The estimated 260,000 spectators will once again make their annual pilgrimage the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the ramshackle canvas shanty towns will spring up to house the vast majority of them. The city's own population of around 150,000 will be eclipsed by the huge influx of visitors. Most, though, undoubtedly won't be coming to see the historic Cathedrale St-Julien, remnants of a Roman wall in the old town or the Roman baths adjacent to the river. Instead, the hundreds of thousands of fans flock to Circuit de La Sarthe, to enjoy a historic race in its own right.
There are two separate racing tracks at Le Mans, although they share certain sections. The smaller is the Bugatti Circuit, named after Ettore Bugatti, founder of the car company bearing his name. The Bugatti Circuit is a relatively short permanent circuit which is used for racing throughout the year. The longer and more famous Circuit de la Sarthe is composed mainly of public roads.
The name Circuit de la Sarthe comes from the Sarthe department, the area that Le Mans is within. The track itself has changed over the years and currently is 13.65 km, or around 8.5 miles in length. The track initially entered the town of Le Mans but was shortened on safety grounds leading to the creation of the Dunlop Curve and Tertre Rouge corners before it rejoins the old circuit on the Mulsanne straight.
The original 5km long Mulsanne straight had two chicanes added when the FIA ruled it would no longer sanction any circuit which had a straight longer than 2 km. The public road sections of the track offer a real challenge to drivers as heavy traffic in the area makes them less than smooth. The road sections are closed only a few hours ahead of the qualifying sessions and the race and are opened again almost as soon as the race is finished. The safety barriers are added and then removed every year for the public road sections.
The spectacle of the 24 Heures du Mans is organised by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO). The event is a true test of car and driver's speed and endurance and has built up a legendary reputation and a cult following. The race has been the subject of a number of films including the major motion picture released in 1971 simply titled "Le Mans", starring Steve McQueen as a driver in the 1970 event driving for the Gulf Porsche team. The 1969 event, known for its close finish, was documented in a short film entitled "La Ronde Infernale". This was given a limited cinema release.
The first 24 Heures du Mans held on May 26-27, 1923 and has since been run annually in June. There were exceptions in 1956, when the race was held in July, and 1968, when it was in September. The race has been cancelled in its history, once in 1936 during the Great Depression and from 1940 to 1948 due to World War II and its aftermath.
The city of Le Mans itself was the birthplace of Henry II of England. Henry was the first of the 'House of Plantagenet' to rule England and was born in the French town in 1133. He ruled as King of England from 1154-1189.
Sebastien Bourdais was also born in Le Mans. The French Toro Rosso Formula One driver is a four-time Champ Car World Series champion. Bourdais has enjoyed success at his home circuit, having competed in the twice-around-the-clock French classic on a number of occasions. His best finish has been a second, at the wheel of a Peugeot 908 Hdi-FAP in 2007.
Over the years, many manufacturers have managed to take the overall win. The most successful marque in the history of the race is Porsche. The German sports car manufacturer succeeded in taking 16 overall victories, including seven in a row from 1981 to 1987.
The 76th running of the race is scheduled to start at 3:00pm on Saturday, June 14.