LE MANS, France
A crowd approaching 300,000 people was converging here for the start today of the 82nd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race – the largest attendance at a sports event in the world this year.
“They announced a crowd of 255,000 here last year, and they expect to beat that significantly this year; I expect them to be close to 300,000 this year,” said John Hindhaugh, a radio announcer, historian and tour packager for the event, in an interview. “We put up a ‘pop-up hotel’ in the infield this year, with 200 rooms, and they were all sold out by December. Up to 85,000 people will be coming to the race from England alone.”
Large contingents are also expected from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, the United States and Japan – not to mention France itself.
National Geographic lists the Le Mans endurance race, which has been going on here since 1923, at No. 1 on its list of the world’s top ten sporting events – with a larger single-day crowd than any single World Cup soccer or Olympic event. The Indianapolis 500 is believed to have previously attracted larger crowds – that event’s attendance has never been officially announced – but interest has fallen somewhat in recent years.
“Le Mans is fantastic, spectacular – like nothing else I’ve ever seen or felt,” said Allan McNish, who retired last year after winning the race for a third time, in an interview here Thursday. “It’s the most daunting place I’ve ever driven.”
The appeal of speed, skill and stamina seems to provide an increasingly irresistible lure for racing fans.
“This year, it is possibly the most important race here in a generation,” Hindhaugh said. He cited new regulations that make the race cars more relatable to street cars, and a three-way battle between Audi, Toyota and Porsche factory teams as special points of interest.
“This race has become more relevant, thanks to Audi,” Hindhaugh added, “because they’ve made it relevant” over the past 15 years with the implementation of innovations such as turbocharged diesel engines, modular drivetrain components, regenerative hybrid electric systems, and advanced lighting. “The technologies they have introduced at Le Mans have gone directly into their road cars. A guy who looks at an Audi Le Mans racer can truly say, ‘What’s in that is what is in my A6’ or whatever Audi he might drive. The R8 road car is a direct descendant of the Le Mans R8s.
“And it is not just Audi that brings racing technology to road cars. Wipers, disc brakes, even tire sizes, compounds and treads have been perfected at Le Mans.”
Dunlop, the tire company, claims in an ad that Le Mans racing helped them figure out a solution to aquaplaning – when tires “float” over rain-soaked roads, rather than cut through the water and continue to grip.
This year, organizers have felt compelled to tweak the rules, in an attempt to neutralize Audi’s hegemony – the German luxury manufacturer’s entries are going for their 13th victory in the past 15 years. The fuel allotment for Audi’s diesel hybrids has been cut significantly, vis a vis their petrol-powered rivals at Toyota and Porsche.
“They are being expected to maintain efficiency, power and reliability, while making do with 25 per cent less fuel,” Hindhaugh said. “Despite that, I expect them to have higher top speeds, faster lap times, and to break their race distance records.”
Still, the Audi teams seem to be running closer to the ragged edge of control, to try and keep up. While Toyota has won both contests in the World Endurance Championship leading up to Le Mans, Audi has destroyed two cars. A third, driven by Loic Duval, one of McNish’s teammates on last year’s winning car, was added to the Audi junkyard Wednesday when Duval lost control, and flipped his car into a concrete barrier.
A backup chassis was permitted to replace it, and rebuilt overnight; but Duval was ruled medically unfit to compete. That leaves only Tom Kristensen, who has won this event as a co-driver a record nine times, in competition from last year’s winning entry.
Porsche has also shown surprising strength, in its first official factory-backed effort here since 1998.
“All three of them have got something to prove,” McNish said. “The Le Mans trophy is the one that is missing from Toyota’s cabinet. Porsche is not subtle about their desire to win this race, and show up Audi; signing driver Mark Webber away from the Red Bull Formula One team is an indication of that. And Audi wants to prove that at Le Mans it is still at home.”
Other marques represented include Chevrolet, Aston Martin, Nissan and Ferrari.
For manufacturers, Hindhaugh said, “Le Mans is a 200-mile-per-hour laboratory.”
June 14, 2014