’20s – Milestone days (and nights) at the world’s greatest motor race
As well as founding a legend, the very first 24 Heures du Mans has two rare boasts. First, despite unsurfaced roads, fragile tyres and pioneer engineering, only three of the 33 starters failed to finish – a ratio unmatched in the 90 years since. The second odd fact about the 1923 race is – nobody won. Why? Because the ACO set up this test of endurance as a rolling three-year trial for the Rudge-Whitworth Cup. Theoretically there would be no victor until 1925.
Decided by a maths-fest of average speeds and percentage gains, the three-year ploy soon fizzled out. But you can’t have a race and no winner, so the honours for greatest distance in that first 24 hours fell to the 3-litre Chenard et Walcker of Lagache and Leonard who whistled past the makeshift pits 128 times, ahead of a sister car and a Bignan. A French whitewash, in fact; not surprising as there was only one foreign entrant, John Duff’s 3-litre Bentley, running second until a punctured fuel tank lost him and Clement more than two hours, dropping them to fourth after Clement had to cycle out with fuel.
That first event was to be a test of touring cars which had to retain wings, lights, horn etc and prove they were practical four-seaters by carrying 10st of ballast for each empty seat.
The Autocar described the route as “a triangular course not much more than 10 miles round, with a hairpin, two right-angled turns and several twisty bits”. That hairpin, in Pontlieu village, was by-passed after 1928 but on June 18 this year its racing history is recalled with a recreation of the bend as it was then, with period signs and barriers and a display of cars invoking the feel of those early years when locals were pinned in their houses by thundering bolides.
In later times drivers would run to their cars and erect the hood before getting going, the origin of the Le Mans start, but in 1923 veteran racer Charles Faroux dropped the flag on a grid much like today’s Grands Prix – two by two. Heavy rain and hailstones made the inaugural event as big a test of man as machine. “The men were blinded with mud and water,” reported The Autocar, “and suffered extremely from sore eyes”.
Out on the muddy, rutted roads the worst bends were lit by acetylene lamps, while above the “replenishment pits” hung electric lights. But out on that endless straight you were on your own, with all the risks of erratic lights: Frank Clement recalled, “it was dreadful; we had holes a foot deep”.
At changeovers, tired and muddy drivers were regaled with hot soup, roast chicken and champagne, while spectators enjoyed jazz bands, a cinema and fireworks, a tradition that endures. And Brits were already flocking to watch.
Despite the confusing triennial scheme this first 24 Hours was a huge success, boosted by the Chenard/Bentley duel. WO Bentley, who decided to go only at the last minute, said “by midnight I was certain this was the best race I’d ever seen”. It wasn’t hard to decide that his cars should return… Gordon Cruickshank
Stars of the decade
JOHN DUFF – War veteran, Hollywood stuntman, steeplechaser, racing driver… Duff lived an extraordinary life. The first British Le Mans entrant in 1923, he won the next year for Bentley and is still the only Canadian victor.
Andre Rossignol – First driver to take back-to-back victories, in 1925 and ’26, and first (with Robert Bloch) to break a 100kph winning average. But LorraineDietrich pulled out before the 1927 race, leaving Rossignol unable to challenge Bentley.
Woolf Barnato – Most successful of the ‘Bentley Boys’, WO calling him “the best driver we ever had and the best British driver of his day’ He drove at Le Mans in 1928-30, winning all three.
Henry Birkin – Versatile and courageous, Birkin won Le Mans in 1929 with Bentley and in ’32 with Alfa. Mechanical failures robbed him of more
success as he developed his supercharged Bentley.
Car to remember: Bentley 4 1/2
“I think the whole thing is crazy. Cars aren’t designed to stand that sort of thing for 24 hours.” That was W O Bentley’s reaction when John Duff planned to enter his 3-litre Bentley into the very first Le Mans. By 1924, when Duff’s Bentley came home first, WO had changed his view and the ACO’s endurance trial became a prime goal. After two disastrous Le Mans races it came right in spectacular style for 1927 when the battered 3-litre Old No 7 limped away from a spectacular pile-up to snatch an improbable victory. But it was clear that the experimental 41/2-litre car, sidelined by the crash, had the speed Bentley needed for next year.
By 1928 Bentley had a guardian angel. Diamond millionaire Woolf Barnato baled out the sinking company and would prove a track hero, too. Race plans centred around boring out the four to 41/2 litres, rather than the parallel six-cylinder range. The new 41/2 produced 130bhp — and despite Bugatti’s comparing Bentleys to lorries, the race cars for the 1928 Le Mans only weighed around 1.7 tons.
The 16-valve overhead-cam engine apart, the 41/2 was relatively conventional, but thanks to WO’s railway apprenticeship it was built like a locomotive. Our own Andrew Frankel has raced many of them: “They’re so wonderfully engineered — a fabulous piece of British engineering you could race and then drive home in.” And Bentley had an extra weapon: its cars were raced by wealthy sportsmen who brought to the marque an image of carefree, debonair style that seduced the public at home and abroad. The Bentley Boys were kings of the road.
In that 1928 race the strongest opposition came from the US, Barnato and Bernard Rubin tussling lap after lap with the fastest Stutz and setting a new lap record. By Sunday afternoon the green British behemoth was leading — and overheating so badly that on the last lap Barnato coasted on the downhills. But he made it, first of a hat trick for the British marque at the French classic.
