The 20 greatest sportscar drivers

It’s the middle of the night and you’re pulling over 200mph. Are you up to it? 

20 Klaus Ludwig

Klaus Ludwig/Paolo Barilla/John Winter (Porsche 956) at Le Mans in 1985

Joest the man: famous back-to-back victories in this 965 cap Ludwig's stellar career Photo: Motorsport Images

Keystone of Joest’s successive Le Mans wins in 1984-85, Klaus was one of the very fastest, most reliable sportscar drivers across three decades.

But his world championship wins were limited by a lack of works drives; had he been with the factory Porsche team before '87, his CV would have matched anyone's. Just look at his record outside of global events: one of the few to master the 935 in the 70s, he had phenomenal success in German sportscar races, taking 29 wins in the DRM to add to his record 36 DTM tin-top victories and seven Interserie wins. He also won four IMSA rounds for Ford in the '80s, Sebring '88 in a Bayside-run 962, and later the FIA GT crown.

Karl Ludvigsen: I suppose I shouldn't be so charitable, since he called my Ford C100 the worst car he ever drove! But in spite of that, he led our team with commitment and, just as importantly, charisma. One hell of a racer

19 Martin Brundle

The race winning number 3 Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-12 of Martin Brundle at Le Mans 24 Hour Race, Le Mans, France. 16-17 June 1990.

Slick silk: Brundle had a third stint at Jaguar 1990, scoring two WSPC victories Photo: Motorsport Images

In the late 1980s, the Briton proved himself to be the best of a quality driver line-up that brought Tom Walkinshaw's factory Jags so much success.

His Group C career was usually a safety net for when he fell off the Formula One merry-go-round, but he was truly quick and a natural leader. The 1988 season was his best: a Daytona 24 Hours IMSA win, then five WS PC victories to clinch the world drivers' title. Returning to TWR in 1990, his number one status was proved when he was switched to the winning car at Le Mans to rack up a Sarthe success. Once his F1 days were over in the 1990s, he enhanced his reputation by spearheading Le Mans attacks for Nissan, Toyota and Bentley.

Dave Price: Quick, consistent and very safe, Martin was everything you wanted from a sportscar driver. His other great strength was his ability to drive a project forward; he got the best out of everyone.

18 John Surtees

John Surtees in his Ferrari at 1965 Nurburgring 1000 kms.

Eifel Tower: Surtees on his way to Nurburgring glory in 1965, with pole and FL already bagged Photo: Motorsport Images

Not only were Ferrari’s F1 fortunes turned around by Surtees, the Briton was at the heart of the Scuderia's efforts to stave off the Ford flood in sportscars in the 1960s. During that period he was the marque's undisputed number one, routinely its fastest driver. Four championship wins do not do him justice at Le Mans in 1963 and '64 he led into the second half only to fall out. His tally of fastest laps and pole positions is a better indicator of his talent. Each year he'd drive away from the field at the Nordschleife (he won twice) and at the wet Monza 1000Km of '66 he was 6sec a lap quicker than the rest. Add a Can-Am title aboard a Lola 170, and his sportscar CV begins to shine.

Rainer Schlegelmilch: What made Surtees so good was his intrinsic competitiveness. He was fast on all circuits especially the Nürburgring he took pole and fastest lap four years in a row which naturally made a big impact on me

17 Tony Brooks

Tony Brooks in his Aston Martin DBR1 at Goodwood 1958

DBR star: drifting to a Goodwood TT win in 1958, heading up a 1-2-3 for Aston Martin Photo: Motorsport Images

Clearly, this Briton is the least statistically qualified driver to secure a place in our Top 20 taking just two world championship wins. But stats aren't everything...

It's one drive that stands out his victory in the 1957 Nürburgring 1000Km. A works Aston Martin driver since '55, Brooks had raced with distinction in a DB3S that was outclassed by the opposition The DBR1 was a different proposition, however and on the daunting Nordschleife, he left a top quality field trailing in his wake.

His smooth, unflurried style was perfect for sportscars, but it was a discipline that he pursuer less vigorously than his contemporaries. Shame.

Paul Fearnley: Okay, so he hasn't got much of a remit in this company, but can you think of a smoother, more mechanically sympathetic, level-headed superstar? No, me neither. He'd have been fantastic in a 917

16 Mario Andretti

Mario Andretti leading in his 512S Ferrari at Sebring 1970

Super Mario: building a 13-lap lead in a 512S Ferrari at 1970 Sebring: he'd win in a sister car Photo: Motorsport Images

His genius behind the wheel of all types of car is legendary, and so it was natural for sportscars to fall under his spell. It was a discipline he loved, too, albeit one that he never concentrated on - it always played second fiddle to F1 and IndyCars.

In sportscar racing's golden era, 1966-73, Mario always took in the Daytona and Sebring enduros and, against top-notch opposition, grabbed pole at the latter track four times in six years. He won it on three occasions, too, his heroic comeback in 1970 being the most satisfying victory of his career.

