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.