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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