24 hours of Le Mans - explained

Every year a small corner of France explodes into life with the sounds and smells of gruelling attrition for the infamous Le Mans race.
 
  • 24 Hours of Le Mans
    Iain Dooley
    Last updated: 22 June 2013, 13:16 BST

    Historically, Le Mans has been viewed by many as more than a simple race, although how anything that stretches over 24 hours could ever be judged as simple beggars belief.

    In decades past there have been countless tales of bravery and displays of herculean endurance by the drivers and teams, while as the years have progressed the cars have got faster, sleeker and more reliable.

    Sports car racing might, like many forms of motorsport, live in the shadow of Formula One, but that doesn’t make it any less appealing.

    In fact, precisely because it has yet to succumb to the over-hyped glitz and glamour of the F1 circus, sports car racing can focus on the impressive efforts of man and machine without the interference of Z-list celebrities clogging up the pitlane.

    And of all the various forms of sports car racing, Le Mans has long since reached celebrity status in its own right.

    Pilgrimage

    For the many hundreds of thousands who make the trip, it’s almost a religious experience. Brits pour into Le Mans by the tens of thousands for the race week.

    Yes, it might ‘only’ be a 24 hour race but scrutineering the 56 cars and near 170 drivers plus practice and qualifying takes a little longer than your average Saturday afternoon F1 session.

    Sports car drivers do it in the dark, too. Practice and qualifying, that is.

    For all the long, drawn-out preamble, every year all eyes focus on the main event: that thunderous rolling start on the Saturday afternoon and the prospect of 24 hours of hard and fast racing. Of course, it never used to be a day-long sprint, but recent years have seen teams up the pace with ever faster and more durable cars.

    Audi on top

    Porsche might have reigned supreme in past decades, but another German manufacturer – Audi – has pushed cars and drivers to new limits with a succession of first petrol and more recently diesel-powered race cars. Other manufacturers have trailed in Audi’s wake, most notably Peugeot and Toyota.

    Interestingly the latter has come back for more, matching Audi in the technology department as both teams have chosen to run hybrid motors: Audi has stuck with diesel while Toyota has opted for petrol. As such the cars are as similar as chalk and cheese, although their goals are the same: to win.

    While the battle at the front will likely be a fierce one, it’s easy to forget the smaller teams with their equally smaller budgets. If you prefer cars that look like regular cars - albeit recipients of a considerable amount of under-the-skin upgrades - the various GT categories can prove to be as entertaining as the Audi and Toyota prototype face-off.

    Little guys

    Gentleman drivers mix with established professional in a bid to win class honours and, unlike in Formula One land, the assembled media shine as big a spotlight on the little guys.

    Battling through the night or the lashing rain is no fun at 200-plus kph, and is made doubly hard when you’ve got to be concentrating just as much on your mirrors to avoid faster cars as on the road ahead.

    Still, despite the sometimes un-summer-like weather, the fans continue to turn up year after year in their droves – especially the Brits – and the campsites are always full.

    Beer, barbeques and, maybe, a spot of trackside spectating continues to prove a popular way of spending a weekend in an ordinarily quiet part of France southwest of Paris.

    Iain Dooley
    Last updated: 22 June 2013, 13:16 BST

    Related stories  

    Tags  

     

Featured video

Previous
Next

Motoring features 

Alfa Romeo 2300 8C Monza

Italian Passion: an Alfa Romeo Retrospective

If you can’t raise a smile when you see an old Alfa then, according to fans of the brand, there must be something wrong with you.

 

Most popular

 

Please note: comments aren't published automatically between 11pm and 8am. Please read our House Rules