Automotive racing comes in nearly infinite forms today, but no challenge is more immersed in history than the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Described as the most grueling test of man and machine in the entire world of racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans has been held every year since 1923 (with a 10 year hiatus for WWII from ’39 to ’49) in the town of Le Mans, France. Today, it stands alone as the oldest event in automotive endurance racing.
We had driven from Crewe to Mulsanne to experience Bentley’s talents on the roads of today — but that was just a warm up. Everything about Bentley springs from roots planted deeply in Le Mans. To understand the brand, we needed to understand the race. The day’s lesson was about pushing limits. Our blackboard was Circuit de la Sarthe track.
Our story continues after the jump.
What is the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
The pre-race sights are enough to get a car enthusiast’s heart all aflutter.
Le Mans defies simple definition. The race is held in June and begins on a Saturday afternoon, spanning through the night and ending on Sunday. Teams cover insane distances of over 3,000 miles at speeds up to 200mph during the 24-hour race. For reference, New York City to Los Angeles is 2,462 miles — and there’s no stops for Corn Nuts. Due to sheer length of the competition, seemingly basic aspects of racing like tires and fuel play a huge role in the success or failure of a team; judging when to pit for fuel or tire changes must be given the utmost attention by a team’s engineers.
It’s like driving in the fastest traffic jam on the nastiest highway you’ve ever seen… for one day straight.
If the drive wasn’t torturous enough, drivers are also encased in an automotive oven wearing a nomex fire-retardant full-body racing suit, ankle high nomex-lined racing shoes, full-fingered gloves and a full-face helmet. Derek Bell, a five-time Le Mans winner, lost fourteen pounds during a Le Mans race from sheer physical effort (a fact that brings to mind musings of the prospect of “The Le Mans Diet” book).
Then, there’s the classes. Though Le Mans originally involved only cars available for sale to the public, now four classes, dubbed LMP1, LMP2, LM GTE Pro and LM GTE Am, are included. The LMP groups are two-seat, high performance prototypes (think Audi R18 TDI), while the LM GTE classes are essentially racing versions of street-legal performance cars (like the Ferrari 458 Italia). The trick for all classes is negotiating the track, while either overtaking the slower classes (LMP) or being ovetaken by the faster ones (LM GTE). It’s like driving in the fastest traffic jam on the nastiest highway you’ve ever seen… for one day straight.
To win Le Mans, competing teams must push themselves and their cars to the limit while overcoming mechanical failures, despicable weather and track conditions, pitting decisions and, of course, driver fatigue. At this level you must be not only the best, but the toughest, both mentally and physically.
Speed, Money and Adventure… The Birth of the Bentley Boys
The Bentley Boys were a perfect storm of wealth, driving skills, the right automobile and a penchant for risk.
Le Mans has not always been the regulated and mature competition it is today. In the race’s infant years, safety was anything but paramount. Two drivers toiled instead of the now-required three; pitting equated to working on your own car using your own skills, hands and tools; and your driving gear certainly didn’t include Nomex fire protection, telemetry to communicate driver and car data, or anything resembling the protection of roll cages and six point harnesses.
The 1928 Le Mans victor Bentley 4½ Litre.
It was in those early days that the infamous Bentley Boys — a gaggle of wealthy British men who lived as fast as they drove and whose passion racing far exceeded concern for their mortality — made Bentley a dominant force at Le Mans. Bentley had much to prove as a largely unknown brand, and W.O. Bentley’s sentiments were that proof of road-going abilities only existed on the track.
Founder W.O. Bentley’s quest for the perfect road car was realized in the bombproof Bentley 3-Litre, which won at Le Mans in 1927 under the guidance of racer and diamond magnate Woolf “Babe” Barnato. The 4½ Litre was developed and succeeded the 3 Litre by winning Le Mans the following year. W.O. Bentley capped his successes by creating the renowned 6½ Litre, which paved the way for the winningest Bentley car of all time, the famous Speed Six. Barnato again led the Bentley team to victory with the Speed Six in 1929 and 1930. The die had been cast: Bentley’s was solidified as the ultimate road car in the world.
The resilient and rapid Bentley Speed Six made history at Le Mans — twice.