Had he done more sportscars, he would have won more, while his attempts to prevail at Le Mans in later years have added a twist to his story.

Henry Hope-Frost: The fact that Jacky Ickx was happy to let Andretti get on with qualifying their Ferrari 312PB speaks volumes about Mario's talents and the respect he was accorded by his sportscar peers. Enough said.

15 Juan Manuel Fangio

Juan Manuel Fangio prepares to roll off at the 1955 Mille Miglia

Single-seater minded? Fangio prepares to start the 1955 Mille Miglia Photo: Motorsport Images

He wasn’t much cop in sportscars, right? It’s true that Stirling Moss had 'The Maestro' tucked up in the two-seater stakes, but that doesn't make him a bad sportscar driver.

There is no question that single-seaters were what turned Fangio on, but you don't win a Carrera Panamericana and two Sebrings – the second at the wheel of a brakeless Maserati 450S – without an aptitude for the genre. He rarely tapped into his special reserve, yet was a regular front-runner. And when he did dig deep, he uncorked one of the greatest drives of its type, completing the second half of the 1953 Mille Miglia with just one wheel steering on his Alfa Romeo. He was second.

David Burgess-Wise: The sheer fluidity and elegance of Fangio's driving left lasting impression on me. He was a courteous, modest gentleman, a wonderful ambassador for the sport whose record speaks for itself.

14 Vic Elford

Porsche 908/3 of Vic Elford races past spectators on the streets of Sicily during the Targa Florio 1971

Martini shaker: Elford applies all his uncanny skill on 1971 Targa Florio in the little 908/3 Photo: Motorsport Images

He may only have a modest tally of world championship victories to his name, but look where Elford scored those successes: he prevailed at the Nürburgring on three occasions, and claimed a win on the Targa Florio, too. That tells you everything about his skill and bravery.

Elford called upon unfathomable reserves of determination to produce almost superhuman performances witness his comeback drive on the Targa Florio in 1968; he didn't just break the lap record as he strove to regain time lost to two loose wheels, he destroyed it by more than a minute. And while Rodriguez and Siffert are thought of as the 917 men, Elford was their match in the Salzburg car.

Hugh Chamberlain: Vic was a guy who could get in anything and be quick He didn't always have the best car, but he still won some of the most prestigious and most challenging races. You don't do that by accident.

13 Brian Redman

Brian Redman in his Matra at 1971 Le Mans

Strife of Brian: another Le Mans failure awaits in 1973 - blown engine ending chase of Matra Photo: Motorsport Images

He famously turned down number one status in a factory Porsche 908/2 in 1969 to partner team leader Jo Siffert instead. Why? Because that way, Redman figured, he'd win more races. He was right, too: the duo won eight times in two years. This forged his reputation as a fine number two which, along with fate decreeing that he'd never win Le Mans, means that his abilities tend to be undervalued.

His pragmatic, safe approach, his willingness to only do as much as was required to win, made him a team manager's dream. But he could also be the star witness him pulling out 2min on Rodriguez's Ferrari to win the 1969 Nürburgring 1000km, or dragging BMW's CSL to victory at Daytona in 76.

Tim Scott: Laid-back attitude and superb ‘aprés prix’ antics disguised his inner steel and will to win. Mighty, brave and truly quick, if Lady Luck had granted him a Le Mans win the wider world would call him a legend.

12 Stefan Bellof

Stefan Bellof in his Porsche 956 during the Brands Hatch 1000kms 1983

Brilliant Bellof: during his first year as a works Porsche driver in 1983 Photo: Motorsport Images

The young German races sportscars for only two and a half seasons. Twenty races, in fact. But he won nine of them, and set the same number of poles and fastest laps. An unmatchable ratio. Simply, he was the fastest, and with his factory Porsche partner Derek Bell as the perfect, calming foil, was unstoppable on his way to the 1984 world title.

Of course, his fearlessness was also ultimately his undoing: he suffered a fatal shunt at Eau Rouge in 1985 while taking the fight to the factory cars in his customer 956. If this hadn't happened, clearly his long-term future lay exclusively in Formula One, but those who saw him in sportscar action have been left with an indelible imprint.

Mark Hughes: It's not about repeating yourself, it's about proving your level — and Bellofs level was extraordinary. He took Group C driving onto an entirely new plane, leaving the establishment fumbling in his wake.

11 Jochen Mass

Jochen Mass prepares to board his Porsche 935 at 1977 Silverstone

Quick Silver: Mass prepares to board the Porsche 935-77 that he shared with Ickx to victory in 1977 Photo: Motorsport Images

Statistically, the German is bettered only by Ickx. A 20-year career reaped 32 championship victories, along with a win at Le Mans in 1989. Of course, it was his record-breaking 19-win partnership with the great Belgian in factory Porsches from 76-85 that elevates him among the greats. Sure, Ickx was quicker, but Mass more than held his end up — 14 poles don't come lightly — and he was just as mistake-free. It created an ideal partnership.

