As a concept, it’s simple: teams of three take turns driving one car to rack up the most laps in 24 hours. In practice, it’s one of the most demanding drives on Earth.
Welcome to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the only automotive experience more intense than a road trip with Hunter S. Thompson.
More than 250,000 fans make the pilgrimage to France each year, prepared to brave bad weather, overpriced provisions, and a sordid toilet situation in the name of attending.
For gearheads, there’s no question: if you can get there someday, you must.
History Of Speed
Le Mans began as a testing ground for the automobile, which was still a work in progress when the event debuted in 1923. The inaugural year brought 33 vehicles from 17 brands, including Bentley and Bugatti, to the track. All but two endured a four-hour hailstorm to finish.
The race continued through the decade and into the next, each year seeing more impressive innovations in automotive design, but was forced to take a hiatus during the turbulence of World War II. Ten years later, following the reconstruction of the circuit facilities, the 24 Hours of Le Mans returned in 1949.
The World Sportscar Championship formed a few years later in 1953, prompting major manufacturers like Ferrari and Aston Martin to send multiple cars to compete at Le Mans. As the competition intensified, so did the fatalities. The event has seen a number of tragedies over the years, including the deadliest motor racing accident of all time, in which a driver and more than 80 spectators lost their lives at the 1955 race.
With safety measures and the track’s construction improved, Le Mans continued. In the 70s and 80s the race took a turn towards more extreme speeds and automotive designs. Purpose-built sportscars became the norm over production-based cars, and innovation was put at a premium.
These days Le Mans is a round of the FIA World Endurance Championship and a leg of the informal Triple Crown of Motorsport. Copycat 24-hour races have sprung up all over the globe, and the event has secured its legacy as one of the most prestigious races in the world.
The Course, The Cars & Their Pilots
The venue for this spectacle of speed is the Circuit de la Sarthe, a 13.629-km course that follows public roads. Its most famous stretch is the Mulsanne Straight, a 6-km tract on which cars once reached over 400 km/h. The straightaway was so dangerous that two chicanes were added before the 1990 race to limit the achievable maximum speed.
The Circuit de la Sarthe has undergone 12 changes over its lifetime. As speeds climbed, modifications were a must to protect drivers and spectators alike. Top speeds have dropped as a result, but the Sarthe circuit is still famously fast and over 80% of the race is spent at full throttle.
As to the cars themselves, you’ll find two kinds at Le Mans: souped-up sports cars and one-of-a-kind prototypes. All competitors (around 50 each year) take to the track at the same time, but are divided into separate classes. Regulations are not nearly as confining as in Formula One, so teams are free to experiment with different ways of designing and building their cars.
Custom-built Le Mans Prototypes, LMP1 and LMP2, are currently the top two classes. The two lower-level classes are production-based grand tourer classes, GT Endurance Pro and GT Endurance AM. A prize is awarded to the winner of each class and to the overall winner. Although the top class is most likely to be the overall victor given its advantages in speed, weight and power output, lower classes have won due to better reliability.
And how about the brave men behind the wheels? Originally, there were no rules regarding the number of drivers for a car or how long they could drive. That proved to be dangerous (noticing a theme here?), so regulations were put in place to reduce the strain on drivers. Each team must have three. No single driver may race for more than four hours within a six-hour period, or for more than 14 of the total 24 hours.
Life In The Fast Lane At Le Mans
Attending a 24-hour race requires as much endurance from you as it does from the cars and drivers. Plan ahead and pace yourself.
Entry requires a general admission ticket. The ticket gets you pedestrian access to the circuit and general viewing areas. Grandstand tickets are extra. If you plan to camp, you’ll need a camping pass as well.
Pack with versatility in mind. The weather is notoriously fickle at race time. As Jason Statham says, “It always rains at Le Mans.”
Le Mans is close to the Loire Valley, approximately 130 miles west of Paris. It’s drivable from many locations, but be prepared for tear-your-beard-out levels of traffic. Also remember that sleep deprivation and raucous celebrations may leave you unfit to get behind the wheel on the way out.
The train is also an option. Trains run between Le Mans and Paris, from either the airport or Montparnasse station. From the train station in Le Mans you can take a city tram to the event in about 20 minutes.
If you want to stay in a hotel during race week, prepare to shell out for the privilege. Nightly rates are steep and rooms book well in advance. Some attendees prefer to stay in Paris and commute to Le Mans for the big day.
More adventurous visitors can camp. The area around, and even inside, the loop of the circuit is full of campgrounds that vary in popularity and quality. Pro tip: this is where the party is.
Choosing a vantage point could be a competitive sport of its own. The grandstands are only accessible to visitors who purchase tickets. The closer you are to the start/finish line, the more you can expect the ticket to cost. There is also non-reserved, uncovered, general admission viewing in front of each of the stands.
No matter where you are, you’ll only have visual access to a fraction of the action. To stay on top of every push of the pedal, bring a radio and tune into Radio Le Mans. The commentary is legendary (and far better than the dry prattle coming over the PA).
There’s more to Le Mans than the actual race. Visit the Le Mans 24 Hours Museum for a stroll down automotive memory lane. Peruse the shops for team gear, shirts, stickers, books, art and other souvenirs. Check out the fun fair and ride the ferris wheel. It’s an iconic part of the event and there’s no better way to get eyes on the cars.
On Friday, the public is granted free access to the pits. Get up close with the drivers and their steeds, and score some of the freebies on offer. It’s crowded, but worth it. Later in the day, attend the Driver Parade. The spectacle is a short tram ride away and features all participating drivers being driven through the town centre in convertibles.
If all else fails, spend the week stalking Patrick Dempsey. He’ll be racing in the GT Endurance AM class.