LL:-D Chapter Editor:aricus654 will do the 2015 update!
Since 1923 this small part of France has been a Mecca for motorsports fans from across the globe. From fairly humble beginnings, today’s race is watched by close to 300,000 people trackside and a TV audience of millions, making it one of the largest single venue sporting events in the world.
The 24 hour event has evolved from a complex handicap race where the car that crossed the line having covering the most laps, was not always the winner, to the balls-out 24 hour sprint we have today.
Likewise, the track has had to change to accommodate shifting attitudes to safety and the expanding needs of this industrial city. The winners of the first race in 1923 were André Lagache & René Léonard, driving a Chenard & Walcker. While these two drivers have the honour of grandstands named in their honour along the pit straight, they would find the track very different today.
The original 17.2 km circuit which those pioneers raced on in 1923 started in the same area as now, but carried on much closer to Le Mans city until it reached an area known as Pontlieue, (roughly where the Carrefour now stands). There it turned sharp right onto the Les Hunaudieres straight, sometimes also referred to as the Mulsanne. From there on it travelled for miles towards Mulsanne village before turning sharp right again towards Arnage and then the pit straight.
In 1929 much to the disgust of the drivers, the track was shortened slightly to 16.34km. This was achieved by cutting out the hairpin bend in the village of Pontlieue at the request of the local inhabitants. It was replaced with two right hand bends joined by a short straight just outside the village before rejoining Les Hunaudieres and carrying on as before.
The track remained unaltered until 1932 when the A.C.O. purchased some land between the pit straight and the Hunaudieres. The Club now was able to route the track to avoid the fast expanding city and these corners were to evolve into the Esses and Tertre Rouge (French for ‘Red hillock’). This new section proved to be a massive success with drivers and spectators alike, getting the right line for the drivers was crucial for a fast ride down the straight and a good lap time and provided the public with an amazing view that was to become famous.
The circuit was to stay with this layout until after the horrific 1955 accident when changes were made to the pit straight to widen it. This was costly, as it involved the moving of tonnes of earth and the creation of signalling pits at the exit of the Mulsanne corner, to prevent the drivers being distracted by pit boards. These changes made little difference to the general layout. Until a few years ago it was still possible to see the remains of the signalling pits, last used in the mid 80s, just after the Mulsanne Corner.
However, the pace of competing cars grew, and the lap times fell by over 30 seconds. The speed differential between a 50’s D-type Jaguar and a 60’s Ford GT40 was becoming a worry and the A.C.O. realised that it needed to make a few changes. These started in 1968 when the Ford chicane was installed immediately before the pit entrance. This brought the distance down to 13.469 km. The organisers also added Armco along the entire circuit and created better runoffs. In 1971 the famous Le Mans ‘ear of corn’ running start was also forgone and replaced with a rolling start.
In 1971, a Porsche 917K driven by Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep, set distance and speed records that remained for almost 40 years. 5335.31 km (3334 miles) were covered at an average speed of 222.3 kph (138.9 mph). It was not before 2010 that this distance record was beaten by the winning Audi team, which covered 5410.71 km (3362 miles). The lap record in 1971 went to Jackie Oliver’s 917 LH at a stunning 3:18.4 sec, an incredible average of 244.387 km (152.7 mph).
In 1972, the ACO continued its revisions and decided it needed to have greater control over the track. More land was purchased and a completely new section was created between Arnage & the Ford Chicane, by-passing Maison Blanche completely, before rejoining the existing track just before the start straight at the Ford Chicane, which was also modified. This lengthened the track to 13.64km, pretty much the distance today.
The circuit stayed in this format between 1972 and 1986 with only some modifications to the Tertre Rouge corner to allow for the widening of the N138. The Mulsanne corner was also re-profiled for the construction of a roundabout.
In 1987 the Dunlop chicane was added. This slowed the cars dramatically on their approach to the Esses and destroyed a classic section of track.
The circuit, along with most other European ones, was also falling victim to enlarged runoff areas that have evolved into acres of gravel with the public having to face increasing amounts of mesh fencing between them and the cars, to the point where now, almost the entire track is fenced off.
