This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, first held in May 1923 in aid of stimulate innovation in the growing automotive industry, it emphasizes not only speed, but also efficiency, reliability and durability.
“It’s a very tough race and the biggest race,” he said Tom Kristensenwho won Le Mans a record nine times.
The Automobile Club de l’Ouest organized this first race and designed a course on public roads south of Le Mans that cut through forests and passed residential areas.
“It’s one of the biggest events on the calendar, up there with the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500,” said Anthony Davidson, who has raced 13 times. “Everyone has heard of Le Mans. It’s a race that every generation can click and understand.”
The layout of the circuit, which still uses public roads, has undergone only minor modifications, mostly for safety reasons, and is usually held around midsummer for maximum daylight. Driving time limits were gradually introduced and each car now has three drivers.
At the start of the race, drivers ran across the track and jumped into their cars, but this practice was abandoned in 1970. Companies used Le Mans to test automotive innovations such as seat belts. Twenty-five car manufacturers have taken overall victories at Le Mans, with Porsche winning the most in 19.
It is the main event of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which is raced all over the world.
“The cars we see in the WEC are largely designed to win Le Mans,” Davidson said. “Every manufacturer’s only goal is to win this race. When June comes, all the attention is on Le Mans and it’s all you can think about racing for a few months.”
The race starts on Saturday afternoon and ends a day later after almost 400 laps on a roughly 13 kilometer, i.e. eight mile circuit.
“You always have to think about something,” Kristensen said. “You think about the driving, the setup, the race itself; it’s just huge. The race is long, it’s hard, your heart rate as a rider runs like you’re running a marathon.”
Drivers must balance overall commitment and all-day focus.
“In Formula One it’s two hours at most,” said Nico Hülkenberg, who won Le Mans in 2015. “It’s 24 hours. It’s a much longer term game. You have to choose your risks carefully; it’s more about getting through without incident, staying alive. And you share a car with teammates: It’s not just about you.”
Other elements are adaptation to evolving conditions and the fight against fatigue. Participants will try to sleep, but rarely for more than a few hours.
“You’ve got to be good at all times,” Davidson said, “at night when it’s cooler, maybe in wet conditions, the times when the sun is rising and setting and you’re blinded by all the dirt on the windshield.”
Spectators, many of whom camp out all week, play a big role while diversifying the action. In 2022, about 244,000 people participated.
“When you come for a week and you feel the build-up, it’s something: history, heritage,” said Kristensen, who says Le Mans is a “French institution” and a “festival of motor racing”.
Hülkenberg explained that he could smell “the smell of barbecue” coming from the campsites while lapping in the evening.
Le Mans is also about grief. Davidson, who broke two vertebrae in a crash in 2012, was part of the Toyota crew that led the race in 2016 until a power outage near the finish line. He never won Le Mans.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it,” he said. “It was very psychologically scarring. As it unfolded, I remember thinking, ‘You’re going to have to be really kind to yourself over the next few days, because this is huge.’
“It was just awful. I know worse things happen in life, but when you’re an athlete and you put your life and soul into it,” he said, pausing, “it could be a mountaineer climbing Everest and you get so close and you’re almost there and your gear fail and you must be led down the mountain. When they take it away from you, it’s terrible and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.’
Le Mans has its dark moments. It was canceled in 1936 due to a strike in France and was not held from 1940 to 1948 due to World War II and its aftermath. In 195584 people were killed when the car crashed into the crowd. A total of 22 riders have died in connection with the race, most recently in 2013.
As Le Mans enters its second century, Kristensen is confident the event will prosper.
“It looks incredibly healthy at the moment; it has a very good lead,” he said of the race. “It is very interesting that the manufacturers and others will come for 24 with Alpine, BMW, Lamborghini. ACO has a lot of hydrogen pressure [power] — 24 hours of electricity is a big challenge — but motorsport is where you bring new technology.”
“If you look at the whole history: disc brakes, windscreen wipers, seat belts, all that time it went to Le Mans,” he said, adding: “We had diesel technology, rear-view mirrors, hybrid cars. A lot has evolved in just the first 100 years, and you can’t cheat it in 24 hours, you can’t take a shortcut. Le Mans will bite you.”