Why Le Mans Still Matters

June 13, 2022

I won’t admit how much time I spent watching the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend, but it's substantial. It held particular interest for me this year because a Portland kid named Josh Pierson was competing. When I say “kid,” I mean it: he became the youngest driver in Le Mans history at 16 years old. His team finished sixth in the highly competitive LMP2 class, so you might want to remember that name.

Unfortunately, the 2022 race, like many before it, was a big ol’ snoozefest, with few lead changes or on-track action. It was won by Toyota Gazoo Racing for the fifth year on the trot, but the competition at the top was desperately thin. 

In spite of that, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of the most important races because it is as vital today as when it first started 99 years ago. Rather than “selling on Monday,” the 24-hour race is about “Race on (Saturday and) Sunday. Produce on Monday.”

A Competition Built on Reliability

With Le Mans, or any other endurance race, for that matter, excitement is not the point. The cars are the point, and more specifically research and development. In fact, it was stated when Georges Durand and the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) founded the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1923 that it was to “contribute to the technological progress by testing technical solutions.” 

The inaugural Le Mans 24 Hours in 1923.

Le Mans is still going today, and is the oldest active endurance event. Many brands we revere and that collectors drool over today made their reputations on the Circuit de la Sarthe. Bentley, Alfa Romeo, and Bugatti in the 1920s and 30s, and Ferrari, Jaguar, Aston-Martin, Porsche, and Audi after the war, including powerhouse U.S. teams from Ford and Chevrolet, are known today in large part due to Le Mans success.

Other forms of motorsports are also built on innovation, but they tend to aim for extreme speed and power. This makes for a great spectacle, but not necessarily a great road car. Formula One might sell supercars, but unlike endurance racing, precious little trickles down to mainstream consumers.

Winning is not decided on raw speed, but on the ability to operate reliably for 24 hours straight. As former Le Mans winner turned commentator Anthony Davidson pointed out, Le Mans is more transferable to production cars because “the main challenge is reliability. Building an intricate modern…racing car to undergo 24 hours of hard racing without the slightest of glitches seems like an impossible task, but that’s what is needed to take victory at Le Mans.” 

In 2013, Porsche was weighing an endurance program or getting into Formula One. Their head of R&D at the time Wolfgang Hatz said, “The final decision was the only logical one. F1 was an alternative, but the road relevance is not there.” F1 aerodynamics  are “so extreme that it cannot result in any development in our road car understanding.”

Le Mans Innovations

The French race stimulates engineering teams at manufacturers around the world to implement groundbreaking ideas. While far from exhaustive, here areinnovations that Le Mans helped birth:

Aerodynamic bodies (1925-present). Early on, engineers realized lower drag meant higher speed, which led to the Chenard-Walcker Tank in 1925. The Porsche 917K was the most famous aerodynamic car when it set the distance record in 1971, and held that record until 2010.

Radial tires (1951). Michelin shod a Lancia Aurelia B20 with recently patented tires that had been strengthened with cords. The Lancia won its class, which proved the new design, thus launching it into mainstream use.

Race-winning Mercedes W194 in 1952.

Fuel injection (1952). The Mercedes gull-winged W194 designed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut (the precursor to the 300 SL) won in 1952 using Bosch’s fuel injection pump.

Disc brakes (1953). Jaguar introduced disk brakes on its C-Types for the 1953 race in order to improve stopping performance and endurance, and finished 1-2. The brakes were then adopted by the Citroen DS. 

Halogen headlights (1962). Ferrari used halogen headlights on its winning 330 TRI/LM, which doubled the beam range. They were used on all cars from 1965 on.

Slick tires and aero wings (1967). While these two innovations were decidedly not for road cars, they did change racing forever. Michelin introduced treadless tires on an Alpine A210 that won its class, and the Chaparral 2F used a huge, moveable wing.

Rotary engine (1970). The Mazda Wankel rotary engine debuted in 1970 in a Chevron, it went on to win overall in a Mazda 787B, the first by a Japanese manufacturer. 

Hybrid engine (1998). First introduced in the Panoz Q9 GTR-1 Hybrid in 1998, it was then incorporated in Audi’s R18 e-Tron that won in 2012.

Racing diesel (2006). The first diesel raced in 1949, but the first victory came in 2006 in an Audi. 

The Drive for New Fuel

Since the turn of the 21st century, the modern Le Mans races have aimed at making cars more efficient and using alternative fuels as a way to help reduce climate-changing emissions. The Audi program was the most notable when they won a whopping 13 times out of 15 tries between 2004 and 2014. Audi dominated by using innovative powertrains. 

Audi R10 TDI in 2006.

The German company’s diesel-powered engine, showed that the fuel associated with loping cargo trucks was capable of high-performance applications. It achieved this by using direct fuel injection, increased pressure, and turbos that provided power with far less fuel consumption. Audi’s success helped sales of diesel passenger cars in Europe overtake gasoline-powered vehicles!

Even though Don Panoz brought the first hybrid car to Le Mans in 1998, it didn’t achieve liftoff. Audi perfected the concept and won with it in 2012 with the Audi R18 e-Tron, which utilized an ICE with an electric motor charged with regenerative braking. Audi’s R18 e-Tron is the forebearer of F1 cars and hypercars

The next innovation is hydrogen-powered racecars. The Mission H24 program was not ready in time for the 2022 edition, but it will debut in July at the Monza 1000 race.

While the racing may not be as scintillating, because of the nature of the challenge, which aligns more closely with real-world applications than does an open-wheel, single-seat Grand Prix car, the series has much more applicability. What it lacks in thrills, it more than makes up for in moving the needle in passenger car advancements. Let’s hope that continues to be the case. Vive Le Mans!

Mission H24 hydrogen-powered prototype coming soon!

References

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