He was also a senior figure in Mercedes' brief domination of Group C and, although by then not quite as quick as Jean-Louis Schlesser, scored another 10 victories in arguably sportscar racing's most competitive period.

Gary Watkins: There were faster drivers, and there were those who were tactically stronger, but Mass still had an overflowing armoury which made him a catch for any top sportscar team.

10 Henri Pescarolo

Henri Pescarolo leads the field in his Matra-Simca MS670B at 1973 Spa-Francorchamps

Matra of moment: Pesca leads the field at Spa '73 Photo: Motorsport Images

‘Pesca’ races sportscars for nearly 35 years, a career that encompassed a record 33 Le Mans starts — and 21 world championship victories — but it is to his four wins in the French 24-hour classic that he owes his place in history. His run of success at La Sarthe with Matra in 1972-74 is the only hat-trick between Olivier Gendebien's of the 1960s and Audi's winning trio of the present decade.

It's true that Pescarolo found himself in the right place at the right time, a lynchpin of the increasingly serious Matra sportscar squad, but without the correct mix of speed, mechanical sympathy and tactical acumen, he would not have made such good use of this golden opportunity.

Andrew Frankel: Uncommonly brave, staggeringly durable and he made me love the sound of the Matra V12 more than any other noise on earth. Just think of all those blasts down the Mulsanne — incredible!

9 Bob Wollek

Bob Wolleck during the 1981 Le Mans in his Kremer Racing, Porsche 917K/81.

Retro cheek: Wollek aboard the Kremers' resurrected Porsche 917 Photo: Motorsport Images

The sheer weight and breadth of his sportscar successes over 30 years earned him the 'Brilliant Bob' tag. Beyond his 11 world championship wins, he scored 33 victories in German/Interserie events, and eight IMSA wins, including four Daytona 24 Hours and one Sebring. The perversity of his failure to win Le Mans (four times the runner-up!) became almost as celebrated a part of his career.

The Frenchman is one of only two drivers in our Top 20 never to race in F1, but he was genuinely quick, and great at fuel conservation. Although a Porsche stalwart, he only raced sporadically with its factory team — more often, he was the best of the rest in a customer car.

Jürgen Barth: Bob had fantastic determination and knew how to set up a car for a long-distance race. Combined with his smooth driving style, this explains why he was so economical on the fuel.

8 Hans Stuck Jnr

ans-Joachim Stuck in his Sauber SHS C6 Ford at 1982 Spa-Francorchamps

Sauberman! Thrilling the crowds as always at Spa '82 Photo: Motorsport Images

His achievements in the world championship perhaps shouldn't really put Stuck Jnr in such exalted company though his sportscar successes on the other side of the Pond and at home in Germany made him one of the stand-out drivers of his era.

Hans may have claimed the title with Porsche in 1985, but he notched up only eight wins, and that's including his two triumphs at Le Mans. But what he lacks in statistics he makes up for in style. Stuck was as flamboyant on the track as he was off it. An ebullient character in the paddock, he was a hard charger on the other side of the pitwall, someone who was not afraid to hang the tail out.

A performer in all senses of the word.

Laurence Foster: He had so much flair. In a way, in BMWs and Saubers, his style was the prototype for Bellof: When he was in the car, you knew things would happen. And I loved the fact that he never got slower as he got older.

7 Olivier Gendebien

Paul Frère / Olivier Gendebien, Scuderia Ferrari SpA, Ferrari 250 TR 59/60 at Le Mans 1960

Frere today: skimming along to the only win at Le Mans that he did not share with Hill, P Photo: Motorsport Images

The first of the great sportscar specialists. This Belgian was a fine grand prix driver, but when he got the chance, he concentrated his energies on endurance racing, mainly with Ferrari. His reward was four Le Mans victories in five years and had there been a drivers' title back then, he would have won five on the trot! He won all types of events – two Reims 12 Hours, three Targa Florios, three Sebrings and a Nürburgring 1000km – and in a perilous era, his partnership with Phil Hill, forged via the deaths of other Ferrari drivers, was enduring and highly successful. His ability to maintain a metronomic race pace at a time when cars had to be nursed was highly prized.

Adriano Cimarosti: His record of victories in the most important endurance and road races is very impressive. He was a hard driver, but smooth, too he knew how to manage the capabilities of his car.

6 Phil Hill

Phil Hill wins Le Mans 1958 in his Ferrari 250R

Testa, one, two, three: celebrating the first of three Le Mans victories with Gendebien, 1958 Photo: Motorsport Images

He won an F1 title with Ferrari, but it was in sportscars that the Californian excelled. He loved grappling with big-engined cars and built up an enviable record during his seven years with Ferrari. His partnership with Gendebien was one of the all-time greats and – Hill was the quicker of the two.

He quickly established himself among Ferrari's endurance elite with a victory in the 1956 Swedish GP, and his drive in the wet at Le Mans in '58, and demolition of the Nürburgring 1000Km field of '61 (lopping 16sec from Stirling Moss' lap record), were truly inspired performances.

