- First run in 1923, the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans in France is the world's greatest sports-car race.
- On the famous Mulsanne straight, the fastest cars top 200 mph.
- In 2021, the race takes place August 21–22. Sixty-two cars started the race on Saturday, August 21, at 3 p.m. local time (9 a.m. Eastern time, for U.S. viewers), with fans in attendance limited to 50,000 instead of the usual quarter-million.
UPDATE 8/23/21: For the fourth straight year, Toyota Gazoo Racing took overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with Mike Conway, José Maria López, and Kamui Kobayashi crossing the finish line in their Toyota GR010 two laps ahead of the second Toyota to kick off the new Hypercar era with a win. American outfit Glickenhaus managed to bring both of its 007 LMHs home for fourth and fifth place overall, while the Team WRT Oreca 07 of Robin Frijns, Ferdinand Habsburg, and Charles Milesi took LMP2 honors, coming sixth overall. The Ferrari 488 GTE EVO of Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado, and Côme Ledogar triumphed in the LMGTE Pro class. Perennial LMGTE Pro class winner Corvette Racing finished second with in C8.R Vette's first trip to Le Mans with Nicky Catsburg, Antonio Garcia, and Jordan Taylor driving.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is auto racing's Boston Marathon, a brutal test of endurance where competitors race stunningly fast cars for 24 straight hours at speeds that can exceed 200 mph on the fastest section of the incredibly long 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe road course. The race is a punishing test that pushes driver and machine to their limits—and sometimes beyond. Here's everything you need to know to make sense of the race, which takes the green flag on Saturday, August 21.
What is it? The 89th running of the world's most prestigious sports-car race, which lasts (as its name makes clear) for 24 hours.
When is the 2021 24 Hours of Le Mans? August 21–22, starting at 9 a.m. Eastern time.
How to watch? Live online at the Motor Trend on-demand website (paywall) or the Motor Trend cable-TV channel; excerpts on the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) YouTube channel. Or watch a live feed from inside one of the participating cars, including the Glickenhaus entry in the new Hypercar class, on YouTube.
Or follow the live blog covering all the action from our friends at Road & Track.
Where is the 24 Hours of Le Mans held? Circuit de la Sarthe, Le Mans, France.
What time does it start? Coverage begins at 8:00 a.m. U.S. Eastern time, with the race starting at 9:00 a.m. Eastern time (3:00 p.m. local time).
History, hellish events, and high speeds are the key ingredients that make the 24 Hours of Le Mans the world's greatest sports-car race. It is both famous and infamous for the triumphs and tragedies that have occurred there. Started in 1923 as a showcase for car manufacturers to prove the durability of their vehicles in competition, it has evolved into a high-speed chess match among top professional racing teams where strategy, teamwork, and great driving skill are as important as a car's reliability and technological edge.
The race is staged annually, normally in mid-June (but these are not normal times), by the French sanctioning organization Automobile Club de l'Ouest. Four classes of cars compete side by side, which can make the racing confusing, but a team of knowledgeable TV commentators keeps the action sorted out for you. Le Mans is part of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes long-distance races in nine countries. Through the years, automobile manufacturers including Porsche, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Toyota, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar, and Chevrolet have invested tens of millions in their race teams with the hope of taking the winner's laurels and basking in the marketing glory a win confers.
Until recently, the top two classes have been LMP1 and LMP2. These were made up of purpose-built race cars that can cost millions and are supported by large crews of engineers and technicians. The cars look like four-wheeled fighter jets and employ advanced aerodynamics to suck them to the track, which enables astounding speed in the corners. The current rules encourage teams to race gasoline-electric hybrids, and last year's winning car, Toyota's TS050 LMP1, utilized that technology to make a claimed 986 horsepower. LMP2 cars are similar but less complex, are powered by conventional gasoline engines, and are not quite as fast as the LMP1s.
Starting with the 2021 season, there's a new Hypercar class in place of LMP1. Five teams are entered in this inaugural season. The cars can be a racing version of an existing hypercar or a purpose-built prototype. The Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus 007 LMH and the Toyota GR010 Hybrid are among the entrants this year.
