Address: Automobile Club de l'Ouest, Circuit des 24 Heures, 72019 Le Mans, Cedex 2, France
PH: +33 2 43 40 24 24
Circuit type: Semi-permanent and permanent road courses
The Circuit de La Sarthe at Le Mans has become one of the classic courses in use around the world, thanks in large part to the 24 hour endurance race, which has seen it become world famous. Each June, the eyes of the world fall on this eight-mile ribbon of tarmac as one of the great sporting spectacles unfolds, pitting man and machine against the rigours of day and night racing. Nothing else in racing comes even close to matching it.
While there have been many improvements in safety over the years, the circuit's essential character remains. Today Le Mans is in fact two courses; the famed 24 hour course, which incorporates large sections of public road, and the smaller purpose-built Bugatti circuit, which entertains the crowds for the rest of the year.
The circuit's origins pre-date its most famous race, however. The first races were held in 1920, when the UMF (Union Motocycliste de France) organised a motorcycle grand prix on a triangular course from the Pontlieue suburbs of Le Mans, along public roads to Mulsanne and back again. In total the circuit measured more than 10 miles and proved a machinery-breaker; of the 31 starters, only four were still running at race's end.
Motorcycle races continued under the auspices of the UMF and the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) but in 1922, the idea for the 24 hours was born. The secretary of the ACO, Georges Durand, received an unexpected offer of 100,000 francs from the French subsidiary of the Rudge Whitworth wheels company. This was to help facilitate a suitable race, with the money becoming a prize fund for the winner. A free hand was given as to the nature of the race.
Durand pondered the proposal for a while, before realising there was an opportunity to stage an endurance race allowing manufacturers to prove the worth of their road going vehicles to an expectant public. Discussions were quickly convened with ACO president Gustave Singher, journalist Charles Faroux and several other officials, and the basic proposal was agreed. Faroux advocated a 24 hour race and was tasked with drawing up the rules and regulations.
On May 26, 1923, a field of 33 cars of 18 different makes headed off for their round-the-clock adventure. Lagache and Léonard ran out as winners in their Chenard-Walker, covering a distance of 1,732 miles at an average of just over 57mph. No fewer than 30 of 33 starters crossed the finish line, which must rank as an all-time record for the event.
The race continued to use this first course with gradual improvements; in 1926 the stretch from Pontlieue to Mulsanne was asphalted for the first time (previously the surface was water-bound macadam), while parking for 3,000 vehicles was also created. The track was shortened for safety reasons in 1929 to avoid the town suburbs that were expanding rapidly. The new link road constructed at the ACO′s expense was named the ′Rue du Circuit′ and bypassed completely the Pontlieue hairpin.
By 1932, further change was deemed necessary. The revisions of three years previously had failed to solve the problems of the narrowness of the roads as they approached the town, subjecting the drivers and watching public to needless risks as a result. In response, the ACO bought land near the pits and created a new link road, which exited onto the Mulsanne Straight at a new corner, Terte Rouge. Built to latest standards, the new section featured raised earth banking to protect the spectators and included a fast right-hander to start the lap and a series of sweeping 'S' bends. The iconic Dunlop bridges were also erected at this time.
Racing continued through the 1930s, with the race gaining an ever-increasing audience as its importance grew. The outbreak of war meant that 1939's event was the last for a decade; at war's end France concentrated on getting back on its feet and it wasn't until 1948 that work began on restoring racing. While the roads themselves were in perfect condition for racing, the ravages of war meant all of the buildings and grandstands needed rebuilding. Bars, restaurants and shops sprung up around the circuit and the 'village' of Le Mans was born.
The first postwar event was held in June 1949, watched by President Vincent Auriol. A crowd of 180,00 witnessed the birth of another legend that day – the Ferrari of Chinetti and Selsdon took victory on its debut, making its manufacturer the first to win Le Mans in the same year as the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio races. It was the first of many victories in the 24 hours for the Prancing Horse.
The revival of racing nearly came to an abrupt halt in 1955, when Le Mans was the venue of the worst crash in motor racing history. The exact cause is a subject of conjecture and debate to this day, but the outcome was no less tragic for its confusing circumstances. What is known is that the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh collided with the Austin Healey of Lance Macklin, possibly as it attempted to manoeuvre past the Jaguar of Mike Hawthorn which was slowing to enter the pits. Levegh lost control, slammed into the banking before somersaulting through the air and into the crowd. Levegh was killed along with 83 spectators and a great many more were injured, some horribly, by the flying wreckage.
It was a disaster of gigantic proportions. Mercedes withdrew from the race, which continued on with an almost callous disregard for the tragedy; much criticism was levelled at Faroux as race director, though he justified his decision to continue by pointing out that stopping the event would only have served to draw crowds to the accident scene, clogging up exits to the circuit and hampering rescue operations. Whatever, it was without doubt motor racing's darkest day.
Despite widespread calls for motor racing to be outlawed (in the end, only Switzerland enacted a ban), Le Mans persevered. The 1956 race was put back to July while the ACO completed substantial modifications to the pit and grandstand areas. Track width and pit lane modifications also led to a change in the Dunlop curve, shortening the lap by 31 metres. Its reputation tarnished, the following years would see Le Mans gradually rebuild and by the mid-1960s, it was considered one of the most important fixtures once again.
