Sunday the 12th of June is a big date in the motorsport calendar (not just because it’s Badger’s Canadian Bash), as it signals the 79th holding of the crown of endurance racing; The Le Mans 24 Hours. For a whole day teams and drivers will drive their cars as close to the limit as possible, through day and night conditions, all looking to secure a victory at one of the most prestigious races in Europe, and most probably the world. The history and glamour of this race is warrant enough to compete, but why tune in?
It’s going to be a humdinger at the front. Audi vs. Peugeot has been the fiercest rivalry in the past 5 years of Le Mans, and this year’s race will be another installment in that contest. Although Audi has dominated the score 3-1, last year was Peugeot’s for the taking before an engine failure affected all three of their entrants. The 2008 race came down to a mere 10 mins difference in the end, which although seems a lifetime in F1 terms, in Le Mans it’s as close as it can get. This year, with the addition of returnee’s Aston Martin, we could be in for a three-way fight for a win.
The standing start may be gone, but it’s part of the history of the place. Ever seen the old footage of racing drivers running across from the pitwall to jump in their cars? That all originated at Le Mans. Throughout the ’50’s and ’60’s it was commonplace for a foot race to determine who would get into the first corner first. With teams being as cunning as ever though, little tweaks were made to shave seconds off starting the car! Porsche started the trend by moving the ignition to the left of the steering wheel, so a driver could start the car and put it in gear with either hand. Stirling Moss would jump start his car by already having it in gear when entering. The problem of drivers not fastening their safety belts became a major issue though, with many drivers suffering worse injuries in crashes due to them looking for an edge. This all came to a head in 1969 though, when debutant Jacky Ickx walked instead of running, nearly being hit by the faster starters. In 1970 the race started in a more traditional standing start, and in 1971 the rolling start was introduced and is still used to this day.
Cheap tickets make it affordable for all fans. Whether you want to camp nearby or be in the grandstand, Le Mans offers the chance to be at the action for a considerably lower price than most F1 races. In fact, the race keeps tourism for the town and surrounding area as it’s major source of income. Part of the track is held on public roads, so many tourists visit the area all year long, just to experience driving on part of such a famous circuit.
Mark Webber learned to fly here before Valencia. The Mercedes of 1999 was a very quick car, but it had a fatal design flaw; at top speed, it could become airbourne. Current F1 ace Mark Webber found out all too well in practice and race-day warm up. The worst was to come for Scot Peter Dumbreck five hours into the race though:
Straight after this, the teams retired the remaining cars and Mercedes dropped their sportscar programme indefinitely.
The circuit is challenging and dangerous in equal amounts. Le Mans is a very hard circuit on cars in two areas. Firstly, as for 85% of the lap drivers are on the throttle, engines and drivetrains are under a massive amount of stress. In 1990, the introduction of two chicanes down the Mulsanne straight meant that cars couldn’t reach the kind of top speeds they could before, some as high as 250mph. Secondly, thanks to the fact that the circuit has many sharp corners means the brakes gets a serious workout too. All the teams, when designing a car or running a customer one, have plenty of spares to combat this. It’s dangerous and tough, but the thrill of a victory is too much to pass up.
It’s one of the toughest things for any driver to attempt. A standard Grand Prix doesn’t go past the 2 hour mark, and even then drivers exit their cars drenched in sweat. Now, imagine having to do that a minimum of 4 times in a day. And with 2 of them at night. That is a massive amount of concentration for a driver to undertake in a whole month, let alone a single 24 hour period!
The list if participants, let alone winners, is like a who’s who of motorsport legends. Look through any list of Le Mans drivers and we can guarantee you’ll know at least 5 names. Winners include Martin Brundle (1990), Johnny Herbert (1991), Mark Blundell (1992) and Alan McNish (1998) for recent British participants. Both of F1 icon Jack Brabham, David and Geoff, have stood on the podium’s top step. F1 names like Stefan Johansson, Michele Alboreto, Alex Wurz, Marc Gene and (unbelievably) Betrand Gachot have all tasted success there. Touring Car ace Frank Biela has 5 wins to his name, while rally hero Colin McRae finished 3rd in class in 2004.
Graham Hill won in 1972, completing the “holy trinity” of motor racing, adding to his F1 titles and Indy 500 win, a feat that may never be equalled. The most wins goes to Tom Kristensen though, equaling Jacky Ickx’s record of 6 in 2004, beating it with his 5th straight win in 2005, before making it 8 in 2008. If it wasn’t for errors from his team-mates in 1999 and 2007, he would have a jaw-dropping 10 wins at the event.
And of course, Steve McQueen made a film about it:
In our eyes, that kind of makes it very cool.