The following year a race version of the 61/2 would win, but a trio of 41/25 rounded out a Bentley 1-2-3-4, confirming it as the archetypal Le Mans Bentley, an image later fixed for thousands of small boys by Airfix and Scalextric. “The drivers preferred the 41/2 — it was lighter on the nose, handled better and had a beautiful gearbox,” says Frankel. “Bentley winning five out of seven Le Mans attempts put Britain properly on the racing map.”
Tim Birkin tried to keep the big four competitive with his supercharged ‘Blowers; which in 1930 proved sensationally fast — but also fragile. That year would bring the last of Bentley’s five pre-war Le Mans wins, and though it was another 61/2 that triumphed, it’s the ‘bloody thump’ of the four that echoes loudest. GC
’30s & ’40s
It must have been like receiving a gift without the wrapping, handed to you in a carrier bag: it would rather spoil the moment. The Hon Peter Mitchell-Thomson — Lord Selsdon of Croydon — was a nominal winner of the 17th 24 Heures du Mans in 1949… except that his seat time was limited to just a few laps. Victory was anchored in no uncertain terms by Luigi Chinetti, who stayed out on track in their 2-litre Ferrari 166 barchetta for 22 hours and 51 minutes, the US-based Italian claiming his third outright win in the endurance classic to go with his 1932 and 1934 triumphs (alongside Raymond Sommer and Philippe Etancelin). It was an act of remarkable fortitude and gritty determination.
Sterling work by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, with support from local government, ensured that roads had been resurfaced, new pits erected and grandstands built on ground hitherto pockmarked by German landmines by the time racing resumed at Le Mans for the first time in a decade. Forty-nine crews started the race, with minister of transport Monsieur Pineau dropping the flag at the traditional 4pm start on Saturday June 25. Three hours in and Eugene Charboud was the pride of France, leading the way in the Delahaye he was sharing with Charles Pozzi, trailed by the similar car of Simon/ Flahault. In third was a hard-charging Chinetti. Shortly thereafter, Charboud’s car was ablaze while Flahault was in the pits with his car’s 4.5-litre straight-six being attended to. The Ferrari now led.
By midnight Chinetti was still out in front, but on the same lap as the Lurie France Valle/Mairesse Talbot and the Veuillet/Mouche Delage. His car’s entrant took over for the briefest of spells during the night, with Chinetti eking out an advantage by dawn. By 11am he held a three-lap lead, but in the closing stages the Ferrari’s clutch began to slip. What’s more, the car’s cockpit was awash with oil. Second on the road was the 3-litre Delage of Juan Jover and Henri Loveau, the latter having had to dig the car out of a sandbank with his bare hands earlier in the race.
Loveau chased down Chinetti, and with 20 minutes to go was just nine miles adrift. However, the ailing Ferrari held together to take the flag, completing 1970 racing miles at an average speed of 82.27mph. It marked Ferrari’s maiden win in the great race, Chinetti and Selsdon also receiving the biennial Rudge Whitworth Cup and Index of Performance Cup, handicap prizes based on engine displacement.
Maintaining Britain’s honour was the third-place Frazer Nash of H J Aldington and its owner, Norman Culpan. Five places further down the road was the class-winning HRG ‘Mobile Galosh’ of Eric Thompson making his secondever race start and Jack Fairman.
Why did Chinetti stay so long in the winning car? Its owner was reputedly ill, but some historians claim his Lordship’s mystery ailment was a euphemism for something wholly self-inflicted… Richard Heseltine
Stars of the decade
Luigi Chinetti – His wins spanned 17 years, but it was in Alfas in the ’30s that he made his mark, winning twice. Chinetti’s North American Racing Team won in 1965 with Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt at the wheel.
Raymond Sommer – Succeeded Andre Rossignol as France’s Le Mans hero, winning in 1932 and ’33. In the first of those he drove for 20 hours after Chinetti was taken ill. Led most of the races he started, despite favouring privately entered cars.
Tazio Nuvolari – The Flying Mantuan won with Sommer in 1933, after one of the race’s closest finishes. Their Alfa was less than 400m ahead of team-mates Chinetti and Philippe de Gunsburg.
Jean-Pierre Wimille – Yet another French winner, with Bugatti’s T57 ‘Tank’ in 1937 and ’39. During the war he headed to the UK and joined the Special Operations Executive.
Car to remember: Alfa Romeo 8C 2300
Some cars win with slogging reliability, others through clean-sheet thinking that alters the sport’s course. By winning four Le Mans races in succession, Alfa Romeo’s 8C 2300 put paid to Bentley’s Forth Bridge approach, swapping over-engineering for design economy and proving that racing really can improve the breed.
Creator Vittorio Jano infused lessons from his P2 Grand Prix cars into the 6C 1750, which entered the 1930s garlanded with race victories and made a perfect springboard for its thoroughbred nephew — the 8C 2300. Designed to comply with the 1931 GP regulations, the 2300 boasted twin-cam supercharged power with blower and camshaft gear-driven from the middle of the crank, exotic alloys, a robust four-speed gearbox and a chassis that was slender but strong. Remember that GPs of this era could be as much as a 10-hour grind… “A jewel of an engine,” says Paul Grist, racer and restorer of these eightcylinder gems. “You’d had those heavy, long-stroke Bentleys and then Alfa builds this small, light, supercharged car — it was the way forward. The engineering is wonderful — industrial art — and the motor is totally reliable. They’re a delight to drive, with lovely steering, and they won everything from Le Mans to Grands Prix. Jano was responsible for the entire car — an amazing designer’ As well as racing, Jano led all road car, bus and truck design, plus Alfa’s aero engine.
