The 24 Hours of Le Mans is unique, for its history, the diversity of its competitors and the originality of its particularly open regulations. It is also the flagship race of the FIA WEC, a series whose success is a tribute to the values of human endeavour and technological prowess upheld by the discipline.
Open to amateurs as well as professionals, prototypes and road-legal sports cars, hybrid or conventional engines, the 24 Hours of Le Mans has many facets. Few races in the world can claim to feature such a diverse display of cars or drivers on the grid.
24 Hours Le Mans 2018
This year, even the 24 Hours of Le Mans billboard poster is magic. The clever design shows endurance racing at its best: dynamic and captivating.
Whatever the outcome, history will be made on 17 June. The winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the second round of the FIA World Endurance Championship will be first in more ways than one. If Toyota triumphs, it will be a first for the manufacturer. If Formula One driver and two-time world champion Fernando Alonso pulls off the feat, it will be a first for him too. If a non-hybrid LMP1 beats the hybrid, it will be the first time and if an LMP2 manages to scoop the top step, it will be a first too!
Endurance racing has a glorious past, is firmly anchored in the present, yet always looking to the future. Like all long-running institutions, the discipline constantly reinvents itself. Be prepared for a glittering line-up on 16 June. Toyota, Ford, Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin, BMW and Chevrolet represent manufacturers, then there are numerous private teams and of course, the drivers! The list reads like a hall of fame! There are former winners like Neel Jani, André Lotterer, Romain Dumas, Marcel Fässler, Mike Rockenfeller, Jan Lammers, Timo Bernhard, Nick Tandy, Loïc Duval and Earl Bamber, specialists of the discipline such as Sébastien Buemi, Stéphane Sarrazin, Oliver Gavin and Sébastien Bourdais, Formula One drivers, including two world champions, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, stars of the American circuits, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kannan and Scott Dixon, as well budding stars such as Thomas Laurent, and a host of accomplished amateurs.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans: the supreme test!
Life is based on 24-hour cycles. The pioneers of the race came up with the idea of a non-stop 24-hour race as the ultimate test of vehicle performance. Stretching a machine to the limits, around the clock was the best way to earn respect.
But a good idea at the right time is one thing; it is quite another to make it into a lasting event! The Automobile Club de l’Ouest has always been clear-sighted enough to adapt regulations to the times and look to the future, welcoming innovative technology, always with the same goal, to keep motorsport moving in the right direction. Today more than ever, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the supreme test and the highlight of the endurance season.
Two types of car
One of the things that makes the 24 Hours of Le Mans so unique is the diversity in the cars that face off against each other. There are two broad categories:
– Le Mans Prototypes (LMP)
– Le Mans Grand Touring Endurance (LMGTE)
The prototype classes are open to cars developed specifically to race. They are not available for sale to the general public and are not road-legal. There are two prototype classes: LMP1 (open to factory teams and private teams) and LMP2 (for private teams only).
The other cars in the race are road-legal production sportscars adapted for racing. There are separate regulations for each class. The diverse line-up attracts a wide audience and the difference in speed means plenty of overtaking and traffic management, which adds to the excitement of the race.
Two types of driver
The originality of the 24 Hours of Le Mans extends to the people behind the wheel, as professionals and amateurs – traditionally known as “gentlemen drivers” – take part in the same race. The LMP1 and LMGTE Pro classes are for professionals only, but the other classes feature mixed or all-amateur crews, which gives these gentlemen drivers a chance to pit their wits against seasoned experts.
Each car has a twoor three-driver crew. There are strict rules on the makeup of a crew and drivers are graded according to performance. Rules also govern how teams manage their drivers’ stints over the 24 hours. No driver can be at the wheel for less than six hours or more than 14 hours in total, or for more than four hours at a time within a six-hour period.
An iconic circuit
The city of Le Mans and the surrounding countryside has been used to the roar of engines since 1923. From the dirt tracks of old to the modern surfaces, the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans has come a long way, yet is still very much the same.
The inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans, in 1923, was contested on barely tarmacked roads along a 17.262-km circuit which ran through parts of the city. It was the same circuit that had been used for the post-World War I Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France. Over the years, the ACO has made regular changes to the circuit, making it ever safer.
Run-off areas have been added, chicanes installed to reduce speed, bumps ironed out, the surface renewed and revolutionary SAFER barriers erected. No expense is spared! With the improvements completed in 2018, the circuit now measures 13.626 kilometres.
The Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans is 13.626 km long and, unlike the 4.185-km Bugatti circuit which is a purpose-built track, includes sections of public road which are closed to ordinary traffic especially for the race. The rest of the year, one can drive along the famous Mulsanne Straight in a humbler vehicle – and at a more sedate pace!
During the qualifying sessions, the fastest LMP1s bank sub-3:20 laps, at an average speed approaching 250 kph. The best LMGTEs, meanwhile, are some thirty seconds “slower”.
The scene is set. The suspense will be both unbearable and wonderful and before we know it, the race will be over for another year. We shall have to wait a whole 12 months before Le Mans 2019 and another first, as the French classic is to be the culmination of the FIA WEC 2018–19 Super Season.