I love cars, though I don’t like to watch racing on TV. It often seems a bit, well, slow.
Blame Steve McQueen’s preternatural coolness in the 1971 film “Le Mans.” Or hearing champions such as Hurley Haywood and Derek Bell talk about tearing down the Mulsanne Straight at more than 200 miles an hour, at night, in the rain. When men were men, indeed.
So this year I took advantage of already being in Europe and went to the 82nd running of Le Mans. It was an extra-special event, with Porsche Automobil Holding SE returning after 16 years, Volkswagen AG (VOW)’s Audi looking for its 13th victory in 16 years and Toyota Motor Corp. (7203) quietly favored to win.
After all the dust -- and wreckage -- had cleared, Audi had taken first and second place in the top-tier LMP1 prototype category; Toyota was third and Porsche’s cars didn’t quite finish. The lead was swapped numerous times, and the win wasn’t decided until the final hours.
For me, it crystallized why an endurance race that started in 1923 is relevant today -- to the carmakers, sports fans and even somewhat disinterested motorists like myself. Here are eight reasons why Le Mans still matters, and why any car lover simply must someday go themselves.
1. The technology trickle-down. In an ideal world, the hundreds of millions spent on racing technology would filter down to the cars that you and I drive. Those benefits are less obvious in series like Formula One, which has limited real-world crossover.
Yet while the Le Mans prototypes from Audi, Toyota and Porsche look like starship fighters, they use loads of real-world technology such as traction control and all-wheel-drive that aren’t allowed in F1.
One small example is headlamps. The course is only partially lit at night, so the efficacy of the cars’ headlights is paramount. Audi was an early innovator of LED lamps in production cars, and in 2011 Audi’s race car used full LED lamps. This year the new car, called the R18 E-tron, was supplemented with laser lights.
“The new lights make a shocking difference in the ability to see at night,” Allan McNish, a retired, three-time Le Mans winner, told me. “It’s a safety issue, really.”
On Saturday night I sat at a famous corner, Indianapolis, and was amazed by the R18’s dazzling lights as they lit up the forest all around me. A new consumer supercar, the R8 LMX, uses laser high beams (though sadly not yet in the U.S. due to existing laws).
2. Efficiency actually made exciting. All three companies’ prototype cars are hybrids, and it’s a lot easier to get excited about green initiatives when the products accelerate past 200 mph. New race rules mandated a 30 percent reduction in energy used per lap, which pushed Audi, Porsche and Toyota to innovative solutions.
Sports-car companies like Porsche are under very real pressure to conform to coming emission mandates, so the technology in the 919 Hybrid isn’t an empty exercise. It is in some ways similar to Porsche’s new production supercar, the 918 Spyder, which uses regenerative braking to recharge lithium-ion batteries. Incredibly, the consumer car has a V-8 while the 919 Hybrid uses only a 2.0-liter turbo V-4.
Porsche’s hopes crashed when both cars broke down near the end of the race; the No. 20 car had at one point been in the lead.
Audi has long used the efficiency of diesel to its advantage, translating to fewer fueling stops. Yet new rules meant the company had to start from scratch. The R18 has a V-6 turbo-diesel powering the rear wheels, while the front tires are powered in short bursts from energy recaptured from braking. The winning No. 2 car turned an incredible 379 laps in all, pitting 29 times.
Toyota is known for efficiency but not speed. The lessons from the Le Mans will filter to future sports cars. The two TS040 Hybrid models were crazily fast, looked great and sounded fabulous. Mechanical problems ultimately left the No. 8 car in third.
3. Incredible safety. Prototype race cars don’t have air bags and rely instead on a monocoque, which is essentially a safety cell where the driver sits, with the rest of the car built around it. They are incredibly strong. We are finally seeing this design in high-end road cars like the McLaren 12C and LaFerrari. (Those have air bags.)
An Audi R18 had a dreadful crash during qualifying, slamming into a wall. The scattered remains didn’t even resemble a car. The next day I walked that portion of track and it was clear something had gone seriously wrong, with actual rends in the tarmac. Yet the driver, Loic Duval, walked away with only a couple of scrapes. Incredible.
4. Real cars do extraordinary things. Hey, isn’t that a Corvette flying by? Indeed, two yellow entrants were unmistakably Chevrolets. The GTE classes are race cars based on existing road cars, including the C7 Corvette, Ferrari 458 and Aston Martin Vantage.
Seeing the mix of the cars, from the top-tier prototypes to sports cars recognizable from normal streets, scrambled together and careening forward at ludicrous speeds is one of the best parts of watching Le Mans.
5. The sounds and the fury. TV will never be able to adequately convey the blasts of incredible sound. (Earplugs are a must.) Each type of car has its own brand of noise. The Toyotas hurt your eardrums as they blast by. The Corvettes, a fan favorite, sound the best, with a low-end V-8 bass that reverberates through your chest as if your sternum were a tuning fork. The Audi R18 is eerily quiet as it rockets through the track.
6. The course. To understand the difficulty of this race, you have to understand the rigors of the Circuit de la Sarthe, which is more than 8 miles (13 kilometers) long. While some of it is a specially built racetrack, the rest is a two-lane public road, closed off for the race.
I toured the track between qualifying sessions and was amazed at the reality of the Mulsanne Straight. It really is a narrow country road, with a slight crown in the middle, metal barriers on either side, and homes and businesses a short distance away. The corner at its terminus is ridiculously sharp and narrow. You’d have to have nerves of titanium to drive this at 200 mph in the dark, hour after hour.
7. The fans and the brands. Audi at Le Mans is a bit like baseball’s Yankees, winning with such hard-swinging consistency that it can come off as rather smug. Smaller teams who drive obscure open-wheel cars are like a minor-league farm system, grooming crews and drivers. Yet wander around the pits and it’s obvious that the crews and engineers, from Audi on down, live for this race. They aren’t just working a day job.
As for the 263,000 fans, the majority wore T-shirts emblazoned with a car or racing brand and many waved Audi or Porsche flags, as ardent as any football fan.
At the race’s end, the crews ran to the pit wall to watch the ultimate parade lap. Audi flags unfurled triumphantly as the two R18s passed side by side -- nobody could quite believe they’d pulled it off at the last moments, a testament to technology, experience and perseverance. The two Corvettes did burn-outs as the crowd roared. It was as spectacular a moment as I’ve ever experienced in any sport.
8. Speed. Because I do love fast cars. And I’ve never seen anything like Le Mans, where a very fast Porsche 911 is passed by an Audi R18 as if it weren’t even moving. And where you can stand some 40 feet away from that as it happens. The 24 Hours of Nurburgring, another endurance race at another notorious racetrack, runs next weekend, June 21-22. I’ve driven the track before and it’s terrifying. Now I want to go as a spectator.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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