Tyre woes led to a lowly eighth for the 2.3 in the 1931 Mille Miglia, denting Jano’s run of every new model winning on its debut, but Nuvolari’s victories in the Targa Florio and Italian GP confirmed this was no highlystrung racehorse but a rapid, versatile base for road and track alike. It was sold to wealthy customers too, notably Earl Howe who entered his new long-chassis example in ’31. He and Sir Henry Birkin smashed Bentley’s distance record for a decisive victory.
After this, win followed win, with squadrons of 2.3 Alfas collecting more than 50 victories in Grands Prix, endurance classics, hillclimbs and sprints of every sort.
Alfa’s works team pulled out of racing for 1933, but the 8C went on winning. Nuvolari/Raymond Sommer headed an Alfa 1-2-3 at Le Mans, while Chinetti/Etancelin made it four in ’34. “They were in standard spec, but ran like watches” says Grist.
In 1938 Alfa looked set to match Bentley’s five Sarthe wins, until the leading 2900B coupe destroyed a tyre and dropped a valve. Its engine? A scion ofJano’s remarkable 8C. No wonder Ferrari said he’d learned everything from Alfa Romeo. Gordon Cruickshank
If you’re going to make a mark, make a big one. Jaguar was still in the ‘promising youngster’ category when in 1951 it draped a slinky body over its XK120 sports car and packed it off to the toughest event of all — Le Mans. At the end of 24 punishing hours the marque was world-famous for a dominating victory. But a humiliating three-car collapse a year later desperately needed to be avenged, so in 1953 a three-car team travelled down from Browns Lane to face one of the toughest fields seen at Le Mans for years. Italy had Ferrari, Lancia and Alfa Romeo; France hoped for another Talbot triumph; Briggs Cunningham had reinforced his brawny V8 team and Aston Martin’s new DB3S showed promise. Only last year’s victor, Mercedes, stayed away, its sights on higher things. And the field was rife with Grand Prix aces: Fangio, Villoresi, Ascari, Farina and Gonzalez were all ranged against the British team, headed by Stirling Moss and Peter Walker.
With Weber carbs and paper-thin alloy skin, the C-types were quicker and lighter, plus they packed a brave innovation — disc brakes. And there was no tougher test than braking from 155mph after three miles of Mulsanne… Driving with his friend Tony Rolt, Duncan Hamilton was full of confidence, as son Adrian recalls. “They’d stripped 1201b from those lightweight Cs, even leaving the brass badge off the nose. They weren’t as fast as the 41/2-litre Ferrari, but they braked much later. Dad felt that’s where they could beat everyone. That and reliability. They were well prepared. Dad wrote some nonsense in his book about being pissed the night before, but you couldn’t survive Le Mans unless you were in good shape.”
From the flag a Cunningham bellowed ahead, but in a couple of laps Moss led Villoresi’s much more powerful Ferrari 375MM. For a while these two traded the lead, V12 over-topping straight-six bawl as they tore past the pits, but when a dirty fuel filter slowed the Moss car, Rolt and Hamilton took on the lead.
“The old man reckoned Le Mans was won or lost during the night,” says Adrian. “He had exceptional night vision, so he was just as fast in the dark.” Meanwhile Briggs Cunningham was in the hunt too, dawn showing the blue-striped white machine astern of the second-place Ferrari but still leading Moss and Walker, steaming back from their troubles. This was more like a Grand Prix than an endurance race. When a failed clutch ruined Ferrari’s hopes and the second Jaguar overhauled the US muscle, there was Union Jack frenzy as Hamilton won with Moss behind and two more C-types fourth and ninth. Jaguar had pulled off the first win at more than 100mph. “Tony and the old man led for something like 18 hours,” says Adrian, “and only spent 15min 16sec in the pits. Afterwards Dad found one of the crew had put an orange in the car for him, and he kept it with him in every race after that. I still have it!”
Coronation year, Everest conquered, a Le Mans win at record speed — it couldn’t get better for Britain… could it? GC
Stars of the decade
Tony Holt – He was never far from the front during the early 1950s, winning in 1953. Rolt retired two years later to work on four-wheeldrive technology.
Duncan Hamilton – The larger than-life Hamilton was a familiar Sarthe figure in the ’50s, as part of Jaguar’s works team. He shared Rolt’s win in 1953 and came close the year after. He won many races during the decade, but mechanical trouble plagued him at Le Mans.
em>Ivor Bueb – Twice a winner in Jaguar D-types, with Mike Hawthorn in 1955 and Ron Flockhart in ’57. His first stint in the car came after the pitstop that triggered the 1955 tragedy.
em>Stirling Moss – ‘The Boy’ never won the race, but was leading with Fangio when Mercedes pulled out in ’55. His speed meant he was always the hare: he recorded two second places and a clutch of DNFs.
Car to remember: Jaguar D-type
You can see it in the drawings: slice a D-type in half either way and you’ll get an ellipse. During WWII Jaguar built bomber wings, and it’s hard not to connect those streamlined, skinned-alloy structures with Malcolm Sayer’s sleek D-type. If you’re determined to retain your grip on Le Mans and you don’t have the resources for a new engine, you have only two avenues: cut weight and slash drag. Aiming for both, Sayer’s incremental ‘test, refine, test again’ methods steadily homed in on the taut curves we know as the greatest Fifties Le Mans car — a device that would bring a further three victories to Browns Lane.
