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Thomas Mallett2012-06-11 15:47:03

Le Mans 24 Hours Preview

Start of the 24 Hours Le Mans 2011

The Le Mans 24 Hours ranks in the top three world motorsport events. The Monaco Grand Prix is the showpiece for Grand Prix racing, the Indy 500 is America’s premier race and the Le Mans 24 Hours is the king of endurance racing.

Le Mans is the oldest active race in sportscar racing and there is good reason for its survival. Before the world became obsessed with sprint racing and cars became reliable the Le Mans 24 Hours was a test of not only a car’s speed but also its endurance. Cars are designed not to operate on the knife edge of Grand Prix racing but to be benign (and quick) and to last without too many problems. Indeed, often slower cars will beat much faster ones due to their reliability. While one is sitting in the pits the other is circulating. In fact, I can almost guarantee that we will see a number of the faster GT cars finishing ahead of the LMP2 cars and even, dare I say it, one or two of the headline LMP1 cars.

The race has been imitated all over the world with the Americans bringing Sebring and Daytona and Belgium fielding Spa; but none of them have the appeal of Le Mans and its 250mph Mulsanne straight. The word Mulsanne fields images not just of large Bentley road carsMulsanne (modern)Bentley Mulsanne (modern)United Kingdom, 2010 > present13 versions
59 photos
1 video
but of screaming Porsche 917917Porsche 917Germany, 1969 > 19817 versions
28 photos
2 videos
’s tearing down the road or even flipping CLK GT-RCLK-GTRMercedes-Benz CLK-GTRGermany, 1998 > 19982 versions
7 photos
’s, driven by F1 star Mark Webber. The place is unique.

Quite simply the American circuits can’t compete because they are just that: purpose built circuits, while Spa is a shortened version of its former self and the Nürburgring 24 Hours does not have the history in 24 hour racing. Le Mans has a special aura about it and that feeling becomes even stronger if you go to it. I have been before and I am going again this year.

This year we will see some of the closest action I can remember as AudiAudiAudiGermany, 1909 > present83 models
8300 photos
27 videos
and ToyotaToyotaToyotaJapan, 1937 > present155 models
4668 photos
10 videos
field their hybrids and even PescaroloPescaroloPescaroloFrance, 2000 > present5 models
3 photos
1 video
has managed to bring its new car to the circuit with the last minute addition of Stewart Hall to the lineup. Autoviva will chat to him and find out his reaction after the race.

The 24 hours of Le Mans are a unique motoring event for professional and amateur drivers and their global audience

The 24 hours of Le Mans are a unique motoring event for professional and amateur drivers and their global audience

© photo courtesy of: ACO / Nikon

The LMP2 class will also be closely fought and the headline act will be the NissanNissanNissanJapan, 1932 > present159 models
7236 photos
12 videos
team with its line-up of Martin and Alex Brundle partnering Lucas Ordonez, the Playstation gamer turned professional racing driver. It will be interesting to see whether Martin can repeat some of his JaguarJaguarJaguarUnited Kingdom, 1922 > present53 models
2186 photos
16 videos
success and Alex can forge a career in sportscars alongside his GP3 campaign.

Martin isn’t the only ‘celebrity’ or ex-F1 driver to tackle the event either. We have seen Jacques Villeneuve and Jackie Ickx and even stars from the silver screen like Steve McQueen having a go. In fact, McQueen even made a film about the place, such was his imagination caught, and that is testament to the mystery of the place.

The other beauty of Le Mans, and something that I am keen to capitalize on one day, is the fact that the race pits amateurs against their professional cousins. A keen amateur with a modicum of talent and a decent budget can drive in one of the three most important races held each year in front of hundreds of thousands of people at the circuit and tens of millions on TV. The Le Mans 24 Hours is the only race that offers that opportunity. Not at Monaco, nor at the Indy 500 could this happen.

For the stat people among you there is only one driver in world motorsport to ever win the triple crown of the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours: Graham Hill.

Start of the tragic Le Mans race 1955, during which a fatal accident killed more than 80 people.

Start of the tragic Le Mans race 1955, during which a fatal accident killed more than 80 people.

© photo courtesy of: Mercedes-Benz

As with all good stories there is an element of tragedy, and some mighty fine stories attached to Le Mans too. The most famous accident has to be Pierre Levegh’s in 1955 in a Mercedes 300SLR300 SLR RoadsterMercedes-Benz 300 SLR Roa...Germany, 1955 > present6 photos
1 video
, but we better not dwell on that and instead focus on Levegh’s attempt to do the event solo in a TalbotTalbotTalbotUnited Kingdom, 1903 > 199218 models
6 photos
in 1952, unfortunately he broke down while leading 90 minutes from the end. That’s 22 ½ hours behind the wheel at racing speeds!

There are a number of manufacturers whose histories are indelibly linked to that of the 24 hours too. We’ll ignore FerrariFerrariFerrariItaly, 1947 > present233 models
5149 photos
37 videos
for now because they are linked with Formula 1 more closely but try the great British marques like Bentley and Jaguar for size or current champions Audi. Without this backing the race would mean less, but it clearly still has relevance.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for quite possibly the greatest race in the world. It is dramatic every time it is run and a marathon for fans and teams alike. I’ll give you a breakdown of the excitement on my return.





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