If you have been watching the 24 Hours of Le Mans last weekend, you have been witnessing something spectacular. People sometimes say something was history in the making, and although everything that we do is literally just that, the saying does sum up the centennial edition of the famous endurance race (which ended up being a 24h sprint race). From start to finish it had everything. Hours and hours of close racing, strategic pit stop battles, dramatic crashes, torrential rain, multiple lead changes in all classes, late-stage mechanical failures and a brand-new overall winner returning to the top step after almost 60 years! And to top it all off, title sponsor Rolex also had the audacity to unexpectedly launch a new and very cool edition of its legendary Daytona!
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is widely considered to be the greatest endurance race of the year, and it has been like that for ages. Ever since 1923, a full century ago, people have been battling it out on the roads near the town of Le Mans in France, against competitors, technical issues, and not to be overlooked, the weather. And in all 100 years of running (not 100 editions, as explained in our build-up to the race weekend), it’s a monumental challenge to get to Le Mans in the first place, let alone survive the brutality of racing for 24 hours non-stop, and maybe, just maybe, have a chance at winning the whole damn thing. Just going through the history books tells you amazing stories about all who have tried to be victorious, some of which I bet you haven’t heard of before.
With everything that went down in this year’s edition, it might just be one of the most memorable races in recent history. Think about it, we had Ferrari back on track battling it out with Porsche, we had a NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 running under the Garage 56 regulations, we’ve had torrential rain, dramatic crashes and much, much more. And if the way this centennial edition unfolded over the course of 24 hours, we’re in for an absolute treat in the coming years as for 2024 BMW and Lamborghini will also compete in the Hypercar class.
The Centennial edition
This year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans had everything. Of course, most of the attention goes to the top-tier category, the Hypercar class. Although this has been running for three years now, the Hypercar class of 2023 was the best we’ve had to date. The previous two years of the 24 Hours of Le Mans saw Toyota having little actual competition after several high-profile teams pulled out towards the end of the 2020s. But with Ferrari, Porsche, Cadillac, Peugeot and taking up the gauntlet for this year’s race, things were shaping up to be a monumental clash once more.
And fans were not disappointed, as from the very first moment cars hit the track, the rivalry was fierce and the racing was close. Just the fact Ferrari was back as a manufacturer after 50 years of absence was too good to be true. And as the Scuderia had to face tough competition from the French (Peugeot), Germans (Porsche) and Americans (Cadillac), it felt like it was 1966 all over again.
With pole position and second place overall snatched up by Ferrari, closely followed by Toyota, Porsche and Cadillac, the battle was on. And boy did it kick off on Saturday afternoon! From the get-go, it felt like an absolute sprint race. Toyota was hit with a pre-race weight penalty under the Balance-of-Performance regulations but nevertheless, took the fight to Ferrari throughout the entire race.
Traditionally, the race starts at 16:00 sharp with a rolling start of the entire field, class by class. The odd one out was the Hendricks Motorsport NASCAR Camaro, which started in 37th place, ahead of the LMGTE class. The track was declared wet for the start of the race, so tire options included intermediate and full wet compounds. However, everyone set off on slick tires. All cars set off fine, with the usual tussle between cars in the opening stages. Both Ferrari’s maintained their positions at the head of the pack but were immediately challenged by one of the Toyota cars, with Porsche, Peugeot and Cadillac not far behind. An early safety car bunched up the field again, after which the Ferraris and Toyota’s had a very close battle for the lead between all four cars. It would pretty much be like this throughout the entire race, with the occasional Porsche, Peugeot or Cadillac shaking things up at the front.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing, as torrential rain showers early in the evening saw cars skidding across the circuit like boats, with literally zero grip – and this is something famous pilot Mark Weber himself explained to our own managing editor Brice, who attended the race with Rolex. Not only Hypercars but also LMP2 and LMGTE cars struggled in the wet conditions. As night fell, more rain fell and teams switched to wet tires once more. On Sunday, the close racing in the Hypercar class continued, with occasional crashes and mechanical issues sidelining cars for periods of time, as happens in every endurance race. Despite this, Ferrari and Toyota remained close together and exchanged the lead numerous times throughout the race.