His victory in Jim Hall's Chaparral at Brands in 1967 was a fitting finale to a glittering career.

Quentin Spurring: He wasn't born to become America's first Formula One world champion, he was born to race big, powerful sportscars. He was the outstanding driver of Ferrari's Testa Rossa programme.

5 Jo Siffert

Jo Siffert in his Porsche 908 at Nurburgring 1971

'Ring twice: 'Seppi' on his way to victory in the 908 around the 'Green Hell' Photo: Motorsport Images

The fastest of all? Certainly, men who shaded the Swiss in F1 had to bow to his brilliance when the wheels were covered. A powerful force in Porsche's emergence as a sportscar cornerstone, once its 907 and 908s were competitive, he wrung their necks – conservatism took a dive, it was flat chat all the way. Result: 13 wins in three yews (and two drivers' titles had there been points). Okay, the missed shift while leading Le Mans in 1970 cost him dear, but he could win long races: Daytona and Sebring in '68 proved that.

The image of Jo and Pedro side-by-side at Eau Rouge in their 917s is frozen in time. Ground effects and fuel conservation just wasn't ‘Seppi’, was it?

Eoin Young: Jo was simply swiftness personified with a lid on. He only knew one speed, and while that was not always what John Wyer, asked for, that's what he got! A very successful driver, and a nice man with it.

4 Derek Bell

Derek Bell on his way to victory at Le Mans in the Porsche 962

To be Sarthe specific: Bell on way to victory at 1986 Le Mans Photo: Motorsport Images

It’s easy to forget that Britain’s most successful sportscar driver had to overcome a long, lean period to accomplish the achievements with the factory Porsche team in the 1980s that projected him to legend status. He had even been toying with the idea of retirement not long before a call-up by the Weissach marque in '81 reaped a second Le Mans victory alongside Jacky Ickx. As the GpC era was ushered in, Bell scored three more Le Mans wins and two world drivers' titles, as well as a trio of Daytona 24 Hours victories across The Pond.

Of course, among Bell's attributes were the ability to pace himself and his car to survive long-distance races unscathed, and mistakes were almost unheard of But Bell was also genuinely quick in his own right. The JW Automotive team was highly impressed with his speed in its Porsche 917 in 1971, with which he racked up his first two world championship wins. He then led the Mirage team with distinction against the odds in the mid-70s, and it was a great endorsement for him that Ickx asked for Bell to be his co-driver for their '75 Le Mans triumph. Factory Alfa and Renault rides proved his stock was high, but a malaise in sportscar racing in the late 70s led to thoughts of retirement...

He was tailor-made for the GpC era, though, his fuel-saving expertise complementing his smooth speed, and he scored 13 wins with Bellof and Stuck, as well as 19 IMSA victories in the USA.

And when the hammer needed to go down, as with his last-ditch chase of Holbert at Le Mans in 1983, there was still few quicker at La Sarthe.

Michael Cotton: In his prime, Derek was blindingly quick; I remember Matra drivers Beltoise and Pescarolo telling me that they couldn't believe how fast he drove the Mirage. That was more Derek than the car. He was still quick in the GpC era and so dependable. The perfect sportscar driver.

3 Pedro Rodriguez

Pedro Rodriguez drives his Porsche 917 during 1971 Brands Hatch 1000kms

Mexican causing waves: pouring rain at Brands was Pedro's day in the sun Photo: Motorsport Images

The little Mexican is to sportscar racing what Gilles Villeneuve is to F1: the hard-charging hero who possessed bucket-loads of natural speed, flair and bravery - the romantic's choice.

Best remembered aboard the Gulf Porsche 917, trading paint with team-mate Siffert on the plunge into Eau Rouge, the debate as to which of these two was better is endless. But there is an argument that his 1970 partnership with Leo Kinnunen was less well-balanced than the Siffert/Redman combo yet Pedro scored four wins to Jo's three that year. And his performance at the 70 BOAC 1000Km is simply one of the all-time great drives: you know, grey skies, pouring rain, black flag pitstop to chat to officialdom, red mist, victory by five laps.

There's no doubt that Rodriguez always relished a battle on track, but he wasn't reckless – he was a highly experienced endurance driver who knew how to look after a car; winning 24hour races at both Le Mans and Daytona. Indeed, bearing in mind he made his first Le Mans start aged 18, his talent deserved more success. From the start it was dear that he was special, but despite a brace of podium finishes in a two-year-old Testa Rossa in '61, he spent the next six years driving customer Ferraris for NART. A Le Mans pole in '63, and wins in Daytona and Reims 12-hour races were scant reward for regularly being the fastest Ferrari driver, bar Surtees. It was John Wyer who changed that: the call-up for Le Mans '68 led to a win, and Ferrari and Porsche works drives.

Only 31 when he died at the Norisring, there was so much more still to come.

David Malsher: No-one in any branch of the sport in any era could have done what he did that day at Brands. And then he almost topped it at the Österreichring the following year. No-one should have been able to make Ickx look slow in a Ferrari sportscar in 71. But Pedro did.

