24 Hours of Le Mans Preview: Your Must Know Guide to the 2021 Race

Just how much do racers love the 24 Hours of Le Mans? Last year, despite the raging pandemic, Texas car dealer and well-above-average amateur racer Ben Keating competed in his sixth straight Le Mans, representing a significant personal investment into one of the most expensive hobbies in the world. Expensive—and addictive. “It gets in your blood,” Keating, who is stretching his streak to seven-straight races this year, said. “The excitement, the pre-race pageantry, the teamwork—there’s no greater thrill, in my opinion. It’s the ultimate race, and I’m always honored to be a part of it. “

So, really, what’s the big deal? Read on for our 2021 24 Hours of Le Mans preview and see if you don’t agree with Keating’s assessment that Le Mans “is an event that should be on every race fan’s bucket list. “

ATTENTION LE MANS FANS! MotorTrend is the EXCLUSIVE SPOT IN THE U.S.  where viewers will be able to stream all of the 89th 24 Hours of Le Mans, from qualifying to race end. Sign up  and you’ll get all of the 2021 Le Mans action, including qualifying on Thursday, August 19, live race coverage beginning at 9:15 a.m. ET (6:15 a.m. PT) on August 21, the race start at 10 a.m., and the checkered flag after 24 hours of on-track battle. In addition, fans will be able to view special content prior to and during the Le Mans weekend—part of a vast array of content available on the MotorTrend App.

Why Is the 24 Hours of Le Mans Considered the World’s Greatest Sports-Car Race?

Nothing against Major League baseball’s World Series, but is it really a world series? Well, Le Mans is: Here we have some of the best drivers and the best teams from all over the world, racing on one of the finest, smoothest, scariest, most exciting tracks in the world. Many of the other global racing series pause their own seasons when Le Mans is scheduled to run in order to allow their drivers to compete there. It has been that way since 1923 and there’s no end in sight.

The Le Mans Race Is What, Exactly?

The Le Mans racetrack is located just outside of Le Mans, France, and is properly called Circuit de la Sarthe. It is 8.467 miles long and is comprised of a combination of designated racetrack and public roads that are shut down for the race each year. By comparison, the longest track used in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship—the top U.S. racing series that includes the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring—is Road America in Wisconsin, which is just more than 4 miles long.

In 2010, the 24 Hours of Le Mans winner covered a stupefying 3,360 miles, a record. The track is so large, it can be sunny and dry at one end of the circuit and pouring down rain at the other end. And at night, some turns that are treacherous in the daylight become a true test of courage, skill, and luck to navigate without disaster.

The green flag waves midday on Saturday; twice around the clock later, the checkered flag waves and another 24 Hours of Le Mans will be in the books.

Isn’t the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June Each Year? Why Are We Talking About It Now? 

Yes, the race is typically in June, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed it until September last year, and organizers decided to delay the race again to August 21-22 for 2021. Unlike last year, there will be spectators in the stands for the 2021 Le Mans race.

Are Any American Drivers Racing at Le Mans This Year?

There are always a handful of Americans racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans: Of the 186 or so drivers in the 2021 edition of Le Mans (three drivers per car, and there are presently 62 cars entered), Americans include the aforementioned Keating in the No. 33 Aston Martin Vantage AMR; in the Corvette C8.R cars Tommy Milner will race with the No. 64 team and Jordan Taylor will join the No. 63 effort; Jordan’s brother Ricky Taylor, Dwight Merriman, Patrick Kelly, and Jon Falb will all race in (different) LMP2 cars; Cooper MacNeil (his family owns WeatherTech)  will drive with the No. 79 WeatherTech Porsche 911 RSR team in the LM GTE Pro class; and Rodrigo Sales, Maxwell Root, Robert Foley, Brendan Iribe, Dominique Bastien, and noted Porsche driver and aficionado Patrick Long will all race in the LM GTE Am class. 

Le Mans Car Classes, Explained, Including the New Hypercar Class

Unlike other types of racing, there are four separate classes of cars that race at Le Mans. The top class, Hypercar  (formerly LMP1), is comprised of “prototype” cars built from scratch to be race cars, while GT (Gran Turismo) cars are based on production automobiles.

The Hypercar class is essentially a class-within-a-class, because there’s a division for hybrid race cars that typically outrun everything thanks to the way the rules are written for them. For 2021 though the Hypercar class will allow hybrid and non-hybrid efforts. The two-car Toyota Gazoo Racing team is the odds-on favorite to finish one-two overall thanks to its newly developed Toyota GR010 hybrid-powered race car. Toyota will be going for its fourth-straight overall victory at the 2021 event. There two other entries in the six-car class. The factory-backed, single-car Alpine Elf Matmut team is part of Renault’s breakout Alpine racing division. The Alpine car is a modified LMP2 car built off of an Oreca chassis and powered by a naturally aspirated 4.5-liter V-8 supplied by the British company Gibson Technology. Then there’s the two car Glickenhaus Racing effort, an American team led by American film producer, director, financier, and in recent years automotive entrepreneur James Glickenhaus. His SCG 007 Glickenhaus cars, which will be making their racing debut at the 2021 Le Mans race, are powered by 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-8s developed by France’s Pipo Moteurs.

The other of the two prototype classes is Le Mans Prototype 2 or LMP2, which consists of cars built to a very tight, near-identical specification. There are several LMP2 chassis manufacturers but only one engine: a 4.2-liter V-8 built by Gibson. LMP2 is the largest class, with 25 entries.

Next up are the two GT classes, led by Le Mans GTE Pro, in which there are eight entries: two Ferrari 488 GTE Evos, four Porsche 911 RSR-19s, and the return of the Corvette teams, with two Corvette C8.Rs competing. These are all factory-backed entries raced by top drivers. And finally we have Le Mans GTE Am, cars that are virtually identical to the LM GTE Pro models but are driven by a pro-amateur combination of drivers, and which usually receive less factory support than the GTE Pro cars. There are 21 entries in this class.  

The Driver-Rating System Explained

Le Mans is sanctioned by the ACO and FIA, and every driver who competes at Le Mans carries one of four ratings as decided upon by those organizations: Bronze (for amateur racers); Silver (more experienced than Bronze but probably not yet racing for a living); Gold (the journeyman professional racer), and Platinum (the elite—the best of the best). 

Some classes require a mix of differently rated drivers per car; it’s to help encourage Bronze and Silver racers to enter races. This is important as these competitors, who are often called “gentleman drivers,” frequently contribute out-of-pocket money for the cost of fielding the car—a car they share with more experienced drivers who don’t pay to race. And there are classes where anything goes: The two top-ranked Toyota Gazoo GR010-Hybrid cars in the Hypercar class will be piloted by six Platinum drivers. Meanwhile, there are multiple teams with at least two Bronze drivers. Most driver combinations are somewhere in between. And as you can imagine, when a Toyota nearing 200 mph at night, in the rain, comes upon a car driven by a Bronze driver that’s 80 mph slower…yes, “excitement” can ensue.

Have $$$? You Could Race At Le Mans, Too

One thing to think about: If you have the money and a moderate amount of talent as demonstrated in other series, you can often buy your way into a race seat for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Imagine an average golfer being allowed to play in The Masters golf tournament, or a decent tennis player being welcomed into Wimbledon, or an active college running back lining up in the Super Bowl. At Le Mans, well-heeled amateurs get to compete in the same race as the best drivers in the world. 

As you might expect, this frequently creates some memorable moments—and serious crashes. But it also kind of makes sports-car racing a true sport of the people, or at least moneyed people—for better or worse, and depending on your stock portfolio.

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