One of the most thrilling features of the 24 Hours of Le Mans has been its road course. Since 1923, the Automobile Club de l’Oest (the ACO) has cordoned off stretches of road between the town of Le Mans and the villages of Mulsanne and Arnage to create Circuit de la Sarthe. Despite some minor changes, the layout has largely stayed the same since then except for two major exceptions: the chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight.
Prior to 1990, the Mulsanne Straight was 3.7 miles of raw speed. By the time Group C was in full swing, cars were reaching upwards of 250 mph as they made their way back towards Le Mans from Mulsanne. These speeds were enough to cause a catastrophe in the event of any minor road surface imperfections or mechanical issues with the car. The ACO, preferring almost anything to another disaster like the deaths of Jean-Louis Lafosse and Jo Gartner, decided to cut the straight in three for 1990 with two more or less evenly spaced tight chicanes.
These chicanes allowed Circuit de la Sarthe to abide by new FIA regulations that forbade tracks from incorporating any straights longer than the longest straight on the famously rather serpentine Nürburgring, the Döttinger Höhe.
So what happened once they were put in place? The chicanes seemed to do exactly what they were supposed to do. Though the later Group C and GT1 cars that raced after the chicanes were installed weren’t slow by any means, the wild speeds on the Mulsanne were brought down dramatically. Well, most of the time.
Since then, speeds on the straights have been about fifteen to twenty mph below the pre-chicane heyday, but LMP1 cars like the 2013 Audi R18 were still prepped to negotiate the kinks in the straight at speeds in excess of 210 mph.
This year, as the LMP1 class gives way to Hypercars with more advanced hybrid systems, we will likely see even more intense speeds between Mulsanne and Le Mans. What remains up in the air is whether these new cars can top the excitement of the chicane-less days of 1989 and before.