The 24 Hours of Le Mans has rolled around again and this year it doesn’t fall on an F1 weekend – hallelujah! That means that motorsport fans can sit back and enjoy the event without having to make awkward decisions over what to watch or trying to watch two things at once.
If this year’s race is going to be your first time watching then here’s everything you need to know about the 85th running of the French Classic. And hey, even if this isn’t you first time watching then a bit of a refresher can’t hurt, right?
Yup, even though it’s a Wednesday qualifying for Le Mans starts this evening. The first session takes places at 22:00 local time (or GMT+2). A second qualifying session takes place at 19:00 on Thursday with the final session taking place at 22:00 that same evening. Each session last for two hours, making for a total of six hours of qualifying.
Refreshingly for modern motorsport the qualifying sessions are relatively gimmick free. Each driver has to complete a minumum of five laps of nighttime driving but other than that, it really is as simple as this: the fastest lap gets pole. No average times (as during the rest of the WEC season), no knockout phases, no nothing. It doesn’t matter which session it’s set in either – it really is all about pure speed.
The fastest ever laps of the Circuit de la Sarthe were set by Porsche 917s in 1971, but back then the track had no chicanes on the Mulsanne straight, and far fewer corners around the rest of the lap.
The ultimate record for the current layout stands at 3:16.887, and was set by Neel Jani’s Porsche 919 in 2015. However after setting some very quick times during the Le Mans test day Toyota reckon they could be on course to beat it this year. If they do, then that also means that Audi’s race lap record of 3:17.476 from 2015 could be under threat too.
For reference, the pole position lap from 1971 stands at 3:13.9. Back then the cars were faster in a straight line and there were less than half the number of corners. The track was slightly shorter too, and yet modern LMP1 cars are getting within three seconds of being faster than those lap times. That’s progress for you!
Another record under threat could be that of the overall distance record of 397 laps from 2010. With lots of dry weather and safety car use kept to a minimum, we could even see the 400 lap mark beaten.
Last year the maximum grid size for Le Mans expanded from 56 to 60 cars. Barring any last minute drop-outs there’ll be 60 cars on the grid again this year as cars from the European Le Mans Series, Asian Le Mans Series, and WeatherTech Sports Car Championship (America) join the regular WEC entrants.
That breaks down to six LMP1 cars, 25 LMP2 cars, and a whopping 29 GTE cars (13 in the Pro category, 16 in the Amateur class). With no blue flags in endurance racing navigating traffic is a huge skill, and there’s also a skill in being lapped. It’s difficult enough at a wide-open Tilkedrome with half the number of cars, let alone somewhere as bumpy, narrow and old school as Le Mans – especially if it’s raining at 4:00am and the driver is three hours into their stint!
Who can forget the heartbreaking end to last year’s Le Mans 24 Hours as the race-leading Toyota dramatically slowed to a stop, just as it was beginning it’s final lap?
As a result of that Toyota has brought three cars this year to try and increase its chances of winning. Things are looking promising for the team as well – Toyota has won both of the WEC races so far this year and the TS050 has been quick in testing for Le Mans. But speed and form alone can count for very little here, and that’s before you factor in the apparent curse Toyota have.
On five occasions since 1992 the Japanese manufacturer has come home as runner-up, and on three of those occasions a Toyota was leading in the final hour before being halted or hindered with an unforeseen mechanical issue. Can the curse be overturned this year? It seems as good a time as any.
A bumper LMP2 field is set to be one of the most intriguing aspects of this year’s race. Although the teams with the Oreca chassis appear to have a massive advantage over the other manufacturers over half the class is filled with Orecas, so the battle for the win should be epic.
The new LMP2 regulations for this year mean that the category is faster than ever. Top speeds on the Mulsanne straight are actually higher than those of the LMP1 cars too, which could make for some interesting scenarios in terms of traffic.
For F1 fans there are also a few familiar names in the LMP2 field: Nelson Piquet Jr., Jean-Eric Vergne, Bruno Senna, Vitaly Petrov, Sergei Sirotkin, Karun Chandhok and others are driving in the category. Oh, and don’t forget Rubens Barrichello, who at 45 years old is making his Le Mans debut this year.
Last year Ford took an historic victory in the GTE-Pro category, 50 years after the Ford GT40 won overall for the first time. However the win came under a bit of a shadow as many suspected the team of heavily sandbagging in the run-up to the race in order to avoid being slowed down by the balance of performance (BOP) adjustments which are in place to keep the GT category close.
This year changes to the way BOP is implemented were made to try and curb the sandbagging practice but even so Ford have drawn attention in the run up to the 2017 race for being slower than anticipated. Expect them to be up there with Ferrari in the race however, and at Le Mans you can never count out the Corvettes.
Porsche’s new 911 RSR is something of an unknown quantity, and even with the balance of performance it’s hard to see Aston Martin’s aging V8 Vantage in contention unless something untoward happens. And this being Le Mans, something untoward has a fair chance of happening…
After the incredibly wet conditions leading up to the 2016 race, the weather forecast for this year is thankfully looking pretty good. But there’s a saying that’s worth bearing in mind: it always rains at Le Mans.
Therefore it’d be unusual to see the race stay completely dry for all 24 hours. And like any motorsport when the rain comes, things happen. And when things happen, the chances of a safety car increase. And because the length of the circuit means Le Mans needs three separate safety cars, it can have an enormous effect on strategy.
It might sound obvious, but 24 is a long, long time. Watching it all is doable, but if you don’t fancy loading your body up with coffee to stay awake through the whole thing then you don’t have to. Instead pick and choose a few times to watch. It doesn’t really matter if you miss a few hours here and there, because its relatively easy to pick up on what’s happened whilst you’ve been away.
The race starts at 15:00 local time (GMT+2) on Saturday, and finishes at the same time the following day (obviously). Like any race the start is absolutely worth watching, and things will likely stay so close that you’ll still be engrossed by the time the first pit stops roll around almost an hour later. Keep going until you need a break, go away and do something else, and then come back about an hour before sunset (which is around 22:00 local time).
Seeing the cars chase around as the natural light fades and the headlights take over is one of the great sights in motor racing and well worth dipping into. Stick around to watch them race at night for a bit as seeing LMP1 cars blast past GTs in darkness is something you really have to see to believe.
Similarly, sunrise is another key moment of the race. On Sunday that’s due to happen at 5:45am local time, so tune in a bit before that and enjoy the cars driving at ‘the golden hour’ – so called because this is when track conditions are usually at their best and cars often set their fastest laps of the race.
From then on its a run to the end, and naturally the finish is something you’ll want to watch, especially if there’s a repeat of anything like last year! The post-race celebrations are magnificent and if you feel physically, mentally and emotionally drained just from having watched the race, then imagine how it is for all the drivers and teams!
If 60 cars in four classes racing for 24 hours sounds like too much to keep up with, then you’d be right. Unless you’re a seasoned veteran of watching the race or you actively make notes of what every car is doing, you won’t be able to fully understand everything that’s going on all of the time. You’ll just end up frustrated and wondering how anyone can watch it.
Instead, just pick a few cars to focus on – the overall leaders, a favourite driver, a favourite manufacturer, a car with a cool livery – and follow them throughout the race. In seeing what they’re doing you start to understand what others are doing and it becomes much easier to manage and enjoy.
Thankfully these days we’re not just restricted to limited TV coverage and a report in the next days newspaper. The whole race can be watched on the official WEC app, which also gives you access to various onboards and live timing. Twitter is fantastic for instant updates as well. You don’t have to miss a thing if you don’t want to!