2 Stirling Moss

Stirling Moss makes a pit stop in his Aston Martin DBR1 during 1958 Nurburing 1000kms

Stirling performance: Nordschleife win in '58 began hat-trick Photo: Motorsport Images

Moss in a sportscar was peerless. Full stop. Okay, a little explanation. Whereas Fangio was certainly at least his match in a grand prix car, in a two-seater Moss was head and shoulders better than everybody. And he didn't prove this just on occasion with isolated heroics – time and again he produced Herculean performances to win races, on all types of circuit. A list of the 20 greatest sportscar drives of all time would be littered with the name Moss.

From the start he showed that, over and above his sublime driving talent, he had an aptitude that could reap success in long-distance racing. A day short of his 21st birthday, he won on his sportscar debut in a Jaguar XK120 at Dundrod.

His armoury of skills made him the perfect sportscar driver. As was proved by his 1955 Mille Miglia win, in which he averaged an incredible 97.96mph for over 10 hours, he possessed superhuman levels of concentration that allowed him to drive at the limit for long periods. This was aided by a level of fitness superior to many of his contemporaries, which in turn facilitated his compulsion to always drive flat out in an era when sportscar driving for most implied an element of self-restraint for the sake of reliability. Stirling's pace, though, was within his capabilities and so mechanical sympathy was part of the package

His Mille Miglia victory in the Mercedes 300SLR is part of racing folklore – an incredible achievement. But in that year he also humbled his team-mates, including Fangio of course, at Dundrod and the Targa Florio. A Le Mans win, too, was within his grasp before Mercedes' withdrawal – that the French classic remained elusive to him is of little importance, however. For in other sportscar events that were of high importance most notably the Nürburgring 1000Km – Moss proved himself times over. A stirring win with the Aston DBR1 in 1958 was surpassed by his virtuoso performance in '59 he broke his own lap record on 16 consecutive occasions, and then charged after co-driver Jack Fairman had got stuck in a ditch, to score an improbable victory.

Only Moss could have done it.

Simon Taylor: Greatness in sportscar racing is about versatility, as well as speed. This man won the Mille Mg& at a never-to-be-beaten average, the Tourist Trophy seven times, the Targa Florio, the British Empire Trophy around the Isle of Man, the Sebring 12 Hours in a little Osca, and a hat-trick of Nürburgring 1000Km wins. Winning Le Mans lots of times is one thing, achieving all these triumphs and a lot more is something else.

1 Jacky Ickx

When the votes were counted, there was a clear number one: for 20 years Jacky Ickx was the benchmark for all sportscar racers. Adam Cooper explains

There was only ever going to be one winner of our poll to find the greatest-ever sportscar racer. There were many other claimants, most notably Stirling Moss, but no-one has a CV to match that of Jacques Bernard Ickx.

Jacky Ickx in his Ferrari 312PB attacks the Nordschleife during 1973 Nurburgring 1000kms

Ickx loved the Ferrari 312PB, seen here attacking the Nurburgring in 1973 Photo: Motorsport Images

The ace Belgian won 37 world championship sportscar events between 1967 and '85, along with three Le Mans 24 Hours triumphs when it did not count towards a championship. In all, of course, he scored a record six victories at La Sarthe, the race that matters more than any other. In recent times Tom Kristensen has nearly matched that, and Ickx himself is sure the Dane has time to surpass his total. However, Jacky's Le Mans feats were achieved at a time when cars were much more fragile than they are now, and having the quickest package was no guarantee of success. He led on several occasions that he did not win, and it's also worth remembering that, while at his peak, he did not even contest the race in 1968, '71-72, '74 and '84, years in which he could so easily have extended his record.

"I'm very grateful to Motor Sport for its choice," he says with genuine appreciation. "Honestly, though, after being selected as the best long-distance racing driver, my first reaction is to share the accolade. I am extremely humble about my results and statistics. Without the base of the pyramid — all the mechanics, the engineers and so on — there is no chance for a driver to achieve. This honour has to be shared with all those people and, of course, my friends: Derek Bell, Jochen Mass, Mario Andretti and Brian Redman. We were all sitting behind the same wheel, and were all supported by the anonymous passion of the people who made up the team."

"Can you imagine, at 21, being a part of the greatest race? It was unexpected, a kind of dream"

Of course, Ickx is right to remind us that in endurance racing — perhaps more so than any other branch of motorsport — you win and lose as a team. But when he was around you could be sure that everyone else lifted their game to match his. His Formula One career may have run out of steam after the 1974 Race of Champions win with Lotus, but in sportscars he was the master for another decade. He was quick and consistent everywhere, but he especially shone at the old Nürburgring, the old Spa, and anywhere when it rained. And he very rarely made mistakes.

Ickx's first experience of endurance driving came when he was just 18, in the 1963 Tour de France in a BMW 700S. Early saloon outings in the Spa 24 Hours and Marathon de la Route gave the precocious teenager further valuable lessons in how to combine speed with consistency.

