How to make a Porsche dance at Le Mans
Le Mans might be famous for its long straights, but the corners are just as crucial to the lap time.
It’s race time: at more than 300 km/h, the Porsche 911 RSR hurtles down the D338 road from Le Mans towards Tours. In the two chicanes, which are a favourite spot for speed cameras, the ca. 515-hp GTE sports car rides the kerbs hard. Then, as fast as possible through the Mulsanne Corner and Indianapolis then onto the famous Arnage – the slowest part of the 13.626-kilometre Circuit des 24 Heures. Exiting out of Arnage, the driver hits the throttle early, and now needs every ounce of courage and experience. In a few seconds, the Porsche Curves loom into sight. Five ultra-fast direction changes that are both loved and feared by drivers, and represent the most spectacular section of the French endurance classic.
In the 911 RSR the Porsche Curves are over in a brisk 17.6 seconds
Le Mans is known around the world for its long straights and famous corners. Sweeps like Tertre Rouge and iconic features like the Dunlop Bridge get the adrenalin pumping in drivers and fans alike. However, there is another section that's even higher on the spectators’ list of favourites: the Porsche Curves. Interestingly, only the long right-hander (Turn 23) after Arnage was originally called Porsche. Now, the name also encompasses Virage du Pont, Esses du Karting and Virage Corvette. The flowing combination of two right-hand and three left-hand turns throws up major challenges for teams and drivers – when it comes to downforce and grip, the racing cars reach their absolute limit through this sequence.
“It’s definitely the most demanding passage at Le Mans – and it’s also the one that is the most fun for drivers,” says Jörg Bergmeister. The recently retired works driver and Porsche brand ambassador scored a GTE-Am class win at Le Mans in 2019 with the Project 1 customer team. “Although the cars are set-up for low downforce for the long straights, we shoot through the curves doing over 200 km/h in the Porsche 911 RSR.” The 1.029-kilometre stretch between the 30th and 33rd marshals' posts is all over in a brisk 17.6 seconds. And despite constant cornering, the average speed is over 210 km/h. “We take the first right-hander in fourth gear, change up to fifth for the next two left-handers, then back down to fourth. It’s a real spectacle,” explains Bergmeister, who raced at 17 Le Mans times between 2002 and 2019.
In the Porsche Curves the average speed lies at over 210 km/h
“If you want to be fast over an entire lap at Le Mans, you have set a very fast pace on the long Mulsanne straight,” emphasises the Head of Operations Alexander Stehlig. “We aim to reach over 300 km/h on the straights. This makes overtaking easier, and that’s important at Le Mans. To do this, the Porsche 911 RSR – like all the other cars – is trimmed for very low drag. This means little downforce. It’s a dilemma, because we actually need maximum downforce, particularly in the fast Porsche Curves.” Why is the setup not adjusted to what's required in the fast corners? Easy – the potential lap-time gain would never be able to offset the disadvantages of a slower pace on the long straights.
“Based on the low downforce setup, we still have to ensure that the car is well balanced for cornering,” says Stehlig. “And that’s tricky because, through the Porsche Curves, drivers play with the throttle pedal. Sometimes they drive at half-throttle, sometimes they go full-throttle. That results in load changes and pitching – where the front of the car sinks as soon as there’s less thrust. This shifts the aerodynamic balance forward. The car then turns in quickly, but this can easily lead to oversteer, and no one really needs that there. So we make sure that the aerodynamic baseline is as stable as possible and therefore the car remains predictable. That’s the key to success on this part of the track.”
Head of Operations Alexander Stehlig
In the five curves, the speed fluctuates within the relatively narrow range of 189 to 228 km/h. In each curve, the centrifugal forces reach 2.29 to 2.42 g. Other data also under-scores just how fast the Porsche Curves are: in terms of distance, it makes up 7.5 per cent of the entire lap. And yet in terms of time, at just 17.6 seconds to get through the five-curve combination at speed, the Curves are only four per cent of the entire lap time. In keeping with the name of this spectacular passage, speed is the trump card. Under normal conditions, the best place for fans to watch the action is from the nearby ferris wheel. “From that vantage point, everyone can see that it’s not simply about gentle sweeps. The Porsche Curves are tight, you experience brutal g-forces. Sitting in the cockpit, the barriers, which are often very close to the track, make the legendary passage look even faster. It’s a dream for real racers,” enthuses Bergmeister.
“For me, driving through the Porsche Curves is like dancing with the car,” Gianmaria Bruni says about his experience. The Italian works driver knows exactly how to master the world famous passage at the absolute limit. In 2018, Bruni turned in a sensational lap on the way to pole position. At the wheel of the Porsche 911 RSR, he lapped the 13.626-kilometre circuit in just 3:47.504 minutes – and promptly set a record for GTE vehicles. “When something like that works and you cover this part of the racetrack with its five corners in just 17.3 seconds, it’s hugely satisfying for us drivers. For me, there’s hardly a better feeling,” explains the three-time Le Mans class winner. “It only happens when everything comes together perfectly: fresh tyres in the optimal operating window, ideal wind direction and no traffic to overtake in the Porsche Curves."
Gianmaria Bruni knows how to master the world-famous passage at the absolute limit
As soon as two vehicles follow each other here, time will be lost. “When you encounter a slower car, it’s hard to get past. If it’s a prototype that overtakes you, downforce is lost for a moment, you get annoying understeer and at least two-tenths of a second goes down the drain,” says Bruni. Since the vehicle has to be perfectly balanced through the Porsche Curves, understeer costs speed. Completely reliable turn in is essential for the rapid direction changes that happen at over 200 km/h – for safety reasons, as well. “The barriers and run-off zones were changed again and again in recent years, but the basic characteristics have remained almost the same. The Porsche Curves represent an old-school passage,” emphasises Jörg Bergmeister. “Which means, even with sealed run-off zones and the SAFER barriers, sliding off the track there will very probably result in a write-off. Therefore, a controlled attack is the key to the Porsche Curves.”
As soon as two vehicles meet in the fast passage time is lost