1965 brought a new innovation; a new permanent short course incorporating the pit straight and Dunlop Curve opened for the first time. Named in honour of Ettore Bugatti, the 2.7 mile course was a modern, if slightly sterile, course and was completed in April. Two years later it hosted the Formula One Grand Prix, though it proved to be the only time the French Grand Prix was to visit. Jack Brabham ran out the winner in front of a crowd of just 20,000. The experiment was never repeated.
Rising speeds led to the introduction of a chicane just before the pit entrance in 1968, but more substantial revisions were to follow. The circuit was fitted with Armco for the 1969 race, while 1971 saw the separation of the pit lane from the main track with the installation of a dividing wall.
The circuit had come in for criticism from drivers, particularly at the fast Maison Blanche kink, which had claimed the life of John Woolfe in 1969 and been the scene of a pile-up the following year between three Ferrari 512s (including two works cars). The ACO reacted by bypassing the section altogether, building a new link road for the 1972 season. This permanent section of track featured the Porsche Curves and lead to a revised double chicane ahead of the pits. Further proposals to radically restrict the amount of public road being used were also mooted throughout the 1970s, but ultimately came to nought.
Due to the construction of a new public road, Tertre Rouge corner had to be reprofiled in 1979, changing it from a right angled corner to a faster, but more complex double apex curve. The creation of this new section of road required the demolition of the second Dunlop Bridge. Similar changes were required at Mulsanne Corner in 1986; local authorities built a roundabout at the junction to reduce accidents, and the race course was diverted to the inside of the previous layout through a slight kink.
The next changes to the circuit were a result of the use of the Bugatti circuit by the World Motorcycle Championships. Due to excessive speeds attained by the bikes on the approach to the Dunlop bridge, the Dunlop curve was altered and a chicane installed before the bridge, slowing speeds dramatically.
The flat out-blast down the Hunaudières Straight was next to suffer at the hands of the bulldozers. In order to comply with an FIA directive on the maximum length of straights, two chicanes were installed in 1990. Many felt this substantially changed the nature of the lap, though it did open up two further overtaking opportunities. In truth, the writing had been on the wall for some time; ever increasing speeds made it likely that some form of change would be necessary. This was emphasised in 1988 when the small WM team hatched a plan to top 400km/h by maximising their setup for straightline speed. The plan worked: on June 11, 1988, with Roger Dorchy behind the wheel, the WM P87 achieved the speed of 405km/h (251.7mph), a record that is unlikely to ever be bettered.
A new pit lane entry was also installed in 1990, in preparation for impressive new pit buildings which made their debut the following year. These were located further back from the racetrack and ended the often frantic scenes when cars would have to make their way through a throng of photographers and officials down the dangerously crowded pit lane.
1996 saw revisions to the Bugatti Circuit, following a serious accident in the previous year's MotoGP event, when Alberto Puig crashed and broke a leg in free practice. The run off at Garage Vert was improved by moving the track inwards, while a new 'S' bend was inserted at Chemin aux Boeufs corner, with a realigned straight leading into the final corners. A small change to the Dunlop chicane also occurred in 1997, moving the turn in further away from the bridge itself to accommodate a larger run off area.
The most radical since the introduction of the chicanes on the Mulsanne came in 2002, when the entire section from the between the Dunlop Bridge and the Esses was bulldozed, with the previous downhill straight replaced by a section of fast sweepers. This provided for a better entry in La Chapelle corner on the Bugatti circuit. Elsewhere on the Bugatti course, La Musée corner was tightened and move further infield to create a much extended run off.
Further changes came in 2006, when the Dunlop Curve and chicane were re-profiled, again by moving the track infield to provide greater run off, though without significantly altering the nature of the corner. A new extended pit lane exit, which channelled vehicles exiting the pits into the middle of the chicane, was briefly tried and then abandoned in favour of a more conventional exit before Turn One. At the same time as these modifications, the pit garages were extended to allow grids of up to 56 cars to take part in the 24 Hour events.
The most recent alterations occurred in 2007, when Tertre Rouge was once again altered to provide increased run-off, at the same time creating a more flowing curve onto the Mulsanne Straight. Meanwhile, Garage Vert corner on the Bugatti Circuit was re-profiled for a second time, creating a straighter exit towards Chemin aux Boeufs.
The Circuit de la Sarthe is located on the edge of the town of Le Mans, in Maine, westenr France. The nearest international airport is Tours Val de Loire Airport, around an hours drive to the south-east. Paris and its international airports is 150 miles to the north, approximately a 2.5 hours drive.
Most spectators attending Le Mans for any events travel by road. Le Mans is easily accessible via motorway from Calais (5hrs) or Caen/Le Havre/St Malo/Cherbourg (3hrs) if arriving from Britain by Ferry. If travelling from elsewhere in France, the town is easily accessed via the E50, E402, E501 and E502 motorways. For those without a car (perhaps flying in to Paris from abroad) then it is possible to get to Le Mans either from Paris airport or Montparnasse station via the train. Once in Le Mans itself, travel to the circuit is easy thanks to the regular tram service.
Those wishing to travel from Britain via a more scenic route might find the following an enjoyable trip: Getting to Le Mans (Daily Telegraph article)