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2014 Le Mans 24-Hour magic


Back in the 1970s they made a movie about Le Mans, the car race that is - not the town.

The movie starred tough guy Steve McQueen but was a box office flop, not because it was bad but because the actors exchanged few words and Americans had little or no interest in the foreign race.

Fast forward 40 years and the world's oldest, endurance motor race is still going strong, a test of man and machine in which competitors clock up a staggering 5000km over a 24-hour period.

THEN

The 24 Hours of Le Mans has been held every year since 1923, except for 1936 because of the Great Depression or from 1940 to 1948 in the wake of the Second World War.

The race is held on a 13.6km circuit near the French town of the same name on a course that is a mix of race track and public roads closed for the event. It originally included city streets but these were removed for safety reasons. 

A couple of chicanes were also introduced as a precaution to reduce the length of the long 6km main straight where cars were touching speeds of up to 405km/h - now they hit about 330km/h. The race is about five times longer than our own Bathurst 1000, six times longer than the Indianapolis 500 and 18 times longer than a Formula One Grand Prix.

NOW

These days Le Mans is a round of the FIA World Endurance Championship. Originally it was confined to sports cars, but these days it's the province of space age, rocket ship race cars.

It's divided into four classes: custom-built prototypes (LMP1 and LMP2) and production-based GT cars (Pro and Amateur), the latter more like the cars that you and I know. 

Teams of three drivers do battle around the clock, from the start at 3pm on Saturday afternoon to the finish 24 hours later. They take turns at the wheel, with stints of two or more hours each before returning to the pits to refuel and swap drivers.

The race is a rolling showcase of new technology, with engines that have ranged in size over the years from a tiny 569cc through to a whopping 8.0 litres, with many alternate sources of fuel.

The first diesel competed back in 1949, there's also been a couple of gas turbines, and of course Mazda's winning rotary. Hybrids with energy recovery systems have been accepted since 2009.

Endurance racing has become an important proving ground for new technology much of which eventually finds its way into the cars we drive today such as hybrids.

WINNERS

The winner is the team that completes the most number of laps in the least amount of time. The most successful manufacturer to date has been Porsche with 16 wins under its belt, but in recent years the race has been dominated by Audi.

Danish driver Tom Kristensen has won the race more times than anyone else, with nine wins to his name - the last in 2013 at the helm of Audi's hybrid, diesel all-wheel drive R18 e-tron.

Talking about winners, Le Mans is supposed to have been the first motor race in the world where the winner, in this case Dan Gurney in 1967 - sprayed fans with champagne.

The only Japanese manufacturer to ever win the race was Mazda in 1991 with its unique, rotary-powered 787B (after that they changed the rules).

THE CARS

The three main competitors are all hybrids, two petrol and one diesel - three very different approaches to achieve the same result.

Toyota's TS 040 is powered by a 3.7-litre naturally aspirated petrol V8 combined with super capacitors that store energy generated during braking to power electric motors boosting total output to 735kW.

In contrast the Porsche 919 is based on a 2.0-litre turbocharged V4 petrol engine and in addition to brake harvesting uses exhaust gases to power its second electric motor, bringing combined output of 555kW.
Audi's proven R18 e-tron quattro runs a 4.0-litre turbo diesel V6 with a twin energy recovery systems that also draw on the exhaust gases to deliver a total output of 395kW. It's all a bit mind-boggling.

THIS YEAR

2014 marked the 82nd running of the race. Audi was back to defend the title it had won for the last four years, but Toyota was looking very much the favourite after it qualified in pole position with two wins from two starts already for the season. It was also the first time a Japanese driver had qualified fastest in the famous race meeting.

Returning to Le Mans for the first time in 16 years, Porsche was snapping at Toyota's heels with the second fastest time and Australia's own Mark Webber part of the team.

But in a race that spans 24 hours and covers nearly 380 laps speed is not everything.  As fans turned in for the night on Saturday, Toyota was in the box seat, about to claim its first Le Mans victory, but it was not to be after a crash sidelined one car for an extended period and an electrical fault forced the retirement of the the front runner.

Mark Webber at the wheel of a Porsche 919 promised a fairytale finish, but he too ran into mechanical problems - though the big Porsche comeback was unlikely to produce pay dirt on their first attempt.

Once again it was the stoic Audis, piloted by Benoit Treluyer and Tom Kristensen who was chasing his 10th win that finished first and second, with Anthony Davidson fighting back from a long way down the leaderboard to bring the #8 Toyota in for a creditable third.

Attended by some 260,000 race fans over the weekend it was a spectacular event marked by a slew of crashes early in the race after a thunderstorm swept the track.

Equally impressive was the incredible technology, that was able to deliver cars that were faster and more powerful yet use 30 per cent less fuel. It appears to vindicate the unwavering commitment to hybrid technology that Toyota has shown over the past decade.