LE MANS, France — For 24 hours here this weekend, a vast and disparate array of cars, drivers and technologies will join in a free-for-all around the wildest, most gruelling of racetracks — part permanent circuit, part public highway — for the 83rd edition of the world’s most famous and ever-more-loopy endurance race.
Started in 1923, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which runs at the Circuit of the Sarthe in western France from Saturday afternoon until Sunday afternoon, is not only the world’s oldest active sports car endurance race. It is also the biggest auto racing spectacle anywhere, and this year it is getting even bigger.
Throughout its history, the race has continued to expand and develop technical regulations, encompassing strikingly different car and engine designs. For the 2015 edition, a major new competitor has been added in the highest category of the race: Nissan.
In a race that has so far this century been dominated by one car manufacturer, Audi, the arrival of Nissan is yet another affirmation of the importance of the 24 Hours of Le Mans to the major manufacturers.
“It is an acknowledgement of an interest in the series, the fact that now a fourth manufacturer believes that this platform of relatively free engineering solutions is something where a company can prove their technological dominance or qualities,” Ralf Jüttner, managing director of Audi Sport Team Joest, said of Nissan’s arrival. “For us, we have to beat Toyota, we have to beat Porsche, we have to beat Nissan now, too.”
After Toyota joined three years ago, followed by Porsche last year, Nissan has now taken up a challenge that should not be underestimated. Audi has won all but one edition of the race since 2000. Peugeot won in 2009, and the 2003 edition was won by a Bentley — a brand owned by Audi, and which used an Audi engine as well as the Audi team and drivers.
The best word to describe the 24 Hours of Le Mans in every sense, though, is “big.” Only the Indianapolis 500 comes close as a racing spectacle, but it does not truly compare. The 24 Hour of Le Mans is a weeklong celebration of cars and motor racing in a city of 143,000 people, where the racetrack will draw 250,000 for the race.
“It is a truly popular event, it’s not in any way elitist,” said Aurélien Demotier, a taxi driver in Le Mans. “For just 78 euros, a spectator has access to everything: the race, the parade in the town, overnight celebrations, rides. The entire area for 50 kilometers around the track is full of people attending the race.”
The test sessions, car technical checks, parades and other events have been going on all week. Even the test days two weeks ago were included in the cost of a ticket for the full event.
Traditionally, thousands of spectators have come from Britain: Le Mans is only about a seven-hour drive from central England, via the Channel Tunnel.
“It’s great to see all the British fans here, but it is not just all about the Brits for a British driver,” said Anthony Davidson, a British driver for the Toyota team. “It’s a truly global event, one of the biggest races in the world, so it does feel like a proper global stage that you are on when you race here.”
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There are other 24-hour races, such as those at Daytona, in Florida; Spa, in Belgium; and the Nürburgring, in Germany. But there is no other event quite like Le Mans, not only because of the French race’s history, but also because the track itself remains one of the most difficult and unique in the world.
It is extremely long, running for 13.6 kilometers, or 8.4 miles, on both public roads and a permanent track.
“A super, super long track — that’s very unusual, how long the track is for this type of racing,” said Mark Webber, a former Formula One driver who has been racing with the Porsche sports car team since last year and who drove at Le Mans before his Formula One career. “The risk element is still there, driving past houses behind the barriers, trees are still around. And there are fans jammed in all around the track everywhere. You have more than 200,000 here on race day; you can smell the barbecues in the morning.”
“The fatigue element, for the mechanics, the drivers, it’s a very, very dramatic race,” Webber added, “because I think the emotions here run very high, because of the fatigue factor, and the concentration. I view the race as not beating the competitors, as such. First of all you have to beat the bloody race. You’ve got to beat Le Mans: Trying to do 6,000 kilometers on the limit, it’s not easy.”
It is in fact the technological challenge that has attracted so many manufacturers in recent years. The wide-open rules allow the prototype cars in the top class, LMP1, to innovate with car and engine technology.