His first proper sportscar outing came in February 1966, when he'd just turned 21: "I was taken by Equipe National Belge to Daytona to drive a Ferrari 250LM in the 24 Hours. That was the start, really." He was to be disappointed by an early retirement.

That year he was really beginning to make a name for himself in Formula Two, and this helped him earn a drive in an Essex Wire Ford GT40 at Le Mans. Alas, it retired during the night with engine failure. It was not an auspicious start to his career at the Sarthe circuit, but Jacky enjoyed it: "Can you imagine, at 21, being a part of the greatest race? It was unexpected, a kind of dream. If you speak to anyone in the street who isn't an expert in motor racing, they will still know Le Mans."

Jacky Ickx celebrates winning the 1969 Le Mans with Jackie Oliver in their Ford GT40

Aged just 24, Ickx created his own Le Mans legend in 1969 by scoring a dramatic GT40 victory with Jackie Oliver Photo: Motorsport Images

The Essex Wire operation was run by John Wyer and David Yorke, who clearly spotted something special in the youngster. The following year Jacky landed a regular drive in Wyer's Gulf-backed Mirage Ml, a development of the GT40. The Ickx sportscar story really got into gear in May, when he carried American veteran Dick Thompson to a memorable win in a soaking wet Spa 1000Km. Unsurprisingly, he became a favourite of both Wyer and Yorke, bolstering his reputation with some significant non-championship victories for JWA, including one at Kyalami with team debutant Brian Redman. For the 1968 season, Wyer put the duo together fulltime in a GT40. They suffered several frustrating retirements, but won at Brands Hatch and Spa, while Jacky also triumphed at Watkins Glen with countryman Lucien Bianchi. However, a bad crash in the Canadian Grand Prix forced him to miss September's Le Mans, when 'his' car won in the hands of Bianchi and Pedro Rodriguez.

Ickx made amends at La Sarthe the following year. Following on from their Sebring success, he and Jackie Oliver took the same GT40 chassis, 1075, to the most memorable of all Le Mans wins. Ickx's 'walk' protest at the start and the close finish made Le Mans '69 the stuff of legend.

"It is the famous one for the public. It was the perfect script — the guy who starts last, finishes first! Well before the end, as I was young, I was convinced I was going to win it. It was a good race because, for the final three hours, the Porsche and us were never separated by more than 50 metres."

Much of '69 was lost to the unreliability of the quick-but-fragile Mirage M3. However, Ickx has fond memories of the JWA days: "It was magnificent The spirit was good, and the team was perfect John and David were like the fingers of a hand, and they made my career. I was very fast at that time, I think. I was extremely young compared to the average driver: I had no fear and I could stay on the road. I had the right philosophy for it — and I had the right partners. The only unfortunate thing is that you don't appreciate these good things as much as you should at the time."

Ickx signed a Ferrari deal for 1970 that included sportscars as well as F1, while Wyer became the main opposition by switching from Ford to Porsche. The works 512S was outclassed by the army of 917s; second at Spa with John Surtees was a rare highlight. In '71, Jacky often flew in the new 3-litre 312PB — but the Porsches still won. But when the new rules for 1972 ousted the 917s, Ferrari was dominant Ickx won on four occasions with Mario Andretti, and once apiece with Clay Regazzoni and Redman. Had there been a drivers' world championship, he would have walked it.

"It was an unbelievable racing toy," says Ickx of the later 312PB, perhaps the closest thing ever to a two-seat F1 car. "It was a totally unbeatable car, and Mario was very good; we shared a common outlook and we were very comfortable together."

Jackie Ickx leads the 1970 Brands Hatch 1000kms

Ickx's sublime skill in the wet allowed him to lead the Gulf Porsche 917s in his 512S early in the 1970 BOAC 500 Photo: Motorsport Images

In 1973, Ferrari reunited Ickx with Redman for a full season, but as Matra gained the upper hand, the pair were restricted to just two wins. Ferrari's sportscar programme then ground to a halt and, having signed for Lotus in F1, Ickx spent '74 as a sportscar freelance: he had a few outings for Alfa Romeo, and drove Wyer's latest Mirage at Paul Ricard (sharing with Derek Bell for the first time). But the high point was victory in the Spa 1000Km on a one-off outing with Matra, alongside Jean-Pierre Jarier; Jacky also took pole and set fastest lap. "It was the best sportscar of the time. Matra produced an unbelievable piece of engineering."

By the following year, Le Mans had dropped out of the world championship, but Ickx teamed up with Bell and took the Mirage to his second win.

A new chapter in Ickx's career began when he joined Porsche in 1976, establishing a relationship that would endure for the remaining 10 seasons of his career. This period was a disjointed, schizophrenic one for the world championship, with Porsche electing to tackle selected 'Makes' rounds with its superb new 935, and Sportscar events with the 936. It was at this time that Ickx forged the formidable partnership with Jochen Mass that would become the most successful in world championship history. Over the next three years alone, they won 10 races in the two categories — while Jacky also scored his third Le Mans victory, in '76, with the 936, this time with Gijs van Lennep.

