24 Things We Love About Le Mans
The 24 Hours of Le Mans has virtually everything a racing fan could want. There’s a passion-filled history dating back nearly a century. Manufacturers push each other toward legitimate technical innovations. Drivers race cars that look like spaceships and even some that actually look like cars. The race itself offers more than enough strategy to keep even Garry Kasparov entertained.
For many of us, the annual race twice around the clock in rural France is one of Motorsports’ High Holidays. With so many things to love about Le Mans, no single list could possibly be comprehensive: these are just 24 of the very best.
1. The Ford vs Ferrari War
Has it been getting a truly insane amount of attention in the last few years thanks to Ford’s return? Yes. Half a century later, is it still arguably the single greatest duel in the history of motorsport? Also, yes. A battle so intensely personal between two companies, especially with so many immortal names cementing their legacies in the process, will likely never be repeated. In any sport. And, it’s ongoing.
2. Ecurie Ecosse
Fact: Flag Blue Metallic is the only color to ever outshine British Racing Green on a Jaguar. The patron saint of privateers, Scotland Stable is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its second victory this year.
3. The ghosts of Le Mans past
I don’t mean the ghosts of the scores of drivers and spectators who have perished over the years, though recalling them is certainly inescapable too. The ghosts I refer to are the competitive spirits of the legendary cars. Look carefully at Mulsanne before the stampede of the race and you can imagine shades of the Saubers, 917s, and even the old Blower Bentleys driving down the exact same roads.
4. Mulsanne Corner
The whole of the Mulsanne straight is one of the most revered sections of track anywhere on earth, but the run after the kink down to Mulsanne corner is just magical. The eerie quiet as scores of cars approach in slow motion at 200MPH suddenly transforms into the thunder of their departure as they crowd around the infamous turn.
The low sun of dusk is not only blinding for drivers already battling oil- and bug-smeared windshields, it’s also one of the defining moments of the race. Magnificent men and their racing machines battle on into the approaching darkness, knowing full well that before dawn many of their counterparts will lower their garage doors in defeat.
6. Racing in the rain at night
It doesn’t rain every single year at Le Mans; it only seems like it. If you can think of something more terrifyingly awesome than racing at over 200MPH in the middle of the night in a downpour, while whizzing past much, much slower cars, I want to know about it.
7. Happy Hour
That time just after dawn, when you can see the now even filthier cars cut through the morning mist after surviving the night, is surreal, especially if you’ve stayed awake through the night alongside them. Engines breathe in the dense, cool air, drivers can finally see again, and they’ll almost always set the fastest laps of the race, some 15 hours after it began.
8. Champagne celebrations
2017 is the 50th anniversary of Dan Gurney’s spontaneous decision to start spraying bubbly on anyone within range. That ubiquitous celebration of motorsport triumph is one of America’s finest contributions to the racing, and wider sporting world, and it happens to look even better with the famed ferris wheel in the background.
9. Watching a team rebuild a car in 45 minutes flat
When the inevitable moderately-heavy collision occurs, the ability of the teams to dismantle the car, fix or replace the broken components, and get it back out again never ceases to astound. Engineers and mechanics alike justify their salaries in those bursts of building.
10. Unimaginable levels of concentration
Anyone with a modicum of track experience will tell you that turning in lap times with metronomic repetition for even half an hour requires intense concentration. Staving off the red mist at 9AM, after being in the car for two hours (and after being awoken from a 30 minute nap to begin the session) and after your previous three-hour stint in the middle of the night? That’s a whole other level of intensity that you can’t get in any other racing.
11. The dedication of awkwardly napping mechanics
Have you ever seen one that looked remotely comfortable? My neck hurts just watching some of the weird positions mechanics stake out for themselves. It might look funny to find these professional race engineers and mechanics becoming amateur contortionists, but that’s just proof of their dedication to the sport.
