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 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans gets underway, here’s a primer on this legendary race.
How to watch, stream, or listen
Fox Sports will show most of the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans, but coverage will alternate between Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. Here’s the schedule:
June 17 — FS1 8:30 am to 10:00 am
June 17 — FS2 1:00 pm to 1:00 am (June 18)
June 18 — FS1 1:00 am to 9:30 am
Uninterrupted streaming is also available through the Fox Sports GO app. If you can live with audio only, Radio Le Mans is another option, and it’s free.
The Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA) lets enthusiasts stream the entire race on its website for a flat fee of 10 euros, which converts to about $11. The good news is that the feed is completely commercial-free the entire duration of the race. Alternatively, Ford Performance provides live coverage and exclusive in-car footage on its official YouTube channel.
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 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 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. Mercedes quit racing for decades after the accident.
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 18. 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 and 2016. The company has now shuttered its endurance racing program to focus on other types of motorsports.
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 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. In 2015, the 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. During this year’s qualifying sessions, Kamui Kobayashi secured the pole position in a Toyota TS050 Hybrid by averaging 156.5 mph. He lapped the track in 3:14.791, setting a new record.
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.
After last year’s dramatic finish, Toyota is out for revenge.
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 17, and finishes at 3:00 p.m. June 18. The Le Mans grid is traditionally limited to 56 cars, but for 2017 the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), which organizes the race, is again 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.
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.
The top dogs are the LMP1 Hybrid prototypes. Entered by Porsche, Toyota, and a team named Bykolles Racing, 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, Ford GTs, Ferrari 488s, Porsche 911s, and Aston Martin Vantages. Lamborghini CEO Stefano Domenicali recently told us the brand will likely enter a Huracan in the GTE category next year.
What to expect in 2017
After last year’s dramatic finish, Toyota is out for revenge. Audi is out of the race for good, so the Japanese team has one less competitor to worry about, but you can bet Porsche will be going all out to continue its winning streak and score a 19th victory.
There’s a vendetta in the GTE Pro category, too. Last year, Ford rekindled a decades-old rivalry when its GT beat the Ferrari 488. The bragging rights that come with a Le Mans victory are almost priceless, so Ferrari will strike back with a car that’s fast, reliable, and precise to drive. Ford will be doing all it can to secure a second consecutive victory while fending off Chevrolet and its Corvettes, as well as Porsche’s 911 RSR.