Crowning the winners
So who won in the end? Well, the race plaid out like a Hollywood movie basically, since after fifty years of absence Ferrari was victorious in its return race. This marks the first win for the Scuderia since 1965, as in the following year where Ford would finally break Ferrari’s stranglehold of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Car No. 51, piloted by James Calado, Antonio Giovinazzi and Alessandro Pier Guidi came across the finish line in first place overall, after 342 laps of racing. Second place would go to Toyota, proving that the GR010 Hybrid is still very much a force to be reckoned with. The gap was only 1 minute and 22 seconds, so quite close considering the full racing distance! Third place went to the Cadillac Racing team, which to me, shows how competitive this new Hypercar class is.
In the LMP2 class, the racing is always much closer as all teams basically run the exact same car. Each team can tweak the setup of the car within the regulations, but engines and chassis are the same across the board. Several big shunts caused slow-zones and safety car periods in the early hours of the race, and a lot of work for the crew to get cars back on track. The competition was closer than ever on Sunday morning, with front runners just seconds apart. The Inter Europol No 34 car, driven by Albert Costa, Fabio Scherer and Jakub Schmiechowski led the LMP2 class and started to build a healthy lead during the morning. A lead that would prove enough to take the top step in the class, with the Team WRT No 41 finishing on the same lap and the Dugueine Team No 30 car coming in third a lap down.
In the LMGTE class, things got feisty towards the end and resulted in a remarkable comeback of the Chevrolet Corvette C8.R of Nicky Catsburg, Ben Keating and Nicolás Varrone. At one point, they were a full 2 laps down from the lead but managed to claw their way back onto the lead lap and eventually take the lead! The Aston Martin Vantage AMR of the ORT by TF team came in second, with the GR Racing Porsche 911 RSR-19 claiming the last step on the podium. A shoutout must be given to the all-women Iron Dames team though, who battled for the lead throughout much of the race. A late brake change lost them a podium finish sadly.
And although the Garage 56 entry of Hendrick Motorsports was not officially able to compete for the win, as its modified Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 NASCAR ran under its own regulations, the team can certainly claim a moral victory nonetheless. The specially prepped car performed admirably and was able to occasionally put in lap times of around 2 seconds per lap faster than the LMGTE cars. The team of seven-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson, F1 World Champion and Rolex Testimonee Jenson Button and two-time Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller completed 285 laps in total and ran the full 24 hours. Jenson Button had this to say about the whole experience:
“The 24 Hours of Le Mans is always special but to be competing in the 100th anniversary was exceptional. What a race – it threw everything at s and came down to the smallest margins. For us to be as competitive as we were is incredible and it’s very emotional for everyone involved.”
The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona 126529LN
To make the weekend even more memorable, Rolex unexpectedly took the opportunity to launch a new variation of its iconic racing chronograph, the Daytona. In hindsight, it was the perfect coming together of Le Mans’s 100-year anniversary, and the 60th birthday of the Daytona. Going out of its usual ways of presenting watches in bulk and at annual fairs, The Crown decided to reveal the Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona 126529LN during the Le Mans race. And not content with simply a red 100 on the tachymeter bezel, Rolex decided to bring back some elements of the highly-desirable “exotic” or Paul Newman dial and give the watch an open caseback.
Technically speaking it is not much different from the regular Daytona as it follows the new style of the Daytona collection, introduced during Watches & Wonders earlier this year. That means the white gold case comes in a 40mm size and has a Monobloc Cerachrom bezel in black, edged with a band of 18k white gold. It does come with one little performance change under the hood, however. What normally is a chronograph 12-hour counter, has been geared down to become a 24-hour counter instead, thanks to a gear train reduction system of seven components. This also means the Calibre 4131 of the current Daytona is now known as the Calibre 4132. It all perfectly ties in with 24-hour endurance races such as Le Mans, but also the Rolex 24 at Daytona where it gets its name from. Below, a wristshot taken by Eric Collombin of Rolex France (@eric.collombin.pro on Instagram).
The new Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona 126529LN is released as a non-limited edition that will be added to the permanent collection. And surely the demand will be higher than the supply, even despite the EUR 42,407 price tag due to the white gold case and bracelet. What a way to celebrate a double anniversary!