24 Hours of Motoring Heaven
For a brief 48 hours, Le Mans attracts a quarter of a million people from around the globe. Every patch of hallowed grass at the Circuit de la Sarthe is occupied. Children wear ear protection to shield their tender hearing from the air-ripping sound of engines at full throttle. Bivouacs, Renault Twingos and Fiat Pandas blend seamlessly with decked out camper vans, Ferrari 458s and Aston Martin Vantages — brought together for one purpose: to see speed and stamina at its finest. It’s a highly organized zoo of racing, filled with thrilling energy that must be experienced first hand.
Though we had hoped for a crisp and sunny beginning, the day started out wet and cloudy, but it’s supposed to rain at Le Mans. Our walk of the pits and the track started near the classic green Rolex clock, where each team and car presented themselves in full racing regalia — undoubtedly taking in the electrifying atmosphere and fumes of racing enthusiasm stemming from the crowds. The rows of LMP and GT class cars was a sight to behold, like
the birth of a unicorn a modern automotive museum come to life.
Children wear ear protection to shield their tender hearing from the air-ripping sound of engines at full throttle.
After the initial warm-up lap behind the Audi pace car, the green flag was waved and the most exciting 24 hours in racing began. We were told by a long time Le Mans regular that the lull after the start of the warmup lap would be the only silence for the next 24 hours. He was right. (Note: don’t buy a home near the track unless you really like racing. Even a trip to the restroom/loo can’t shelter you from the sound — and that’s a good thing, at least from our perspective).
If you close your eyes or plug your ears, you miss the best parts of Le Mans.
4 FACTS ABOUT 24 HOURS AT LE MANS
The Circuit de la Sarthe is a mixture of local roads that are open to the public most of the year and spans 8.469 miles. Drivers typically spend 85% in full throttle.
Audi debuted at Le Mans in 1999. In 2000, Audi’s cars took 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.
Driver pierre Levegh attempted to win the race solo in 1952, only to have his car fail with just 90 minutes left.
The record for the most distance recorded in a single race stands at 3,360 miles, in 2010. 6 times longer than the Indianapolis 500.
Of course, Audi was the favorite this year, after having won 11 of the last 16 races in the LMP1 class — Bentley won in 03′ and Peugeot’s 908 won in 2009, creating one of the most heated rivalries at Le Mans in recent memory. And since neither Bentley or Peugeot had entries this year, Audi was expected to win again. This time, two R18 E-Tron Quattros were entered. The only rivalry that seemed like it stood a chance against Audi was Toyota, who performed well in pre-race but lacked the experience chops of the German heavyweight. Throughout the day and into the evening, Audi showed their dominance with a combination of driver skills and automotive engineering superiority. One of the Toyota TS030 Hybrids was taken out of the race early after it was clipped by a Ferrari 458 near the Mulsanne Curve and the Nissan’s Delta Wing ended up not finishing the race due to an accident, though it had performed admirably near the top of the LMP2 class at times.
As the sun began to set, the track took on an entirely different look from the top of the race center. The glow of the Ferris wheel served as a striking backdrop for the head and taillights of the cars streaking down the track. Beyond the constant drone of engines, things quieted down as fans retired for the evening, a mere seven hours into the race. Snapping photos and taking in the experience had left us exhausted too, and yet the drivers were just getting started. The endurance factor of grueling Le Mans finally hit home. We caught some sleep, albeit not much, in hopes of capturing the rest of the experience the following morning and afternoon.
The crowds returned Sunday along with the vibrancy that had dipped overnight. As the cars flew through the evening and into the morning, it became apparent that Audi would remain the dominant force for a 12th time in 17 years. We watched the closing laps from atop the race center as the R18 E-Tron Quattro and its drivers Benoit Treluyer, Marcel Fassler and André Lotterer crossed the finish line for team Joest. Audi had earned yet another feather for its prestigious racing cap — but the Toyota hybrid and the Nissan Delta Wing had showed early promise before a string of bad luck removed them from contention.
Despite the seemingly inevitable conclusion, it was clear that the competitive and innovative spirit of the original Bentley Boys was still kicking on all cylinders in the 80th running of Le Mans. The first time a hybrid car had ever entered the race was the first year it won — proving that even after decades of pushing the limits of performance, there will always be new barriers to break. Toyota’s disappointing showing proved another, often overlooked rule in both racing and in life: victory rarely goes to the best man or machine. Instead, it’s the elusive union of chance and skill that separates champions from mere competitors.
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