PistonHeads presents our very own list of Le Mans Heroes - 10 cars and 10 men who have made their mark on the classic French endurance event.
Few cars had the stamina for such a lengthy campaign as Porsche’s 956 and, by proxy, its 962 descendent. Six victories as Le Mans represent just the tip of a particularly large iceberg: the last win came a full 12 years after the first. Conceived for the new-for-1982 Group C regulations, it outlived the formula for which it was created and few cars are more evocative of the era than a 956 in Rothmans livery. That the model was campaigned at la Sarthe by the likes of Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell, Hans-Joachim Stuck, Hurley Haywood and assorted Andrettis only adds to its lustre. A copper-bottomed, blue chip legend.
Backtrack to the early ’60s and it appeared likely that Ford would acquire a sizable stake in Ferrari. Ultimately, the Detroit giant was snubbed at the altar and this unlikely union never happened. Outraged, Henry Ford II and his right-hand man Lee Iaccoca ushered in the TotalPerformance programme. Ferrari was going to pay - and how. Key to the scheme was a Le Mans challenger, Lola’s Eric Broadley effectively taking a year’s sabbatical to pen the GT40. After a hesitant start, this beautiful brute triumphed in 1966. It was just the opening salvo as the model won the 24 Hours every year until the end of the decade. Ferrari hasn’t scored since…
The ‘C’ part on the nomenclature tellingly stood for ‘Competition’. Jaguar’s first out-and-out racer, this glorious sports car nonetheless was derived from the contemporary XK120 production model. Its twin-cam straight-six was tuned to produced around 200bhp, and clothed in an aerodynamic(ish) outline. And the C-type won in France at its first attempt, with Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead triumphing in 1951. Two years later, the model scored again, this time with Duncan Hamilton and former Colditz prisoner Tony Rolt going the distance. This was also the first time the race had been won at an average speed of over 100mph (105.8mph to be precise).
It wasn’t meant to be a racer. When it was conceived, there was nowhere for the F1 to race. Then GT racing was rebooted in 1994 and a reluctant McLaren was cajoled into assisting its customers who wanted to race in the ’95 running of the 24 Hours. Though only expected to be challengers for class honours, the sheer reliability of the Woking wonders saw the fancied sports-prototypes vanquished by the chequered flag with the Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing entry taking the spoils. It’s likely the only occasion when the principal sponsor of the winning car was a vasectomy clinic…
This bestial Flat 12-powered sports-prototype gave Porsche its first win at la Circuit de la Sarthe in 1970. Altogether more remarkable was that it had been developed from scratch in just ten months – and some 25 were made to appease homologation requirements. It was even offered as a production model at the Geneva Motor Show! Though prone to flexing, and spookily unstable at high speed, the 917 swiftly became a favourite of drivers with inter-team rivalries between works-blessed squads making for sparkling battles. And that’s before you factor in its starring role in the Steve McQueen vehicle, Le Mans.
It wasn’t meant to happen. Nobody expected it to happen. Mazda’s victory in the 1991 running of the 24 Hours was a major coup for the Japanese marque. Not only had it beaten Nissan and Toyota to become the fist – and to date only – Japanese firm to win outright, it was also the first manufacturer of any nationality to triumph with a non-piston engine. The rotary-powered 787B driven by Volker Viedler, Bertrand Gachot and Johnny Herbert displayed surprising pace and even more unlikely reliability to lead home the Jaguar squad. And then rotaries were promptly banned, the silencing of these sonic cleavers allowing those attempting to get some shuteye near the Mulsanne Straight a little respite.
So far this decade, Le Mans has been an Audi benefit with the R8 first winning in 2000 before taking four further victories. That the fallow years in its seven attempts fell to the closely-related Bentley Speed 8 and its R10TDI descendent tells you everything: there wasn’t much competition. And on the rare occasion that any plucky rival got within sniffing distance, Audi still won. Short of requiring the German marque to field cars with artillery wheels, there wasn’t much organisers could do to hobble the R8’s remarkable speed and reliability. This being the car that won 50 ALMS races… Dominant and then some.
