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BMW Art Car 35th Anniversary

24 Hours of Le Mans: The Ultimate Challenge

The Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) calls – and the most famous automobile manufacturers in the world answer. Since its premiere on May 26th-27th in 1923, the 24-hour race in Le Mans has been one of the most important racing events in the world. BMW celebrated its biggest success at the “Circuit de la Sarthe” in 1999 when Pierluigi Martini (IT), Yannik Dalmas (FR) and Joachim Winkelhock (DE) took overall victory in a BMW V12 LMR prototype. In 2010, BMW will once again face the challenge of this endurance classic. Eleven years after its triumph in the LM P1 category, the Schnitzer Motorsport team is once again aiming to challenge for a top position. Team BMW Motorsport will this year enter the competitive LM GT2 class with the BMW M3 GT2.

To mark its comeback at the Sarthe, BMW is bringing a storied tradition back to the track: the BMW Art Car Collection. One of the two BMW Motorsport BMW M3 GT2 racing cars will feature a design from American artist Jeff Koons. “I always thought it would be an honor to work on a BMW Art Car,” says Koons. “I look forward to participating in a tradition started by such great artists as Calder, Lichtenstein, Stella and Warhol.”

In 1975 the auctioneer and racing driver Hervé Poulain (FR) came up with the idea of having BMW racing cars designed by famous artists. Alexander Calder (US) got the ball rolling with the BMW 3.0 CSL – 15 further works of art on four wheels were to follow. Koons now joins the illustrious list of Art Car creators. Five of these impressive cars have raced at the 24-hour race in Le Mans. The greatest sporting success came in 1979 when a BMW M1 designed by Andy Warhol (US) crossed the line in sixth place overall.

The ACO only accepts 55 entries each year. Despite the relatively small field compared to the 24-hour race at the Nürburgring, the marathon in Le Mans cannot be beaten when it comes to excitement. The GT2 category alone features 17 ambitious teams. With the BMW M3 GT2, BMW is challenging the top contenders from Ferrari and Porsche. They are joined in 2010 by another newcomer in the form of Jaguar. The competition from Aston Martin and Spyker also is determined to make the racing in this class more exciting this year than in 2009, when nine of the first ten cars over the line were Ferraris. The LM GT2 category can be expected to be more fiercely fought in 2010 than in recent years.

Well over 200,000 spectators will turn the 13.629-kilometer circuit into a Mecca for motorsport on June 12th-13th. Awaiting them will be more than just a captivating 24-hour race. The so-called “Le Mans” week begins on the Sunday before the start with the technical inspection in the center of the town.

At the debut of the 24-hour race in Le Mans in 1923, on a circuit over 17 kilometers long at the time, France’s André Lagache and René Leonard were immortalized as they became the first-ever winners. The two exhausted drivers impressed the world with what was at the time an astonishing average speed of 92.064 km/h.

In the early years, the cars could only have two drivers. Only the drivers were able to undertake repair work, and the tools and spare parts had to be carried on board the car. Even today, regulations forbid drivers from accepting help should they encounter problems while out on the track.

In contemporary times, the cars in Le Mans are driven by three drivers, but the strain of the race is no less enormous. When the endurance classic ends at 16:00hrs on the Sunday, almost all drivers, mechanics and team management will have about 30 hours of non-stop hard work behind them. Le Mans does not allow for breaks. Very few competitors find time to grab a couple of minutes sleep during the spectacle.

Those wishing to drive had to be able to run: the classic Le Mans start made its debut in 1925. The cars were lined up at the top of the pit lane. On the starting signal, the drivers had to run to their cars, get in, start the engines, and pull away. This was a top-class spectacle, which remained on the Le Mans program until 1970. For safety reasons, the famous marathon at the Sarthe has been opened with a rolling start since 1971.

The line-up grew continuously and the interest shown by manufacturers and racing teams was immense. The field and cars became more and more diverse. This resulted in the division into different classes. Today, the field is split into two prototype classes LM P1 and LM P2, as well as the LM GT1 and LM GT2 categories for racing cars based on series models.

