans Tragedy

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.

10 More 24H Le Mans Statistics You Should Know

  • Porsche has held the most pole positions of any constructor.
  • The most laps completed in the 24H Le Mans is 397 - completed in 1971 and 2010.
  • The top speed reached for a vehicle taking part in 24H Le Mans is 407 km/h (253 mph,) achieved by Roger Dorchy with a WM P88-Peugeot in 1988.
  • The most cars to finish one 24H Le Mans is 48.
  • The Fewest cars to finish one 24H Le Mans is 6.
  • Dunlop has manufactured the most winning tires for 24H Le Mans Cars.
  • The nation with the most driver wins in the 24H Le Mans is France, with 43 wins.
  • The nation with the most winning drivers is the United Kingdom, with 30 drivers.
  • The driver with the most consecutive wins is Tom Kristensen, who won six consecutive 24H Le Mans races.
  • The driver with the most total wins is also Tom Kristensen, who won nine 24H Le Mans races.

Conclusion / Summary

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!

Written by Stefan Kristensen
Passionate about motorsports ever since I was a little boy. Back then, I cheered on the racing cars simply based on their colors. Later I fell in love with the many stories behind racing that make it so interesting.
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