24 Hours of Le Mans: Here's how the world's oldest endurance race differs from Formula 1
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the world's oldest endurance race and represents one leg of the Triple Crown of Motorsport. Here's how this race differs from a Formula 1 race.
For Formula 1 fans, the world of Le Mans feels rather different. But that’s thanks to the nature and frequency of the two series. Formula 1 has consistently organized between 18 and 21 races every year for the last decade, while Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the organisers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, are content with their iconic race being conducted only once a year. As a result, fans have had increased exposure to the teams, drivers and format of Formula 1 racing.
But how different could the two be? They are both motor races after all. For starters, the teams and their cars are different, and so are the drivers. The start format is different, the racing format and even the race duration are different. Basically, there’s enough differences between the two to get us excited about the 24 Hours of Le Mans that will be held at the Circuit de le Sarthe this weekend.
Formula 1 has a one-hour qualifying session on Saturday that is further split into three sessions, where the slowest drivers are eliminated with every passing session. At Le Mans, qualifying is held on Wednesday and Thursday over three sessions of two hours each. Out of the six hours of qualifying, each driver has to set at least five laps under night time driving conditions. But apart from that, Le Mans’ qualifying format can be classified as a no-frills format, as eventually, it is the fastest driver that clinches pole.
Though the 24 Hours of Le Mans is part of the FIA World Endurance Championship, it doesn’t work on average lap times, like the other rounds do. For 2017 and after the initial test days, Toyota were confident that they could better the pole position record set by Porsche’s Neel Jani in 2015 (3:16:887).
Japanese former Formula One driver Kamui Kobayashi set a new lap record for the Le Mans 24 Hour Race on Thursday as Toyota topped the time charts for the second successive qualifying run. Kobayashi, behind the wheel of the TS050 Hybrid, clocked 3:14:791 to beat the previous best.
A Formula 1 race runs for a maximum of 300 kms, a distance that the current cars cover in just about two hours. The 24 Hours of Le Mans runs for 24 hours non-stop, of course. Formula 1 boasts of a few night races on its calendar, whereas Le Mans races through the night.
The event represents one leg of the Triple Crown of Motorsport; other events being the Indianapolis 500, and the Monaco Grand Prix.
In 2017, there is talk that depending on the weather conditions and safety car periods, the record for the maximum number of laps raced could be broken. The record stands at 397 laps from 2010.
The 2017 Formula 1 Season has seen a battle between Ferrari and Mercedes, but in the LMP1 (premier) category at Le Mans, we will see Porsche take the battle to Toyota. It was unfortunate that the Volkswagen ‘diesel gate’ caught out Audi’s endurance racing program.
Formula 1 follows a sprint format, where you sprint from start to finish in the fastest possible time. In comparison, Le Mans is known to be the ultimate endurance race in the world — it is also the oldest. At Le Mans, the focus is as much on reliability as it is on speed and endurance. The phrase ‘to finish first, you need to first finish’ holds true for Le Mans more than any other racing series.
The starting format is different too. In Formula 1, there’s a staggered grid starting format used; in Le Mans, after trying out different formats since its inception, now the ‘rolling start’ format is used. Earlier, drivers were expected to start from the pit-lane by running across to their cars, starting it up and then leaving the pits to race. This format was done away with for safety reasons.
The 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be remembered for the ‘double points’ that were on offer for the top-10 finishers. At Le Mans, double points are awarded too, but it makes a little more sense in this format because this race is four times the minimum race time of six hours at most of the other World Endurance Championship rounds.
Till 2016, Formula 1 was unofficially a two-class series. There were Mercedes-powered cars, followed by everyone else. But the Le Mans has always been a series where cars of multiple classification would compete. The premier class is the LMP1 class, followed by the LMP2, LM GTE Pro and the LM GTE Am.
This year, there could be a record equaling 60 entries for Le Mans, unless there are dropouts at the last minute.
We asked Nico Hulkenberg, the 2015 Le Mans winner, what his best advice to Rubens Barrichello, former Formula 1 driver and 2017 Le Mans debutant, would be, and he instantly replied "traffic management". Unlike Formula 1, Le Mans doesn’t have ‘blue flags’ to inform backmarkers to give way to the race leaders.
This means that if you are in an LMP1 car, you have to plan your overtaking well, especially since there will be 60 cars racing. If you’re in a slower car, you have to plan how to get overtaken. Like Hulkenberg summed it up, keep your eyes in your mirror too.
The ‘formula’ of Formula 1 is known to be constrictive and often relies on finding loopholes rather than innovation. On the other hand, Le Mans has far more open regulations, often allowing manufacturers to push their technology to the limit. The regulations at Le Mans are also known to be far more ‘road relevant’ than Formula 1.
For Le Mans, the cars have to last the entire 24 hours of the race, teams often needing lengthy pit-stops, as opposed to the lightening quick ones in Formula 1. The cars are designed to last longer in this format of the race, unlike their Formula 1 counterparts.
There are two key classes at the Le Mans:
LMP1 — in Formula 1 terms, this can be mistaken as the ‘manufacturers’ category, although there can be privateer teams too. These cars are the top class of Le Mans with more power and downforce and are significantly bigger in size. For the last few years, the LMP1 teams have been running hybrid energy recovery systems on their cars.
LMP2 — this class is known as the ‘privateer’ class where teams can buy chassis from four different manufacturers (Dallara, Oreca, Riley and Ligier), but have a single engine manufacturer to buy their engines from. This means that it is eventually the team modifications and setup that define eventual performance.
Formula 1 is known to have the world’s best drivers and they have attempted to win top honours at Le Mans in the past. Hulkenberg’s victory on debut in 2015 is still fresh on our minds, but that hasn’t sparked many of the current drivers to give a shot at this endurance race. However, for the Formula 1 fans, there will be some known names — Neel Jani, Kamui Kobayashi, Lucas Di Grassi, Anthony Davidson among others.
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