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Le Mans: A unique laboratory for testing automotive technology

The Proton Competition Porsche of Stephane Lemeret, Klaus Bachler and Khaled Al Qubaisi drives during the Le Mans 24 Hours race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 18, 2017 in Le Mans, France.

Ker Robertson/Getty Images

With 300,000 in attendance and millions more watching around the world, failure at the 24 Hours of Le Mans can be a painfully public experience.

Toyota discovered that last year and Mercedes-Benz years before, when its cars started becoming airborne.

So why do so many car manufacturers embrace the risk-reward challenge that is the world's oldest endurance race? Because it's a unique laboratory – where data and technology are developed that will find its way to road cars.

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Le Mans has been the focal point for development of automotive technology, from early road-paving technology, disc brakes, hybrid engines and, most recently, LED headlight technology.

Porsche, for one, has a long history with the Circuit de la Sarthe; there are even the infamous and breathtaking Porsche Curves, a section of the track that veteran drivers describe as "not the place to have an off."

Racing is conducted in both the top-tier LMP1 category, with its 919 Hybrid sports prototype car, and in the LMGTE class, where race cars and road cars share a much closer resemblance.

"The carry-over is an interesting point in Porsche Motorsport because we're developing the GT cars and the race cars in the same department under my leadership, so we look always on carry-over," says Frank-Steffen Walliser, vice-president of motorsport at Porsche. "A lot of the suspension technology, especially on the damper, we learn a lot for the setup of the car … I would say [to] look at the new cars from Porsche in a year and you'll find features that are 1:1 in the street car from the race car."

By having road-car and race-car development develop under one roof, technology transfer is natural.

"The aero guys are the same, suspension guys are the same, they're doing the street car and doing the race car. It's the same team," Walliser says.

Also, road-car technology can find its way to the racetrack. The radar and camera system used by the Porsche team this year is derived from its road cars.

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So what does the future hold, and what can be learned from a car that seems so far removed from a daily driver, such as the LMP1 919 Hybrid?

"By the end of this decade, Porsche will launch its full electric e-car," says Michael Steiner, a member of Porsche's executive board. "For this, we learn a lot from our LMP race car."

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