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.