Since 1923 the Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans has always used large sections of public road, it has long been part of its uniqueness, its charm, and indeed of the challenges it places on the race organisers, the competitors and the local population.
Few recall now though that over 40 years ago there was a real likelihood that the full circuit could have been made a permanent motorsport facility.
It’s a prospect that came back into focus last year as the ACO ‘privatised’ the short section of public road track going from Indianaoplis to Arnage corners.
Theories abounded as to the scope of the ACO’s ambition in this area – but is there really a prospect of such a plan coming to fruition? Mat Fernandez dug deep to find out, and started with those earlier plans
Rare private collectors and ACO archives record the most recent attempts to establish a fully dedicated track back to the late 60s and early 70s.
As a 1969 preliminary study revealed, in wording that reads in a most 21st century fashion, the purpose was to “provide optimal safety conditions for drivers, spectators and local residents while allowing constructors to get the best conditions for marketing their effort”.
The study assumed that safety improvement could be reached by bypassing most public road sections, by providing a greater and better access to the track for medical staff or fire fighters and by introducing a modern TV/Radio communication network. The other motives behind the creation of a fully dedicated race track were to provide a year long testing ground for competitors and to increase the comfort level of the fans, whose population was growing steadily.
This 1969 preliminary study presented three alternative track options to the one used at the time (Track 1969.1, 1969.2 and 1969.3). All three short-circuited the Mulsanne/Hunaudieres straight. Yet, the three track alternatives offered a shorter replica of the famous straight, starting from the Tertre Rouge all the way down to the Northern extremity of the Mulsanne golf course.
After this parallel Mulsanne straight, track layouts offered various alternatives, some of which were influenced directly by the presence of a race course (Track 1969.2 and 1969.3 – both below) and the near absence of houses.
Mulsanne, Arnage, Indianapolis and Maison Blanche sections were no longer part of the picture in these projects.
The idea of a fully dedicated race track matured in 1970 and 1971 (Track 1972 – below). Budgets were granted and plans for building a new track were publicly announced. This new circuit still kept the shorter replica of the Mulsanne/Hunaudieres straight, only this time followed by a right hand corner, leading the cars to a section comprised between the current Mulsanne and Indianapolis sections.
Arnage corner remained in the layout while the fast yet dangerous Maison Blanche segment was bypassed. Works kicked off as planned late 1971/early 1972 with the construction of the new section known today as The Porsche Curves. These works including the new Mulsanne straight were supposed to be completed by the end of 1974. Unfortunately, this project came to a halt as France entered in recession as a consequence of the first oil crisis of 1973.
The ACO confirmed to DSC that there has never been any serious attempt to convert or adapt the current 24 Hours of Le Mans track into a fully dedicated circuit ever since. This is in some way not a surprise as the track’s public roads environment has become significantly more complex over the past forty years :
In the early 90s, Member of French Parliament Francois Fillon (the brother of Pierre) lifted the ban on the installation of significant businesses in the vicinity of the Mulsanne straight.
Shopping malls have blossomed ever since. The impressive but controversial football stadium, a concert hall, a multi purpose sports complex and several restaurants were also built.
This business network is now an indispensible and significant contributor to the 24 Hours of Le Mans business success (according to Jean-Pascal Gayant in his book ‘Economie et Sport’, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is now the second largest revenue generator for a recurrent sports event in France, behind the Rolland Garros French Open tennis tournament but ahead of the Tour de France). It triggers significant amounts of revenues, taxes as well as hundreds of jobs for the neighbouring cities who face ramping unemployment and endemic public debt.
In turn, privatising this piece of the track any time soon is essentially inconceivable.
The environment of the section between the Mulsanne Corner and the beginning of the Porsche corner section has not followed a similar path. Yet, obstacles including golf course, houses and farms remain in the vicinity of the track.
The Syndicat Mixte des 24 Heures which is the public organisation in charge of managing large investments for the Circuit de la Sarthe would have to compensate businesses or inhabitants and likely pay for building alternative public roads should the ACO want to further privatise this part of the track. Crucially the Syndicat’s budget is currently entirely insufficient to do so: it maintains the Circuit de La Sarthe with an average 1.5 to 2 Million euros budget each year. It is fed by public institutions (the city of Le Mans and the Département of La Sarthe for instance) who are currently struggling to keep their debt levels under control while keeping local tax payers content. All of that combines to mean that raising this budget significantly over the next few years would be a very tough challenge indeed.
For all these reasons and without a major shift towards reliance on private funding to develop the track, the prospects of having a fully dedicated Circuit des 24 Heures du Mans anytime soon are extremely slim.
The confounding factor though is the ever looming debate over safety, the need to continue to demonstrate efforts at ameliorating safety risks on this unique and storied track will remain.
That is likely to lead to continued efforts at adapting pieces of public roads used for racing from Mulsanne corner to Indianapolis and from Arnage to the beginning of the Porsche curve sections. As such, works done in 2016 between the Indianapolis and Arnage corners could be a good illustration of what fans should expect to see in the near future.
Trackmap artwork copyright Mat Fernandez/ Dailysportscar.com
With grateful thanks to Dan Hounsell and Nicolas Pelletier (ACO-Service Patrimoine)