Motorsport fans around the world are familiar with 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.
For us in Australia, the tyranny of the distance and the lack of connection to the World Endurance Championship (which is basically a level below Formula 1 in terms of technicality), means that the world famous race in France rarely gets attention.
It should be.
Speaking as a Formula 1 fanatic who has attended many different races over the years, none compare to the overall experience of going to Le Mans.
Before we get into why, let’s look at some basic history.
What is the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
The original race was held on a public road in the south of the French city of Le Mans that was mixed with forest and passed through residential areas.
Since then the circuit has changed slightly for safety reasons, but is largely made up of the same roads and terrain as usual. All in all, it’s a 13.6km track that offers plenty of opportunities for cars to fail and drivers to make simple but costly mistakes.
This year’s race marks the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the first being held in May 1923 (technically it was the 91st event as a few years were missed during the World Wars). It had the second highest attendance of any race at 325,000 spectators, beaten only by the event held in 1969 which recorded over 400,000 spectators.
From the very beginning, the idea was to create a race that would attract manufacturers to show not only the obvious speed as is often the case with Formula 1, but the ability for their vehicles to really last for a full 24 hours.
That spirit has not changed over 100 years and there have been some famous races at Le Mans where the leaders have given up on reliability in the most brutal way at the end.
For example, Toyota lost the race in 2016 due to reliability issues with just 10 minutes to go.
The history of Le Mans is extensive and has led to many innovations, some of which have caught on such as advanced aerodynamics, Jaguar popularized disc brakes, and Porsche debuted a dual-clutch transmission on the 1986 Group C 962C prototype that won Le Mans that year.
There are also more outlandish ideas, such as running gas turbine-powered racing cars.
Overall, unlike Formula 1, the idea with Le Mans has always been at the forefront of innovation with manufacturers enjoying more freedom than rules.
As part of the WEC, this year the main class is called hypercar (replacing LMP1) and the rules basically allow anything that produces 500kW, hybrid or not and weighs at least 1030kg.
Compared to F1, the rules are much more relaxed for aerodynamics as well, which allows designers to create unique cars based on performance windows. This is why some hypercars don’t have rear wings, depending on the ground effect.
Many have tried to win Le Mans and only a few have succeeded. The most successful manufacturer at Le Mans in terms of overall wins is Porschewhich has taken 19 outright victories, including seven in a row from 1981 to 1987. If you include his overall class wins as well, it brings the total to a staggering 107 victories at the famous circuit.
To win 19 times in LeMans since the first entry in 1966 is a huge achievement by the German manufacturer and really speaks to the essence of the brand.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2023, Porsche entered the three factory Porsche 963 supercars in this year’s event but unfortunately faced various problems throughout the race and finished outside the top 10.
Talk of Porsche joining Formula 1 in the future seemed all but confirmed until Red Bull caught Ford’s eye but for now, the iconic sports car maker is well ahead of its nearest rival in Le Mans wins.
|Alfa Romeo, Ford||4|
|Aston Martin, BMW, Chenard & Walcker, Delahaye, Lagonda, Mazda, McLaren, Mercedes-Benz, Mirage, Renault-Alpine, Rondeau, Sauber-Mercedes, Talbot-Lago||1|
Why you should do Le Mans at least once
If you love motorsports, this is something you should do at least once in your life. The build-up to the event saw the entire city of Le Mans overtaken by fans and teams with a huge influx of people there to experience the magic of the historic race.
The atmosphere is truly surreal and the best part is, unlike F1 which has recently started attracting ‘Netflix’ interest (as us OG F1 fans call them), Le Mans is for the true die-hard fans who travel long distances to enjoy racing, not to be seen on social media.
This year’s race was full of every kind of dramatic moment you can imagine, with plenty of crashes, heartbreaks and retirements for teams like Porsche to Ferrari’s thrilling victory on its return to LeMans after more than 50 years. You can read our Le Mans race report here.
Trying to explain to my Formula 1 loving wife why we got to go to the 24 Hours of Le Mans together a year was met with the immediate comment “do they really race the entire 24 hours?” Why yes, they do and it brings a very interesting element to racing.
In Formula 1, the spectacle is a roughly two-hour made-for-TV event and races like the one in Melbourne feature great performances for entertainment throughout the weekend, but what if the actual race is entertainment?
What if there was no need for a support category because they were actually racing the fastest cars at the same time, for 24 hours straight!? What if the cars actually raced and overtook each other, constantly?
Apart from the Hypercar class, you will also find LMP2 (Le Mans Prototype 2), LMGTE and the ‘innovative car’ class also in the event, which this year has 62 entries in total. If you’re wondering how that works, it’s a really good question because you have a car that’s literally 20 seconds a lap faster than the rest.
The fastest lap of the circuit during qualifying was 3:22.982 set by the Ferrari 499, compare to 3:32.923 by the fastest LMP2 car and then 3:52.376 by Corvette Racing in GTE. The delta is huge and that means the fastest car has to overtake dozens and dozens of cars every lap.
Can you imagine the potential views that would be created for 24 hours straight? Where do cars cut each other continuously? Come rain, sunshine, darkness… there’s no need to imagine, because it’s real and it happens every year at Le Mans.
We’re told by those in the know that nearly 85 percent of the laps around the Circuit de la Sarthe are at full throttle, specifically designed to put as much pressure on the engine and drivetrain as possible.
Aside from the actual racing, which is absolutely amazing to watch for every lap (although the safety car period can take longer than us regular F1 fans), another reason the 24 hour race works so well for motorsport fans is that you really- really have all day to go around the track and find new places to watch the race cars fly by.
The track is so long and the corners are so numerous that you will probably never run out of interesting places to visit. We highly recommend ‘Porsche Curves’ as a viewing area.
Some stayed up for the full event or slept on the circuit itself, but despite our best attempts at several attendances, it was a feat we had yet to achieve. Something to try next time.
Since the race starts around 4pm local time and ends at 4pm the next day, it gives you a chance to watch the often drama-filled first few hours, then sleep for a few hours and get back into it. The tension really starts to build as the clock starts to count down.
There’s the usual entertainment and merchandise area (which unlike F1, seems to offer some reasonably priced goodies) and the grid walk lets you basically get up and touch the car, something that surprised us given the amount of fine carbon fiber on the car, but it’s all part of the show, making it accessible to real fans.
While at Le Mans this year, we met many fans from all over the world and each one of them gave a big smile supporting their team in various categories.
As public transport is in Europe, there are many ways to get to Le Mans from almost any nearby city.
From Australia it makes the most sense to fly to Paris and take the train which will take about two hours at most. However, if you happen to fly to Germany and visit the Porsche museum while you are there, it will only add to the trip.
There is nothing quite like the 24 Hours of Le Mans and if you love motorsport, be it any category, this is the race for you as it appeals to many different tastes and categories. It’s a long way from Australia but if you’re fed up with F1 delivering boring races at exorbitant ticket prices, Le Mans is the answer and it’s definitely one you should do at least once.