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Enduring the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans with Cadillac Racing

24 hours of le mans cadillac race car
Enduring the 100th 24 Hours of Le MansCaleb Miller - Car and Driver

For the first time in two decades, Cadillac returned to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, fielding three cars in the top class at this year's edition of the world's most prestigious endurance race. Cadillac has history at the iconic Circuit de la Sarthe—most notably with the unorthodox "Le Monstre" that ran in 1950—but hadn't competed in the World Endurance Championship's crown jewel since the Northstar LMP program of the early 2000s.

For 2023, the American automaker was back, thanks to new regulations allowing for crossover between the top classes in WEC and IMSA, America's endurance series. We tagged along with the Cadillac Racing team for the grueling but rewarding marathon.

Compared to most racetracks, the Circuit de la Sarthe is colossal. Consisting of 38 corners and spanning 8.5 miles, the track is partly run on public roads, which remain open until just before the on-track action begins. The first 24 Hours of Le Mans was in 1923, and the race forms the Triple Crown of Motorsport along with the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500. Legendary locations like the Mulsanne straight, Hunaudières, Arnage, and the Porsche Curves have immortalized many racing drivers as heroes.

24 hours of le mans racing
Caleb Miller - Car and Driver

Qualifying occurs the week before the race, with the best cars battling for pole position in their respective classes on Thursday evening. Friday is one of the busiest days, the pit lane becoming frantic as teams strip down their cars, inspecting each element to ensure that they will last the entire 24 hours. Some teams entirely replace engines, either out of an abundance of caution or due to problems in qualifying. After a fire on Thursday, the number 3 Cadillac—driven by Sébastian Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Renger van der Zande—was forced to start fresh with a new motor.

24 hours of le mans cadillac race car garage
Caleb Miller - Car and Driver

On Friday, there is also a drivers' parade through the city of Le Mans, which was founded during the Roman Empire. The narrow, ancient streets quickly become packed with fans hoping to get a glimpse of their favorite drivers, who ride along in vintage vehicles, waving to the throngs of people and occasionally hopping out to sign autographs and pose for selfies. The Corvette team and the fleet of classic Vettes that followed are among the most popular entries, with fans pleading for the drivers to rev the V-8 engines and even a few chants of "USA, USA" breaking out.

24 hours of le mans
Caleb Miller - Car and Driver

2023 marked the 100th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and fans turned out in droves for the centenary, setting a new record with 325,000 spectators. While endurance racing isn't as popular as Formula 1, its fans are among the most passionate in motorsport. Many brandish flags and banners for their team of choice, and a group of young women call to every driver by their first name, waving and jumping with unbridled enthusiasm. Other fans, like the couple pictured above, show their appreciation for the history of the event.

24 hours of le mans
Caleb Miller - Car and Driver

On Saturday, the cars line up on the grid before fans pour onto the front straight, swarming the vehicles. The grid is absolutely packed, busier than Times Square with barely any room to move. The three Cadillac V-Series.R race cars attract lots of attention with their striking red, blue, and gold liveries, as does the bright yellow Corvette which sat on pole position for the LMGTE AM class. After parking their cars, the drivers try to escape the hectic grid before they get mobbed.

24 hours of le mans cadillac race car
Caleb Miller - Car and Driver

The pre-race ceremonies last for hours, with a tense, anxious energy emerging from the stands as the start draws near. After the grid is cleared, the French national anthem plays as thousands joyously sing along. Military helicopters swoop above the track, with a soldier zip-lining down to deliver the French flag that will be waved to start the race. Delivering the command to start the engines and waving that flag was this year's honorary starter, LeBron James, who drew cheers as he acknowledged the fans. A flyover follows, with jets spouting the smoke in the French "tricolore" behind them.

24 hours of le mans
Caleb Miller - Car and Driver

The race start is chaotic as all 62 cars dive into the first corner, inches apart. While the front straight is dry, rain begins pouring down at the Mulsanne chicane on the back end of the track. With the cars on slick tires, the drivers tip-toe through the deluge, but Jack Aitken in the No. 311 Cadillac is caught out by the tricky conditions, careening into the wall and damaging the front end. As he limps back to the pits, another car spins out and gets stranded in the gravel, bringing out an early safety car.

24 hours of le mans cadillac race car
Caleb Miller - Car and Driver

Due to the sheer size of the Circuit de la Sarthe, the race uses an unusual caution procedure. Many incidents are simply covered with waved yellow flags from the marshals, warning approaching drivers that a car is off track ahead. More serious incidents lead to "slow zones," where the cars must crawl along at around 50 mph and cannot pass. The full safety car is only deployed when major repairs are required for damaged barriers, which brings tractors and other heavy machinery onto the track.

24 hours of le mans
Caleb Miller - Car and Driver

Pit stops are also different than in other series. Unlike the sub-four-second stops in Formula 1, pitting at Le Mans usually takes around a minute if the tires are being swapped. The car must be precisely in its box to avoid a penalty, with teams repositioning the cars before starting their work to avoid penalties if the driver overshoots the box. Refueling comes first and cannot be done while changing the tires. The pit crew stands poised for when the fuel hose unhooks, and then sprints around the car, their wheel guns screaming as they attach fresh rubber. Many teams employ a trainer who leads the crew in a series of exercises to warm up their muscles ahead of the brief but high-intensity stops.

24 hours of le mans cadillac race car
Caleb Miller - Car and Driver

Every few hours the drivers swap out, with each driver only allowed in the car for four hours in a six-hour span. This adds an extra element to the pit stops, and since the three drivers are different sizes, the two smaller drivers bring foam seat inserts with them to ensure a comfortable driving position. A hollow honeycomb section in the center of the seat lets in some air, while a magnetic attachment atop the driver's helmet can be hooked up to a hose within the car to blow cool air into the helmet.