It is a global institution – a race that transcends time, speed, scenery and legend. For a full twenty-four hour cycle, a car, a team of drivers and the countryside in the heart of the Department of Sarthe test the boundaries of human endurance. Drivers may take turns behind the wheel for a few hours at a time, but they also know the elements and change of Earthly light certainly come into play in this hamlet due west-southwest of Paris.
The location is perfect. The invitation to race on the roads around this city in western France was answered by all comers. The race’s history alone is dotted with some of the greatest machines ever built, driven by some of the greatest drivers ever lived. It has always been the case since 1923.
The course originally went through the town of Le Mans before taking the long way back. This was fine in the old days, but not with today’s concern for total safety of all people involved. The emphasis on safety and course improvement was prompted by the 1955 race when 83 spectators were killed due to a post-accident flight of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. At that point, Mercedes decided to never return to motorsport for another several decades.
Lately, Le Mans had been a battle between diesel-powered prototypes. Audi had the upper hand with their R10, R15 and R18 racers in a rivalry against Peugeot’s 908. It will change this year with a new set of rules governed the FIA through their World Endurance Championship series.
To understand the allure of Le Mans, one must understand the course itself. At the start of the 13.6-kilometer course, one must pay tribute the Dunlop Curve, Bridge and Chicanes before heading into the Esses. This is the first taste of what endurance racing is all about. The challenge is to stay alert through this first section of the course before entering into the Tertre Rouge and the most famous straight of all of motorsport – the Mulsanne.
The Mulsanne Straight used to be the most daunting piece of racecourse ever devised. Until recently, the challenge of an endurance racer is to maintain a proper speed along a six-kilometer direct shot. Sadly, the FIA decided to ruin the fun and imposed their two-kilometer rule – the limit for the racing body imposes on sanctioned pieces of racecourses – for Automobile Club de l'Ouest to add two unnecessary chicanes.
Heading back to the start/finish line and the paddocks, the turn at Mulsanne sends racers towards Indianapolis and Arnage. At Arnage, another straight comes into view before the Porsche Curves excites drivers even more. The fun takes a slower pace when the cars head into the Ford Chicanes before pitting or rolling through the start/finish line.
For this year's race, Peugeot has bowed out of Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship. Audi chose to go with two different versions of the R18 – an eTron Quattro, an all-wheel-drive system coupled to a flywheel-actuated hybrid electric system, and the ultra, a re-engineered version of the TDI diesel-fueled defending champion. Toyota will take Peugeot's place as Audi's biggest challenge bringing a hybrid electric racer using a KERS system. Honda Performance Development will also play a huge part in the LMP1 class.
In the LMP2 class, you can probably bet that some Oreca chassis with a Nissan engine would take the class podium. Half of the entries are sporting the chassis, the engine or a combination of the two. While Nissan's 4.5litre V8 will power the LMP2 class, another of the company’s engines will take its place amongst the prototypes: A 1.6litre turbocharged four plunked in a new fangled racer called the DeltaWing. The DeltaWing is unlike any racecar ever seen with its dragster-like front end and bulbous rear. Highcroft Racing was invited by the ACO to see whether it can race with the LMPs and LMGTEs.
For the past few sports car races, I had been touting the competition in the GT classes. While some would focus on the prototypes, real racing was taking place amongst the LMGTE teams with Ferraris, Porsches, Chevrolet Corvettes, BMW M3s and Aston Martins trading leads and closing the gap between them and the prototypes. Le Mans would be no different. All of these cars, except for the BMW, will do battle with some of the better teams hunting for a closer time to the Audis in LMP1. The 'Vettes have been ruling France for quite some time, trading podiums with the Porsches. However, Ferrari will be represented in LMGTE-Pro and Amateur with enough 458 GTCs to make both GM and Porsche quite nervous.
When the ACO unlocks the gates at the Circuit de la Sarthe, a whole new chapter begins. Hybrids seem to be replacing turbocharged diesels while we are a year away from the deepest, most diverse LMGTE entry list ever. One does not necessary have to watch all 24 hours of Le Mans, but you may want to plan on catching up on updates on the web to see whether Wolf Henzler can dance with the Ferraris, Corvettes and other Porsches – including the Flying Lizards. Or, witnessing a chance that Allan McNish would take the overall top rung of the podium again along with Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello.
Before you commit to watching this year's Le Mans, may I suggest watching "Truth in 24" and it's sequel "Truth in 24 II?" This is the video shot by NFL Films under the sponsorship of Audi that gave us a rare insight into the 2008 24 Hours of Le Mans and McNish/Kristensen/Capello's last win there. The sequel picks up where the last story left off. Both films can be seen on YouTube or via the iTunes Music Store. Just watch them to understand what Le Mans is all about.