Nissan is bringing yet another twist with its arrival. For the past 55 years, ever since John Cooper put a racing car engine in the back of his Formula One cars in the late 1950s and then started a revolution in car design in 1960, racing car engines have been at the back of the car. This year, Nissan decided to return to the past by placing its modern hybrid engine in the front of its GT-R LM Nismo.
Darren Cox, the Nissan racing program director, explained that the relatively few technological restrictions at Le Mans led to the innovation. The World Endurance Championship, or WEC, of which the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a part, imposes few restrictions on the engine, but the aerodynamics in the back of the cars is greatly restricted. That means most of the cars have similar rear wings and rear ends, allowing little possibility of creating aerodynamic downforce in the back of the car.
“A very simple engineering rule is that you have to balance your aero distribution with your weight distribution,” Cox said. “So basically, you’ve got to move as much weight forward as possible. So what’s the easiest way to move the weight as forward as possible? Stick the engine in the front.”
That in turn led to front-wheel drive from the engine and then rear-wheel power from the hybrid system.
“This is really turning conventional engineering thinking on its head,” Cox added. “Which is why we say we are about ‘Innovation That Excites.’ This is a very exciting championship, and this car is the most innovative car out there. So it fitted our brand, no question.”
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But Nissan’s program has prompted some amused looks and is being taken with a grain of salt by some of its competitors.
“It’s very funny — no, just joking, it’s superb,” said Pascal Vasselon, director of the Toyota team. “It’s very interesting to see a new constructor here, and the series can only profit by the arrival of a new major actor. For the moment, we will not count them among our principal competitors. But we greet them with open arms.”
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In testing, the Nissan was not even fast enough to beat the second category of prototypes. There are four categories in the race: the two prototype categories, LMP1 and LMP2, and the two GT, or Grand Touring, categories, one for professional drivers and the other for amateur drivers, which mixes professionals and amateurs on the same team. There are plenty of major car manufacturers involved in the various categories, such as Aston Martin, Ferrari and Chevrolet.
Toyota, in Le Mans for the fourth year, is seeking its first victory in the top prototype category, though it easily beat Audi to win the WEC series last year. In the same category, Audi is aiming for its 14th victory, while Porsche, which returned to WEC racing last year and won only one race in the series, is hoping to extend its record of victories at Le Mans to 17.
But Le Mans has never been about only the top category, and drivers at the lower levels say it is just as difficult and as glorious to win in their categories.
“We are in the same race,” said Richard Lietz, who is in the Porsche GTpro category. “And to win, it doesn’t matter in which category, it is always difficult in Le Mans. I think there have been years where the GT battle has been a lot harder than the LMP1 battle; there have been years where there were five cars in LMP1 or even less, or factory against private teams.”
“But for the overall victory, of course, only that class has a chance to win it,” he added, referring to the LMP1 category. “But from the competition side, and difficulty to win, I think every class should have the respect from the people, because it is really hard.”
The incredible disparity of the drivers, the cutting-edge technology, the 24 hours of fluctuating racing conditions and excitement for spectators combine to make the Le Mans 24 Hours the most bizarre and exciting single race in the world.
Some of the drivers come from nontraditional racing backgrounds. Many in the Nissan program, for example, have come through the GT Academy, a PlayStation competition that has converted video-game players into racing car drivers. The first winner of that program, in 2009, was Lucas Ordóñez of Spain, who is now racing in the top category in Le Mans.
“Le Mans means the ultimate goal for me,” Ordóñez said. “It has been my target since I won the GT Academy and I’m really proud to be in LMP1, the top class of the race. Fighting for overall victory we know is going to be a big challenge.”
And Le Mans demands expertise like no other auto race.
“This is a unique race, for sure, and it needs a somewhat unique way to attack it as well,” said Jüttner of Audi Sport Team Joest. “Attacking is already the wrong word. You don’t attack it, you let it come to you.”