Freelance writer from Cornwall
So, as you’re probably aware by now, I love Le Mans. I do, it’s like an itch I can’t scratch. Every year I start planning my next trip in November and then I’m off again every June. Now, some people think that Le Mans (and racing in general) is simply boys and their toys, that there’s nothing more to racing than a bunch of blokes rocketing round and round in circles for 24 hours. Others might see racing as unjustifiable on safety and environmental grounds, what good comes of drivers risking their lives and expending vast amounts of fuel, tyres, oil and a myriad of other consumables just so three drivers can stand on a podium and waste perfectly good champagne by spraying it everywhere rather than drinking it? It’s environmentally unfriendly, physically dangerous and unjustifiable in the modern world.
Sorry to say this, haters, but the facts say otherwise.
YOU. ARE. WRONG.
And now I’m going to explain why…
Chances are that most of you, even the most environmentally-concerned, safety-conscious, politically-correct muesli-eating, sandal-wearing killjoys among you, drive a vehicle of some kind. Not some fire-breathing, supercharged, gas-guzzling two-seater sportscar that you’ll never get to stretch to its limits on ordinary roads, but ordinary road-going cars, vans and suchlike that you can buy just about anywhere. And you’re probably thinking that a bunch of speed demons whizzing round a track for 24 hours has absolutely nothing to do with you. Guess what?
YOU. ARE. WRONG.
One of the purposes of the Le Mans 24 Hours is the conception, testing and improvement of new technology. Since the first race in 1923 that covers all manner of things that appear on pretty much ANY road-going vehicle you might ever have driven. Improved engines, improved tyres, improved brakes, aerodynamics, new fuels and engine management systems that you’ll find on your daily driver were devised, tested and refined at Le Mans long before they became standard on the car and/or van parked outside your house and, just to make it clear that you yoghurt-knitters profit as much from the race as anybody else, here are a few relevant facts.
Engines. Every vehicle has them, and a lot of the improvements that you’ll find as standard on your road car were once cutting-edge ideas developed for racing. It was at Le Mans that engines were constantly improved to give greater reliability, higher speeds, better general performance and increased fuel efficiency. Yes, my tie-dye-wearing brethren, it was on the racetrack that this demand first arose. It was from racing that engines improved to the point they’re at today and it’s from racing that the standard engine-management systems on today’s road cars, the reliability that gets you where you need to be when you need to be there and improved performance that gives you some extra power just when you need it.
The aerodynamic revolution that was the D-Type Jaguar.
Aerodynamics. Simply put, the better the aerodynamics on your daily driver the faster it can go, the less fuel it burns to get you where you’re going and the smaller the engine needed for the same performance. Guess where aerodynamics and car design met in the middle? Yes, you’ve guessed it, it was Le Mans. To win the race drivers needed higher top speeds while putting the minimum strain necessary on engines, brakes, gearboxes and transmissions. That meant lowering a car’s weight and making it as streamlined as possible. Designers had been toying with aerodynamics (still a somewhat black art at the time) even before the Second World War, but it was Jaguar designer Malcolm Sayer who used principles of aircraft design to produce the C and D-Type Jaguars in the 1950’s. After the Jaguars spent much of the 1950’s sweeping all before them at Le Mans other teams followed suit and that also trickled down into everyday road cars. More on the Jags and a certain other vital innovation later…
The C-Type Jaguar, with it’s then new-fangled disc brakes.
Brakes. Again, every car needs them. And just about every modern vehicle will come with ABS (anti-lock braking systems) and disc brakes as discs are far more efficient than the old-style drum brakes used on road and race cars up until the 1950’s. Guess where ABS and disc brakes came from? Yep, Le Mans. It was Malcolm Sayer’s C and D-Type Jaguars that were the first racing cars to have disc brakes and it wasn’t long before other manufacturers followed suit. If they wanted to win at Le Mans, they had to. Disc brakes meant that the Jaguars could brake later into corners, go faster for longer along straights and still take corners at safe speeds. The disc brakes lasted longer than the previously-standard drum brakes, they took longer to wear out and meant that drivers were safer as they stood less chance of having brakes either lock or simply fail to work at all. And where did this trickle down to, you might ask? Ordinary road cars. ABS is pretty much a standard on road cars today, but didn’t appear on the roads until the early-1980’s. Drivers at Le Mans were racing ABS-equipped cars in the mid-1970’s. ABS, the more efficient and safer form of braking that you’ll find on almost everything on the roads nowadays, has saved many an ordinary road driver from serious injury or even death. It was saving Le Mans drivers long before Joe Public got his hands on it and yes, beardy weirdies pootling around in converted vans and ambulances while protesting against the very existence of motorsport, that includes the vehicles that YOU drive around in.
Hippies, do you like the new developments in biofuels? Chances are that you do. Biofuels are the next big thing. They’re seen as the more environmentally-friendly way to power your vehicles. Well, less environmentally-unfriendly than petrol/gasoline or diesel anyway. Biofuels have been around for a good few years now and, while you might think they have nothing whatsoever to do with all that wasteful, noisy racing that you’d like to see banned, guess what..?
YOU. ARE. WRONG.
The world’s first biofuel racer, the Nasamax at Le Mans in 2004.
You’re wrong because it was at Le Mans that the world’s first biofuel racing car took to the track. In 2004 the Nasamax very nearly finished the race, the whole 24 hours, running on biodiesel. It wasn’t expected to win, it wasn’t going to win, but it did race there as a means to prove that biofuels and related engine technology really can have high performance that will one day trickle down to ordinary road vehicles. And why did the Nasamax race at Le Mans on biofuels? Because the race organisers invited it to as part of the event’s commitment to discovering, showcasing and refining new technology. The track has changed, the cars have changed, the rules have changed, but the Automobile Club de L’Ouest remain as committed now to showcasing new ideas and technology as they did in 1923 when the first 24 Hours was run. On the subject of fuel technology, the most successful team in recent years has been the Audi factory team. Their prototypes run on biofuel developed in conjunction with Shell who supply all the fuels used at Le Mans.
Enivronmental folk are also often fond of hybrid technology, cars that can use a combination of ordinary fuel and electricity generated by onboard electronics. Guess what, hippies. The biggest factory teams at the moment are Toyota and Audi and THEY RACE USING HYBRIDS. Yes, a lot of the currently top-secret hybrid technology on their current racing cars will appear in a few years time on whatever hybrid road vehicle that you buy when your converted ambulances and camper vans finally give up the ghost.
Before I sign off for the day I’ll also acquaint the uninitiated with a few other little trifles. Trifles without which even the most environmentally-conscious motorist would find their cars being declared unfit for today’s roads. Le Mans cars race right through the night, so it was at Le Mans that headlights really came into their own. A need for headlights meant improved electrics, also first develop for Le Mans. Increasing speeds on the straights forced designers to add a little thing called a windshield so that drivers could actually see where they were going. Oh, and tyre technology has long been developed and tested at Le Mans as the ‘Circuit de la Sarthe’ is made up largely of ordinary public roads closed off for the occasion.
So, all in all, my muesli-munching, beardy brethren, if you think that motorsport benefits nobody and that you yourselves have never derived any benefit from a noisy, dangerous, polluting spectacle that should be consigned to the dustbin of history like Roman chariot races, let me tell you one last time…
YOU. ARE. WRONG.
Bye for now.