Why Carmakers Obsess Over This 93-Year-Old Race in Rural France

It's obscure—but that doesn't mean it's irrelevant.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans started in 1923 in a tiny town in the French countryside 130 miles from Paris. The storied endurance race pits some old European brands—Peugeot, Renault, and Matra, among others—against the likes of Audi and Porsche, in cars piloted by relatively unknown drivers. It lasts for more than 3,000 miles around a single track, and it doesn’t draw celebrities like the more glamorous European Formula 1 races. The event isn’t even aired in the U.S. on any major cable network.

And yet, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the most prestigious, and most important, race of its kind.

Porche Team Nico Hulkenberg, Earl Bamber, and Nick Tandy celebrate winning the Le Mans 24-Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 14, 2015, in Le Mans, France.
Porche Team Nico Hulkenberg, Earl Bamber, and Nick Tandy celebrate winning the Le Mans 24-Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 14, 2015, in Le Mans, France.
Photographer: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

“Every kind of racing has its Kentucky Derby, like the Monaco Grand Prix for Formula 1,” said John Paolo Canton, the head of communications for McLaren in North America. “Le Mans is that for sports cars. If you look at all the great sports car brands, they became all the great brands because of their wins at Le Mans. Porsche wouldn’t be Porsche if it weren’t for Le Mans.”

A top finish at Le Mans boosts company branding, plays a key role in research and development, and translates into sales for the automaker that wins. This year is especially interesting for American viewers since Ford will run the 2016 GT supercar it raced at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in January. (It finished a disappointing No. 31 overall in that race; hopes are higher for the race in France.)

New Zealand's Richie Stanaway drives his Aston Martin Vantage V8 during the 83rd Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, on June 13, 2015, in Le Mans, western France.
New Zealand's Richie Stanaway drives his Aston Martin Vantage V8 during the 83rd Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, on June 13, 2015, in Le Mans, western France.
Photographer: JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images

“Le Mans has been the gold standard, because if you win Le Mans you are the best,” explains Ted Gushue, the editor of the car enthusiast website Petrolicious. “So many things have to go right for that race to even work.”  The race starts at 3:00 p.m. Saturday, June 18, and runs straight through—with no stops—until the same time Sunday. “So a win does everything for the Ford nation, for the people who live and breathe the brand. There’s a lot riding on it.”

This year’s run evokes a famous rivalry in the 1960s between Ford and arch-rival Ferrari, in which Ford brought the original GT40 to Le Mans and became the first American car to win the overall title and beat Ferrari on what was virtually its home turf. These were the days when auto-racing success was synonymous with patriotism and national pride. A win meant Ford proved Americans could compete and even beat the European automakers in making relevant, fresh, exciting sports cars. Now, five decades later, Ford is hoping its modern GT can repeat the performance.

US Tommy Milner in his Chevrolet Corvette No. 74 competes during the 82nd Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, on June 14, 2014, in Le Mans.
US Tommy Milner in his Chevrolet Corvette No. 74 competes during the 82nd Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, on June 14, 2014, in Le Mans.
Photographer: GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP/Getty Images

“Even to the layman back then, winning Le Mans was a source of national pride,” Gushue said. It’s been 50 years since the Ford wins during the ’60s. “This year Ford’s return with the GT is in many ways the successor to that pride. We had all rallied around that plucky team back then. This is a perfect storm of so many things that need to come back together for us.”

The Perfect Open-Air R&D Lab

Ford not your brand? There are plenty of other reasons to watch the Le Mans race—and to be knowledgeable enough to talk about it and impress your friends. Most crucially, such automakers as Jaguar, Ferrari, and Mercedes-Benz use the extreme conditions of the race—the blistering heat from the engines and brakes, the oppressive G forces around corners, the frequent rain and wind—as a de facto, live, real-time research lab. The race works by number of laps: The car in each category that completes the most laps from start to finish wins. So the fewer pit stops it makes (efficiency, reliability) and the more seconds it can shave off lap times (aerodynamics, body styles, lightweight materials), the better. Which is where the research comes in.

Mechanics of the Ferrari 458 Italia sit during the 83rd Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, on June 14, 2015, in Le Mans.
Mechanics of the Ferrari 458 Italia sit during the 83rd Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, on June 14, 2015, in Le Mans.
Photographer: JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images

Innovations like supercharging and turbocharging (in cars as early as 1929 and 1974), disc brakes (Jaguar C Type in 1953), the air brake (Mercedes 300SLR in 1955), and smooth bodies and spoilers (the Porsche 908 Langheck in the late 1960s and early 1970s) were all introduced, tested, or refined during Le Mans racing. New engine variants like the hybrid technology Porsche introduced years ago now power the 918 Spyder, and the diesel technology that Audi puts in its own cars was also tested on that fabled course.

Branding That Money Can’t Buy

Of course, it’s not all science and technology at Le Mans. There’s a reason why Audi, Corvette, Ford, and Aston Martin, for instance, want (need) to do well there: A top finish at Le Mans adds a halo of success and very real racing credentials to the brand that wins. It did just that with the excellent Chevrolet Corvette, which has won various categories in recent years.

“Le Mans proved that the Corvette really is a sports car that wins on a supercar level,” said Zac Moseley, a director at the Classic Car Club of Manhattan, which owns many of the same type of model cars that race at Le Mans. “Corvette is great story for an American sports car that is underpriced for what you get: It’s not just a bargain muscle car, it’s a sports car that can win European races. That is a huge feather in the cap for Corvette.”

Dempsey-Proton Racing driven by Patrick Demsey, Patrick Long, and Marco Seefried during the Le Mans 24-hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 13, 2015, in Le Mans.
Dempsey-Proton Racing driven by Patrick Demsey, Patrick Long, and Marco Seefried during the Le Mans 24-hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 13, 2015, in Le Mans.
Photographer: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Worth the Expense

Automakers spend tens of millions on developing racing teams—an “absolute fortune,” said McLaren’s Canton, though he declined to say how much McLaren has devoted in previous years. Ford also declined to say how much it spends developing its racing team, though the fact that the Le Mans cars themselves cost multimillions of dollars gives you some idea as to the amount of money it takes to maintain a racing team. 

For a win, that’s a small price to pay, Canton said. Placement on the top podium can translate into sales—“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” the old auto adage goes—especially in Europe.

“At Ford, the issue is, what’s the legacy of this car going to be?” Gushue said. “Without that pedigree saying, ‘This is the car that beat Ferrari at Le Mans,’ that car means nothing. It becomes a car that is just a nifty little sports car vs. a car that transcends, a car that takes on a magical property.”

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