About two-thirds of the field is composed of the other two classes competing in the race, the GT, or grand touring, cars: GTE-Pro and GTE-Am. These classes are based on highly modified versions of production-line sports cars with recognizable names and shapes from makers such as Ferrari, Porsche, Chevrolet, Ford, and Audi. They have about 500 horsepower, and the infighting is fierce as these cars battle for position and class wins while trying to stay out of the way of the flying prototypes. As their names imply, GTE-Pro is for full-time professional drivers and manufacturer teams, while GTE-Am is for amateur drivers and private teams. Here's a full list of entrants to the 2021 Le Mans 24 Hours.
All teams must rotate three drivers through the car during the race, with no one driver behind the wheel for more than a total of 14 hours. Driver changes happen in conjunction with pit stops for fuel and fresh tires.
History runs deep at the Circuit de la Sarthe, the name of the 8.5-mile temporary course that roars to life in the sleepy French countryside every June. The original race was run entirely on local roads, but for reasons of safety it now combines sections of public road knitted together with stretches of purpose-built racetrack. The famous Mulsanne straight, part of the original track, is still in use. One of the world's longest racing straightaways at 3.7 miles, it's actually a public road, French route départementale D338, except for those few days each year when it is closed down for the 24-hour event. Another tradition: the race cars undergo one of their several technical inspections in the Le Mans town square, where they can be viewed up close by the general public. And the spraying of champagne after a race win? That was started at Le Mans as well, by American Dan Gurney after winning the 1967 race.
Racing dynasties have flourished and faded across the 86 years the event has run—it was canceled for 10 years during World War II and in 1936 because of strikes across France. Bentley and Alfa Romeo both made their early reputations with four consecutive wins each in the 1930s. Jaguar and Ferrari dominated the 1950s and 1960s. Henry Ford II's personal rivalry with Enzo Ferrari resulted in his company deciding to build the Ford GT40, which defeated Ferrari in four straight Le Mans races from 1966 through 1969. Porsche was the dominant force in the 1980s, and Audi prototypes notched an amazing 13 wins between 2000 and 2014.
Along with racing triumphs, the race has been the scene of tragedies. The worst of them occurred during the 1955 event, when a Mercedes 300SLR race car crashed at high speed on the front straight, launching flaming parts into the crowd and killing 83 spectators. It remains the worst auto-racing accident in history. As a result, automobile racing was temporarily banned in several European countries. Major safety improvements were made to the Circuit de la Sarthe in the wake of the 1955 event; numerous safety upgrades for both spectators and the racers have been implemented in the decades since. Race cars were already reaching speeds in excess of 225 mph on the Mulsanne by the early 1970s, so a pair of tight zigzag chicanes were added partway down the straight to bring speeds down. Despite the changes, the fastest of today's race cars will still top 200 mph on the Mulsanne. And that can still mean trouble, as when driver Peter Dumbreck's Mercedes race car flipped into the trees in 1999; he somehow escaped without major injury.
The danger and excitement of 1970s-era Le Mans competition was captured for the silver screen by racer/actor Steve McQueen in his movie Le Mans. And a recent tribute video of the Le Mans event brings McQueen's spare depiction up to date by evoking the romance that is the Le Mans 24 Hours. Here's a preview of what you'll see in the 2021 race.
This story was originally published August 21, 2021.
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Rich Ceppos has evaluated automobiles and automotive technology during a career that has encompassed 10 years at General Motors, two stints at Car and Driver totaling 19 years, and thousands of miles logged in racing cars. He was in music school when he realized what he really wanted to do in life and, somehow, it's worked out. In between his two C/D postings he served as executive editor of Automobile Magazine; was an executive vice president at Campbell Marketing & Communications; worked in GM's product-development area; and became publisher of Autoweek. He has raced continuously since college, held SCCA and IMSA pro racing licenses, and has competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona. He currently ministers to a 1999 Miata and a 1965 Corvette convertible and appreciates that none of his younger colleagues have yet uttered "Okay, Boomer" when he tells one of his stories about the crazy old days at C/D.