The 87th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans kicks off tomorrow, June 15th, at the famed Circuit de la Sarthe in France. The endurance race, organized by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), enjoys the third highest viewership of a sporting event, behind the Olympics and the World Cup, and for good reason. Racing careers are made on the storied 8.4-mile circuit, and the legendary tales of courage, perseverance and even heartbreak resonate even decades after the events occur. If you’re planning on watching this year’s high-octane action unfold, here are some facts and tips to give you a leg up over the average viewer.
The race is easier to watch, stream, and follow than ever before.
If you’re wondering how to watch the race, good news: MotorTrend TV is streaming the entire event, from flag-to-flag. If you don’t need to watch, and are content to listen, RadioLeMans.co will give you all the acoustical play-by-plays you’ll need. Lastly, the official Le Mans app has live timing and scoring, completely gratis.
The field of cars is the largest ever—and that’s a good thing.
Sixty-two cars were entered, the largest number ever, according to ACO officials. With three drivers per team, that’s a total of 186 pilots. The organization had to add two garages to accommodate the additional entrants. “You want to start an endurance race with as many cars as you can,” says three-time Le Mans champion and 2019 grand marshal Hurley Haywood. “The attrition happens pretty quick and you’ll see a number of the field drop out within the first few hours, so the more cars that start, the more you’ll hopefully have at the checkered flag.”
Some drivers’ weekends end before the race even starts.
The best way to make a small fortune in motorsports is to start with a big one. It’s not a cheap endeavor and in certain amateur divisions, teams are fielded through wealthy benefactors called gentleman drivers. These individuals “rent” their seats for the weekend, often upwards of $100,000. Unsurprisingly, not all those guys are fantastic drivers—though some are—and if that’s the case, they could be asked to sign a waiver that makes them financially responsible for any damage that happens to the car during the race. Even if someone hits them, they’re still on the hook to pay for the car. Total the car during practice, and your team will offer you to buy another seat in the backup car. Decline and the whole operation packs up and heads home.
Fernando Alonso is looking for a repeat victory.
The two-time Formula 1 champ, partnered with Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima, nabbed the top spot on the podium last year, in Toyota Gazoo Racing Team’s LMP1 (Le Mans Prototype 1) hybrid car, and he’s back for one more crack. Alonso announced he’ll step back from the WEC and Toyota’s team after this year, so he’ll be pushing extra hard to snag a victory again. In the LMP1 category, Toyota is the only manufacturer left, after Audi and Porsche pulled out a few years ago, though the factory team (including Alonso), will have some privateer teams to compete with.
Some liveries celebrate historical Le Mans moments.
One of the LMP1 privateer teams, Dragonspeed, is rocking the iconic Gulf livery in hopes of channeling some luck from when that colorway adorned winning cars in 1968, 1969, and 1975. Two of Porsche’s factory 911 RSRs are sporting an homage to Haywood, who won while driving for Porsche with his Brumos team. “My number was 59, but you can’t put an old number on a new car,” Haywood explains, “so the guys in Germany came up with the idea of writing it out and using the text as a graphic.” The finished effect is striking, and the team members from North America put the logos on flat bill hats that have been coveted in the pits.
The unpredictable weather plays a giant factor.
Because the circuit is so big, you can have different climates occurring simultaneously on various corners of the track. It can be sunny into turn 1, dumping sheets of rain on turn 8 and foggy on turn 9. “You rely on your spotters to tell you where it’s raining before you get there,” says Haywood. “The rain is brutal. It makes the curbs slicker than ice, but worse, it cools your brakes down so stopping is harder.” In the past, open cockpit cars meant freezing drivers. “At speed, the rain would fly right over your head. But when it rains, there are too many crashes and caution flags, so you’re going much slower, which means you’re soaked and subsequently freezing.”
Pay attention to the famed Mulsanne straight.
The straight is 3.7 miles long, and when cars were less powerful, it was indeed a full straight. As cars grew more capable, with the ability to reach 250 mph on that haul, officials realized they needed to slow the steeds down slightly, so two chicanes were added. It’s still a giant stretch of asphalt, and by the time the cars hit the end, they’re going fast enough to sap out any heat the brakes may have had. That means more difficulty in stopping, which sees more vehicles flying into the gravel trap at the end of the Mulsanne.
It’s Ford’s swan song as a factory team.
With the movie Ford v Ferrari imminent, it’s a good time to remind you that Ford only got into endurance racing after Henry Ford’s failed bid to buy Ferrari from Enzo himself back in the Sixties. Ford’s anger sparked a racing division and, as chronicled by the film, boxed the long-standing Italian winners out completely for four years. Fifty years after their dominance, Ford returned in 2016 with the new GT and again cinched a class victory over the Prancing Horse. But now Ford is withdrawing factory support for endurance racing, leaving customer teams to carry on the charge. The first is Ben Keeting, a winning gentleman driver we’ve covered before, who’ll be racing a GT in the amateur division, alongside the four factory-backed Chip Ganassi pro teams. (Ferrari has 11 entries this year, some in the pro category, but nothing backed by the factory.)
Timing is everything—even the pace lap must come down to the precise second.
Haywood, who is driving the Porsche 911 Turbo pace car to step off the race, has to get his speed and timing down exactly to the second. “We had to practice the lap,” says Haywood, who last turned a wheel here during his victory in 1994. “An official sits next to me and says the speed I need to go at to make the lap exactly nine minutes. One second off, and the field is too far back for the televised start. We need the winner to cross the line exactly at 3 pm on Sunday, so Saturday has to step off properly,” Haywood says, grinning. “No pressure, right?”