Europe's Other Great Race: The 24 Hours of Le Mans

Departures goes inside the world’s oldest sports car race where endurance—not speed—is key.

There are two ways to arrive at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the legendary French auto race. One is to take a helicopter from one of the posh accommodations, like the Chateau des Sept Tour, scattered around the surrounding countryside. The helicopter leaves you at a gate where it is a short walk to the finish line of the 13.6-kilometer course.

The second method is more time-consuming but perhaps more in the spirit of the event. Drive a hot car like the Audi R8 Spyder ten-cylinder convertible, listed for about $180,000, to the racetrack, parts of which include the public roads of Le Mans. Appreciative fans—the race attracts 250,000 people from all over Europe and beyond—will crane their heads for a look, and young men will jump in front of the vehicle and crank their arms, not letting the car proceed until they hear the sound of the engine revving. With a cheer, they’ll wave your car on to the next group, a short distance away, where the scene repeats itself. It’s all great fun.

Driving an Audi at Le Mans is a sure example of favoritism, as the German car company has dominated the event in recent years with a trio of open-cockpit, turbocharged diesel R15 TDI cars. This year, on June 11 and 12, Audi will go for an historic tenth win in a totally new racer, called the R18, that looks like something Batman might drive. Unlike its predecessor, the black R18 features a closed cockpit for better aerodynamics, a 3.7-liter, V6 turbocharged diesel engine, a six-speed transmission and massive LED headlights that will be used in future vehicles. The R18 will also appear at the Petit Le Mans in Atlanta on October 1.

The closed cowl is already a mainstay of Peugeot, the French car company, which offers the most resistance to Audi’s recent dominance. Like many other things in Europe, the race boils down to a battle between Germany and France. Peugeot’s three-car lineup succumbed to smoking engine failures in the final hours of last year’s race, reducing ordinarily stone-faced engineers to tears. Aston Martin rounds out the top tier, running three cars designated 007, 008 and 009 with a nod to James Bond. The American film star Steve McQueen is an icon, thanks to his 1971 movie about the race, and t-shirts bearing his image still sell briskly. Drivers hail from many different countries and are supported by flag-waving compatriots. Paul Newman was a driver in 1979.

Since its inception, in 1923, the 24 Hours of Le Mans has been more about endurance than speed. The distance covered by each three-man driving team in one day is equal to the entire Grand Prix season. But that doesn’t mean anyone is driving slowly. Drivers, or pilots, as the French call them, accelerate to 200 mph with an ear-splitting roar on straightaways, then quickly descend to street-legal speeds to maneuver through curving chicanes, with the loud pop, pop, pop of protesting gearboxes. Unlike passenger vehicles, the specially designed cars for this race don’t have servo-assisted brakes, so it’s the driver’s leg that’s doing all the work. It’s said that a car that finishes the race is 11 pounds heavier than when it started, due to the accumulation of dirt and insects on its chassis. With all the fabulous French food and wine consumed by fans during the race, odds are every spectator is walking away with the same amount of extra weight at race’s end.