When Sayer and engineering wizard Bill Heynes discussed options in late ’53 — for a 1954 entry! — they chose a folded, riveted and welded centre section. It’s a semi-monocoque: a front ‘subframe’ carrying engine and wishbones runs back inside the tub for confidence. But the rear suspension (trailing arms and torsion bars like the C) hangs directly on the rear bulkhead while body, tank and spare wheel are cantilevered from it, too. Result — rigidity, small cross-section (vital for drag) and a smooth underbelly. “It’s a toolroom car’ says David Morris, restorer and racer whose family for many years owned OKV3, one of the 1954 Le Mans team cars. “It’s superbly put together and with a good driver it’s virtually unbreakable. To me the original 3.4 is a sweeter engine but of course the 3.8 has the sheer power.”
Dry-sumping the engine kept the front view compact and the cooling opening small, helping the D to an impressive 170mph. Using his aircraft experience Sayer added a head fairing and that famous tailfin, so drivers found the D stable as well as fast, though buffeting on the ’54 cars led to the wraparound screen. David Morris’s father Martin set a record with OKV3: “He was officially timed at Le Mans at 187mph, and as far as I know that’s the highest for a D. And he said the fin really did work. Even at those speeds the car ran straight. It’s comfortable, too, which matters over 24 hours.”
And while 1954 brought a near miss at Le Mans, Hamilton and Rolt finishing less than a lap behind Ferrari’s winner, and 1955 proved a hollow victory after the awful accident, there was no doubt about the next two, which fell to a small Scottish outfit called Ecurie Ecosse. Having withdrawn from racing at the end of ’56, Jaguar still garnered benefits from cars sold to privateers. Sophisticated in conception, the D was simple to run and a delight to drive, and if not for new capacity limits kyboshing its competitiveness it might have pushed its Le Mans score up even higher. As if that voluptuous form needed mere results to glorify it. GC
To younger sports car fans, it’s a stretch to associate Ferrari with Le Mans. Sure, the pseudo-works AF Corse team keeps the flame alive, but vying for GTE class victories — no matter how competitively fought — can never carry the weight of an overall win. Right now, with its total Formula 1 preoccupation, it’s hard to imagine that ever happening again for Ferrari.
There was a time, of course, when a Le Mans 24 Hours without the Prancing Horse would have been unthinkable. By the 1960s, Le Mans was at least as important to Enzo as F1 — and the red cars were often dominant. Its tally of nine victories, seven of which came between 1958 and ’65, still leaves the Italians third in the all-time list of winners, behind Porsche on 16 and Audi’s 11. Remarkable, given that Ferrari’s last hurrah was 48 years ago, in a race that marked the end of one era and the beginning of another.
By 1965, Ford was hell-bent on beating Ferrari at Le Mans to avenge Enzo for spurning its buy-out advances. Five GT4Os and two new 7-litre MkII ‘X-cars’ came up against Ferrari’s armada of four prototypes, plus two North American Racing Team cars and a pair from Maranello Concessionaires.
“Once Ford brought the 7-litre engine and employed Carroll Shelby, I knew it could not be dismissed,” says John Surtees, Ferrari’s ace in the pack. ‘Big John’ had set the pace in the previous two Le Mans races, but missed out on victory. Would it be third time lucky?
In practice Phil Hill set a new speed record of 213mph on the Mulsanne in his 7-litre X-car, and lapped two seconds faster than Surtees managed in the new P2 during the April test. The F1 champion was unruffled. “It was obvious the Fords were going to be competitive, especially with the strong line-ups they had,” he says. “But I always thought that was actually the secret of beating them.
“We believed mechanically the Ferraris could be driven as hard as GP cars. If we could go hard from the start, Ford’s drivers couldn’t sit back.”
The tactic worked. Surtees took the fight to Hill and Chris Amon in the Fords, which proved as fragile as he suspected. After just three hours, the challengers were spent, a broken clutch, a blown headgasket, a gearbox failure and chronic overheating derailing American hopes. The inquest began as Ferrari swept to another victory.
But there were twists. Cracking brake discs delayed the prototypes, while Surtees and Lodovico Scarfiotti lost time with collapsed front suspension, then retired with transmission trouble. So another chance went ouest for Surtees, who would never win Le Mans.
To their own surprise, Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt scored an unlikely win in NART’s outpaced 275LM, the first privately entered victory since team boss Luigi Chinetti’s Ferrari win in 1949. The US importer thus recorded Enzo’s first Le Mans success and his last. Damien Smith
Stars of the decade
Olivier Gendebien – The first four-time winner. The Belgian opened the ‘605 with a hat trick of victories, one with Paul Frere and two with Phil Hill.
Phil Hill – Ferrari’s other sports car ace won Le Mans three times with Gendebien before joining Ford’s GT programme and then Jim Hall’s ground-breaking Chaparral outfit. He was the first American-born driver to win the 24 Hours.
Ken Miles – One of Shelby and Ford’s key development drivers. Only company hubris and a quirk of the regulations stopped him and Denny Hulme winning in 1966. He was killed while testing the J-car, the next development of the GT40.
John Surtees – Ferrari’s F1 star was unlucky at Le Mans, ever suffering from mechanical failures and politics. He was in the right team at the right time — and very quick — but victory proved elusive.
