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Become a 24 Hours of Le Mans expert with this quick primer

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is arguably the most prestigious event on the racing calendar, and that’s because it really has it all. As one of the oldest and most bitterly contested motor sport events around, Le Mans has plenty of history. The track, known as the Circuit de La Sarthe, is one of the most challenging in the world. Le Mans is also an endurance race, testing the stamina of drivers, teams, and cars as they go twice around the clock. As the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans gets underway, here’s a primer on this legendary race.

How to watch

Fox Sports will show the entire 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans, but coverage will alternate between Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. Here’s the schedule:

Day Time Channel
June 18 8:30 AM to 2:00 PM FS1
2:00 PM to 4:30 PM FS2
6:00 PM to 6:30 PM FS2
7:00 PM to 7:30 PM FS2
June 19 10:30 PM to 2:30 AM FS2
2:30 AM to 9:30 AM FS1

Uninterrupted streaming is also available through the Fox Sports Go app. If you can live with audio only, Radio Le Mans is another option.

History

The first Le Mans 24-hour race was held in 1923, and races have been held pretty consistently since then, with the notable exception of a 10-year gap between 1939 and 1949 caused by World War II and its aftermath. Like many early races, Le Mans was originally intended to be a testing ground for automotive technology as well as a competitive event.

Le Mans 2016

Le Mans was one of the first endurance races, where the duration of the event is long enough to test car durability and driver stamina as well as outright speed. Le Mans is not the only 24-hour race (events at Daytona and the Nürburgring are two other prominent examples), but it is the oldest, and over the past nine decades it’s helped build the reputations of drivers, as well as entire car companies.

One of the first manufacturers to dominate Le Mans was Bentley, which won five times between 1924 and 1930. Even it has only won one other time (2003), Bentley still considers those victories an important part of its brand identity today. The same is true of Jaguar, which won five times in the 1950s. The recent F-Type Project 7 is inspired by the D-Type responsible for three of those victories (1955, 1956, 1957).

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is arguably the most prestigious event on the racing calendar, and that’s because it really has it all.

It wasn’t all glamour, though. In 1955, Le Mans was the scene of one of the worst disasters in racing history. Mercedes-Benz driver Pierre Levegh tangled with another car on the main straight. His 300 SLR was flung into the stands, and Levegh and more than 80 spectators were killed as a result of the impact and fire. The incident raised consciousness about safety in motor sports, and spurred gradual improvements.

Ferrari dominated in the early 1960s, helping cement its reputation as a maker of the best sports cars. Then Ford came along. After Enzo Ferrari backed out of a deal to sell his company to the Detroit giant, an enraged Henry Ford II was determined to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. The Ford GT40 couldn’t get the job done in 1964 or 1965, but in 1966 Ford finally stuck it to Ferrari. The Blue Oval went on to win the next three years straight, while Ferrari skulked away to concentrate on Formula One.

The 1970s brought on the rise of Porsche, which still holds the record for wins with 17. A period of Porsche absence in the early 2000s allowed corporate cousin Audi to step in and turn Le Mans into its playground. Audi won all but two races between 2000 and 2014, and lost to Porsche in 2015. For the first time in quite awhile, no manufacturer has an overwhelming advantage at Le Mans.

The track

The actual Le Mans track is called the Circuit de la Sarthe, and it’s composed primarily of local roads that are open to the public when the race isn’t on. In its current configuration, the track is 8.47 miles long, and cars can reach speeds of around 200 mph on a lap.

Le Mans 2016

Le Mans is all about endurance, but the track itself presents challenges to racers because of its combination of high-speed running and tight turns. The Circuit de la Sarthe’s defining feature is the Mulsanne Straight, a 3.7-mile stretch of tarmac where cars hit speeds of around 225 mph as far back as the 1970s. In the circuit’s original configuration, those speeds made cars hard to control, leading to crashes and even cars becoming airborne because of the lift generated by high-speed airflow.

More recently, organizers added a pair of chicanes to break up the Mulsanne Straight, limiting speeds somewhat. Last year’s winning Porsche 919 Hybrid averaged 139.3 mph over the entire circuit, while a sister car hit a top speed of 211.3 mph during the race.

The race

Le Mans is as much a carnival as a race (there’s even a Ferris wheel on the circuit). Race fans that camp out along the circuit are legendary for their partying, and for showing up in expensive sports cars, and treating said sports cars like rented Winnebagos. Le Mans is always held in June, when days are long enough that relatively little of the race is actually run in darkness.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the GT40’s first Le Mans win, and Ford is back with a vengeance.

Teams start arriving in Le Mans weeks before the race for testing, and essentially take over what is otherwise a sleepy French town. Scrutineering, where officials check that cars comply with the rules, is done on the Place de la République in the town square. Each team parades its cars and drivers through the town, giving spectators opportunities for close-up looks and autographs.

Practice and qualifying sessions are held throughout the week before the race, which this year starts at 3:00 p.m. local time Saturday June 18, and finishes at 3:00 p.m. June 19. The Le Mans grid is traditionally limited to 56 cars, but for 2016 the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which organizes the race, is letting 60 cars run. That’s a pretty large field, but you can be sure there will be casualties as crashes and mechanical issues force cars to drop out. Le Mans is as much about surviving as winning.

The cars

Le Mans cars fit into two main categories: prototypes that are purpose built for racing, and modified production cars known as GT cars. While Le Mans has some of its own rules, cars that compete there generally race in other series, including the FIA World Endurance Championship, IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and European Le Mans Series.

Le Mans 2016

The top dogs are the LMP1 Hybrid prototypes. Entered by Audi, Porsche, and Toyota, they’re the fastest, most expensive, and most complicated cars on the grid. Each uses some form of hybrid powertrain, but beyond that the designs are completely different, offering a level of novelty rarely seen in top-level racing today. There are also lower classes of prototypes for privateer teams not backed by a manufacturer.

GT cars look like what you might drive, well, if you’re an investment banker. The field includes Chevrolet Corvettes, Ferrari 488s, Porsche 911s, and Aston Martin Vantages. New this year is the Ford GT, a racing version of Ford’s highly anticipated supercar inspired by the Le Mans-winning GT40.

What to expect in 2016

Audi, Porsche, and Toyota will contest the overall win. Audi’s winning streak was ended last year by Porsche, which is looking for Le Mans win number 18. Audi is out for redemption, and Toyota is hoping to turn strong performances over the past few years into its first Le Mans win.

Related: Fifty years after its legendary first win, Ford’s GT will return to Le Mans

The big story, though, is the Ford GT. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the GT40’s first Le Mans win, and Ford is back with a vengeance. The GT won’t be in the running for an overall win, but Ford hopes to take home a class win for production cars on its first try. To do that, the Blue Oval will have to beat much more experienced competition, including defending winner Chevrolet and its Corvettes.