JUNE 13, 2015

The 83rd edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or the 24 Heures du Mans to give it its official title, started in warm, dry conditions with 55 cars on the grid and the hundreds of thousands of spectators packing every accessible viewing point overlooking the Circuit de la Sarthe. The future in racing is underway.

The circuit itself is 13.629 km in Iength and is made up of a combination of racetrack and public roads. It is demanding, with several long straights interrupted by tricky chicanes, tight corners and sweeping curves. The rolling start takes place in a corridor of intensity with passionate of fans packing the stands on both sides, their enthusiasm adding considerable energy to the highly charged moment.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans was first run in 1923 and is organized by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO). Each race is the culmination of a year of planning, each one a sporting event of global impact attracting fans from around the world. This year’s race seems bigger than ever with four major automotive manufacturers battling for the overall win in LM P1, and several others represented in the GT category. Reputations, technical know-how, innovation, skill and determination are being tested under a very public spotlight.

There are always a number of notable attendees. This year’s came from sport – Tom Kristensen, the Rolex Testimonee and record nine-time winner of the race is acting as Grand Marshal; industry - William Clay Ford Jr., the Executive Chairman of the Ford Motor Company and great-grandson of Henry Ford was the honorary starter; and, from government - François Hollande, the President of France paying a much heralded visit.

For drivers and teams all focus was on the race itself. The start, at 15.00 CEST, is the beginning of an adventure, a journey into the known as much as the unknown. The winner will be the car the beats the 24 hours, posting the greatest distance in a race where time is both friend and enemy. The record is 5,410.713 km set in 2010, at an average speed of 225.228 km/h. At this early juncture, no one is thinking of records. Except perhaps one.

Pole sitter for the start was #18 Porsche 919 Hybrid driven by Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb. On the second lap of the first qualifying session on Wednesday, Jani thumped down a message to rival cars by scorching around in 3:16.887 at an average speed of 249 km/h. Almost a clear second faster than the next car. Breaking the existing record for qualifying it was an early confirmation of an exciting race to come. Everyone plays down the importance of pole at Le Mans. No one can keep up that pace for 24 hours … can they? This is a psychological game as much as it is mechanical.

Weather always plays a part. The high cloud at the start is expected to increase in density as the afternoon progresses but overnight the temperature will not drop much below 15oC.  Rain is forecast for Sunday, its timing and intensity uncertain. Teams have no reason fear the rain if they have prepared well, keep to an appropriate strategy, and stay focused on the job in hand. Hard enough at the best of times, and if the rain does arrive tomorrow it will test the minds and determination of tiring drivers and pit crew.

While most eyes are drawn to the aggressive lines and futuristic appeal of the LM P1 cars, there are three other categories of cars racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans: LM P2, LM GTE PRO and LM GT AM. The door is open to a range of drivers from full-time professionals to part-time amateurs or gentlemen as they are known. Skill is a prerequisite, but age seems no barrier, certainly in LM P2. The oldest driver in the race is 63 year-old Mark Patterson of the USA in the #48 Oreca 03R-Nissan. The youngest driver is 19 year-old Léo Roussel in the #29 Morgan LM P2-Nissan.

Two hours into the race and the contest is developing nicely. The defending champion Audi #7 with André Lotterer at the wheel leads from Timo Bernhard in the Porsche # 17. In LM P2, Richard Bradley in #47 leads from Tristan Gommendy in #46. The GTE class is led by #95 Aston Martin.

In 22 hours we will know who has triumphed. For the drivers who stand at the top of the podium on Sunday afternoon, the rewards are impressive: a specially engraved Rolex Cosmograph Daytona and a place in sporting history. Winning a Cosmograph Daytona at the 24 Hours of Le Mans constitutes the ultimate award. Created by Rolex in 1963, this iconic model is indelibly linked to the world of motor spor. Rolex has been the Official Timepiece of the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 2001.

24 Heures du Mans