Car to remember: Ford GT40
“By the time I raced a GT40, IT was a well-proven car says Jackie Oliver. He’s not kidding. First came the terrifying stories of aerodynamic instability, later the debacle of Le Mans 1965. But then Ford threw the kitchen sink at Le Mans. The 7-litre cars finally broke the Ferrari stranglehold in 1966-67 — and then a rule change outlawed the big engines. Group 4 gave the original 5-litre GT40 a second wind and JW Automotive scored two more victories. The legend was complete.
Oliver had his first taste of the GT40 in 1968. “I was in a third JW car he recalls. “Brian Muir put it in the sand at Mulsanne Corner and spent the next two hours digging it out.
In 1969, sharing with Jacky lax, Oliver scored what he later realised would be the biggest win of his life. That closest-ever finish, with Ida and Hans Herrmann’s Porsche 908 separated by just 120 metres, followed the Belgian’s safety protest of strolling to his car at the traditional sprint start “When Jacky told me what he was going to do, I just said ‘if you want”; says Oliver. “I was quicker than Jacky at night for some reason. David Yorke always said that won us the race.”
With his enthusiasm for Ickx and long-distance racing in general well under control, Oliver reserves high praise for JW and the GT40. “John Wyer and David Yorke had got Le Mans down to a fine art by the time I joined them’,’ he says. “It was unusual for the day, such a well-run team. But the attraction of long-distance racing never appealed, which is why I broke my contract at the end of 1971. I wish I could have maintained it now and kept a car at the end of my time — one of the JW GT4O5 has just sold for £11m.
“A good, reliable old lady that wasn’t fast enough to win unless others broke!’ That’s how Oliver describes one of history’s most beloved Le Mans cars. “It was easy to drive, very flexible. But we had to look after the brakes and did a lot of work with Girling on that, allowing us to increase pedal pressure as the race went on. The ZF gearbox had synchromesh, which was rare for a racer. But you could crack the casing if you changed down too soon.
“It had a lot of stability, like a comfy armchair. Because it was heavy it was stable at speed. When I raced one at Le Mans Classic in 2005 I was doing almost 200mph with the chicanes. Without them we used to reach 220.
“When Ford built the GT I bought one and had it for five years. I didn’t like it much. The appeal was the styling, but it was a much bigger car than the GT40 and Ford put a truck engine in it. I’d love to buy a GT40 — but now they’re out of my reach.” DS
Funny how perspectives change. Reporting the Le Mans 24 Hours for Motor Sport in 1971, Andrew Marriott mentioned that Jenks opted to miss the event for the first time in 20 years, because he wasn’t terribly impressed by an entry list containing little of substance beyond nine Ferrari 512Ms and seven Porsche 917s. Sounds delicious now, but that wasn’t necessarily the case in period…
“The field was made up,” Andrew wrote, “with a very large number of make-weight Porsche 911s, which proved thoroughly boring to watch and probably rather boring to drive, except when you had a 512 lapping you on one side and a 917 on the other.”
The Gulf-liveried JW Automotive 917s seemed to have the race under control until shortly before halfdistance, when Pedro Rodriguez/Jackie Oliver suffered a seized hub, then a split oil pipe, while Richard Attwood/ Herbert Muller needed to pause for a gearbox rebuild.
That handed the advantage to the Jose Juncadella/Nino Vaccarella 512M, but their gearbox failed and at Sam on Sunday Helmut Marko/Gijs van Lennep swept into a lead they would keep. Their Martini 917 eventually finished two laps clear of the recovering Attwood and Muller.
“We were a bit lucky that the Gulf cars had problems,” says van Lennep, “because unlike us they were running long-tail configuration and were thus about 20km/h quicker down the straight. We weren’t particularly pacing ourselves but were driving as quickly as we could.
“We were doing all the usual stuff, looking after the brakes and gearbox. There were a few concerns about the cooling fan, too, but our mechanics changed one bolt at a time during each pit stop, to keep everything tight without causing any delays.
“Was the 917 tricky at the limit? I didn’t think so, but then I never drove one of the early versions. I thought it was a marvellous racing car. It felt a bit like a kart. I drove it again a couple of years ago at Laguna Seca and it still felt the same. I loved it.
“It was only fairly recently that [Porsche engineer] Norbert Singer told me we’d been using a magnesium chassis, which I genuinely didn’t know at the time. When they tested it at Weissach, I gather it never lasted more than three or four hours without something breaking. The team didn’t expect us to make the finish, but ours was just about the only 917 that had no serious problems and we set a distance record that lasted 39 years.”
Marko and van Lennep were whisked straight from podium to post-race party. “That went on for about eight hours,” van Lennep says. “I had far too much champagne and when I got back to my chateau, our host was waiting with yet more. I couldn’t face another drop, though, and simply collapsed into bed. When I awoke, I was still wearing my racing overalls…” Simon Arron
Stars of the decade
Vic Elford – The all-rounder never won Le Mans, but always put on a show in Porsche’s 917. He set pole position in 1970, but car failures robbed him of all but a GT class victory, at the wheel of a privateer Ferrari in 1973.
Gerard Larrousse – Always a factor at Le Mans, Larrousse finished second in 1969 and 1970 for Porsche before winning in ’73 and ’74 with Matra. After stepping behind the scenes, he played a key part in Renault’s ’78 win.
Henry Pescarolo – Although his career spans decades, the ’70s brought him the most success as a driver, with three wins for Matra, from 1972-74, and a GTP class victory with Inaltera in ’76.
