What is the 24 Hours of Le Mans? Only the world’s best-known automobile race.
Le Mans has run almost every year since 1923 at the Sarthe road-racing circuit near Le Mans, France. According to the Guardian, the event was founded “as a way of showing potential customers that your headlamps, windscreen wipers and canvas hoods could function at high speed around the clock.” The cars of Le Mans are of either the rocket swift “Prototype” sports car variety or the more modest, realistic “Grand Touring” variety.
The race runs in June, on one of the year’s shortest nights. Competitors whip around a circuit stretching about 8.5 miles (13.6 km).
Since 1928, the format for the race has been very simple – victory goes to the car that travels the farthest in a 24-hour stint. A driver just has to keep going round as fast as possible without faltering as night turns to day. Success depends on huge, sustained concentration.
Here are the Le Mans champions from the past five years and highlights from each epic race.
Audi: Marcel Fassler (Germany), Andre Lotterer (Germany), Benoit Treluyer (France)
The 2011 race was the fourth closest in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and one of the messiest. Within the first hour of the race, in an event that Autoblog described as “terrifying”, the Audi driven by Scot Allan McNish slammed into the barrier after he collided with the Ferrari driven by Frenchman Anthony Beltoise.
Later, in another twist, German Audi driver Mike Rockenfeller also crashed, putting his car out of action. Because of incidental damage done to the barriers, the safety car had to come out, staying for over 2 hours. For the first time ever at Le Mans, the safety car then ran low on fuel and was replaced.
In the meantime, despite its setbacks, Audi won the race for the tenth time, putting it second in total wins behind Porsche’s 16.
After the race, French Audi driver Benoit Treluyer described victory as “absolutely fantastic.”
Audi: Timo Bernhard (Germany), Romain Dumas (France), Mike Rockenfeller (Germany)
In 2010, notching up its ninth Le Mans success, Audi avenged its previous Le Mans defeat against arch rival Peugeot. In another coup for Audi, one of its crew, Timo Bernhard, became the first driver since 2005 to complete the endurance racing Triple Crown, also winning the 2003 24 Hours of Daytona and the 2008 12 Hours of Sebring.
Better still for Audi. It set a new overall distance record – the company’s winning car completed 397 laps and covered 3,362 miles, beating the distance set in 1971. Audi may never record a more decisive victory.
“In a crushing, humiliating and more convincing victory than anyone could have imagined 24 hours ago, three Audi cars finished in first, second and third positions,” the New York Times said.
That was almost the opposite result to the starting grid, where the top three cars were Peugeots. At the end, not a single Peugeot crossed the finish. Crushing indeed, as Peugeot later admitted, Audi only had to bring its cars home. Still, according to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, this race was Audi’s fastest ever Le Mans.
Peugeot: David Brabham (Australia), Marc Gene (Spain), Alex Wurz (Austria)
In the years leading up to the 2009 Le Mans, Audi was starting to exert a stranglehold on the race. The company based in Ingolstadt, Germany had won eight of the last ten Le Mans.
Peugeot won in 2009, but its triumph was marred by controversy that stemmed from “scrutineering” – rigorous inspection of its futuristic Audi R15 TDI. The R15 TDI has been called “a lovely study in weird wavelets and winglets of carbon fiber.”
Peugeot Sport director Olivier Quesnel, however, threatened to lodge a protest over the R15 TDI’s space age design. That night, the authorities rejected Peugeot’s protest. Peugeot promptly appealed, but then, after winning the race, Peugeot declared it was withdrawing its appeal of the scrutineer’s verdict.
Despite the controversy, the New York Times called Peugeot’s victory “a convincing show of strength.”
The newspaper also quoted winning Australian driver David Brabham as saying that Peugeot ran a faultless race. “At Le Mans,” Brabham said, “only a faultless race will take you to victory.”
Audi: Dindo Capello (Italy), Tom Kristensen (Denmark), Allan McNish (Scotland)
Peugeot got off to a snappy start at the 2008 Le Mans race, leading the field into the first chicane. After some jostling, Peugeot lost, retook and then retained the lead, consistently running 3 seconds a lap faster than Audi’s Scottish frontrunner, Allan McNish.
Then, in the second half, rain started falling, and the Audi cars ended up handling the dampness much better than the Peugeots.
In a frantic stab at adjusting the Peugeots to the drizzle, mechanics fitted all three with “high-downforce” nose and tail parts.
Nonetheless, McNish grabbed the lead, surged ahead and stayed there – bringing Audi to it’s eighth Le Mans victory.
“A decisive moment in this race was that, when we got one opportunity, we took it and we exploited it so, so well. The team was perfect. The car didn’t need to be touched – absolutely zero. All we did was put fuel into it, put tires on and we ran and we drove, flat out. Just like Audis always should be going,” McNish told the cameras.
Audi: Frank Biela (Germany), Emanuele Pirro (Italy), Marco Werner (Germany)
Like Le Mans 2011, the 2007 version was messy: a comedy of errors.
In the early hours, a Ferrari spilled “fluids” onto the track, causing several drivers to go into a spin. Ferrari had to undertake heavy front-end repairs, and in the process, they fell behind.
Another hitch happened just before the completion of the 17th hour, when the race-leading Audi driven by the Italian endurance driver Rinaldo Capello lost a left rear wheel. He then thumped into a tire barrier.
Meanwhile, Peugeot was struck by rear wheel hub failures. With its characteristic ruthless efficiency, Audi surged ahead.
In the final three hours, however, rain, which had restrained itself for most of the race, fell again. Cue a series of incidents. Meanwhile, the pressure on Audi mounted, but they refused to crack.
“We had nine stressful hours with the Peugeot right behind us,” Italian Audi driver Emanuele Pirro told USA Today. “But the more you suffer, the greater the pleasure.”
The win was Audi’s fourth Le Mans success in a row — setting the stage for many more wins to come.