However, worse was to come in 1990. The “Les Hunaudieres” straight - along with the character of the entire track - was changed when two chicanes where added. Gone were the Langheck specials, corner speeds went up and top speeds fell. The track had fallen victim to a bitter dispute between the A.C.O. and the FIA, who had brought in a new rule limiting the length of a single straight. The lap times increased by about 15 sec’s. Whether the track is any safer with the chicanes is open to debate; true the cars were slowed by about 30 mph on the straight, but the higher down force set-ups used now have pushed up the corner speeds on the rest of the track.
The one good thing to come out of this is that the small WM Peugeot team will forever hold onto the fastest speed down the shute. Set during the 1988 race Roger Dorchy hit 405 km/h (251.1mph) strapped into his WM88 Peugeot. The fastest in 1990 was a Jaguar XJR-12 at 353km/h (218mph) some 50km/h (31mph) slower.
Despite some meddling with the Dunlop chicane and the construction in 1991 of a new pit complex, the track was to remain largely unchanged throughout the growth and death of the GT1 cars of the 90’s.
In 2002 the Esses were extensively reworked at the request of the bikers to slow the bikes entry onto the short Bugatti track. This led to the loss of another seminal section of track. The Esses between the Dunlop bridge and Tertre Rouge, once an exciting, tight yet flowing section of track, now became a wide open section of sweepers set in masses of gravel that could just about be on any circuit in the world.
For 2006 the bikers once again demanded changes. The Dunlop chicane was tightened up still further. The sight of the cars sweeping up the slight hill at the end of the pit straight, then under the Dunlop bridge before dropping down into the Esses and onto Tertre Rouge is now a distant memory.
Work on the new Paddock and Village areas was completed in the early part of the decade, removing another part of the history of the Le Mans track. Gone was the country market feel of the old village, that had over time become rundown replaced by a large modern plaza.
Extra garages where also added at this time to allow for an increase in the number of starters in the race.
The track re-profiling of Tertre Rouge to allow for the new Tram link was completed in time for the 2007 race. This has opened up the corner so the entry speed onto the straight have increased and provides an excellent vantage point. The cars now pass the another sign of progress, the new Le Mans FC stadium, modelled on the Bolton FC Reebok stadium in the united Kingdom, Le Mans twin town.
For 2012 the run-off areas at Arnage corner were extended. Following the tragic accident of Allan Simonsen, for 2014 the A.C.O. did some additional safety related modifications to the circuit: At the Esses new kerbing was installed and the hard shoulders were stabilised. At the exit from Tertre Rouge two rows of tyres were added in front of the guardrail and Corvette corner got a new runoff area consisting of a gravel trap. Also new kerbing at the final right-left of the two-part chicane before the start-finish straight was introduced to stop GTE drivers straightlining the second apex.
More changes are probably planned for the coming years as the A.C.O. continues to evolve the circuit to match the demands on both available space as the city expands and the speeds of cars. However, in recent years there has also been an effort to make the speed of the cars match the circuit standards. The technical rules were changed several times in the past by restricting engine size and adding extra weight to the cars. Target was to slow down cars to lap times of 3:30 mins; a time which is considered to be safe for the current track standards. But no matter how much they tried to slow the prototypes down, this mark was always beaten.
Changes in the last 2 years focused on the Porsche Curves. This iconic series of fast sweeping bends were introduced in 1972 and are considered by drivers one of the most challenging aspects of the circuit. The changes start on the outside of the tricky right hander that leads the cars into the complex and are not to the tarmac itself but consist of extended run-off and gravel trap. To accommodate these changes the banking has been moved backwards. New NASCAR style ‘Safer’ Tec Pro barriers have been introduced in an effort to improve safely.
Pit Lane & New Pit Garages: There will now be 60 pit garages - 4 new garages have been built for 2016 (with Optical Fibre now in all pits), equalling the largest entry ever (in 1950, 1951, 1953 & 1955) and the most since 1955, although in the Fifties teams shared pits and indeed there were no pit garages - only pit counters. Parc Fermé and Scrutineeering will be moved to a new location under the Race Control building (where the current race medical centre is) in a two stage procedure over the next 2 years. A new medical centre will be constructed on the site of the TV compound. There will be fewer marshals in the pit lane as teams were concerned that it was getting too crowded.