Jacky Ickx – It’s hard to pick a decade in which Ickx most excelled. He won with Mirage in ’75 and Porsche in 1976 and ’77, but Renault ended his bid to be the first driver to take four straight wins.
Car to remember: Matra MS670
More than 20 years had passed since the previous all-French victory at Le Mans, that of Jean-Louis Rosier and (mostly) father Louis in a Talbot-Lago, but Matra was on a mission. It had built a number of sports-prototypes since the late 1960s, but the MS 670 would be the series’ apotheosis.
“No effort was spared:’ says Henri Pescarolo, who shared the winning M5670 with Graham Hill in 1972, then its successful B derivative with Gerard Larrousse in 1973-74. “Matra was determined to secure an all-French victory and put its very best engineers on the project, which is probably why its F1 results weren’t as good as they might otherwise have been.”
Reporting the 1972 race in Motor Sport, DenisJenkinson wrote: “Matra entered four cars and backed its chances every possible way, with variations of body shape, engine power, fuel consumption, tyre sizes, gearbox variations and so on. The arrangement of variables was such that whatever conditions prevailed for the race, one of the four cars would be at an advantage!’ And talking of the weather, he added: “An insidious small wind blew in before the start, in the form of an FIA official being appointed to decide whether the race should be abandoned should the rain become extreme. This is part of the mental sickness that is going to kill motor racing within the next 10 years..”
Pescarolo relished his time at the Matra’s helm. “It was a fantastic car he says. “It was quick, reliable and easy to drive. Prior to the 1972 race we’d done ample endurance testing at Paul Ricard, without any trouble at all, so we were feeling pretty confident.
“The hardest of the three wins was the second, when we fought Ferrari almost all the way. In the others, we were effectively racing only ourselves.”
The Ferraris led into the night during that 1973 race, but a blown engine stopped Carlos Reutemann/Tim Schenken and a broken exhaust slowed Jacky Ickx/Brian Redman. The Matra moved ahead when the Ferrari stopped for repairs and neither a split brake pipe nor an overheating starter motor (which had to be rebuilt on Sunday morning, at the cost of 25 minutes) were enough to dislodge the local favourites. Pescarolo and Larrousse were able to breathe more easily when engine failure scuppered Ickx/Redman and they finally finished six laps clear of the surviving Ferrari, driven by Arturo Merzario/Carlos Pace.
The MS 670 had two distinguishing features: its patriotic hue and the sumptuous wail that followed any period Matra V12. “It sounded absolutely fantastic,” says Pescarolo, “but it’s the reason all Matra drivers are nowadays deaf!” SA
Tom Walkinshaw turned out to be bang on the money when he predicted it would take three years for Jaguar to win the Le Mans 24 Hours. That’s the Silk Cut TWR-Jaguar team, of course. An encouraging debut for TWR in 1986, after the US Group 44 team’s visits the previous two years, was followed by a proper challenge to Porsche’s hegemony in ’87. Another year on and it would be Jaguar’s turn.
The drivers involved in that historic race remember a confidence in the camp leading up to the race. “There was definitely a feeling that Jaguar was going to do it,” says Jan Lammers, one third of the winning line-up alongside Andy Wallace and Johnny Dumfries. “Everyone was so committed to making it happen and that year we did have the fastest car.”
That should, correctly, read Lammers and his team-mates had the fastest car. Asked which car from history he wished he’d raced, long-time Jaguar driver Martin Brundle came up with the number 2 Jaguar XJR-9LM that went on to win the race. Walkinshaw’s favoured son knew he was in trouble when Lammers flew on the Mulsanne Straight during the opening lap.
The crew of the winning Jag had come up with a last-minute set-up tweak. Engineer Eddie Hinckley dropped the rear ride height and the drivers went for it. “That meant we had less drag from the underwing and gained in top speed,” says Lammers. “It was that which made the car so quick.”
Lammers took the lead on the sixth lap, predictably on the Mulsanne, and he and his less experienced team-mates were consistently at the sharp end of the field, taking a grip on the race in the early hours of Sunday morning. As the finish approached, they eked out a one-lap lead over the delayed Porsche that was in pursuit.
It wasn’t plain sailing for Jaguar. Each of its five cars had failed scrutineering and, as a result, made it into the pages of The Times. The issue, the result of a manufacturing glitch, was easily overcome, but it was nothing compared with the problem that faced Lammers in the closing laps.
The Dutchman had overheard team-mate Raul Boesel recounting the tale of his retirement with gearbox failure shortly before 11pm. The noises were still echoing in his ears when he heard similar sounds from his own transmission. The quick-thinking Lammers made a split-second decision: he had fourth gear and was going to stick with it. The only problem? There was still considerably more than an hour to go and a final pitstop had yet to be made. Lammers recalls: “I told myself that was it, I wasn’t going to touch that lever any more.”
The torquey seven-litre Jaguar V12 proved up to the task of hauling the car around the Circuit de la Sarthe, though, and Jaguar went on to make the newspapers once more, for all the right reasons this time, the following morning. Gary Watkins
Stars of the decade
Derek Bell – The popular Brit won at Le Mans five times, four in the ’80s and three of them partnering Jacky Ickx. Bell still managed to finish on the podium in1996, when well into his 50s.
Al Holbert – Holbert was a huge part of Porsche’s racing endeavours through the ’70s and ’80s, winning at Le Mans three times in the Group C era. His good run might have continued were it not for his tragic death in a plane accident in 1988.