Dismissed by Ettore Bugatti as being ‘The world’s fastest lorries’, pre-war Bentleys nonetheless kicked the Milan-born motor mogul where it hurt. The Cricklewood marque took four consecutive victories in the 24 Hours from 1927-1930, the ‘Blower Bentley’ being the most famous of the firm’s output prior to its acquisition by Rolls-Royce in 1931. Unfortunately, ‘famous’ is no synonym for ‘successful’, the supercharged model proving unfeasibly quick but only as long as it lasted. Instead it was the 61/2-litre model that got the job done. There wouldn’t be another win for the marque until 2003. And that was with the decidedly Germanic Speed 8.
Lotus founder Colin Chapman always was one for breaking moulds and pushing envelopes and rarely more so than with this brave GT. Powered by a 1.2-litre four-banger, and of glassfibre monocoque construction, this decidedly left-field tiddler claimed its first class triumph at Le Mans in 1959. Five more category wins would follow, all of them consecutively. Additionally, the Elite claimed the Index of Thermal Efficiency twice against favoured French rivals. Such was the model’s dominance that when Chapman rocked up at scrutineering for the 1962 race armed with his new 23 model, the organisers found umpteen new and inventive ways of disallowing it. Chapman never returned with a works team.
Aston Martin RHAM/1
Ever since the first Aston arrived at Le Mans 81 years ago, over 100 examples of the breed have attempted to win yet the triumph tally remains static at just one victory back in 1959. The marque’s continued participation in the 24 Hours has been due largely to the efforts of enthusiastic amateurs, even if their labours haven’t always been rewarded. Robin Hamilton got further than most, the Derby man taking a 1969 DBS and modifying it of all recognition into RHAM/1. He finished 17th in the 1977 running, returning two years later with Le Petit Camion (as the French dubbed it). This time his car was armed with twin turbochargers. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been time to fit an intercooler…
And the men...
A winner in everything from Formula 1 to endurance rallying, Jacky Ickx is nothing if not an overachiever. A peerless sports car driver, the Belgian won the Le Mans 24 Hours on six occasions. His maiden victory – in 1969 – was the most memorable. Vehemently opposed to the then traditional start procedure whereby drivers sprinted to their cars before jumping aboard and tearing off, Ickx chose to amble. He was last away, which was fortuitous as he missed out on the first lap accident that claimed the life of Porsche driver John Wolfe and ended the career of Willie Mairesse. Sharing with Jackie Oliver, Ickx’s Ford GT40 fended off Hans Herman’s Porsche 908 to win by 110-metres…
Alain de Cadenet
Despite the French-sounding name, London-born ‘de Cad’ did more than anyone to maintain British interest in the 24 Hours during the 1970s. At a time when manufacturer interest had dwindled to nothing, he and a ragtag bunch on likeminded enthusiasts began competing at Le Mans in 1972 with the Duckhams Special. Based on an obsolete Brabham BT33 F1 car, and penned by future McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray, de Cadanet built the entire car for less than £5000 and tested it at over 200mph on the M4! It placed twelfth. He ran cars at la Sarthe until 1981, his eponymous team’s best finish being third place in 1976.
One of motor sport’s greatest ambassadors, ‘Dinger’ had been chewed up and spat out of Grand Prix racing by the time he won Le Mans in 1975. That initial triumph for the Gulf squad didn’t bring about any great reversal of fortune for the jobbing freelancer. His second victory in 1981 undoubtedly did. Driving for the factory Porsche team, he was subsequently taken on as a full-time works driver and claimed three more wins that decade along with two World Sportscar Championship titles. Oh, and three victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona. More recently he was a consultant to Bentley’s Le Mans programme.
