What's in a Name
LE MANS, France (June 14, 2012) - As one would expect from a course made up of public roads, the corners of Le Mans are not known by numbers but rather by romantic names. Some names are French, some English, but they all conjure images of danger, heroism and speed. Diehard race fans can name each corner of the 8.469-mile Circuit de La Sarthe by heart, but do you know where those famous names came from? A chat with Hervé Guyomard, circuit director at Le Mans for from 1971 to 2006, revealed the history behind the Circuit's most famous corners.
The longest straightaway on the circuit, the Mulsanne Straight is only referred to as the Mulsanne Straight by English speakers. The French refer to it as Ligne Droite des Hunaudières, because the road runs through the region known as Hunaudières. The road does eventually lead to the village of Mulsanne, but the race course makes a tight right-hand turn just before the village ? the Mulsanne Curve.
Since 1930, the road has been used as a laboratory of sorts for the government to test new road materials. According to Guyomard, it was the first road in France to use painted lines, which were originally added to help the race drivers see the long straight better at night and later to designate where cars could and could not pass. This painted line system was then adopted by all the roads in the country.
This year, the Mulsanne Straight was repaved; all 3.418 miles of it, all at once, with no joints or breaks. Drivers are hoping this will improve the Mulsanne in wet conditions.
During the second World War, the area inside the Mulsanne Curve, known as the Golf de Mulsanne, was used as a German camp. It housed as many as 7,000 people including British, French and Dutch prisoners, plus German officers.
"They made a school during the war for German officers," Guyomard said. "They had an orchestra with 300 people and a chorus."
The Germans also built a railway near the circuit that was a prime target for Canadian bomber planes. The only problem was at the high altitude the bombs needed to be dropped, the wind from the Atlantic Ocean pushed the explosives directly over the track.
The circuit was destroyed during World War II and took three years to rebuild after its conclusion. Bombs are still found around the circuit from time to time according to Guyomard.
In the 1920s, this corner was completely flat, but after thousands and thousands of passings by race cars and road cars, the corner began to bank - much like the corners of the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To stop the continued banking of the corner, track officials thought they should take a cue from Indy and add bricks underneath the road.
"I think some people go to the States and see Indianapolis with the bricks and the banking and they thought it was better to use bricks to block the earth under the tarmac," Guyomard said.
There are still bricks located under this section of the circuit today.
This section of the course used to be much faster, but was changed in 1971 after a series of driver deaths. When the first curve was added to this section, it was dubbed "Porsche."
"I think it was reference to the factory with the most wins at Le Mans," Guyomard surmised. "It's the same for the name of the small track, Bugatti. It's not sponsored. It's because Bugatti is a world famous carmaker."
The naming of the Dunlop Curve is simple; it's the turn closest to the Dunlop Bridge. Before the bridge was built, it was called the Grandstand Bend, because it was the site of the first grandstands erected at Le Mans. Today, the yellow grandstands in the corner, also carrying the Dunlop logo, are the only grandstands remaining from the post-war rebuild.
The final corner before returning to the Mulsanne Straight, Tetre Rouge means "red mound" in French and that's exactly what it is. The soil in that area of the circuit is from a rock with a red color.
This sounds similar to the red clay of Road Atlanta, home of Petit Le Mans ? destiny perhaps?
The 80th 24 Hours of Le Mans begins Saturday, June 16, at 3 p.m. local time, 9 a.m. ET. For updates, check ALMS.com, @ALMSnotes on Twitter and the Series' official Facebook page. Live timing is available here.
Photos courtesy of ACO