The 24 hours of Le Mans is arguably one of the most grueling races in motor sport, and one of its most celebrated. Since 1923, cars and drivers have had their limits tested at this event to see not only who is the fastest, but to prove they can survive 24 straight hours of full-on racing.
Every year, this quiet French village transforms into the focal point of the automotive world. And though we live an ocean away, the 24-hour event changes the cars we drive on a daily basis. Many of the innovations that propel each race car end up in regular production vehicles after they prove their worth. From engines to headlights, to windshield wipers, Le Mans puts every nut, bolt, and processor to the test before it makes its way to the car in your driveway.
Survival of the fittest
The old adage of “to finish first, first you must finish” rings true here more than at any other racing event. Indeed, the object of the race is to win, but for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the main challenge is just making it to the end. On race weekend, 60 cars in 4 different classes will drive the eight and a half mile circuit from 3pm Saturday to 3pm Sunday. No matter what place they end up in, those left standing will be regarded as heroes.
In racing, cars will eventually run out of two things: fuel and tires. Having to stop to replace both costs precious time away from the track, so vehicles are made to be as efficient as possible within the regulations for each class. The top classes in the World Endurance Championship, in which the Le Mans race is a part of, are Le Mans Prototypes, which are far departures from the homologated GT-class cars.
For the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the main challenge is just making it to the end.
Audi has been a fixture of this race for over a decade, and the current R18 race car is the culmination of all its learned throughout the years. Starting with the R8 — the race car that gives the road car its name — the team went from turbo engines, to diesel, to a turbodiesel hybrid, all in the name of fuel efficiency. The powertrains see improvements each year, so much so that the V6 TDI now consumes 33 percent less fuel than it did when introduced in 2011 and 46 percent less energy than the V12 TDI that was used in 2006. Meanwhile, the average speed has increased by nearly four percent. That may sound like a small increase, but it makes a huge difference in a 24-hour endurance race.
Between the 524 horsepower from the TDI and the 476 horsepower developed by the hybrid system, the R18 has about 1,000 hp on tap throughout the race.
The more they squeeze out of these powertrains during the race, the more they can apply what they’ve learned to the hybrids on your dealer lots.
All that power and efficiency is ultimately useless if the tires can’t keep the cars on the track, either due to frequent swaps, or worse. Michelin has been a part of Le Mans longer than the concept of removable rims, and this year 33 of 60 cars had Michelin rubber on their wheels, including the Corvette C7 and the Ford GT.
Pushing cars at high speed over 8 miles and 33 turns is punishing on a tire, which also has to balance longevity with grip. Le Mans is where tire manufacturers like Michelin have to prove that their tire compounds can endure dramatic changes in temperature and withstand the demands of cars from LMP1 to GT-class racers. A poor tire can undermine everything an endurance race car has been developed for, from speed and agility to fuel economy. What good is a hyper efficient vehicle if it hydroplanes off the track or has to come in for a new set of wheels every other lap?
It always rains at Le Mans, too. Michelin is also tasked with providing tires that can displace water effectively to mitigate the hazardous rain at the event.
We see the benefits in the real world with better, long-lasting tires for our sports cars, sedans, and SUVs. This saves us money and bringing us peace of mind when the weather gets a little too damp for comfort.
Back in the Audi garage, the R18 sports the latest equipment to tackle one of the 24 hour race’s biggest, most inevitable obstacle — the night. Audi has developed laser light technology that is already in road cars today. This light is cleaner and can reach farther ahead of the vehicle, giving drivers increased situational awareness. An LED matrix can optimize the shape and focus of the beams as well. In terms of road cars, this keeps the road ahead illuminated while preventing drivers in parallel lanes from being dazzled from the rear.
Miracles on wheels
These are just a few examples of what makes Le Mans the testing grounds of innovation. Countless things like aerodynamics, suspension, and in-car displays see time on the circuit, honed for the cars that we can drive without a racing license. Le Mans is a legendary race where in just 24 hours, thousands of tiny miracles happen, and within a few of those moments, our world of technology grows just a little bit bigger.