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.
At Le Mans, things go crash in the dark. The wrecks come with the territory. Not only is much of the circuit unlit, but it's often obscured by ground-hugging fog or slick with rain. Although the scrawny puddle-jumpers that used to compete for the Index of Performance no longer run Le Mans, there are still scary speed differentials. Thoroughbred prototypes share the track with production-based GT cars, and top-flight pros knife ruthlessly among amateurs known euphemistically as "gentlemen drivers." The biggest danger, however, is the insane speeds; the circuit is a high-risk throwback that would have been abandoned long ago if it weren't Le Mans. In 1990, the ACO added a pair of chicanes to the fearsome 3.7-mile-long Mulsanne Straight, where a Peugeot-powered WM trimmed out for terminal velocity had exceeded 250 mph two years earlier. Even so, and despite two other chicanes elsewhere on the circuit, Le Mans remains one of the fastest road courses in the world. (Last year, an Audi R18 averaged 149.6 mph on its pole lap.)
At night, the race takes on a carnival atmosphere as spectators browse through trash-and-trinket stalls, sit down to civilized meals, or -- especially in the case of the legions of British fans -- do their best to drink France dry. Eventually spirits and energy flag. While diehards pull all-nighters, most spectators crawl into campsite tents, fold themselves into parked cars, or simply huddle in a corner of the empty grandstands. In the pits, though, there's no rest for the weary. Some mechanics catnap in borrowed chairs, with their heads tilted back and drool dribbling down their chins, but the cars pit for fuel roughly once an hour, so there always seems to be a pit-lane air horn honking obnoxiously to announce the arrival of another thirsty machine.
The night tends to be cool, and when it's raining, Le Mans is miserable. ("There are times when I say to myself, 'What the bloody hell am I doing here?' " says Ricardo Divila, who has worked Le Mans as a race engineer every year but one since 1983.) The good news is that, wet or dry, cool or unseasonably warm, the night doesn't last long. Sunrise arrives about 6 a.m. The frail light reveals the road grime and oil streaks marking once-pristine cars, and the pit lane is dotted with garage doors that have been pulled down and locked up as teams retire with blown engines, deranged differentials, and crash damage. Fans slowly file back into the grandstands, and listing Britons use Union Jacks as capes as they walk off their hangovers. There are still about nine hours to go -- nine hours! -- but the end, finally, is in sight.
Tension builds as afternoon approaches. Not necessarily because the race is so tight, although in recent years that's often been the case, but because everybody is praying that their cars will last. A truism of endurance racing holds that it's better to break after twenty minutes than after twenty hours. Granted, the durability of racing machinery has improved dramatically since 1923, and the top teams routinely run twenty-four-hour tests to prepare for Le Mans. There's no way to factor in every variable, though, whether it's cutting a tire on a sharp piece of gravel or colliding catastrophically with a clueless backmarker or simply running out of fuel, which happens with surprising regularity because the circuit is so long. Even today, Le Mans remains a petri dish for the study of Murphy's Law. Just ask Toyota, which twice has had shots at overall wins torpedoed by mechanical maladies with less than ninety minutes to go.
Considering how many sprint races -- in Formula 1, for example -- tend to be runaways, it's amazing how often the finishes at Le Mans turn out to be nail-biters. In 1969, Jacky Ickx beat Hans Herrmann to the line by less than 150 yards. And in 1966, Ford botched its attempt to orchestrate a dead heat between Mark IIs when the ACO awarded the victory to what should have been the second-place car since it qualified farther back and therefore covered more distance than its stablemate. Two years ago, Audi and Peugeot hammered away at each other for virtually twenty-four hours, and the top two cars were running so close together at the end -- 13.9 seconds -- that they crossed the finish line at full speed instead of driving the last lap like a parade.
Typically, as the race winds down, team cars slow to orchestrate a formation finish, and race marshals edge out toward the track to initiate their beloved flag-waving ceremony. Fans pour out of the main grandstands and stream across the track, flooding the pit lane like a tidal wave while the teams take shelter in their garages and yank the doors down behind themselves. Although the spectators will snatch any available souvenir, they're not a destructive mob. On the contrary, the dominant emotions are relief, joy, and exultation, and when the initial frenzy dies down, the teams filter out to the pit lane to join the victory celebration. As the flags of a dozen countries wave, the winning drivers are feted on a gantry overlooking the front straight.
"If you finished the race at full speed, you would mow down the crowd before the start/finish line.
The popularity and relevance of Le Mans continues to ebb and flow. Audi has squelched some of the sizzle by winning eleven of the previous thirteen races, but it will face stiff new competition in the prototype category from Porsche in 2014. This June, meanwhile, Chrysler is bringing a factory team of Vipers back to Le Mans to compete against Corvettes, Ferraris, Porsches, and Aston Martins in the GT class. One door opens and another closes as each year brings a new crop of winners and losers, heroes and villains, unexpected comedy, and enduring lore. So tune in at 3 p.m. local time on Saturday, June 22, and watch history unfold as it always does at Le Mans -- twenty-four hours at a time.