Le Mans 1977, however, stands as Ickx's greatest race. Partnered by fellow three-time winner Henri Pescarolo, their 936 failed early on. Jacky was then switched across to join Jürgen Barth and Hurley Haywood, whose delayed sister car was far from the lead. In 41st, to be exact, with nothing to lose, Ickx threw caution to the wind. He lapped at impossible speeds during the wet and foggy night, running two stints of nearly four hours apiece, with just a mandatory short break in between. It was his Nürburgring '57; a race where even a great driver found something extra within himself.

"It was fantastic through the night, like a dream," he explains. "That's why I say it was the best race of my life, because it was something I can hardly explain. You are so sure, so confident, so efficient, so concentrated and so awake that you are reacting so quickly. That happens only once in your life, I think. I never had the impression I was taking risks — I was just driving flat out. The fun came because we didn't have to be conservative anymore."

Even more than 1969, that fourth victory forged the Ickx-Le Mans legend. From that point on, whenever he lined up in a Porsche, people would expect a little magic. He would finish second in '78, and retire, after setting the pace, the following year.

By 1979, Ickx's F1 career had stumbled to a halt following a troubled half-season at Ligier. He did, however, win the Can-Am title for Carl Haas over in the United States. But after securing the crown at the Riverside finale, he announced his retirement He was just 34.

However, Porsche persuaded him back into action for one weekend in the following two years the lure of Le Mans remained. Frustrating delays demoted him to second with Reinhold Joest's ersatz 936 in 1980, but in '81 things went right with the factory team and he scored his fifth win his second with Bell. This result moved him ahead of countryman Olivier Gendebien in the history books.

Jackie Ickx on the way to victory at Le Mans 1977 in his Porsche 936/77

On his way to Le Mans '77 victory - Ickx considered this his finest Photo: Motorsport Images

Jacky's loyalty to Porsche paid off when the new Group C rules came along in 1982. By now there was at last a drivers' title to chase, and a revitalised Ickx welcomed the chance of a full-time return. The new 956 was a great car, although Jacky had little time for the fuel consumption rules which proved so unpopular in the early days: "It was a Porsche, so you can imagine how good it was. But the consumption aspect went against racing. It became more of an economy run than anything, and it was very frustrating for the drivers."

He won at Le Mans for the sixth time, again with Bell, and went into the drivers' title-decider at Brands Hatch having to beat Lancia's F1 aces, Riccardo Patrese and Michele Alboreto. I did not witness any of Ickx's legendary Le Mans successes first hand, but I went to that race in Kent, hoping to see something special. I was not disappointed.

It was a thrilling wet/dry affair, bisected by a stoppage after the works Ford C100s had taken each other out and we saw the very best of Jacky Ickx. Sensational in the earlier rain, he found himself chasing Patrese's team-mate Teo Fabi home in the closing laps. Darkness was falling, rain clouds loomed, and with his headlights spooking anyone who got in his way, Jacky relentlessly reeled in the hapless Fabi. Helped by a small time-advantage from before the red flag, he made it. He was a world champion at last.

Ickx won more races and his second tide in 1983, but by '84 Porsche had a new star in Stefan Bellof. The German won the sportscar crown while also dazzling the F1 world under the wing of Ken Tyrrell, the very man who'd given Jacky his big break. Ickx was well aware that the torch was being passed to the fearless youngster: "He was quick and he was the perfect team-mate for Derek. They were winning almost every race."

"I was very young at the time. I had limited experience, but the right philosophy"

For 1985, Bellof switched to the Brun customer team, and was now even keener to prove he was the best against the factory cars. On Ickx's home ground at Spa, he made a foolhardy lunge inside his former team-mate on the approach to Eau Rouge. I watched from the pitlane as the pair touched and spun in unison; Ickx's car skated along the barrier rear first, but Bellof's struck head-on with fatal results. Jacky was very shaken by the biggest accident he'd had in years, and any thoughts he'd already had about it being time to stop were brought sharply into focus.

"Although I didn't feel any responsibility, how can you forget something like that? It was terrible. It was a warning, and I was also the right age to retire. Everybody knows it has to end; you have to admit it, but you don't know exactly when. I liked the fact that I was able to say, 'That's it, I'll go away'."

He went out in style, winning his final race at Malaysia's Shah Alam with Mass. Eighteen years had passed since that first Spa win, and yet he was still only 40: "It was a necessity to get back in the car [for Shah Alain]. That was the end of my deal with Porsche. I knew it was the last race and I won. It was a positive way to end a long career."

Ickx is modest about his achievements: "I was often in the right team, in the right car, with the right partner. I was very young at the time, and I was the opposite of what you expect an expert long-distance driver to be, because you need experience. But I think I had the right philosophy, and my co-drivers had the same philosophy. We didn't have to speak about it, we just knew. When one of them brought a car into the pits, I knew it would be in good shape and they knew I'd bring it back in good shape, too. With guys like that, the chances of finishing a race well were very high."

