Roadkill’s FAQ To The 24 Hours of Le Mans (The BIG Race in France This Weekend)

In the recent past, I’ve written some basic Frequently Asked Question-style primers on big racing events in the time leading up to them. For example, I wrote one recently about the Indianapolis 500, which turned out to be a great race. This coming weekend brings with it the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, which is one of the world’s biggest races.

Endurance racing tends to be a relative niche audience compared with say, NASCAR, but we think there’s plenty to like about it. As an avid follower of all things Le Mans and cohost of a motorsport podcast that loves this race, I figured I could take some basic questions about it.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans…Is that like 24 consecutive hours?

Yep. The race starts at 3 p.m. on Saturday in France and ends at 3 p.m. Sunday. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO, French for “Western Car Peeps”) have held this race since 1923, aside from the years of World War II. That would have been a little challenging, what with the constant bombing and the usual participants being enemies and all.

Whoa. I drove 10 hours on the highway and that sucked after like two hours. How does anyone drive 24 straight hours?

A team of three drivers compete in each car. They each drive anywhere from about 45 minutes to four hours at a time, depending on the team. When the cars stop for fuel and tires (about every 45 to 50 minutes) the teams sometimes change out the drivers. A driver change includes belting the driver in and plugging in a few things. Depending on the car, they may also swap out the seat for a taller or shorter pilot. That process takes about as long to complete as the fueling and tires.

Is “Le Mans” just French for “the men” or something? What’s the deal with the name?

Track_Map

Le Mans is the name of the town that hosts the race. Closed public roads comprise much of the 8.46-mile circuit (above).  If you watch,  you’ll hear reference to a number of famous turns and landmarks like Dunlop Curve (Turn 1, with the Dunlop Bridge), the Esses (3, 4, and 5), Tertre Rouge (6), Indianapolis (11), Arnage (2), the Porsche Curves (13 through 17), and the Ford Chicanes (18 through 21).

The famous Mulsanne Straight was once a very-long straightaway that connected the towns of Le Mans (roughly Pitlane to Turn 6, above) and Mulsanne (Turn 9). That straight now has two chicanes (Turns 7 and 8) to keep top speeds down.

Ah, “speed.” Finally a word that makes sense. How fast do the cars go?

The quickest cars in the LMP1 (LMP1 = Le Mans Prototype 1) class made laps on the official test day in under 3:20. That’s an average of more than 150 miles per hour. Those LMP1 cars top out around 210 miles per hour. Interestingly, a lower class of cars, LMP2, are about 10 seconds per lap slower but seem capable of going 5-10 mph faster on top speed.

Dang, that’s actually pretty fast for a bunch of little sports cars. What do you mean by classes, though?

One of the draws of Le Mans—and endurance racing in general—has always been the ability to compete against cars of relative speed. The race has featured multi-class racing where you compete against cars of similar spec. You may not necessarily be racing the car next to you on track, in other words. Four cars compete at Le Mans and in the related World Endurance Championship:

LMP1 (red number boards) – The quickest cars in the race, these are currently hybrid cars with both electric motors and powerful internal combustion engines. The formula for the powerplants is too complicated to explain in brief, but the generally accepted figure is about 1,000 horsepower combined between the motors and engines. The electric power is only available for part of a given lap, however, so it’s like a push-button boost from an old arcade racing game. Toyota and Porsche both compete in this class. There’s also one non-hybrid car, the ByKolles Racing CLM.

LM24_2017_Preview_LMP2B

LMP2 (blue number boards) – These cars look similar to LMP1 cars, but the aerodynamics are slightly less complex. All cars in the class come from four approved chassis manufacturers and run a spec 4.0-liter Gibson V8 with around 600 horsepower. This class is designed to cap costs with spec hardware and to allow non-professional drivers a chance to race really fast race cars at one of the world’s most famous races. In fact, each driver lineup must include at least one amateur driver.

GTE-Pro (green number boards) – You’ll recognize GTE (“Grand Touring Endurance”) cars from their road-going counterparts: Chevrolet Corvette, Ford GT, Ferrari 488, Porsche 911, and Aston Martin Vantage. The ACO places them, theoretically, all on equal performance footing so that one team can’t outspend their way to victory. Almost all of these cars receive factory support and are far more complex than a simple street car. The teams and drivers frequently work in teams with the main goal being to win Le Mans for their respective manufacturers.

LM24_2017_Preview_GTE-AM

GTE-Am (orange number boards) – This is more or less the GT-racing equivalent of LMP2. The cars resemble those in GTE-Pro but are one year older, which means lacking slightly in some updates. In addition, they must feature at least two amateur drivers. You’ll also find Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin, and one lone Corvette represented in this class.

That was a long explanation. I mostly skipped over it.

I appreciate your honesty.

What’s the racing like?

Well, here’s a good example of how awesome it is for an LMP1 car racing through traffic in the middle of the night. The drivers are managing fuel, tire wear, and traffic while still pushing the cars hard. That means, at least in LMP1, driving more distance than an F1 race every two hours while passing several hundred times on slower cars. The intensity can be incredible and the lead will seldom be more than a minute or two at any given point in any of the classes.

Who won last year?