"Le Mans is truly a special place, and anybody who says it's just another race is lying to you." -- Jeff Braun, race engineer
"The tension before the warm-up lap is fabulous. You get this cacophony of sound -- the cars moving off and all the horns and the whistles and the band playing and French announcer Bruno Vandestick. The cars disappear over the top of Dunlop, and then it's . . . silent. And at that point, everything is possible. When the cars come back around, you can see the headlights coming out of the last left-hander of the Porsche Curves and coming toward the Ford Chicane. There's a part of me that [thinks] I'm fourteen or fifteen again, and my Mum's going to come in with a cup of tea and say, "Come on, John, get up. It's time to go to school." And then comes the glorious sound of all the different noises as the cars go by." -- John Hindhaugh, Radio Le Mans announcer
"You feel like you're in a cocoon when you're driving down the Mulsanne Straight at night. You see the glow of the lights in the cockpit and hear the roar of the engine behind you, and when you look out, you see stars in the sky. The car is doing 233 miles per hour, 236, 234, 235, depending on whether you're going up or down the rises. There's a feeling of insularity and loneliness, but you're in complete control. It's not dramatic at all. It's so calm that it's a surreal experience. You haven't lived until you've driven 235 miles per hour at Le Mans." -- Derek Bell, five-time Le Mans winner
"I love the dawn coming up. It's a wonderfully quiet time when it's just you and the race cars. The night isn't all that long. But it's still long enough that your body is saying, 'I need rest.' Then, all of a sudden, the sun is telling you, 'Wake up! Wake up!' " -- Shannon Murphy, flagger
"I try to make it to two o'clock before I start the Red Bull regimen. Still, two to six is just brutal. You find yourself nodding off, absolutely. But once the sun starts coming up, I'm good to go." -- Dan Binks, Corvette crew chief
"In 1984, Yoshimi Katayama, John O'Steen, and I won our class in a Lola T616 with a Mazda engine. Katayama did the last stint, so they ushered him into the parc ferme before the finish line and got him up to the balcony, but John and I were locked in this huge crowd of people in the pits. We were happier than hell because we'd won the race, but we were looking at Katayama and thinking, 'How the hell are we going to get up there?' " -- John Morton, career racing driver
Flying the American Flag
Corvettes at Le Mans.
Corvettes at Le Mans.
Take a bow, Doug Fehan.
A lot of heavy hitters have tried to conquer Le Mans with Chevrolet Corvettes over the past half century -- Briggs Cunningham in 1960, John Greenwood in the '70s, Reeves Callaway in the '90s. But as the longtime program manager of Corvette Racing, Fehan has turned "America's sports car" into the car to beat in the GT class at Le Mans.
Since the debut of the C5-R in 2000 (and the current C6.R in 2005), bright yellow Corvettes powered by all-American pushrod V-8s have scored seven class wins at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Yet rather than resting on their laurels, the folks at Corvette Racing are already developing a racing version of the new C7 that's scheduled to run at Le Mans in 2014.
"Le Mans is the holy grail of road racing," Fehan says. "It represents the ultimate level of competition with cars from all over the world. There are millions of fans who watch it live on TV, and another 300,000 actually attend the event in person. By flying the American flag, we've raised awareness of the brand to a level we never could have achieved without Le Mans."
Back in 1996, Fehan sold General Motors on the concept of creating a Le Mans–spec Corvette in collaboration with Pratt & Miller, the engineering firm that's long served as GM's quasi-factory team. To this day, the race cars are still built at Pratt & Miller's race shop in New Hudson, Michigan, but only after a lot of back and forth with GM engineers.
One of the most interesting aspects of the all-new C7 is how many components of the street car were designed with the race car in mind. A dry-sump lubrication system, for example. Carbon-fiber hood and roof. Even a hood scoop to vent radiator air and produce downforce. "The same attributes that you look for in race cars are now applicable to street cars," Fehan says.
Although there have been some years when the Corvette faced little serious competition at Le Mans, the 2013 race will be a dogfight with the Ferrari 458 Italia, the Porsche 911 RSR, the Aston Martin V8 Vantage, and the new Viper GTS-R. (An even newer BMW Z4 will be racing this year in the American Le Mans Series.) To which Fehan says: bring it on.
"The better the battle," he says, "the sweeter the victory."
Le Viper at Le Mans
Returning to form.
Returning to form.
When Vipers return to Le Mans in June for the first time in more than a decade, it won't be a case of déjà vu all over again.
Second-generation Viper coupes scored 1–2 class finishes in 1998, 1999, and 2000. But the competition was limited mostly to privateer Porsches and unproven Chevrolet Corvettes. This year, in contrast, the fifth-gen SRT Viper GTS-R will be up against not only race-tough Vettes and 911s but also Ferrari 458s and Aston Martin Vantages (and BMW Z4s in American Le Mans Series races). Which is precisely why Chrysler put the Viper back on the track.
"It's trial by fire," says Beth Paretta, director of the SRT brand. "We launched SRT only about a year and a half ago, so we're still very much in a brand-building phase. But our competitors on the racetrack are exactly our competitors for the road car, so racing provides a very clear message to the fans."
From a marketing standpoint, the beauty of the GT class is the direct relationship between race car and street car. But the Viper faced a serious hurdle in the homologation process because the massive V-10 engine -- the signature feature of the car since its launch in 1992 -- was much larger than the regulations permitted.
After complicated negotiations, ALMS and the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, which sanctions Le Mans, allowed the Viper to compete with the oversize V-10 as long as it was choked down to produce less than 500 hp. This has led to the strange situation where the daily driver is more powerful and, in some situations, faster than the racing thoroughbred.
Not that the race car is a slug. Built and campaigned by Riley Technologies, the new Viper debuted last August. Although the team was clearly playing catch-up during the rest of the 2012 season, the Viper led more than fifty laps at Sebring this past March and finished fifth in class while turning a faster race lap than the GT-winning Corvette.
In one respect, the Viper is already a front-runner -- it looks spectacular, no surprise since the same styling team was responsible for both the street car and the race car. "Aesthetics are so important to Ralph Gilles [SRT CEO and senior vice president of Chrysler Group design]," Paretta says. "At the end of the day, the car isn't supposed to look like a spaceship."
As long as performance is out of this world.