The 24 Hours of Le Mans is a long, grueling, and completely fascinating race, with sharp twists and turns, exhilarating wins, and heart-wrenching losses. One of the most storied races ever, Le Mans is the ultimate test for an endurance driver. So we wanted to know what it was really like to compete in it.
To find out, we tracked down those who know it the best — the drivers. Below, they describe the experience, from the long hours and the electric atmosphere to the adrenaline of the race’s final moments.*
On Le Mans’ Legacy
Richard Lietz (2009 and 2010 GT2 class winner): “Le Mans always has been the biggest race in the world.”
Timo Bernhard (2017 Le Mans winner): “There is certainly something magical about Le Mans which is hard to put into words. It’s one of only a few remaining races with a lot of character and history.”
Patrick Pilet (4th place at Le Mans 2017): “I remember watching the race when I was young, when I was a kid, and dreaming about this race.”
Romain Dumas (2016 Le Mans winner): “Le Mans is always special because that’s the biggest race in endurance, the best race of the year. It’s the one everybody wants to win and, even when you’ve won it, you want to win again.”
Kévin Estre (Porsche GT factory driver): “It’s special to drive there because of its massive history, especially as a Porsche driver, because Porsche won so many times.”
On The Track Itself
Nick Tandy (2015 Le Mans winner): “The Circuit de la Sarthe is one of the best stretches of road I’ve ever been on in a racing car. Like the Nürburgring Nordschleife, the layout is so fast and has great sequences of corners where you can really feel the speed of the cars.”
Jörg Bergmeister (2004 Le Mans winner): “Driving at Le Mans is quite a challenge, not only because there are a lot of high-speed corners — which I personally really enjoy — but also because the unique characteristics of the track make it difficult to keep the focus on the long straights. If you lose your focus for a split second, the mistakes you make, especially in the brake zones, can end really ugly.”
Kévin Estre: “The track is really specific with a lot of straight lines, massive top speed, and, as it’s on a normal road, some bumps. The speed is really really high [in the corners] and the walls are really close, so you have to concentrate to be quick. And if you do any mistake there you will crash the car and the race will be over.”
Frédéric Makowiecki (4th Place at Le Mans 2017): “When you arrive on the race track through these two weeks, you can feel that the atmosphere is very electric.”
Nick Tandy: “Driving the cars in the race is both a joy and a headache. Especially in the LMP1 cars, the speed, acceleration, and grip is so immense that I’d find it hard to believe anyone would not enjoy the experience of steering one around.”
Timo Bernhard: “It is a massive challenge for man and machine and there is also the element of danger involved. When the night falls over La Sarthe, the whole place gets a different vibe. You have to experience it for yourself to understand the magic of Le Mans.”
On Comfort, Or The Lack Thereof
Nick Tandy: “[The race car] is not a comfortable place to be. The cockpit is tiny, your knees are up around your neck, and you can never stretch your legs. Your right foot is jammed into the throttle pedal for probably 95% of the time, so the sole of your foot never gets a break. And if the sun’s out, it’s hot. You’ve really got to be careful about not losing too much fluid from your body in your three-hour sauna.”
Timo Bernhard: “To not finish the race is a very bitter pill to swallow. You’ve got so much adrenaline pumping through your body and all of a sudden it’s all over — months of preparation, work, and effort, gone within a moment. You just feel empty.”
Frédéric Makowiecki: “You are good, you fight for the win, and suddenly you can lose the race. This is very hard because you imagine that, after that, you need to wait one year if you want to come back stronger and maybe try to win [again]. That’s why the race [is] fantastic but can give you a lot of disappointment, because suddenly you can lose your dream in one or two seconds.”
Kévin Estre: “If you want to win one race during the year, that’s this one, so everyone feels quite a lot of pressure, but it’s quite a positive pressure. You feel that you have a lot of people behind you, and you need to push hard without [making] any mistakes.”
Nick Tandy: “You’re in the fight for the lead, everyone on your team is working perfectly together. It looks like you could be on for the win, so you start to get excited. Ninety percent of the race is done, it’s nearly over. But that’s still 2.5 hours to go! If you’re driving the car for the last few stints, it’s fine, you’re in control. But if you’re one of the two other drivers watching at that point from the garage, it’s agony. Please let us finish! Please don’t have a puncture, or a clash with another car! And then the checkered flag, and all the time, work, effort — everything you’ve done in your life for the last 20 years to be here — is all of a sudden absolutely worth it.”
Timo Bernhard: “When I was a child, it was my dream to race at Le Mans. The feeling you have after the race, when you stand up there on the podium in front of tens of thousands of fans, the sheer exhaustion and the joy — it’s almost surreal and difficult to describe.”
*Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Nandita Raghuram is a Senior Writer at Studio@Gizmodo. She tweets here.