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Why the magic of Le Mans still burns brightly

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Village roads in a quiet French countryside. That is the setting for perhaps motorsports greatest challenge.

250,000 spectators descended upon the small French town of Le Mans for last season’s edition of its famous 24-hour race. Almost double the average attendances of a Formula 1 Grand Prix.

It’s safe to say that Le Mans has got it right.

A strong mix of on-and off-track entertainment at an affordable price in the height of June. It’s Glastonbury for racing fans, the complete package.

 

For 61 euros (£54) fans can buy a weekend-long general admission pass, for another 105 euros (£92) this can be upgraded to a grandstand seat. Compare this to the minimum £265 per person for a grandstand seat to the British Grand Prix and you can see why the race is popular among British race fans, of which 80,000 regularly attend.

 

Remembering that the 24-hour race is actually three-quarters of a Formula 1 season in one day and you have exceptionally good value for money.

 

On-track, the racing is perhaps closer than it has been in recent memory. For the last two years, we have seen the overall victory decided within an hour of the finish.

 

The ACO’s balance of performance, aimed at achieving competitiveness between vehicles with different technology and budgets has seemingly worked in creating the drama needed to spice up a 24-hour endurance race.

 

2017 almost saw a Jackie Chan DC Racing run Oreca-Gibson take the overall victory, while Johnny Adam’s Aston Martin Vantage battled until the last few corners with Jordan Taylor’s Chevrolet Corvette for the overall win in GTE Pro.

 

With five manufacturers and a wealth of experience behind the wheel, the WEC’s GTE Pro class is one of the strongest in the sport.

 

Joining the series for 2018, Aston Martin and BMW will look to be competitive at Le Mans. While the AF Corse Ferrari’s, Porsche 911 RSR and Ford GT’s battle at the front of the class after strong showings at 2018’s season-opening race at Spa Francorchamps.

 

Although, for 2018, Le Mans top category is in need of some serious surgery in what looks to be the clearest path to victory for a team since the days of Audi dominance in the early noughties. 

Audi’s decision to pull out of the World Endurance Championship (WEC) at the end of the 2016 campaign, followed by Porsche’s exit at the end of last season, leaves one manufacturer in the LMP1 category, Toyota.

 

The 6 Hours of Spa seemed to affirm that a Toyota landslide is expected in June, with the both Toyota’s finishing two laps clear on the road of the Rebellion’s despite a late safety car period which closed the field.

 

This was perhaps in the script, but surely the ACO and the WEC are to blame. The balance of performance and equivalence of technology has worked wonders in the GTE Pro class but have failed to materialise in the LMP1 category.

 

Currently, Toyota is only able to use 35.2kg of fuel per stint compared to the 52.9kg of its non-hybrid privateer entrants. Toyota can only use 124.9MJ of energy per lap compared to the 210.9 of the Rebellion. Why then is the Toyota so far ahead? And can anything be done to close the gap before the tri-colour is flown on Saturday 16th June?

 

The Le Mans circuit has remained near-enough unchanged for decades, but in recent years improvements have had to be made.

 

Tetre Rouge was recently re-profiled after the death of Allan Simonsen, while circuit walls on the outside of the Porsche Curves have been pushed back in favour of an asphalt run-off which made the circuit “less thrilling” according to three-time Le Mans winner Andre Lotterer.

 

But is this the point of the race? Yes, the current LMP1 prototypes don’t go as fast as the former Group C cars down the Mulsanne Straight, yes Toyota might go into the event with an easier ride than in previous years. But is this really what Le Mans is all about? Is this why the event has the audience attention it does?

 

Le Mans is more than just a race. It’s about the development of world-renowned technology, a shop window to build and showcase the cars of the future.

 

No one can argue that the hybrid technology showcased by the LMP1 manufacturers is not cutting-edge. Hybrid power is certainly a part of the future motoring industry and manufacturers push money into the series and Le Mans to test future creations against the toughest challenges.

 

Audi introduced its Turbo Stratified Fuel Injection (TFSI) system into its road cars after its success at the 2001 Le Mans 24 Hours, while Porsche built a lithium-ion battery system for it’s 2014 919 machine in order to develop the technology for commuter vehicles.

 

During Le Mans history; fog lights, disc brakes and diesel have all been tested in race conditions for the first time.

 

The 2012 introduction of ‘ Garage 56’, which is reserved for innovative designs, built on the race’s history of leading technological advancements. The initiative led the way for Nissan’s 2014 Zero Emission On Demand (ZEOD) car which was the first to complete a lap of the Circuit de la Sarthe using all-electric power.

 

From a fan’s perspective, Le Mans is a festival. It’s the passion of uniting race fans from all corners of the globe.

 

It’s a shared celebration of motoring, a chance to see some of the fastest cars and drivers in the world competing in the dark, in the rain, in the blazing heat of a summer’s day in France.

 

Ultimately Le Mans isn’t a race between cars and drivers, the competitors drive against the race.

 

Toyota might have a pace advantage for 2018, but they have had that before. In 2016 and 2017 Toyota suffered reliability issues from potentially race-winning positions and that can happen again.

 

The circuit may have changed, the competition may have changed, but what unites people together for Le Mans hasn’t.

 

Just ask any one of those 250,000 fans who will make the pilgrimage this June.

Media Credit - Wikipedia Commons. Flickr Commons, David Merrett.  24 Heures du Mans

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