This weekend, the most important 86,400 seconds in motorsports will happen, and unless you're a meth-hoovering lunatic whose TV is stuck on Fox Sports or merely a garden-variety car dweeb, most of them will tick past without your knowledge.
Here's what you'll miss: the race is 24 hours long, it takes place in a shit-hole nowheresville part of France so obscure I couldn't find it on a map, and I'm here right now. It is the site of famous French military losses, and is today dotted with European fast-food joints, '60s-era block housing and bland stands of planted pine forests.
But there is a race course here that is 8.47 miles long—part track, part public roads. Every summer for the past 92 years it has been, by turns, an abattoir of death, a gladiator ring for settling alpha-male grudge matches, a setting for a film made by a men's magazine idol and the "Coolest Actor Ever," a complete snoozefest, and an actual crucible for automotive innovation (the list is long: seat belts, disc brakes, windshield wipers, the paddle shifter, etc., etc.). For spectators this is a long 24 hours—noisy, confusing, crowded, sun-blasted, rain-slashed, and populated by far too many bloated Englishmen who've towed filthy caravans through the Chunnel as an excuse to spend a besotted weekend away from their wives.
But the take away from any great running of Le Mans is the way risk rewards the rest of humanity. Do you care about Planet Earth? Then you should care about Le Mans, because this year, the expensive, elite prototype series (the LM P1s) is running four very different and mindbogglingly complicated (albeit efficient) hybrid engines. In the history of transportation, there has never been a more diverse set of futuristic drivetrains tested so rigorously at the same time. There is some sort of certainty that at least one of these many radical components will make it to not-so-radical factory floors where your next wife's grocery-getter will be built.
In NASCAR or F1, the car's shape and powerplants are in essence identical. In the LM P1 class, the rule book is thin, the variety headspinning. Each of the top three cars have a mid-engine configuration, but that's where the similarities end. To whit: Porsche is running a 2.0-liter, turbocharged V4 paired up with an 8-megajoule electric motor, two energy-recuperation systems and a lithium-ion battery pack; Audi has a 4.0-liter V6 TDI diesel and a 4-megajoule electric; Toyota is running a 3.7-liter V8 with a 6-megajoule supercapacitor. You follow?
"Sometimes innovation hurts."
Then there's the Nissan GTR LM Nismo, a race car so thoroughly uninterested in racing tradition that it has decided to go all-in on a configuration that would cause Elon Musk and Preston Tucker to do a spit take into each others' mouths. It is a front-wheel-drive, front engine car with a 3.0-liter V6 and a 2-megajoule electric motor that will eventually power the rear wheels. A single flywheel the size of a dinner plate is housed in a vacuum casing and spins at 52,000 rpms, carrying energy captured by the brakes back into the drivetrain in 3-second bursts. Or something like that.
The car's body conceals a series of wind tunnels that channel air inside and around the 18-inch front wheels and engine to create much-needed downforce on the smaller rear wheels, which are—for all intents and purposes—weightless, and that makes exiting corners a real bitch.
The complications of running such a system with so little testing (this is the GTR LM's first race) are so dynamic that even Ben Bowlby, the team's lead engineer who also masterminded Nissan's controversial Deltawing effort, is scratching his head the day before the race.
"Sometimes innovation hurts," Bowlby says. The cars are 20 seconds off the pace, and will get hit with a team penalty later in the day for failing to run close enough to their class leader, Porsche, which set an all-time course record during qualifying. "In motorsports, the rule is to put a blanket over the process of creating the cars. One of the things that Nissan has done now is to lift the veil and show people inside the process. It’s uncomfortable to do that in public."
So why are Nissan even here? Why are they spending the hundreds of millions of bucks developing a race team that faces humiliation on motorsports most public stage? Because someday—not today, but maybe next year, or the year after that—it'll cause the eggheads at Audi to scratch their own heads.
"The pain we’re going through is for the greater good, so to speak," Bowlby says. "By showing the world how we get to the end result, we feel just a little more comfortable. And when we start winning, we won't have to worry about the hurt feelings of others."