12. The history of tangible innovation
Disc brakes. Double clutch transmissions. Ultra-powerful hybrids. Pick any era, and there are dozens of ways that the race cars engineered to conquer Le Mans impacted the production cars that followed shortly thereafter. I’d mentioned how the cars can often resemble something spacefaring, and just like the distillation of that technology, so to does the innovation of Le Mans filter to the masses.
For so many of these Davids competing against an army of Goliaths, their seasons—hell, arguably their entire livelihoods—are made or broken over the course of 24 hours on an otherwise lonely strip of rural French pavement. You can’t help but root for the little guys.
14. Art cars
While not every year features an art car, the years that do are more than memorable. Geniuses like Warhol and Calder defined eras with their masterpieces, and even this year, the glow-in-the-dark Corvette is a beautiful blend of artistry and technology.
15. Legends that defy belief
Tell someone unfamiliar with the race’s lore that Carroll Shelby drove, and won, with nitroglycerin tablets under his tongue, and they’ll call it fake news. Tell someone who is familiar with the race that a man once finagled his way into a prototype-class drive despite having virtually no experience in a race car of any sort, and they’re bound to ask if you’re willing to share whatever medication you’ve been taking.
The decades have witnessed no shortage of valiant efforts falling painfully short. If you can watch what happened to the men and women at Toyota in the final few minutes of the 2016 race without blaming someone cutting onions nearby, your heart is made of stone.
17. World-class liveries
Shell. Gulf Oil. Martini. Silk Cut. Momo. Corporate branding may have robbed us of national colors in motorsport, but it routinely provides us with some of the most immediately recognizable race cars in the world. As it happens, most of the best liveries made their mark at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
18. The timeless challenge of racing for 24 hours
For as much as the cars change decade by decade, the human and mechanical challenges that form the race’s character are still fundamentally the same, and the clock still completes two laps before a well-dressed man can walk out waving a checkered flag at the leader who’s just completed hundreds.
19. Dunlop Bridge
Over the years, at least 11 different race tracks have featured a Dunlop Bridge, but the Dunlop Bridge, the one at la Sarthe, predates the others by decades. This is the 85th year it’s stood guard over the track, and it’s as intertwined with the race as anything else, a landmark that also keeps watch over one of the more interesting parts of the track.
20. Radio Le Mans
Radio Le Mans presenters never cease to impress with their technical insights and revelations, but their lighter side is why the broadcast is always so lovable. At 4:00am local time, before a shift change can relieve commentators of duty, the highly caffeinated punch-drunk ramblings of fellow enthusiasts are fantastic entertainment.
21. Windshield peel-offs
Admit it. Watching a windshield go from dangerously smeared with schmutz to crystal clear in seconds thanks to a simple peel off is deeply satisfying. The entire process of modern pit stops is something to be marveled at, but this is one of the most symbolic pieces of that process.
22. Yellow headlights
Yellow headlights are as French as the notion of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and were mandated in France as a means of identifying friendly vehicles back when the threat of German domination meant more than high speeds down the Hunaudières. Of course, in addition to defining a car’s class, the yellow lights reduce glare and increase clarity.
23. Death-defying escapes
Whether you’re talking about guys like Alan McNish remarkably walking away from a violent impact, or the flying Mercedes CLR of Mark Webber, so many have escaped that kind of heart-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach crash that you can’t help but stop and think about all the progress we’ve seen in the name of safety. Automotive writers commonly wax nostalgic on how things used to be, but safety improvements are just that, improvements. If you’d rather see people die for a more interesting race, you might want to examine yourself.
24. Watching the real race while “racing” at Le Mans
Spending a couple of hours on your couch with your favorite virtual driving game of choice, while the real drivers do the same on a different screen and the sleep-deprived Radio Le Mans announcers are discussing something along the lines of the caffeine levels in Lewis Hamilton’s unsweetened tea, is a completely worthwhile indulgence that everyone should do in the wee hours, once the rest of the household/apartment/coven is asleep.