For the first-ever Le Mans 24-hour race in 1923, the ACO set up a 17.292-kilometer circuit in the south of the city. It took on a similar form to the track used at the A.C.F. Grand Prix two years earlier. Back then, the racing cars had to master a tight hairpin in the city district of Pontlieue, raced along the main street towards Tours, and turned back towards Le Mans in the town of Mulsanne.

The circuit layout has changed very little since that first race all those years back. In 1932, the ACO acquired land in the south-east of the city and added the “Esses” and the now infamous “Tertre Rouge” to bend around the downtown area. This reduced the total length of the circuit by about three kilometers.

A serious accident in 1955, in which 84 people were killed, resulted in further modifications to the circuit in order to put the emphasis on the safety of drivers and spectators. Run-off zones were added and the width of the track reduced. However, the “Circuit de Sarthe” has retained its high-speed character.

In the 1980’s, cars reached top speeds of over 400 km/h on the 5-kilometer “Hunaudiéres” straight. For safety reasons, two chicanes have been added over the years. But a high top speed remains the key to a quick lap in Le Mans. The average speed of cars in the LM P1 class is around 240 km/h. Cars in the GT2 are clocking average speeds of approximately 200 km/h.

Unlike in the early years, however, traction and a well-balanced set-up are now equally essential for anyone wanting to achieve quick lap times. In the winding complex after the start-finish straight, which features the famous “Dunlop” corner, the cars must remain stable. In the tight “Tertre Rouge”, “Mulsanne” and “Arnage” corners, as well as in the “Ford” chicane, a mixture of good traction and bags of engine output are required. Even today, the quick “Porsche” turns separate the winners from the losers.


June 13, 1999 will always be an important date for BMW Motorsport. This was the day the manufacturer achieved the first ever triumph at Le Mans with an open sports car. Pierluigi Martini, Yannick Dalmas and Joachim Winkelhock crossed the finish line as champions in their BMW V12 LMR at the end of the 24-hour marathon.

BMW celebrated this victory in a year, in which the race in Le Mans probably featured a more competitive line-up than ever before. In qualifying, the BMW Motorsport drivers had to play second fiddle to rivals Toyota, but the BMW V12 LMR really came into its own over the full distance.

Even back then, the BMW Motorsport technicians had recognized that efficiency is essential in Le Mans. For that reason, the prototype was not only designed for speed, traction, reliability and downforce, but the emphasis was put on economy. Tom Kristensen (DK), JJ Lehto (FI) and Jörg Müller (DE) and the eventual winning trio benefited considerably from this approach, particularly in the early phase of the race.

Because the BMW V12 LMR could travel one lap further than the opposition on a full tank of fuel, the two LM P1 racing cars from Munich soon pulled away from the opposition – a lead they maintained right through to the finish. After the closed McLaren F1 GTR sports car had emerged victorious with the BMW V12 engine back in 1995, the further development of this engine contributed to the first overall victory for a BMW works car. By the end of the 24 hours, the winning team of Martini, Dalmas and Winkelhock had notched up 366 laps of the 13.6-kilometre circuit in their BMW V12 LMR.

In the BMW garage, there was an overwhelming feeling of delight, but also consolation: the second BMW V12 LMR with Kristensen, Lehto and Müller on board had been forced to retire after an accident with just four hours of the race remaining, after having led the field for 18 hours.

The BMW V12 LMR also made waves away from Le Mans: what the McLaren F1 GTR and its BMW V12 engine had started in the mid-1990’s in the FIA GT Championship, the prototype continued in the American Le Mans Series from 1999 onwards. Armed with the 580 bhp 6-liter V12, BMW enjoyed six victories in the ALMS in 1999 and 2000.

Schnitzer Motorsport was also responsible for the BMW V12 LMR back then. In 2010, the team returns to the scene of one of its greatest successes for BMW.


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