Hour by Hour: The 24 Hours of Le Mans

Richard Prince Jesse Alexander Rick Dole LAT Photographic
Jon Sibal

For a race universally regarded as one of the crown jewels of motorsports, the 24 Hours of Le Mans has suffered through some remarkably fallow stretches since it was first staged in 1923. There have been years when no major manufacturers bothered to show up, reducing the race to an exercise in irrelevance. And there have been entire eras when top drivers refused to compete because they believed the race was too dangerous, too boring, or just plain stupid.

And were they completely wrong? The Indianapolis 500 lasts three hours; the Monaco Grand Prix less than two, which seems long enough. What other activity, after all, do we find so entertaining, edifying, and/or profitable that we'd want to do it twenty-four hours at a time? Le Mans isn't a race to be won; it's a trial to be survived. In fact, it's a mistake to think of it as a supreme sporting event -- the Super Bowl of motorsports. On the contrary, Le Mans has more in common with a Shakespearean drama, replete with tragic interludes and improbable reversals, and it unfolds over several acts broken only by yellow-flag intermissions.

Theater is what keeps the fans -- hundreds of thousands of them -- coming back year after year, despite torrential rains or sweltering summer heat, whether the field is full of factory supercars or one-offs with strange names. The players change, and so do the plotlines, but the play is the thing. Prototypes hurtling past at 200 mph. Mechanics swarming over cars in the pits like a plague of locusts. The Ferris wheel spinning lazily. Aromatic smoke wafting over campground grills. Tailpipes winking in the dark as turbocharged engines spit flames out the exhaust. And always, there is the constant roar and feral shriek of engines revving at redline.

For manufacturers, Le Mans offers the world's most prominent stage to showcase the performance, technology, and reliability of machines that have a direct tie to the cars they sell in showrooms. For fans, the race provides a unique opportunity to sample a cornucopia of riches -- 56 cars, 150-plus drivers, crazy-fast straightaways, superslow chicanes, fine dining, cheap beer, spectacular crashes, lightning pit stops, sunset, sunrise, highlight footage that spools twice around the Rolex clock hovering over the start/finish line. It doesn't have to be watched from a single grandstand seat or a jealously guarded sliver of hilltop. There's plenty of time and opportunity to walk the entire 8.469 miles of the Circuit de la Sarthe, watching the cars charge through the Porsche Curves or light up their brake rotors on the entry to the Mulsanne Hairpin.

Le Mans is many things to many people. What it isn't, what it never has been, and what it never will be, is just another date on the motorsports calendar.

"Le Mans is not just another race. It's not Daytona. It's not the Grand-Am event at Barber Motorsports Park. Tech is downtown, and it takes three hours to get the car down there and three hours to get the car back to the track. It's a hassle, but people are lined up along the streets, elbow to elbow, just to see the cars. I smile to myself when I'm calculating gear ratios because I'm looking at the bottom of my gear chart because we're going 220 mph, and we don't do that at Laguna Seca or Road America. Even the pit-in horns sound different.

The Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) inaugurated the 24 Heures du Mans as a test of durability and a spur to technological innovation. Nine decades later, the fundamental character of the race remains remarkably unchanged. Although the circuit has been overhauled in the interest of safety, it still follows the general contours of the original layout and continues to incorporate long stretches of otherwise public roads. Obviously, the cars are now more sophisticated and much, much faster; they go well more than twice as far as the 1373 miles covered by the race-winning Chenard et Walcker in 1923. No race embraces creativity as wholeheartedly as Le Mans. It's no coincidence that last year's race featured a fierce front-running battle between hybrids from Audi and Toyota as well as the debut of the controversial DeltaWing.

Although Le Mans is no longer the world's only twenty-four-hour race, it remains a unique event thanks to the ACO's leadership. Autocratic and idiosyncratic, the ACO has often been proudly out of step with other sanctioning bodies, promulgating rules that, in many cases, apply only to Le Mans. (For decades, for example, the ACO awarded so-called indices of performance and thermal efficiency, won almost inevitably by French cars with tiny engines.) The arcane regulations and historically variable enforcement have been the source of immense frustration over the years. Colin Chapman famously refused to race at Le Mans after his Lotus 23 -- the odds-on favorite to beat the French for the Index -- was rejected in 1962 because it had four wheel studs on the front hubs and six on the rear.

For decades, one of the signature features of the race was the so-called Le Mans start. Beginning in 1925, the cars were arrayed at an angle in front of the pits while the drivers formed up on the other side of the track. When the French tricolor dropped, the drivers sprinted across the front straight, vaulted into their cars, cranked their ignitions, and slithered off toward the Dunlop Bridge. The ensuing melee made for a hugely entertaining spectacle. But with the popularization of safety harnesses during the 1960s, the Le Mans start became not only an anachronism but a disaster waiting to happen. In 1969, Jacky Ickx protested by sauntering rather than sprinting across the track. A few minutes later, John Woolfe was killed when he crashed and was thrown from his car, presumably because he hadn't fastened his seatbelts. Ickx, ironically, went on to score the first of his six Le Mans victories.

Le Mans now begins with a conventional rolling start. But the vast number and variety of cars makes the start a spine-tingling moment.

Logic suggests that the start of an endurance race isn't critical. But in recent years, Le Mans has been so brutally competitive that it has turned into a sprint race that happens to last twenty-four hours, so drivers can't afford to dawdle. In earlier eras, they had to nurse engines, gearboxes, and brakes to make them last, but it was hard to resist the temptation to push the pace during the first hours because drivers knew that this was the only time their cars would be in perfect shape.

The most famous early-race duel was also the most infamous, when reigning Formula 1 world champion Juan Manuel Fangio and world-champion-to-be Mike Hawthorn swapped the lead -- and lap records -- for two hours in 1955. As he completed lap 35, Hawthorn swept past Lance Macklin's much slower Austin-Healey 100S and ducked into the pits. Macklin swerved to avoid Hawthorn's rapidly decelerating Jaguar D-type. Fangio's teammate, Pierre Levegh, vaulted off the rear deck of the Austin-Healey and crash-landed in the middle of a spectator enclosure. His Mercedes-Benz 300SLR disintegrated, killing the driver and at least eighty spectators in what remains the worst catastrophe in motorsports history.

Most years, the race settles into a hypnotic rhythm during the evening. The cars string out according to the lap-time targets and pit strategies mapped out by team tacticians. Le Mans is traditionally run close to the summer solstice, and it doesn't become completely dark until nearly 11 p.m. Much as the spectators -- and, especially, the photographers -- love the golden light of sunset, the drivers are nearly blinded as they blast west out of the Mulsanne Hairpin on the high-speed run to Indianapolis and Arnage. In fact, one of the most iconic images of Le Mans is Jesse Alexander's photograph of Dan Gurney (above), driving a Cobra Daytona coupe, holding up a gloved hand to ward off the glare in 1965.

Eventually, the sun sinks beneath the horizon and artificial lights wink on -- headlamps on the cars, light stands in pit lane, and the garish neon of the Ferris wheel and other amusement-park attractions in the village. By midnight, it's pitch-black, and this brings the much-loved phenomenon of superheated brake rotors glowing cherry red in the dark. These days, the race features fifty-six entries.That sounds like a giant pack, but the track is huge, and once you tramp beyond the otherworldly glow of the paddock complex, the circuit consists largely of unlit two-lane highways carving through the French countryside. During interludes when no cars are in sight, it's possible to imagine that you're alone in the middle of a remote forest. Then a Porsche 911 GT3 will thunder past, leaving in its wake a weirdly keening wail courtesy of the flat-six engine and the acoustic laws of Herr Doppler.

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