It was at about 5:00 AM when even my cat, supposedly crepuscular, gave up and went to sleep. I could see his little cat brain trying to reason out what could cause me to stare at my laptop watching seemingly nothing happen for hours. It was a look of pity. If only I could explain to him what he was missing.
With the 83rd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend it seemed like a good idea to try and explain to you what I could not properly articulate to my cat so that you, too, may enjoy what many of us enjoy (or at least suffer along with the rest of us).
This should be easier because my cat can be a little asshole and you’re not a little asshole, right?
So, this race is really 24 hours? A NASCAR race is like three hours and even that’s too long for me.
That is too long for a NASCAR race, I agree. And yes, it’s a full day, running from Saturday, June 13th to Sunday, June 14th. It is one of a handful of 24-hour races and it is the most famous race in the world that isn’t the Monaco Grand Prix or the Indy 500.
Why would anyone race a car for 24 god damn hours?
Because they can. More specifically, because anyone can make a car run fast times around a perfectly smooth race track for a couple of hours (well, maybe not Spyker).
It takes an immense amount of skill, mechanical expertise, human strength, and team organization to make a car go very fast around a street circuit for a full day. Endurance racing is an amazing platform for automobile development and the technology developed there often trickles down to the cars we normally drive.
Things like the paddle shifter and carbon ceramic brakes were developed or perfected for this kind of racing.
Wait, street circuit? They’re not racing on a race track?
While some of France’s Circuit de la Sarthe is now a permanent race track called the Bugatti Circuit, the race track is semi-permanent and includes large sections that are public streets.
It’s also nearly 8.5 miles long with only 38 turns, which means that a huge portion of the race is run flat-out, which is why the cars hit sometimes insane speeds.
Some of the Group C cars in the 1980s were going nearly 250 mph regularly on the course’s famous Mulsanne Straight before chicanes were added in 1990 to slow the cars down. Speeds mixed with aero issues also resulted in the above insane flip from the Mercedes CLR in 2001.
That sounds dangerous
It is. While the Isle of Man TT is almost certainly the deadliest single race for competitors, Le Mans has seen 22 drivers killed while competing, about half of which died on the Mulsanne Straight.
In 1955, driver Pierre Levegh and approximately 83 spectators died in a single accident. Over the history of the race there have been numerous changes to the track and to the spectator areas to diminish the chance of death. The Mulsanne Straight now has a chicane to bring drivers down to a more reasonable 200-210 MPH top speed.
So the appeal is the danger?
Not exactly. As with any other motorsport, the allure of accidents only exists for the most causal of fans. People who love the sport hate to see anyone injured.
So, then, what is the appeal?
For a person who loves cars, you get to see a mix of wild prototypes and production-like vehicles anyone could buy race side-by-side.
However, the biggest appeal of a 24-hour race like Le Mans is the same alluring chance of something unexpected happening that is essential to enjoying any sport. Put 56 cars and hundreds of drivers on a track for a full day and you’ve created an opportunity for excitement and surprise basically unrivaled in modern sports.
Prototypes run? What is a prototype?
Le Mans is multi-class racing, which means you’ve got super advanced prototype hybrid cars built by companies like Audi and Porsche and Toyota and Nissan.
Because manufacturers don’t have to abide by the same restrictions that normal carmakers have to, they end up coming up with some fairly insane ways of solving the simple problem of how to get a car to go very fast around a few turns.
This year we’ll see an AWD hybrid diesel Audi racing a V4-powered Porsche squaring off against a V8-powered Toyota hybrid and a FWD Nissan.
So the prototypes are always the fastest and always win?
Not exactly, there are two prototype classes (LMP1 and LMP2) and two GT classes (all running street-based cars).
Throughout Le Mans history the rules and technology have changed such that we’ve seen GT cars win overall and the different classes take importance over others.
Despite a long run of wins by Audi, it’s often not clear who will win the race until the last few hours or minutes.
Is it really always that close?
While some races are duds, there are multiple classes which means that there’s almost always a situation where multiple cars are on the same lap by the end of the race and a leader almost always ends up having a technical problem in the last few hours.
There’s no joy quite like the joy of watching different teams with different cars and different strategies battle it out in the last few minutes after a day of combat.
Does this mean you’re going to watch the whole thing?
Hell no. There are a few crazy people who try to stay up and watch the whole thing, but the reality is that it’s a 24-hour race and it’s on the weekend and I need my sleep and I need my loved ones not to abandon me.
Not to mention, if you’re in America, you’re kind of SOL when it comes to watching the full thing unless you’ve got an expensive Fox cable package.
I tend to watch the first few hours and check in throughout the afternoon/evening and then watch as much as I can before I go to sleep (often while listening to the great Radio Le Mans 24-hour broadcast).
I then try to wake up early to catch Le Mans at dawn, when the track is beautiful and the cars emerge slightly beaten up and benefit from the golden french light. It’s kind of magical.
From there I watch as much as I can, making sure to catch the last 2-3 hours.
Ok, you’ve convinced me, this sounds just strange enough for me to enjoy. How do I watch it?
You’re my kind of people. If you’re in the United States... it gets complicated. But here’s a guide:
Will you guys be covering it?
Yes, our own Stef Schrader is there and she’ll be bringing you the latest news.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.