Last year was the heartbreaker of heartbreakers. Toyota ran a beautiful race in their LMP1 car only to have a very-necessary 50-cent part break on the front straight at the start of what would be the final lap. Porsche passed the stopped Toyota in front of a packed front straight that, I am told, was almost dead-silent. Toyota ran a perfect race only to have it go horribly wrong three minutes from the end.

That kind of drama seems to crop up every year at Le Mans somehow. And you can expect Toyota will have a fire in their bellies this year as a result.

Alright, so who else should I root for?

Well, there are a number of American teams and drivers in the field if you’re a homer. Hell, there are even five drivers from Mexico and Canada, because I know we have readers from both places.

LM24_2017_Preview

The big teams, obviously, are Corvette Racing with their Corvette C7.Rs and Chip Ganassi Ford Racing with their Ford GTs. I wrote Corvette Racing’s history for HOT ROD Magazine a couple years ago right before they won for the eighth time at Le Mans. Last year, Elana hung around the Ganassi team as they earned Ford’s first Le Mans victory in 50 years. Neither of us wrote about anyone specifically, so I guess no one wins this year. Sorry, everybody. If you like Ferraris, though, Risi Competizione is from Houston and will compete against Ford and Corvette in a Ferrari 488.

In LMP2, North Carolina’s Riley Technologies builds one of the four ACO-approved chassis in the class. The only Riley in the field will be run by Texan Ben Keating, who used to race Vipers in IMSA. We’re fans of Ricky Taylor, who will also be in that car, and Dutch racer Jeroen Bleekemolen. I like Bleekemolen and not just because he once picked up a wheel that fell off his car and drove it back to the pits in the passenger seat. But definitely because of that, in part. Also, the team’s race suits are SFI-rated tuxedos and that’s just friggin’ awesome.

The Dragonspeed and United Autosport cars were both founded (in part) by Americans, Elton Julian and Zak Brown (No, not that Zac Brown; this Zak Brown), though no Americans race in the U.S.-flagged LMP2 cars. Last year, California native Gustavo Menezes co-drove the Signatech Alpine car to the LMP2 victory and he’s with the same team this year.

American team Scuderia Corsa has two Ferraris in the GTE-Am class. The #62 car won Le Mans last year with an all-American crew and they return with Townsend Bell, Bill Sweedler, and Cooper MacNeil to try doing it again. IMSA champions Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen will drive the second car. Patrick Dempsey no longer races at Le Mans, but the car he still co-owns, the #77 Porsche, should be a strong contender in the class. And of course, French team Larbre Competition are running last year’s Corvette C7.R with a super-cool, glow-in-the-dark paint job (above).

That only covers like 15 percent of the field. You can find the whole field on Andy Blackmore’s Spotter Guide. My advice: Pick out one in each class that you think looks totally boss and root for that one.

I glazed over that bit, too.

I know. Look, just set aside some time to watch the race, especially the start and/or finish if you can.

OK, I believe you. How do I watch the race?

FOX will cover all but three hours of the race itself between FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2. If you have the FOX Sports Go app with a valid login—your cable package will need FOX Sports 1—you can watch all of it uninterrupted. Here’s the full FS1 and FS2 schedule:

Saturday, June 17
8:30 a.m. ET to 10 a.m. ET – FOX Sports 1
10 a.m. ET to 1 p.m. ET – No FS coverage, only on Fox Sports Go
1 p.m. ET to Midnight ET – FOX Sports 2

Sunday, June 18
Midnight ET to 1 a.m. ET – FOX Sports 2
1 a.m. ET to 9:30 a.m. ET – FOX Sports 1

If you don’t have cable or FS1 in your cable bundle, you can pay 9.99€ ($11.19) to watch the race on the FIA World Endurance Championship’s app. You can use a computer to purchase (and watch) it here or download the FIA WEC app for your device and purchase within the app. That gets you live video coverage of every practice and test session.

You can also get radio broadcast of every session on RadioLeMans.co or on Radio Le Mans via TuneIn. Personally, I’m a big fan of the RLM broadcast so I’ll watch the race on the WEC app while listening to RLM. It doesn’t usually sync up right, but it gives the best picture of what’s happening in the race. RLM also covers the support races, which can be neat.

Sweet. So what are all the sessions and when are they?

On-track sessions for the 24 Hours of Le Mans start on Wednesday and include a daytime practice, a daytime qualifying, and two more nighttime qualifying sessions. The prerace parade takes place in the town of Le Mans on Friday so there is nothing on the track itself. Here’s the schedule with times converted to North America.

Wednesday, June 14
10 a.m. ET to noon ET – Free Practice
4 p.m. ET to 6 p.m. ET – Qualifying 1

Thursday, June 15
1 p.m. ET to 3 p.m. ET – Qualifying 2
4 p.m. ET to 6 p.m. ET – Qualifying 3

This seems like overkill. You must really like this event, Eric. Is there anything else I should know?

I do love this race, and so does Elana, so that’s two hearty votes for checking it out.  Here are some other resources and be sure to look over Andy Blackmore’s Spotter Guide. It really is awesome.

Live timing & scoring
WEC App purchase and portal to watch the race
Andy Blackmore Spotter Guide
DailySportsCar.com class-by-class previews: LMP1, LMP2, GTE-Pro, GTE-Am
Le Mans Rulebook, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover