“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” It was the mantra for auto manufacturers entering racing series like NASCAR in the 1950s through the 1970s. But by the early 1970s, technological innovation in NASCAR stopped, and now the cars that compete are a parody of those that you can actually purchase. At the other end of the spectrum is F1, which allows factory-backed teams to simply throw money at the problem of going faster, resulting in cars that have no basis in reality, or influence at the showroom level. That’s what makes Le Mans so different. It’s a world stage for competition, but its rules and regulations make it relevant to cars you see on the road every single day.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the world’s oldest active sports car endurance race. It’s been held more or less annually since 1923 — with 10 breaks during a labor strike in 1936 and during the years of WWII and the recovery — to balance speed against an automobile’s ability to race for 24 hours. Reliability and fuel economy is just as important to a competitive car as speed is. The ability to compete with as few fuel, tire and mechanical stops as possible is critical to a Le Mans competitor.
It also tests a driver’s mettle. Driving a car at its full performance limits for hours on end, often in the dark, and often in the rain is a serious drain on mental and physical capacity. As many as three drivers share each competing vehicle, grabbing a few precious moments of rest when they have driver changes.
The race is the product of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) and runs on the Circuit de la Sarthe, which contains a blend of closed public roads and a specialized racing circuit. few tracks in Europe had a straight with the length of Mulsanne. And since it’s a public road, it’s not exactly maintained to the billiard-table smoothness one would expect of a racing circuit, adding one more challenge to a car’s longevity over the 24 hour time period.
Competing teams have ranged anywhere from the competition departments of auto manufacturers, to professional motor racing teams, to privateer teams made up of amateurs.
For all the pageantry, excitement and cold, hard cash flowing around Le Mans, though, it’s the trickle-down effect of the technology in our daily drivers that continues to make this race, and other events in the endurance racing circuit relevant. Innovations in use at Le Mans not only leads to faster, more exotic supercars, but better GT cars, and eventually, a better Taurus.
Take a look at this one example: Porsche has insisted on having the ignition switch in a counter-intuitive location for decades. Why? Because of the Le Mans start, where drivers had to sprint across the track, jump inside, buckle a safety belt, turn a switch, stick the car in gear and take off. The Le Mans start made Porsche put the key on the left (on a left-hand drive car) to allow the driver to use his left hand to start the engine, and his right hand to put the transmission into gear, shaving off precious tenths of a second.
But it’s not just how one brand utilizes technology in its own racing cars. It’s about how that technology filters down to everyday models that makes Le Mans such an important race.
Following the second World War, aerodynamics became much more important in racing, and especially at Le Mans.
Look at Briggs Cunningham’s two entries in 1950: The two Cadillac Coupe de Villes Cunningham entered included one with a streamlined aluminum body developed by aeronautical engineers at Grumman. Cunningham crashed “Le Monstre” on the second lap, but despite a half-hour delay getting back on the track, and only having third gear for most the race, Cunningham finished 11th overall.
Every innovative engine technology you can think of proved its worth at Le Mans, and eventually worked its way into production models. The performance benefits of turbocharging, supercharging, gas turbines, Wankel engines, alternative fuels, diesel power, and hybrid drive systems have all had their endurance tested during the 24 Hours at Le Mans.
Almost every bit of modern braking technology has been perfected in the cauldron of the Sarthe circuit. Disc brakes appeared at first on the Jaguar C-Type, and eventually made their way into every production car sold. Mercedes tested an air brake in 1955 to help slow the blisteringly fast 300SLR at the end of the Mulsanne Straight. By the 1980s, anti-lock brakes had proven so effective at helping drivers slow their cars safely, that the became standard on all competitive cars, and eventually were mandated on every car sold here. Today, reinforced carbon-carbon brakes help slow racing competitors, with the hope that this technology will eventually make it to lesser production cars.
The future of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is even more relevant as factory teams develop hybrid, alternative fuel and clean diesel technologies for use on this weekend. Audi’s diesel racing exploits have helped diesel engines to become widely accepted even in the United States.
We’re looking forward to seeing what technologies are tested and proven over the next decade.