As I write this history of one of the greatest racing spectacles of all time, the little Scot of Allan McNish in his all-concurring Audi is being swarmed by a flock of Peugeot 908’s, hell bent on victory at their home event. The 24 Heures du Mans is an annual celebration of speed, endurance, technology and great rivalries between great marks. This 2009 event represents the 77th running of the event since its inception in 1923
Back in 1923, the first running of the 24h Le Mans race was planned to be a mega event by which the winner would be the car that had driven the farthest distance in three annual 24h races. Therefore the competition would take place over three years, instantly giving the event a level of prestige that would rival the Olympics or World Cup. The race became an instant classic, so this idea was abandoned in 1928 and overall winners were declared for each single year depending on who covered the farthest distance by the time 24 hours were up.
The track itself was a collection of local public roads that linked together the towns of Le Mans, Mulsanne and Arnage to create a racing circuit. In 1923, the first circuit was 17 km long and ran through the center of Le Mans. Due to safety concerns the track has been manipulated several times and shortened to 13 km, however still heavily consists of public roads that are closed for the weekend during the race. The tracks name, Circuit de la Sarthe, is represented by its location in the Sarthe region of France.
Speed and Endurance
Before every manufacturer boasted about how fast their cars could lap the Nurburgring, it was a cars top speed along the Mulsanne straight that was the crown achievement of sportscar builders. The Mulsanne is a special bit of racing ground, as it is a 6 km straight, using the rutted two-lane road of the D338, a road linking the towns of Le Mans and Mulsanne.
In the late 80’s both Peugeot and Mercedes recorded speeds of 404 km/h and 399 km/h respectfully. After much concern of these insane speeds being obtained, chicanes were installed in the famous straight to calm the speeds of the cars. Despite the addition of two chicanes on the straight, today cars still reach well above 200 mph. In fact the circuit as a whole is very much a wide open, as 85% of a lap time is spent at full throttle. This puts a heavy workload on power and drive trains, bringing us to the endurance side of the equation.
It is a 24-hour race of course and these high-strung, peak of performance technology machines have great demands placed on them. This in particular makes for a great marketing advantage to successful entrants. The endurance aspect of the race also demands teams to be extremely professional in everything from driving the car responsibly, pit crews being prepared for any problem that may arise and having cars not only built to put in a competitive lap time, but to continue to be fast and reliable over the 24 hours of competition. Then there is the fatigue factor. While it is mandatory for each car to have at least three drivers, the demands of racing twice around the clock are heavy, as early morning hours see several accidents and mistakes caused by mental errors, both driver and pit crew. Post race walks of the course often reveal tools that have fallen out of cars, left by a tired crewman.
is because of this need for top-level professionalism and equipment that has seen a great amount of technology be created by teams in competition. Windshields, window wipers, disc brakes, ABS and fuel injection were all a result of Le Mans racers looking for an added
advantage. The race is so prestigious that several teams dedicate their entire existence to this
single race. Disc brakes were one of the most famous uses of new technology, With speeds becoming so high, stopping technology was lagging behind, and it was in 1953, that the Jaguar C-Type races were the first to use disc rather than drum brakes. Then of course it’s the modern day Audi’s and Peugeots that run on diesel racing engines. Massive torque along with added durability and fuel efficiency has proved diesel engines to be ideally suited to this form of racing.
We are now four hours into the 2009 edition of Le Mans. It is the modern day rivalry of Audi and Peugeot who are battling it out for top honors. However back in the field, the storied rivalry of Porsche vs. Ferrari continues to tug at the heartstrings of national loyalists. This is one of the major contributors to the passion of this event, as racing cars not only represented the manufacturer fielding them, but the nation in which they belonged. In the first races back in the twenties it was Bentley, Bugatti and Alfa Romeo who would battle for victory. After a ten year hiatus in racing during and after the war, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz and
Jaguar were standard sights on the Sarthe Circuit, each enjoying periods of dominance, however one of the great rivalries came to fruition in 1966 when Ford took the first of four straight wins with the GT40, a car designed solely to take the title away from Ferrari out of spite from failed merger negotiations. However, one manufacturer that has always, and will continue to be a fixture at Le Mans in Porsche. Whether fighting for an outright win, or a class victory, 911’s, 917’s, 962’s or the RS Spyders of today, a car bearing the Stuttgart/Porsche coat of arms will always be found on the starting grid, and likely 24 hours later on a podium of some kind.
Danger and Tragedy
Anytime cars are traveling at close proximity to each other on public roads at speeds of excess of 200 mph, there is an incredible risk of an accident, injury and death. It was in 1955 when the Le Mans 24h witnessed one of racings all-time worst tragedies. Taking the name of his uncle who was also killed in a motor race in 1904, Pierre Levegh was at the wheel of a Mercedes 300 SLR when he clipped an Austin-Healey at speed. His car was thrown into a dirt bank, and launched into the spectator area along the start/finish straight. Levegh was killed instantly when thrown from the car, while the disintegrating car killed another 82 spectators. With over a 100 more wounded, this accident saw the cancelling of several top motorsport events and even the banning of motorsports in Switzerland. The Pit straight at Le Mans would have to be redesigned and rebuilt while safety measures were also upgraded to both cars and circuits around the world as a result.
Over the years there have been several other fatalities in the race, but one of the most spectacular accidents that did not result in any deaths happened in 1999 when the Mercedes team had aerodynamic problems that caused lift when traveling over the hill on the Mulsanne straight at speeds over 200 mph. Driver Mark Webber flipped his Mercedes GT1 twice, once during the test day and another during race warm-up. However it was Peter Dumbreck who launched his Mercedes 6 meters into the air and completing three back flips before landing in the forest at the side of the track. As spectacular as it was, no one was seriously injured.
And so we have it, this great race has completed yet another great feat of endurance, with the upstart Peugeot team finally getting their first win with the 908 diesel powered LMP1 car. The giant known as Audi finally met its fate with only its #1 car finishing on the bottom step of the podium after nearly a decade of domination. Porsche and Ferrari continued the epic battles that once dominated the top classes, with the F-430’s proving that Porsche, like Audi, can be beaten. The race is over, thousands are finally getting some sleep, all but the engineers, already hard at work finding the winning combination for the second weekend of June, 2010.