Klaus Ludwig – The German touring car ace hated every second at Le Mans, but still won inJoest’s Porsche 956B in 1984 and ’85, bringing his total to three victories.
Jochen Mass – He won more races than any other driver during the Group C era, often alongside Ickx in a works Porsche. However, things only came together for him once at Le Mans, with Sauber-Mercedes in 1989.
Car to remember: Porsche 956/962
Long-distance sports car racing has metamorphosed. Even the Le Mans 24 Hours has become a flat-out sprint a process that started with the arrival of arguably the greatest Le Mans racer of all time, the Porsche 956.
Here was a car that could be driven full pelt — fuel allocation allowing — all day and all night. And that was night and day compared with what had come before.
“Driving the 956 for the first time was a shock, but in a positive way,’ says Hans Stuck, a two-time Le Mans winner and world champion with the car’s long-wheelbase variant, the 962. “Every time you got in a sports car before the 956, you expected something to break, fail or overheat.
“But you didn’t have to worry about that Porsche. The car did what it was designed to do and you only had to worry about your driving.”
Porsche and the car’s architect, Norbert Singer, got the basics spot on, which goes a long way to explaining the car’s longevity. The 956/962 was still a Le Mans front-runner six seasons after its debut and remained in the mix for three more years after that. Brun Motorsport came within 15 minutes of second place in 1990.
And then there was the return of the car to the winner’s circle as a ‘road car! The opportunistic Dauer Porsche 962LM GT racer claimed a seventh Le Mans victory for the design in 1994. That wasn’t even the end of the story: there were still variants of the faithful 956/962 design on the grid for the 24 Hours as the decade drew to a close.
The car’s record speaks for itself, and not just at Le Mans. Aside from those seven wins, it triumphed at Dayonta six times and at the Sebring 12 Hours on four occasions. Its tally of World Championship victories stands at 29, while in America it collected a massive 55 wins in IMSA GTP.
The true greatness of the 956/962 is encapsulated within those statistics, and privateers played a central role in its history. Porsche decided to build a run of customer cars for 1983, kept on making them into the 1990s and was more than happy for a well-run car to show the factory the way.
That was crucial in helping to pull sports car racing in general and Le Mans in particular out of the doldrums. The 956/962 kick-started Group C. Would Mazda, Jaguar, Nissan, Toyota and Mercedes have been drawn into the category had there been no Porsche? Probably not.
Porsche’s factory participation in the Le Mans 24 Hours and that flotilla of privateers put the race back on the map and made it a destination for other publicity-hungry manufacturers. GW
You’ll see many a fierce battle through rose-tinted Ray-Bans, but 1999 was the real deal. Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan and BMW had recent Le Mans experience — and the scale of newcomer Audi’s investment was clear. It had the hallmarks of an epic.
The focus switched swiftly from fight to flight, following a qualifying incident in which Mark Webber’s Mercedes CLR flipped — without outside assistance — on the approach to Indianapolis. The car was rebuilt, but the same thing happened again — this time on the Mulsanne — during Saturday morning’s warm-up. So… race or withdraw? In consideration, the team even took the measure of calling Adrian Newey, who was on F1 duty with McLaren in Canada. When asked directly months after the race whether he advised Mercedes to pull out, Newey refused to comment. Whatever, the management chose to press on, adding modifications including front winglets previously developed for a wet-weather set-up.
Mercedes and Toyota disputed the lead during the opening stages, with the quickest BMW maintaining contact and benefiting from better economy. About four hours in, though, Peter Dumbreck’s Mercedes became airborne close to Indianapolis, cleared the adjacent trees and landed in a clearing beyond.
“You want to chat about Le Mans?” says the Scot when we call. “I don’t imagine you want to discuss my three races with Spyker, do you?
“All I really remember from 1999 is seeing some sky and then waking up on a stretcher. The ambulance crew wanted to keep me still, but I was trying to move my arms and legs, to check they were OK, and soon realised I could.
“There were obviously thoughts about pulling out after Mark’s mishaps. We’d done thousands of miles of high-speed testing without any problems, so we were all confident about the last-minute mods and I didn’t feel the slightest hint of trouble prior to the incident. It was clearly the wrong decision to race, but hindsight is a powerful tool and no driver was going to refuse to take part. I certainly wasn’t. If something’s going to happen, you always feel it won’t happen to you… but on this occasion it did.”
He wasn’t seriously hurt, but Mercedes immediately withdrew its third car, canned the CLR project and hasn’t since returned to Le Mans.
Its departure and assorted Toyota problems left BMW in control, until a jammed throttle caused JJ Lehto to crash on Sunday morning. The sister car of Yannick Dalmas, Pierluigi Martini and Jo Winkelhock now led, less than a lap clear of the lone surviving Toyota. Ukyo Katayama set about reducing the deficit until a puncture forced an extra stop, forcing him to settle for second, ahead of the best-placed Audi.
Meanwhile, Dumbreck had one last task to fulfil. Technically, his accident had occurred on a public road and, French law being what it is, the police insisted that he be breathalysed… SA
Stars of the decade
Mar Blundel – The Brit saw Group C out in style. At 24 he became the youngest ever pole-sitter with an incredible lap for Nissan in 1990. Two years later he won with Peugeot.
Yannick Dalmas – He won with Peugeot in 1992, in the Dauer 962 in 1994, the McLaren Fl in 1995 — beating the prototypes in a GT — and BMW in 1999. Dalmas was one of the few constants in a topsy-turvy decade.
