As the sun begins to set over the French countryside this Saturday, the stage will be set for the world’s most demanding test of motor endurance – the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Hitting a major milestone, the event marks its 100th anniversary, tracing its lineage back to its inaugural race in 1923. This year will witness the 91st running of the iconic auto race.
For many motorsport enthusiasts, the 24 Hours of Le Mans stands as a beacon of technical prowess and human resilience. It forms an integral part of the unofficial Triple Crown of Motorsport, sharing this prestigious title with the Monaco Grand Prix (Formula One) and the Indianapolis 500 (IndyCar).
The Heart of the Race: Circuit de la Sarthe
Set within the scenic locale of Le Mans, France, the Circuit de la Sarthe is a formidable arena that hosts the renowned race. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a centerpiece of the 2023 FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) schedule, serving as its fourth event out of seven.
The Circuit de la Sarthe is a blend of purpose-built racetrack and sections of public road, encompassing a daunting distance of 8.5 miles – nearly twice the length of the longest Formula One track. The course has undergone significant modifications over the years, most notably in response to a tragic 1955 incident, where an accident resulted in the loss of 83 lives and left hundreds injured.
The Unique Challenges of the 24 Hours of Le Mans
Unlike other races, Le Mans places as much emphasis on endurance and vehicle preservation as on raw speed. Drivers navigate complex strategies around fuel management, tire usage, and braking material preservation, all while avoiding debilitating mechanical damage.
The event’s regulations require a three-driver team setup. Each driver rotates in a relay of resilience, racing for over two hours before relinquishing control to a teammate during a pit stop. It’s not just about the shared adrenaline, but also the shared responsibility – every team member must do their part to ensure the car survives the grueling 24-hour journey.
The race, in fact, is not a single race but a plurality of contests that take place simultaneously. Cars are split into various classes based on their specifications, and each category becomes a race of its own, within the larger race. The objective? Cover the maximum distance within 24 hours.
A History of Innovation
The 24 Hours of Le Mans was initially conceived as a competition for European manufacturers to test the durability of their sports cars. The race has grown into a global platform for automotive testing and innovation, with marquee names such as Porsche and Audi – the event’s most successful manufacturers – using the race to pioneer numerous powertrain technologies.
“Le Mans is much more than just a race,” said Yannick Dalmas, a four-time winner at Le Mans. “Every lap, you’re hitting high speeds multiple times, day and night, in heavy traffic that forces constant judgment and the search for the optimal racing line.“
Tony Kanaan, a driver who competed in 2017 and 2018 editions, echoed this sentiment. He highlighted the race’s rich history and its unique challenges, saying, “A 24-hour race is a completely different dynamic than I’m used to. It’s dependent on more than just you and the car, but these three other guys who need to give you the car back in one piece. And you need to get it back to them in one piece.“
Notable Participants of the 24 Hours of Le Mans
This year’s event will see the return of Toyota teams that claimed first and second positions last year, led by drivers Sébastien Buemi, Brendon Hartley, Ryō Hirakawa, Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi, and José María López. These teams will be part of the top-tier “hypercar” category, where they will compete against five American teams, including the Glickenhaus Racing trio (Romain Dumas, Olivier Pla, and Ryan Briscoe). IndyCar star Scott Dixon (Cadillac Racing) and former Formula One driver Antonio Giovinazzi (Ferrari AF Corse) will also grace the hypercar class.
A fascinating feature of Le Mans since 2012 has been the “Garage 56” entry – a spot reserved for a concept car showcasing new automotive technologies. The 2023 Garage 56 entry is a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 from Hendrick Motorsports, to be piloted by NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson, 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button, and 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller. While they compete, they are seen more as pioneers than contenders.
A Toast to the Champions
With a history steeped in tradition, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is credited as the birthplace of the post-race champagne shower – a delightful tradition born out of an unintended champagne spray by Swiss driver Jo Siffert in 1966. The following year, American Dan Gurney intentionally shook a bottle to spray the cheering crowd after his victorious run.
Today’s winners receive more than just champagne showers. They are awarded Rolex watches and a trophy, while also securing points toward the WEC title, underlining the importance of the event in the larger championship landscape.
Tune in for the Adventure
The 24 Hours of Le Mans begins at 10 a.m. Eastern time Saturday and will be broadcast in the United States on MotorTrend. Motorsport fans can also stream the race on platforms that carry the network, including YouTube TV, Fubo TV, and Hulu Plus Live TV.
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