The 88th 24 Hours of Le Mans will be held on Saturday, 19 September 2020. Ahead of the Grand Prix of Endurance, we’ve decided to produce Part 10 of our Introducing Sports Car Racing series. Part 10 is an in-depth introduction to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, discussing the history of the race and the categories.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans, also known as the 24 Heures du Mans, is the world’s oldest active sports car endurance race. The race has been held annually since 1923 on the Circuit de La Sarthe, a semi-permanent circuit located outside the town of Le Mans, France.. The race is considered to be one of the most prestigious automobile races in the world, forming one leg of both the Triple Crown of Motorsport, and the Triple Crown of Endurance Racing.
The winner of the event is determined by the race distance covered within 24 hours, plus one lap. Racing teams must balance the demands of speed with the cars’ ability to run for 24 hours without mechanical failure. Owing to the high amount of interest and prestige associated with the race,
The race is organized by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), and also serves as the seventh round of the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Race Traditions & Unique Rules
Le Mans is a race that is esteemed in tradition, and over time, it has developed several traditions & rules that have allowed it to stand out from the crowd.
One unique rule is that cars must be switched off while they are refuelled in the pits. Beyond being a safety measure that reduces the risk of fire, this rule is also a test of engine reliability. This is due to the added wear on an engine from multiple restarts
Another unique rule related to pit stops is that mechanics are not allowed to work on a car as it is being refuelled, although assisting a driver in exiting or entering a car is allowed. This has led to teams developing innovative solutions to reduce the length of pit-stops & repairs. Drivers are allowed to get out of the car and be replaced by another driver during refuelling.
These rules are also applied in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Traditionally, the waving of the French Tricolour has been used to start the race, with this action usually being followed by a fly-over featuring jets trailing blue, white and red smoke. A similar flag tradition is the waving of safety flags during the final lap of the race by track marshals, congratulating the winners and other finishers.
Historically, the race began with what became known as the Le Mans start. Cars were lined up along the length of the pit, while the starting drivers would stand on the opposite side of the front stretch. When the French flag dropped to signify the start, the drivers ran across the track, entered and started their cars without assistance, and drove away.
This became a safety issue in the late 1960s when some drivers ignored their safety harnesses, then a recent invention. This led to drivers running the first few laps either improperly harnessed due to attempting to do it while driving or sometimes not even harnessed at all, leading to several deaths when cars were involved in accidents due to the bunched field at the start.
For 1970, the traditional Le Mans start was altered. Cars were still lined up along the pit wall, but the drivers were already inside and strapped in. At the dropping of the French tricolor, the drivers started their engines and drove away.
Since 1971, a rolling start has been used to start the race. An element of the 1970 Le Mans start has still remained till today, with cars parked against the pitwall ahead of the formation lap prior to the rolling start.
Today, race classification is determined by the number of laps completed. However, in order for an entrant to be a classified finisher, 2 conditions must be met:
1. A car must complete the last lap of the race, and must complete the entire circuit faster than a prescribed maximum lap time. The maximum laptime was set, after ambiguity in this classification requirement led to damaged cars waiting in the pits or on the edge of the track close to the finish line, before restarting their engines and crawling across the line to be listed amongst classified finishers.
2. Cars must complete 70 percent of the distance covered by the overall winner to be classified. A car failing to complete this number of laps, even if it finishes the last lap of the race, will not be classified.
Previously, the car that covered the greatest distance from its starting position was the winner. This regulation caught out the Ford team in 1966; the two cars slowed to allow for a photo opportunity at the finish line, with Ken Miles slightly ahead of Bruce McLaren. However, since McLaren’s car had started much farther back on the grid than Miles’s, McLaren’s car covered the greatest distance over the 24 hours.
The margin of victory was determined to be eight metres, by McLaren and his co-driver, Chris Amon, were declared the winners. The decision cost Miles and Denny Hulme a victory, and for Miles, the achievement of being the first and only driver to win all 3 races of the Triple Crown of Endurance Racing in a single year
The “greatest distance” rule was modified with the introduction of a rolling start in 1971, and now the car that completes the greatest distance as of the completion of the final lap – where “greatest distance” is measured by the start/finish line for all competitors – wins.
In the event where two cars complete the same number of laps, their finishing order is determined by the faster overall completion time.
