Circuit de la Sarthe

The glory of man and machine at Le Mans

Watch GT RACER’s “The 24 Hours of Le Mans” and experience every mile of the Circuit de la Sarthe – including the mythical Ligne Droite des Hunaudières – the Mulsanne Straight.

Le Mans is the crown jewel of motor racing, standing alone as the ultimate challenge for both man and machine.  Taking its name from the small town in the French countryside where the Circuit de la Sarthe is located, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is nothing if not relentless.

Jets fly over at the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the bleu, blanc et rouge of France. Photo: Jasper van Dalen, Shutterstock.

To compete at Le Mans requires a team of drivers who take turns in machines held together by the design and expertise of yet more teams of highly specialized professionals. There is no fat on a Le Mans program – waste slows the pace and adds strain. Neither car nor man can fail despite going at full throttle, eighty-five percent of the time for twenty-four hours, rain or shine, day and night.

Le Mans is the living definition of all or nothing – lives are risked and sometimes lost. If you finish at Le Mans, you are a brilliant race-car driver. If you win, you join the ranks of legends.

And it’s not much less brutal for the pit crews that may work flat-out for forty-eight hours without a break. The motto among the crews is, whatever it takes!

Circuit de la Sarthe also plays host to the Le Mans Classic, a biennial event that brings together more vintage racers than any other event in the world. Photo: Pierre Jean Durieu, Shutterstock.

Even more than the human toll, Le Mans punishes the car. Winning provides a marque with enormous prestige. Le Mans is, since its inception, the ultimate endurance test. The famous rivalry between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari, dramatized in the film Ford v Ferrari, was ultimately decided on this very track when Ford’s GT40s celebrated their legendary 1-2-3-win in 1966. Ferrari has yet to win again.

The Circuit de la Sarthe, located in and around Le Mans, is what is known as a “semi-permanent” track, a hybrid. Sections of the track, including pit lane and grandstands, are purpose-built for racing while other major sections incorporate public roads that only close to traffic for the races, in particular the 24 Hours.

Ford GT40 in the pit at the Circuit de la Sarthe during the Le Mans Classic. Photo: Pierre Jean Durieu, Shutterstock

The track’s main feature is its endless straights. One unusually long (3.73 miles), arrow-straight stretch of straight is the Ligne Droite des Hunaudières – the Mulsanne Straight where cars can reach velocities at which jet planes take off. The top speed ever achieved there was in 1988 by Roger Dorchy driving his WM P88-Peugeot an unfathomable 253 mph.

But that kind of speed can extract a price. To keep cars on the ground, aerodynamic design must be flawless and, tragically, perfection cannot always be achieved. Owing to safety concerns, by 1990, two chicanes were introduced to break up the straight into three sections. The change, of course, created its own challenges – repeatedly slowing cars down from huge top speeds results in considerable wear and damage to brakes, especially on cars that keep going virtually nonstop for twenty-four hours.

Top view, an original Ford GT40 displaying its rear engine. Photo: Christopher Lyzcen, Shutterstock.

Le Mans makes heroes and traditions – it was here that winner Dan Gurney first sprayed bystanders with champagne from the podium. And then there was Jacky Ickx who disapproved of the infamous “Le Mans Start” where drivers had to run across the track, jump into their cars, fire them up as quickly as possible to then shoot out into a huge pool of vehicles, creating considerable chaos. Instead of joining the chaos, Ickx leisurely strode to his Ford GT40 and took his time driving off towards the end of the field; twenty-four hours later he crossed the finish line in first place, demonstrating the folly of the old, dangerous way. Thereafter, the treacherous starting tradition was abandoned.

Pit stop at night, 24 Hours of Le Mans. Photo: Frolphy, Shutterstock.

Heroes, legends, and sights and sounds of many of the world’s great racers all add up to the wonderful atmosphere of Le Mans Weekend, an event that cannot be compared with anything else in motorsport. Being trackside, let alone inside a race car, at a 4 a.m. daybreak, can be an out-of-body experience. Imagine standing in the pit lane in the dead of the night as a waiting pilot, fully adrenalized at a time he should be sleeping; pushing lap after lap after sunrise, when the track has the perfect surface as rubber has been laid down continuously for some fourteen-plus hours, when tarmac and tires have the perfect temperature as you and the car emerge from the coolness of the night – that is a revelation you’ll never forget.

Watch GT RACER’s The 24 Hours of Le Mans and experience this incredible event yourself.