The Le Mans Endurance Race: Pushing the Boundaries of Formula One
In recent decades, Formula One has been taken over by tech-savvy gearheads who are more interested in high-tech gadgets than time or speed. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, as technology has done incredible things for this sport, but it’s definitely different. There was a time when racing—not just Formula One, but all kinds of motorsports—was about great drivers edging out the competition in creative ways. The crew were essential, but they were basically support staff there to make sure nothing went mechanically wrong.
Today, the “support staff” takes a much more central role. A typical race is merely the culmination of months of preparation, thousands of hours of work, and intensive development of novel new ways to go as fast as possible.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of this, but it is a little sad to think about how the old days of racing are gone forever.
But there are a few races where the old spirit lives on. For example, the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, the 78th edition of which is set to take place this weekend, puts the responsibilities for the race back on the drivers by forcing them to drive to the best of their abilities not just for a relatively short stretch, but for hours upon hours on end.
It’s also one of the few races in which teamwork is a major factor during the race itself. Cars in the race are required to have at least three drivers in the vehicle, and the drivers generally switch at regular intervals. In the freewheeling days of the sport’s past, there were no rules about how long a driver could stay in the driver’s seat, but this changed in the ‘90s, when it was decided that no one driver should be permitted to go for more than four hours at a time, and each driver was limited to 14 throughout the race.
While some have viewed these changes as detrimental, the reality is that they introduce a new level of strategy into a sport that’s too often about going as fast and straight as possible. Drivers have to think about who’s the best starter, who’s the best finisher, and how to juggle everything in between.
And even though drivers get time out of the driver’s seat, it’s not as if it’s easy to rest inside of a car traveling at these speeds, so many drivers actually do get through the whole race without sleeping at all. This is just one of the things that makes the Le Mans race an interesting test of human endurance, and one of the most fascinating races in motorsports.