If there was one weekend around which international motorsport revolved for the rest of the year, it would be this weekend. If one event could be the lynch pin of all races to gearheads worldwide, it would be this event. To me, Le Mans is the pinnacle of track racing, exceeded only in sheer epic drama and adventure by the Dakar Rally. But what is it? Why did Steve McQueen make an entire movie about it? Why do manufacturers like Audi, Peugeot, Aston Martin and even GM spend millions trying to win it every year? And why do people look at you funny when you pronounce the “s” at the end?
Le Mans, short for 24 Heurs du Mans, is the world’s oldest endurance Sports Car race, lasting a full 24 hours and run over the Circuit de la Sarthe, an 8.5 mile ring composed of dedicated race track and public roads, located near the town of Le Mans, France (thus the silent “s”).
Since it’s an endurance race with a set duration, the winning car is the one that completes the most laps. Depending on class, some cars can pull over 230 mph on the Mulsane Straight (La Sarthe’s main straightaway), so you can imagine that 24 hours of this will put a few miles on the odo. Most top class cars travel around 3,000 miles, in fact. The average American racks that up over four months. That’s six Indianapolis 500s.
Each car must use at least three drivers during the race, and each driver cannot be out on the track for more than four hours at a time, and cannot field more than fourteen hours of the race. It’s not a bad idea, really, because when you’re driving over 200 mph, you want to be alert, considering that you’re sitting in millions of dollars worth of engineering.
And what of those cars? What do the lunatic pilots drive? All competing cars must have room for at least two seats and must have closed wheels, so you know you won’t get them confused with Formula One racers. Like many races, Le Mans divides their cars into classes:
LMP1 stands for Le Mans Prototype 1. This class is intended for manufacturers who have the euros money to get their cars up to that 230 mph. Neither the LMP1 cars nor engines must be homologated (put into production), and they rarely are. A car can have either an open or closed cockpit, and cannot weigh much less than a ton. Major contenders this year are Peugeot’s 908, a 550 hp, 3.7 liter V8, and Audi’s R18, a 575 hp, 3.7 liter V6. Both are turbo diesels to reduce fuel stops. Audi and Peugeot have been trading victories at Le Mans for years, and the pedestal is expected to be loaded with one or both of them, again this year.
LMP2, as you imagine, is short for Le Mans Prototype 2. These are similar to LMP1 cars, but can be a little lighter and must use smaller engines. LMP2 is designed as a privateer class, so cars are more varied, but keep an eye out for the Lola B11/40, powered by a 4.0 BMW V8, and another 4.0 V8 from Honda Performance Development, the ARX-01D. Engines must be homologated to at least a thousand examples within a year.
GTE Pro is designed for production-based grand tourers. They can’t have more than two doors and must use gas. Though entries only need 100 homologated examples, each engine must be one of at least 300 on the market. Cars are mostly stock, and are only allowed two modifications per season (which makes things interesting for all of us). Since they must also be road legal, GTE cars will be much more familiar to the casual viewer. Watch for the BMW M3, the Ferrari 458 Italia, the Corvette C6 ZR1, and a new entry this year, the Lotus Evora.
GTE Am is the lowest class at Le Mans. Cars must be at least one year old, and can only be driven by amateurs. Other than a few nitpicks, GTE Am and GTE Pro are identical in regulation. Cars to watch for this year are the Porsche 911 RSR, the Aston Martin Vantage, and the Ferrari F430.
Take 56 cars of four different speed classifications and put them on an eight mile track for 24 hours, and you’ll inevitably have something epic. It is a legendary thing. Dan Gurney started the tradition of pedestal champagne spraying when he won the 1967 Le Mans. The Ford GT40 was born there. Paul Newman ran it in 1979 and finished second. Le Mans is simply the greatest track race in the world. How’s that for a primer?
You can watch live portions of Le Mans on Speed TV this weekend, or stream the entire race on Speed.com.
Image provided courtesy of www.lemans.org.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.