Bob Wollek – The French star finished on the podium four times in the ’90s. Often in contention at other times, but his luck never held. Was on the verge of retiring from the sport when he lost his life in a cycling accident in 2001.
Yojiro Terada – Obscure to some, perhaps, but has raced at Le Mans 29 times. Only Pescarolo and Wollek managed more starts. Terada took two class victories during the ’90s. Scored his best overall result — seventh — in ’95.
Car to remember: McLaren F1 GTR
Creator Gordon Murray never intended to adapt his McLaren F1 for racing, but the spirit of the age made such a conversion inevitable. It was the mid 1990s: Blur and Oasis squabbled for radio airtime and endurance racing was in the throes of resurrection. The BPR Global GT Series paved the way ahead — and while drivers were initially happy with Porsche 911s, Venturi 400s, Ferrari F40s and suchlike, McLaren’s new BMW V12-powered F1 looked irresistible. When the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours began, there were seven on the grid.
There wasn’t a seismic shift from road to track. The GTR was 90kg lighter than its progenitor, had fractionally narrower/wider front/rear track and bigger wheels and brakes. “It was lovely to drive7 says Andy Wallace, who that year shared David Price Racing’s Harrods-backed McLaren with the Bells, Derek and Justin. “Beforehand I’d raced only prototypes at Le Mans, so the McLaren was very different, but I was surprised by just how good it felt. You had to be aware of the big, heavy engine behind you, because you didn’t want all that weight stepping out of line, but I’d had that with the Jaguar XJR-9’s 7.0 V12, too, so it wasn’t too hard to get my head around it. The braking and traction were particularly impressive.”
It wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that a McLaren might win outright: there were some brisk prototypes entered — Kremer K8s, a couple of Courages and the fast, frail WRs, one of which took pole — but the GT ranks had strength and depth.
“We felt we had a reasonable chance7 says Wallace. “We knew the car was robust — the engine could have done a full season without a rebuild, never mind 24 hours. In a prototype you usually feel a slight power loss over the course of Le Mans, but the McLaren recorded 326km/h through the first chicane speed trap at the start of the race and 336 towards the end. It loosened up very nicely.
“There was quite a bit of rain that year and I have vivid memories of a river than ran across the circuit just beyond Tertre Rouge. In a GT you had a 170mph tankslapper… which did wonders for your concentration.”
Wallace and the Bells were victory contenders for a long time, but clutch slave cylinder failure scuppered their chances. They used only fifth and sixth gears for the last couple of hours, but finished third.
JJ Lehto, Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya won as McLarens filled four of the top five places, the most recent Le Mans victory for a genuinely road-derived car (and also the last time a venereal disease clinic served as winning title sponsor). SA
Peugeot wasn’t ready to win the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2008, but that changed the following season. The 908 HDi was again the faster car, but crucially for the French manufacturer that was the case in all conditions in 2009. And the tactical and strategic errors that blunted the previous year’s challenge had been erased.
Peugeot went to Le Mans for a third time with its LMP1 turbodiesel and brimmed with confidence. Audi had beaten the French cars at the Sebring 12 Hours, by now part of the Le Mans warm-up routine for both marques, but Peugeot Sport wasn’t worried.
“That year we were ready to win Le Mans,” says Peugeot Sport team manager Serge Saulnier, who endured a torrid lead-up to the race in ’08. “We knew why we hadn’t won Sebring and felt Le Mans would be different.”
Things weren’t quite as simple as Saulnier suggests. Audi had something of a nightmare in 2009, just one year on from its against-the-odds victory with the ageing R10. The new R15 TDI, a high-downforce contender with controversial front-end aerodynamics protested by its rival during Le Mans week, had worked at Sebring, but at Le Mans it wasn’t in the ballpark.
“With the higher speed at Le Mans, we couldn’t run the car in the window it was designed for,” recalls Ralf Juane; technical director at Joest Audi. “Our front tyre couldn’t take the loads and we ran nose-up at stages, which meant using a ride height for which the suspension hadn’t been designed. We were dancing on raw eggs.”
Audi was never truly in the frame. The lead car, shared by 2009 winners Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello, went a lap down as early as the fourth hour, and only briefly in the small hours did it look like anything approaching a match for the flying Peugeots.
Then another problem struck, also the result of its trick aero. Sand began to clog the intercoolers, resulting in a series of unscheduled stops and a reduction in pace. It was, says Juane; “a very fine sand that kind of glued together”.
The way was left clear for Peugeot to coast to a one-two victory and end an Audi domination that stretched right through the decade, if you include Bentley’s 2003 victory with one of the German manufacturer’s engines and the Joest team in the pits.
The only win of the five-year 908 programme went to what was effectively its third-string car driven by Alex Wurz, David Brabham and Marc Gene. They were effectively declared the winners after 14 hours when Peugeot Sport’s top brass invoked team orders.
The faster car of Stephane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny and Sebastien Bourdais lost time early on, but battled back onto the lead lap. Bourdais then clashed with a GT2 Porsche on Sunday morning. Peugeot believed (erroneously, it transpired) that there were brake wear problems on the leading car and so called time on the battle. GW
Stars of the decade
Frank Biela – After winning the German, French and British touring car championships for Audi, Biela was drafted into the company’s sports car team. He reeled off three straight wins at Le Mans in the early part of the decade and retired with five to his name.
Emanuele Pirro – