How Le Mans is taking drivers off the F1 scrapheap – and gaining Max Verstappen’s attention

Romain Grosjean of France attends the drivers's group photoshoot prior to this year's Le Mans - How Le Mans is taking drivers off the F1 scrapheap – and gaining Max Verstappen's attention
Romain Grosjean has found a new home - Getty Images/Ker Robertson

More than 100,000 British fans are expected to make their annual pilgrimage to the Le Mans 24 hours this year, though they would be forgiven for thinking they had mistakenly stumbled upon the French Grand Prix.

Almost 20 grand prix drivers have now found a good home in sportscar racing and will take the drop of the Tricolor on Saturday. Though the introduction of hybrid technology in 2014 attracted a lot of grand prix drivers, including Fernando Alonso, who won here with Toyota in 2018 and 2019, this bumper roster is something unusual.

Some, such as Robert Kubica and Romain Grosjean, are household names but there are many others competing from a more modern era, including the likes of Nyck de Vries, Stoffel Vandoorne and Mick Schumacher, who are each driving for one of the nine manufacturers entered this year.

Le Mans, part of the FIA World Endurance Championship, is one of the great prizes in motorsport, alongside the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix. Only Graham Hill has won all three. “To win them all, that’s bad---,” says Grosjean, the former Haas, Renault and Lotus driver who is proud of his record to have just started each of these events.

The 38-year-old Frenchman will compete for Lamborghini this year, the first time that the Italian supercar manufacturer has contested for overall victory. He lines up in the team alongside former Red Bull driver Daniil Kvyat, who is taking his second start at the race. The pair are not one of the favourites to win, but they are part of the driving squad tasked with developing the car ready for next year.

Grosjean believes that many of the current crop of Formula One drivers will follow the race this year, including Max Verstappen, who has made no secret of his desire to race here. There is already a Verstappen-liveried motorhome in one of the Le Mans campsites here, picturing the No 33 Red Bull that the Dutchman races before inheriting the world champion No 1, although it is believed it may belong to father Jos rather than the reigning F1 champion.

“They will be watching as there is Porsche, Lamborghini, Cadillac, Ferrari, Peugeot, Toyota, Alpine, Isotta Fraschini and BMW,” says Grosjean. “It’s not missing a lot to be incredibly good.”

Grosjean first competed at Le Mans in 2010 in a privateer Ford but it has taken the return of Lamborghini for him to return alongside his new IndyCar career. “My first comment after that was that I wanted to come back,” says the Frenchman. “It took 14 years, I got busy, but here I am.”

The track is unique, partially made up of public road and at more than 13 kilometres, it is one of the longest in modern racing. The Mulsanne Straight is still tree-lined, making the circuit seem narrow as the cars hit speeds of more than 300km/h. “It is nice to drive at night in Le Mans,” says Antonio Giovinazzi, currently a reserve driver for Ferrari’s Formula One team and who is the defending champion at Le Mans after their surprise win in 2023.

The iconic Dunlop Bridge at Le Mans - How Le Mans is giving drivers a path off F1 scrapheap – and gaining Max Verstappen's attention
The iconic Dunlop Bridge is one of the most famous landmarks at Le Mans - Getty Images/Ker Robertson

“It is really dark here, there are only the lights from the car which makes it difficult for the braking references and for overtaking. In the dry it is not too bad, but when it is raining it is three times more difficult. It is tricky and you need to survive, and it’s the same for everyone, how much risk you want to take there.

‘“This is the closest to a Formula 1 car that you can race, but it is a different kind of racing,” says Giovinazzi. “You drive a car for six, eight or 24 hours, you have traffic every lap, so the focus you have in this race is more on where and when to overtake to lose the least amount of time possible.”

Competing at Le Mans for the fourth time, is Kubica. The Polish driver won the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix, a highlight of a grand prix career cut short by a crash while rallying ahead of the 2011 F1 championship. He had a contract signed to join Ferrari in 2012, but his crash ended that ambition.

Despite a brief return to F1 after his accident with Williams, he turned his hand to sportscar racing and came close to winning his class at the 2021 event before his car broke on the last lap while leading. Now, in front of watching Ferrari F1 boss Fred Vasseur, he will go for overall victory for the first time, sharing his bright yellow 499P with young drivers Yifei Ye and another of Ferrari’s reserve drivers, Robert Shwartzman.

“For me, to be here as a part of AF Corse, and crew of 83 cars, it is a privilege,” he says. “When I was in F1, a lot of people talked to me, said ‘Le Mans you have to try it’, that it really is something special. To be here with a 499P Ferrari is another thing that is special. It is emotional.”

The Pole says that competing in multiple disciplines makes a driver more complete, but acknowledges that these prototypes have similarities to grand prix cars, which is part of the attraction.

“Hypercars are miles away from Formula One in terms of performance, but on the systems side, it reminds me of what we had,” says Kubica. “The reality is that the 24-hour race is long, the car and reliability is not the same as in the past, you had to take [more] care [of the car]. Here it is a sprint of 24 hours, but as a driver you have to push but keep in mind that everything has to last as long as possible.”

Button aims to join select group

Meanwhile, Jenson Button is seeking to join a select group of F1 champions to also win at Le Mans.

Just five drivers have won both titles, most recently Fernando Alonso in 2019, but Button is in one of the fastest cars this year at Porsche, and his Jota team will start the race full of confidence having won the previous round of the FIA World Endurance Championship at Spa in May.

“It’s great to be here in a car that should be able to win the race if everything goes right and you know that you have unbelievable competition,” said Button, 44, who drove a prototype in the race in 2018 and most recently drove a version of a NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro last year.

Jenson Button of Great Britain and Hertz Team Jota Porsche attends the drivers group photo during previews for the 24 Hours of Le Mans
Jenson Button is a serious contender at this year's Le Mans - Getty Images/Ker Robertson

“Five or six years ago it was still great, but you don’t have the competition like you have today. There’s nine OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], 23 Hypercars racing, it’s nuts. It’s the most competitive it has ever been. We have had many manufacturers racing in the past, but to have so many fighting for overall victory, endurance racing is in a great place right now.”

Button will drive the Jota Porsche with Dane Oliver Rasmussen, 23, and compatriot Phil Hanson, 24. Their car will start 17th on the grid, but he will not take the tricolor at 4pm local time, waved this year by footballer Zinedine Zidane, leaving that to who he considers to be his more experienced team-mates.

“This is only the third time I have been here, one of my team-mates is 24 and it’s his seventh time,” says Button. “It’s crazy how young people are starting here. When I first raced here it was more to get race experience and hopefully race with a manufacturer afterwards, but then my racing in Japan took over, and then Covid hit and so it never happened.

“Last year was such a cool year with the NASCAR and I really enjoyed Le Mans but I really wanted to do a full season and that’s when I started talking to Jota, here in Le Mans, about a full time drive in 2024.”

The Hertz Team Jota Porsche 963 of Jenson Button, Philip Hanson, and Oliver Rasmussen in action during Le Mans Test Da
Button's Jota Porsche team test run their cars at Le Mans - Getty Images/James Moy Photography

This is Button’s first full-time programme since 2019 when he competed in the Japanese Super GT series. Since then he has driven in various endurance races, including the Petit Le Mans in a Porsche, and the Daytona 24 hours in January in an Acura, when he finished third.

“I am living in the moment, and enjoying what I am doing, a full season again. It has been a while, 2019 was the last year I did a full season of racing, getting the balance right with family as well, which is never easy.

“[The World Endurance Championship is] eight races, and I added Daytona which is basically the whole month of January, so it has been busy. I’m in a good place, and working with Hertz Team Jota, they are such fighters. It is amazing that they can take it to the manufacturers, it is spectacular.”

The Jota team, which has been consistently competitive against the manufacturer teams, did get one car into the final qualifying session, but could not take part in it after Callum Ilott set a time good enough to get in before crashing heavily, damaging the survival cell of the car.

The team has rebuilt the car over the last two nights and intends to run it on the runway of the airport opposite the track on Friday night before the race.

The mechanics have put in two night shifts to get the car ready for the race, alongside also preparing Button’s car for the 24-hour race.

Whatever happens this weekend, Button says he hopes to be back next year. “I feel that this is a new career for me,” he said. “Racing Formula One for 17 years, this is something completely different.

“I won’t look back if I don’t win Le Mans with regret, but I am here to win and to enjoy it, that’s the point of it. At this point of my career I am lucky that I get to do something that I love to do, and that’s the whole point of racing here and WEC.”