24 Hour of Le Mans has been held every year since 1923, and the 2014 Le Mans race starts this Saturday. Even if you’re not a motorsports fan, or a real car enthusiast, you should watch.
I’ll give you three good reasons why.
If you’re not an automotive historian or a motorsport addict, you might not know that the car sitting in your driveway owes many of its major components – and technologies – to the 24 of Le Mans race.
Don’t believe me? Here’s just a short list of tech that was either invented for – or revolutionized by – Le Mans: Headlights, windshield wipers, disc brakes, diesel, and hybrids: all technologies that owe their current state of being to Le Mans.
For 2014 that list only gets longer and stronger.
New, and extremely stringent, energy regulations have pushed automotive engineers to the brink, forcing Le Mans racecars to run extremely efficient and powerful (around 1,000 horsepower) hybrid systems.
Audi, with its R18 e-tron, is running a diesel hybrid. Porsche, too, is running a gasoline hybrid. And while the two brands exist under the Volkswagen Group ownership umbrella, they’re running different hybrid systems – not to mention different engine fuels.
Your everyday hybrid on the road utilizes an onboard battery-based system for energy storage – usually with lithium-ion batteries. While there are several hybrids in the race this year, of the three major contenders, only Porsche has adopted such a drive system.
Audi, for example, is using a flywheel-based hybrid system to store its onboard energy. And Toyota is using a capacitor-based unit and gasoline as is its major energy source.
Then there’s Nissan, which is running both an EV, called the ZEOD, and aims to become the first race team to complete an all-electric lap of Le Mans. If that weren’t enough, Nissan is also running a more traditional racecar in the form of its GT-R.
Why does it matter? Whichever system proves best could very well be adopted by the other automakers for the 2015 race. If there’s not one standout system, all systems will be further improved for following race seasons. And just as we’ve seen with the aforementioned technologies, everything learned at Le Mans will make its way into road-going cars in the very near future. Think Porsche 918 Spider, Audi RS5 TDI, and Audi R8 LMX.
Competition is going to be fierce for 2014. Last year, Audi pulled the checkered flag out from under Toyota. Accordingly, the Japanese brand is out for German blood – but not just Audi’s.
This year, Porsche returns to Le Mans for the first time in 16 years.
Even though Audi and Porsche are both owned by Volkswagen, they’re nonetheless competitors. Porsche pulled out of Le Mans in 1998, after having been defeated by Audi.
Showing just how serious its return to Le Mans is, Porsche hired infamous racecar driver and former Formula 1 racer Mark Webber as one of its drivers. You might know him as the guy who went airborne in a Mercedes-Benz in 1999 (pictured above).
Webber and the rest of the Posche team will take on Audi’s team, including Tom Kristensen, the winningest Le Mans driver of all time, for the 2014 trophy.
215 mph to 50 mph in less than 100 yards: That’s what the Le Mans racers have to do every lap going into the 90-degree Mulsanne corner. Not only is this an amazing feat to perform once, the drivers have to do it every lap in two- to three-hour intervals … for 24 hours.
The Le Mans circuit is roughly eight-and-a-half miles around, and unlike other famous races around the world, part of the course encompasses public roads, complete with roadway imperfections caused by tree roots, semi trucks, and rain. And yet the cars are setting three-minute, twenty-second lap times.
All told, the distance traveled of the entire Le Mans race is roughly the equivalent of driving from Los Angeles to New York. If that alone weren’t a horrendously tiring proposition, racers have to do it while competing against other world-class drivers in the elements.
Throughout the duration of the race, the drivers will face rain, the sun setting in their eyes, other drivers, and the darkness, which is illuminated in spurts by flash bulbs and sporadic spot lights.
Le Mans racers have always driven at the limit – it’s the only way to win. But this year, due to the new energy regulations, they’ll also have to drive with efficiency in mind, too. Each car has been given a limit of energy per lap. If the car goes over the limit, the team is penalized. And if the driver doesn’t use 100 percent of the allotted energy, missing speed opportunity effectively penalizes them as well.
Imagine driving at that level, at that speed, in those conditions, and also having to worry about efficiency … every lap. It’s simply staggering.
If you want to keep up with all things Le Mans, be sure to check out our 24 Hours of Le Mans 2014 topics page for all the latest.