The Circuit de la Sarthe, also known as the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans, is a semi-permanent racing circuit utilised for the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans. The track has a length of 13.626 kilometres, and features a mix private, race-specific sections of track, in addition to public roads, which are accessible for most of the year.
For many years, the track’s most defining feature was the 6 kilometer long Mulsanne straight, which saw Group C cars hit a top speed in excess 400km/h. Following the 1989 edition of the race, the Mulsanne straight became “chopped” into 3 sections, with 2 chicanes placed between the start and end of the 6km long straight. This was done due to the FIA announcing that it would not sanction a circuit with a straight longer than 2 km.
Following the addition of the chicanes, top speeds on the Mulsanne have hovered between 340-320km/h in modern day prototypes, a far cry from the 400km/h speeds reported in the late 1980s. The highest recorded speed with the “chopped” Mulsanne is 366 km/h, set by a Nissan R90CK at the hands of Mark Blundell in 1990.
The Official Lap Record was set by Sebastien Buemi in 2018, who produced a 3:17.658 in a Toyota TS050 Hybrid. The Unofficial Lap Record however, is held by Kazuki Nakajima, who produced a 3:15.377 in Qualifying in a Toyota TS050 Hybrid in the same year.
Each year, at Le Mans, up to 62 entries, comprising of an even mix between Prototypes and Grand Tourers (GTs), will take to the Circuit de La Sarthe. This number is limited by the number of garage slots available at the track, with each entrant, defined as a single car entry, being allocated a single pit garage.
Previously, cars were required to have at least two seats, but the rules were eventually altered such that cars would only need the ability to accommodate a second seat in the cockpit. This space is occupied by electronics today. No more than two doors are allowed, while the now-retired open cockpit cars did not require doors.
It should be noted that while all cars compete at the same time, the 60-odd entries are divided into separate classes. Prizes and trophies are awarded to the top 3 in overall classification, and class classification. Presently, there are 4 classes, split into 2 Le Mans Prototype Classes, and 2 Grand Touring clases.
Denoted by White Sticker with Red Font, White Number on Red Background. Hybrid features additional sticker labelled “HY”.
LMP1 is currently the fastest prototype class in the world, with all cars being closed cockpit prototypes since the 2014 season. It is a full professional class, with Bronze rated drivers being prohibited (unless a special waiver is given, as was the case with Hendrik Hedman for the 2018/19 WEC Superseason). It is divided into 2 subclasses, LMP1 and LMP1-Hybrid. The Non-Hybrid LMP1 class is exclusively reserved for independent private teams.
Equivalence of Technology, or EoT, is applied to allow for LMP1-NH cars to compete against LMP1-HY cars on “equal” footing. EoT controls the fuel flow and capacity each of each type of car (NA-Petro/Turbo-Petrol/Turbo Petrol-Hybrid). To keep the championship tight, and success handicap is applied in the class, with cars penalised by 0.008 seconds per kilometre, for each point by which they lead the last-placed entry in the LMP1 championship classification.
Denoted by White Sticker with Blue Font, White Number on Blue Background.
The second tier Prototype class of the FIA World Endurance Championship & IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship, and the top Prototype Class in the European Le Mans Series. It is a Pro-Am class in all championships where it is used and all teams must have one Amateur driver, who may be either a Bronze or Silver-rated driver.
All cars in the category have been closed cockpit since 2017. Costs are tightly controlled in this category, with chassis price capped at 483 000€. Alongside the cost cap, only 4 chassis built by the 4 licensed chassis manufacturers (Ligier, Oreca, Dallara, Riley-Multimatic) and a spec Gibson engine can be utilised in the class. Bodywork in the class is also homologated and can only be altered under a “Joker” upgrade once during the current homologation cycle. 2 aerodynamic configurations are used, with the low-drag kit being used exclusively at Le Mans; the high-downforce kit may also be used, but elements from both kits cannot be mixed.
Denoted by White Sticker with Green Font, White Number on Green Background. “Pro” Sticker is also added.
GTE-Pro allows the use of current-specification FIA GTE machinery, with no restrictions on driver line-ups.
Denoted by White Sticker with Orange Font, White Number on Orange Background. “AM” Sticker is also added
The GTE Am class requires the use of 2 Amateur drivers, with 1 driver being Bronze rated, and a second driver being either silver or bronze rated. GTE Am class teams are also only allowed to run cars that are at least one year old. For example, the Porsche 911 RSR (2017) can only be run in subsequent seasons after 2017.