How quick would F1 lap at Le Mans?

Allan McNish, Le Mans 24 Hours, Audi, 2008, 2, 470150

The Le Mans 24 Hours is underway at the 13.6km (8.4m) Circuit de la Sarthe. It’s an unusual track, dominated by the huge Mulsanne straight, and then looping back to the start/finish straight via a succession of straights and high-speed corners.

In terms of size it has no equal in Formula 1 – the next longest track (Spa-Francorchamps) is similar in character but half the length (7km).

Formula has never raced on the circuit and probably couldn’t. So how long would an F1 car take to lap it? Could it do a sub-three minute time? Let’s make an educated guess…

The leading cars in the Le Mans 24 Hours this year are Audi’s R10 and Peugeot’s 908. Both race in the Europe-wide Le Mans series and this year have already raced on three circuits that are on the F1 calendar.

By comparing their pole position times with the best times seen in F1 qualifying (which usually occur in Q2 when the cars use low fuel) we can get an idea of the approximate difference in performance between F1 and LMS cars:

Circuit Formula 1 Le Mans Series Difference
Spa-Francorchamps 1’45.070 (’07) 1’58.069 (’08) +12.37%
Monza 1’21.356 (’07) 1’31.875 (’08) +12.43%
Circuit de Catalunya 1’20.584 (’08) 1’31.875 (’08) +14.01%
Le Mans ? 3’18.513 (’08) ?

Comparing this year’s LMS qualifying times with last year’s F1 LMS times at Spa and Monza we get a very similar percentage difference in performance: the LMS cars are 12.4% slower, give or take 0.03%

Spa and Monza are also two of the fastest circuits on the Formula 1 calendar and are probably a better guide of lap times at the Circuit de la Sarthe than the Circuit de Catalunya, where the ratio of corners to straights is higher.

The LMS pole time at Catalunya this year was a fraction over 14% slower than the best time in F1 qualifying.

Stephane Sarrazin’s pole position time for Peugeot at Le Mans this year was a 3’18.513. Based on the difference between the F1 and LMS times at Catalunya this year, the projected fastest lap time by an F1 car would be 2’54.118.

However I think the gap between F1 and LMS cars would be wider at Catalunya than at Spa, Monza and the Circuit de la Sarthe. But even using the conservative difference of 12.4%, the F1 car would still be comfortably under the three minute mark.

Of course, this is an entirely hypothetical and crude mathematical assessment. Many things could influence differences in the time: track conditions, weather conditions and so on.

The only way to find out for sure would be for someone to take a modern F1 car out there. Unfortunately Formula 1 has only ever raced the short and unloved Bugatti circuit at Le Mans in 1967.

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20 comments on How quick would F1 lap at Le Mans?

  1. Alex1 said on 28th April 2013, 0:35

    I remember trying this in rFactor, with the Ferrari F2004 set up with minimal downforce and all intakes to the minimum allowable setting. The car was extremely fast in a straight line and I lapped the circuit at a little below 3 minutes.

    The problem that I see is that in real life I don’t think mechanics would go for no downforce like I did. But with a little more downforce, the car would be able to pick up the pace on the third sector, which consists of high speed curves.

    Still, the 2:30 time is highly unrealistic. I guess a modern F1 car (with the V8 engine) would be hard pressed to beat 3 minutes. Probably the pre-2006 cars which ran with the V10 could do it. Let us remember the 372 km/h that were achieved in the mid-2000s. However speed in 2012 was around 340 km/h, substantially slower.

    So to come back – I think the modern F1 cannot go below 3 minutes with any setting, but may be able to do a comfortable 3:10 (compared to the average 3:20 or LMP1 cars during qualifying).

    • Alex1 said on 28th April 2013, 0:36

      The 372 and 340 km/h speeds I was talking about were recorded on Monza. I forgot to say it in the original post.

  2. HoldenV8 said on 14th January 2014, 23:06

    It would be an interesting comparison, how quick would an F1 car be at Le Mans compared to an LMP. I remember reading an interview with Alan Jones after he finished 6th at Le Mans in 1984. He believed back then that the turbo F1 cars would be slower around the circuit than the Kremer Racing Porsche 956B he drove in the race with Vern Schuppan and Jean-Pierre Jarier, though he added he wouldn’t mind having a go at the place in a Williams Honda (the FW09).

    The difference between then and now is that the run under the Dunlop Bridge to the Esses is no longer taken flat out thanks to chicanes and curves put in to help safety and for the benefit of motorcycle racing. The Mulsanne is now split in 3 rather than the ultra fast 6km version where Roger Dorchy pushed his WM-84 Peugeot to almost 240 mp/h (the Porsche 956’s were hitting around 220-230), and the Ford Chicane is now a 4 turn complex rather than the 2 turns it was in 1984. The changes might work in the F1 cars favour in terms of lap times, but I guess we’ll never know unless the ACO gives Bernie a few banks full of money…..

    Just a small note. From what I remember reading way back when, a lot of the leading F1 drivers in 1967 didn’t like the Bugatti Circuit, they thought it was boring. Most wanted to use the full 24 Hours circuit, and if they had used the 13.6 km circuit it wouldn’t have been the longest on the calender. Nurburgring and Spa were both longer.

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