A Le Mans legend – a Le Mans local, this mercurial Frenchman won the 1980 running alongside Jean-Pierre Jaussaud. In doing so, he became the first – and to date only – man to ever triumph in a car bearing his own name. That year’s event was also among the wettest in the event’s history. Ultimately, he would never win there again, although he did finish second in 1984 aboard Preston Henn’s Porsche 956. His eponymous team had by this time run out of money. Rondeau died in December 1985 after he attempted to jump a queue at a level crossing. His car was struck by a train at unabated speed.
This multifaceted Dane has won in every discipline he’s ever attempted but his success at Le Mans is belief-beggaring. He won the race at his first attempt in 1997 for the Joest Racing team and has since conquered the endurance classic a further seven times. All the more remarkable is that six of his triumphs were consecutive (2000-2005). His victory last year was particularly impressive as he had been forced to sit out most of the previous season following injuries sustained from a monstrous shunt in a German Touring Car race. The 40-something is to concentrate solely on sports cars from next year. His rivals should be worried.
A useful (if over-hyped) wheelman in real life, ‘The Cooler King’ never competed in the 24 Hours. He did, however, make the movie Le Mans which gave rise to an upsurge of interest in the great race. Roping in a roll-call of big name drivers to realise his vision, both Derek Bell and David Piper were involved in terrible accidents during staged sequences: the former received facial burns, the latter lost a leg. Poorly received on its release in 1971, the movie has nonetheless become required viewing for all race lovers and few real-life drivers have ever been as compelling as McQueen’s Porsche-driving hero, ‘Michael Delaney’.
Remembered primarily for his unwitting role in the apocalyptic accident that killed him and 82 spectators in the 1955 running of the 24 Hours, this Parisian veteran deserved better. Born Pierre Bouillon, he was a talented sportsman in various arenas before taking to motor sport and in 1951 he placed fourth overall in the 24 Hours. A year later he drove his Talbot-Lago single-handedly for 23 hours. With a four lap lead in his pocket, Levegh wasn’t to be rewarded after he wrong-slotted in the closing stages. Fatigue had likely gotten the better of him although he never talked publicly about the cause of his retirement: it hurt too much to dwell upon it.
This prolific racer and engineer pulled off an improbable class win in the 1962 Le Mans 24 Hours aboard his self-prepared Morgan. A year earlier, the event organisers had thrown out his application on the grounds that his car was ‘too old’ and ‘not in keeping with the spirit of the race’. It later transpired that Triumph’s competition manager had used his influence to get the application overturned as he didn’t want competition from Lawrence’s Triumph-engined roadster. For 1962, Lawrence persuaded Morgan to back him as a ‘works’ entrant and his bid was finally accepted. It would take a further 47 years before Morgan would win again at international level.
A pre-war sports car great, Chinetti won Le Mans in 1932 and ’34 for Alfa Romeo. After gaining American citizenship, he became Ferrari’s US concessionaire and also claimed the Maranello firm’s first 24 Hours win in 1949 aboard a 166 roadster. Nominally sharing with Lord Selsdon, he drove for 231/2 hours, and gave the fledgling Ferrari marque a much-needed image boost. After retiring as a driver, he fielded cars under the North American Racing Team (NART) banner for a roll-call of aces. As a team owner, Chinetti would claim Ferrari’s last outright victory at la Sarthe in 1965 with Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt taking a surprise win in an aging 250LM.
Unlike archrival McQueen, Paul Leonard Newman did actually compete in the 24 Hours. Famously discovering a passion for motor sport after making rubbish race flick Winning in 1969, he began competing while already the wrong side of 40. What’s more, he was a natural, winning several Sports Car Club of America titles. Keen to participate at international level, he completed the distance in the 1979 running of the 24 Hours aboard a Porsche 935. Teamed up with Rolf Stommelen and the car’s owner Dick Barbour, he placed a remarkable second overall. And this despite the paparazzi blocking his way in pit stops and causing him to lose valuable time. He hated the attention and never returned: it wasn’t worth the aggro.