Jackie Ickx gazes on from the cockpit of his Porsche

Photo: Motorsport Images

The victories

1967
Spa Mirage M1 Dick Thompson
Karlskoga* Mirage M1 n/a
Montlhéry* Mirage M1 Paul Hawkins
Kyalami* Mirage M1 Brian Redman

1968
Brands Hatch Ford GT40 Brian Redman
Spa Ford GT40 Brian Redman
Watkins Glen Ford GT40 Lucien Bianchi
Kyalami* Ford GT40 David Hobbs

1969
Sebring Ford G140 Jackie Oliver
Le Mans Ford GT40 Jackie Oliver
Imola* Mirage M3 n/a 1970
Kyalami* Ferrari 512M Ignazio Giunti

1972
Daytona 6 Hrs Ferrari 312PB Mario Andretti
Sebring Ferrari 312PB Mario Andretti
Brands Hatch Ferrari 312PB Mario Andretti
Monza Ferrari 312PB Clay Regazzoni
Österreichring Ferrari 312PB Brian Redman
Watkins Glen Ferrari 312PB Mario Andretti

1973
Monza Ferrari 312PB Brian Redman
Nürburgring Ferrari 312PB Brian Redman

1974
S
pa Matra M5670C Jean-Pierre Jarier

1975
Le Mans* Mirage GR8 Derek Bell

1976
Mugello Porsche 935 Jochen Mass
Vallelunga Porsche 935 Jochen Mass
Monza Porsche 936 Jochen Mass
Imola Porsche 936 Jochen Mass
Le Mans* Porsche 936 Gijs van Lennep
Dijon Porsche 935 Jochen Mass
Dijon Porsche 936 Jochen Mass

1977
Silverstone Porsche 935 Jochen Mass
Le Mans* Porsche 936 Jürgen Barth/ Hurley Haywood
Watkins Glen Porsche 935 Jochen Mass
Brands Hatch Porsche 935 Jochen Mass

1978
Silverstone Porsche 935 Jochen Mass

1981
Le Mans Porsche 936/81 Derek Bell

1982
Le Mans Porsche 956 Derek Bell
Spa Porsche 956 Jochen Mass
Fuji Porsche 956 Jochen Mass
Brands Hatch Porsche 956 Derek Bell

1983
Nürburgring Porsche 956 Jochen Mass
Spa Porsche 956 Jochen Mass

1984
Silverstone Porsche 956 Jochen Mass
Mosport Porsche 956 Jochen Mass

1985
Mugello Porsche 962C Jochen Mass
Silverstone Porsche 962C Jochen Mass
Shah Alam Porsche 962C Jochen Mass

* non-championship race

Mentioned in dispatches

A poll of this nature always reveals a wide spectrum of opinion. And the question of sportscar pilots is complicated further by its element of multiple drivers, plus the category's chequered history of how competitive it was during any given era.

There were many very fine sportscar drivers who did receive votes, but who did not make it into the Top 20. 1959 Le Mans winner Roy Salvadori was just pipped by Ludwig for the final place. The 1989 world champion Jean-Louis Schlesser who accumulated 15 wins in just three years with Mercedes-Benz, was next up. Success alone appeared not to be enough to persuade the jury – Schlesser's partner Mauro Baldi won 17 races, not just for Mercedes but also in an RLR Porsche and for the factory Lancia and Peugeot teams.

Each era throws up names of more drivers who excelled in endurance racing. Of the 1950s crop, Peter Collins stood out in the Ferrari and Aston Martin teams. Crossing into the next decade, drivers such as Jo Bonnier and Hans Herrmann performed relatively better in sportscars than in Formula One, while Dan Gurney and Chris Amon proved excellent when they competed. Into the '70s, Gérard Larrousse turned into a front-line driver for the factory Porsche and Matra teams, his 12 wins including two at Le Mans. Spanning a similar period, Rolf Stommelen was another Porsche driver to collect major victories. And then, in the 1990s, we had the intriguing sight of Michael Schumacher learning his craft with Mercedes, and scoring two wins in the process.

Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme majored in Can-Am, and Al Holbert, Hurley Haywood and Peter Gregg in IMSA, both of which tended to lean towards sprint events, but they all proved themselves over longer distances.

World championship victories – 1953-1992

1 Jacky Ickx 37
2 Jochen Mass 32
3 Derek Bell 21
= Henri Pescarolo 21
5 Mauro Baldi 17
= Brian Redman 17
7 Jean-Louis Schlesser 15
8 Phil Hill 14
= Jo Siffert 14
10 Gerard Larrousse 12
= Stirling Moss 12

World championship race-winning pairings

1 Jacky Ickx/Jochen Mass 19
2 Henri Pescarolo/Gerard Larrousse 9
3 Jean-Louis Schlesser/Jochen Mass 8
= Jean-Louis Schlesser/Mauro Baldi 8
= Jo Siffert/Brian Redman 8
6 Derek Bell/Stefan Bellof