First, how did it start?
The Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) was founded in 1906 to defend the interests of motorists. The club undertook to organise the first French Grand Prix that same year.
In 1923, the first Le Mans 24 Hours was billed as the “Grand Prix of speed and endurance”. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of the world’s greatest motor races, along with the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 Miles. Graham Hill, the famous Formula One driver of the sixties is the only person to have won all three, earning himself the honorary “triple crown” of motorsport.
The Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans has been altered 15 times since the first 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1923. Just over 17 kilometres long then, it now measures 13.626 kilometres exactly.
The circuit itself plays a major part in the aura of the race. From the starting line, the circuit rises to the Dunlop Chicane with its eye-catching footbridge, before dipping down to the Forest Esses, and Tertre Rouge Corner which marks the beginning of the famous Mulsanne Straight with its two chicanes. The Straight ends at the entrance to the village of Mulsanne, with a sharp right-hand corner. Then comes a wooded straight towards the Indianapolis curves and Arnage, the slowest corner on the circuit. After Arnage, drivers negotiate the Porsche Curves, then the Karting section, Maison Blanche and then the Raccordement section – often the scene of spectacular overtaking – where the full circuit joins the Bugatti,.
The World Endurance Championship
In 2012, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest and FIA joined forces to launch the World Endurance Championship which comprises a prologue and 8 rounds. The current 2018-19 Super Season featured two rounds at Le Mans, two at Spa-Francorchamps and one each at Shanghai, Fuji, Sebring and Silverstone.
Next season’s championship takes in the 4 Hours of Silverstone, the 6 Hours of Fuji, the 4 Hours of Shanghai, the 8 Hours of Bahrain, the 6 Hours of Sao Paolo, the 1000 Miles of Sebring, the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps and culminates with the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The FIA WEC is a multiclass championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans therefore comprises four classes. This year, the French 24-hour marathon has a 62-car strong grid, which breaks down as follows:
- Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP1), 8 entrants, car number on red background
- Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2), 20 entrants, car number on blue background
- Le Mans Grand Tourisme Endurance Pro (LM GTE Pro), 17 entrants, car number on green background
- Le Mans Grand Tourisme Endurance Am (LM GTE Am), 17 entrants, car number on orange background
Le Mans is not the only 24-hour race, but it is the only one run in the 24th week of the year, to benefit from the long sunlight hours. The race runs from 15:00 to 15:00, Saturday to Sunday.
The start has changed several times in the course of the race’s history:
- Standing start: 1923-24
- Le Mans-style start, cars in a herringbone pattern, drivers run from the pit wall and jump in 1925-69
- Standing start, cars in a herringbone pattern, drivers strapped in at the wheel 1970
Since 1971, the race has begun with a rolling start.
To speak Le Mans lingo, come this way.
Live commentary is provided at the track, with all spectators need to know about the race - rankings, incidents, driver changes, pit stops and so on.
Local radio presenter Bruno Vandestick has been the French voice of Le Mans for the past 20 years, and is joined by David Waldron for the English commentary.
Tune in to the much-appreciated Radio Le Mans on 91.5 FM in French and 96.0 in English.
A celebration of motoring
In Le Mans, 24 hours last a whole week. Fans camp on site and are treated to four concerts, museum exhibitions, pit walks, car exhibitions and of course, the not-to-be-missed drivers parade on the Friday before the race.
The race goes to the city centre for the scrutineering sessions on Sunday 9 and Monday 10 June. Track action begins on Wednesday 12 and Thursday 13 June, before the race on Saturday/Sunday.
Read our article on how to best experience Le Mans week.
Members of the ACO can enjoy the 24 Hours of Le Mans in VIP conditions. Join up at the circuit or online!
If you haven’t got your tickets yet, don’t worry. Visit lemans.org, buy at the gate or in ACO stores.
PHOTO: LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES DU MANS, SATURDAY 1ST JUNE 2019, TEST DAY. The field assembled on the track for the official photo.