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Le Mans Overview

PostPosted: Sun 28 Jan, 2007 2:08 pm
by Alexander Lyons

The 24 Hours of Le Mans (24 Heures du Mans) is the world's most famous sports car endurance race, held annually at Circuit de la Sarthe near Le Mans, France, in the French Sarthe département. It is organised by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (A.C.O).

The first race was held on May 26 and 27 1923 and has since been run annually in June, with exceptions occurring in 1956, when the race was held in July and 1968, when it was held in September, due to nationwide political turmoils in spring (see May 1968). The race has been cancelled twice: once in the year 1936 (Great Depression) and from 1940 to 1948 (World War II).

The 12 Hours of Sebring, 24 Hours of Daytona and 24 Hours of Le Mans were once widely considered to be the triple crown of sports car racing; driver Ken Miles would have been the only driver to win all three in the same year but for an error in the team orders of the Ford GT40 team at Le Mans, in 1966, which took the win from him, although he finished first.

The race is run on a semi-permanent track which, in its current configuration, is 13.650 km (8.482 mi) long, utilizing mostly country roads that remain open to the public for the majority of the year. Over the years, several purpose-built sections have replaced the normal roads, especially the Porsche Curves section, which bypasses the dangerous former Maison Blanche section, between buildings. The permanent Bugatti Circuit surrounds the facilities at the start/finish.

Usually, around 50 cars race simultaneously, in a number of different categories and classes. Current classes are LMP1 and LMP2, for "Le Mans prototypes" and LMGT1 and LMGT2, for Gran Turismo or "GT" classes. The overall winner is the car that covers the greatest distance in 24 hours of continuous racing. This rule appears obvious but the 1966 race saw a surprise winner, among the three Ford GT40s that were leading. Ford ordered the leading #1 car to slow down to let the #2 and the #5 cars catch up, in order to create a photo opportunity[1] with all three GT40s crossing the line 1, 2, 3, in a staged finish, only a few meters apart. Yet the #2 car that had covered the same number of laps (360) was pronounced the winner, as it had started further behind on the grid and thus covered a slightly bigger distance in the same time.

To be classified, a car must cross the finish line after 24 hours. This leads to dramatic scenes where damaged cars wait in the pits or on the edge of the track close to the finish line for hours, then restart their engines and crawl across the line to be listed with a finishing distance, rather than dismissed with DNF

In recent years, each car has a team of three drivers. Before 1970 only two drivers per car were allowed and even solo driving was permitted, in the early decades. Until the early 1980s, most of the cars were raced with a two-driver team. In 1952, Frenchman Pierre Levegh competed alone and looked like the winner but made a shifting mistake in the final hour which handed victory to a Mercedes-Benz 300SL. Luigi Chinetti won in 1949 with a 23.5 hour stint behind the wheel. In 1950, Louis Rosier won the race with his son Jean-Louis Rosier, who drove the car during only two turns.


The Circuit de la Sarthe, located near Le Mans, France, is a non-permanent track most famous for hosting the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race. The track uses local roads that remain open to the public most of the year. The circuit, in its present configuration, is 13.650 km (8.482 mi) long, making it one of the longest circuits in the world. Over the years, several purpose built sections have replaced the normal roads, especially in 1972, when the Porsche Curves section bypassed the dangerous former Maison Blanche section between buildings. Since 1965, a smaller but permanent Bugatti Circuit was added which shares the pit lane facilities and the first corner (including the famous Dunlop bridge) with the longer version.

Drivers frequently refer to Le Mans as a race where up to 85% of the time (including pitstops) is spent on full throttle, meaning immense stress on engine and drivetrain components. However, the times spent reaching maximum speed also mean tremendous wear on the brakes and suspension as cars must slow from over 200 mph to around 65 for the end of Mulsanne in a short distance. Downforce in the era of Group C cars helped braking to some degree but presently cars are tending towards low downforce to seek higher speeds in the face of power limiting regulations.


Track modifications

The track has undergone many modifications over the years. It was most famous for its 5-km (3-mi) long straight, known locally as Ligne Droite des Hunaudières or in English as the Mulsanne Straight, a part of the Route Nationale 138 road. Speeds on the Mulsanne Straight reached over 400 km/h (250 mph) and, as could be expected, it was not entirely safe. Two chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight were consequently put in place before the 1990 race to lower top speeds.

Near the end of this straight past the Mulsanne Kink was an infamous hump, which gave flight to a Mercedes-Benz CLR in 1999 during warm-ups. The same problem had occurred on the straightway between the Mulsanne and Indianapolis corners for another CLR during practice and the race. The hump was lowered during the winter before the 2001 race, again in the interest of safety. Although the hump remains, it is greatly diminished from what it was.

A new set of sweeping esses, the S du Tertre Rouge, was introduced past the Dunlop Bridge for 2002. Also, in 2006, the Dunlop Chicane was reprofiled at the request of the FIM to allow for more runoff. This modification also saw the change of the pit exit to the first apex of the chicane, which caused some controversy before the start of the 2006 Le Mans 24 Hours. Essentially, the pit exit was moved to the very end of the front straight.