Le Mans 24 Hours Race

Find out how to see and make the most of what is arguably the toughest car race in the world. Discover the origins of the competition as well as key facts...

The 24 Heures du Mans or Le Mans 24 Hours is an auto race organised by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) in which drivers compete to see who can drive furthest on a closed course over 24 hours.

It is considered by many to be the most difficult auto race in the world. Each lap takes more than three minutes to complete, making it more challenging for the drivers to memorise. In one 24-hour period, each three-person team of drivers will cover over 5,200 Km, the equivalent of an entire Grand Prix season. In a typical Formula One race, there are 22 cars; in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there are approximately 55.

Because all the manufactures participating in the Le Mans 24 Hours are producers of road cars, a good performance at Le Mans is an opportunity to display innovation and reliability. Many innovations tested at Le Mans eventually end up in the standard road cars in daily use.

History of the Race

The race was created in 1923 by Charles Faroux, a French motoring journalist who hoped to improve the poor-performing automotive equipment of the time. He hoped that by running an endurance race using stock automobiles, he could encourage manufacturers to develop better and more reliable technology.

The early races were dominated by Italian, French and English teams. By the late 1930s clear innovations in technology began appearing in the vehicles with Bugatti and Alfa Romeo premiering aerodynamic cars able to reach higher speeds. The vehicles had to be configured as stock vehicles, as they were available to the public.

In the early races, distance checks were made at regular intervals to compare how a driver was doing against the control pace. If a driver was more than a certain percentage behind the leader in mileage, he was disqualified. Therefore it was vital to have a well-running, reliable car. In 1929, only 10 of the 25 vehicles that started the race actually finished.

The Circuit

Since the beginning the Le Mans 24 Hour courses have ranged in length from 8.2 Km to the modern 13.65 Km course, called the Circuit de la Sarthe. This circuit runs through public roads (closed to traffic for the race) as well as on private track.

The Drivers

In the early years of the race, most teams used two drivers who traded off, though some went solo in an attempt to save time by not having to change drivers. This practice was eventually banned for safety reasons and instead at least three drivers are required per team. Drivers currently cannot drive for more than four hours at a time and no one driver can drive for more than 14 total hours.

There are several races around the world that serve as qualifying races for the ultimate, Le Mans.

The Cars

There are currently four classes of car categories:

  • LMP1 and LMP2: custom-built Le Mans Prototypes which are categorised by speed, weight and power output
  • LMGT1 and LMGT2: production-based grand tourer vehicles which are also categorised by speed, weight and power output

There is an overall winner, and a winner from each class. This contributes to making the race challenging and exciting with constant overtaking. Although a vehicle from the LMP1 or LMP2 class is most likely to win the event, cars from the GT classes have been known to win the race because they were more reliable.

The most successful marque to date has been Porsche, which has won the race 16 times.

Seeing the Race

The Le Mans 24 Hour starts on a Saturday in mid-June, almost always at 16:00.

Tickets for the two weeks of race activities generally go on sale in April and can be bought from the Automobile Club de l'Ouest Le Mans website or by telephone. A variety of passes are available, including individual test/practice day passes, weekly passes and all-inclusive "Pitwalk" passes. Members of the Automobile Club de l'Ouest receive discounted entry. Parking and camping is available for an additional fee.

For seats in the Grandstand (which include views of the race activity on big-screen televisions), supplemental tickets must be purchased.

During the race activities, SETRAM (Service des Transports de l'Agglomération Mancelle) operates the République-Circuit shuttle bus for transport between the town of Le Mans and the race circuit. Tickets are sold at the train station, on the shuttle bus or at the raceway entrance.

  • For more information on the shuttle bus service SETRAM
    Tel: 02 43 24 76 76

Associated Events

Grand Parade of Drivers

Before the race, a parade (Grand Parade des Pilotes) featuring the drivers takes place in the town of Le Mans. This is theoretically an opportunity for the fans to get close to the drivers, but with over 100,000 spectators every year, this can be a challenge.

  • For more information on the Grand Parade des Pilotes in Le Mans: Click here

Classic British Welcome

The village of St-Saturnin hosts a free Classic British Welcome for spectators on their way to see the Le Mans 24 Hours. St-Saturnin is located about fifteen minutes from the race circuit. It is estimated that 40 percent of race spectators are British.

The Welcome is usually held on the grounds of the Val de Vray and each year the event is themed on a specific make. In the past, these have included Jaguar, Lotus and Aston Martin.

The Welcome site offers a cinema showing English-language motor sport films, exhibitions, restaurants, bars and shops. An ACO ticket office, picnic area and free car wash are also available.

Interesting Facts

  • German teams have had more victories (25) at the 24 Hours of Le Mans than any other country. Great Britain is second to Germany with 17 wins
  • The closest finish of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was in 1966. The Ford driven by Amon and McLaren finished just 20m ahead of a Ford driven by Miles and Hulme
  • In hour three of the 1955 race, Pierre Levegh's Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR clipped another car and crashed, killing Levegh and 80 spectators. Because of this crash, Mercedes-Benz pulled out of the race for the next 30 years and Switzerland banned auto racing within its borders.
  • In 1971, the American actor, Steve McQueen was the guest of honour and ceremonially started the race with the lowering of the French flag. That same year, McQueen released his action film about the race called Le Mans.

Results Compared

Year Car Drivers Distance covered Average speed
1923 Chenard & Walker Lagache and Léonard 2209.536 Km 92.064 Km/h
1931 Alfa Romeo Howe and Birkin 3017.654 Km 125.735 Km/h
1951 Jaguar Whitehead and Walker 3611.193 Km 150.466 Km/h
1963 Ferrari Scarfiotti and Bandini 4561.710 Km 190.071 Km/h
1971 Porsche 917 Marko and Van Lennep 5335.31 Km
distance record
222.304 Km/h

Further Information