The Rolex 24 at Daytona and 24 Hours of Le Mans are two of road racing's most prestigious events. While both twice-around-the-clock enduros may appear similar for the obvious reasons, the two races each have its unique characteristics. The high banks at Daytona certainly differs from the long Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, and nearly half the race at Daytona is run under darkness, compared to a mere six hours at Le Mans. But from a driver's standpoint, which one truly defines "endurance?"
"I think in terms of intensity, Daytona is tougher," said two-time Rolex 24 winner Max Papis. "It's really tough because you're always passing people, the track is a lot shorter and it definitely demands a different type of driving. Le Mans is more of you racing against yourself and sometimes racing another car, while Daytona is you racing against cars every lap."
In the mileage department, Le Mans wins hands down. Last year, the victorious Audi R10 TDI covered over 3,226 miles, compared with the winning Chip Gansssi Racing Lexus Riley, which logged 2,473 miles. Even during its heyday, the most miles covered in the Rolex 24 were 2,712, back in 1992 by the winning Nissan R91CP. Full-course cautions and other variables factor into the statistics, but over the years, Le Mans has proven to be the faster race.
"You get to your top speed at four or five different spots on the track," Terry Borcheller said of Circuit de La Sarthe. "Daytona weather can sometimes be pretty frightening too, but my first Le Mans was in 2001, the year Jacky Ickx said it was the worst weather he'd ever seen there! I think a combination of all those things makes it a more difficult race."
The two circuits couldn't be more different from each other. Daytona's 3.56-mile combination infield road course and oval is considered a high-speed bowl of thunder. The famous 8.469-mile French circuit, on the other hand, is famous for its wide-open Mulsanne Straight, which is public road for 360 days a year.
"You can't really compare the two tracks," said GM road racing ace Jan Magnussen. "Le Mans is so long with so many straights where you can relax a little bit and get back into it. I think when you're in a GT car it's tougher at Le Mans because the speed differential is so much higher. When somebody comes up to you, 'poof', they'll fly by."
In terms of physical endurance, Magnussen feels more worn out after completing a stint at Le Mans, but admits the Rolex 24's new 3:30 p.m. start time could change things a bit. "This year, because the race starts later, that makes it harder because you've already had a long day before starting a 24-hour race," he said. "I liked it better when they started at 12 or 1 p.m."
Other factors come into play as well, including the use of technological advancements. Not only have cars generally become more reliable and sophisticated, innovations like track lighting have revolutionized 24-hour races at Daytona. Gone is the midnight darkness that's a fixture at Le Mans, making the 12-hour run in the "night" safer and generally faster-paced. At Daytona, there's also more freedom in the number of drivers allowed in each lineup.
"Physically, the tough thing about Le Mans is that you're only allowed to have three drivers," says Jorg Bergmeister, who has been victorious in both races. "So if you have a not-so-fast driver at Le Mans, you're pretty much doing it with two drivers. Then it gets pretty physical. [At Daytona], you can have up to five guys, so it's pretty relaxing for a driver."
Then, there are believers of an even more demanding enduro, the Nurburgring 24 Hours. Nestled in the Eifel Mountains of Germany, the annual marathon around the 15-plus mile, 73-turn Nordschleife circuit is touted as one of the most treacherous races in the world and is even nicknamed the "Green Hell."
"Nurburgring is the best track in the world for me," said Romain Dumas, who along with longtime co-driver Timo Bernhard have conquered the last two 24-hour battles at the 'Ring. "The strange point is that you have 240 cars around you, and the problem is the [diversity] of the cars. It's a very challenging track. You can have rain for 10km and a mix for 5km and the last 8km are completely dry."
So which is the toughest? The bottom line is each has its own characteristics, and while some drivers prefer one to the other, they all test the skill of man and machine. And after all, that's what truly defines an endurance race.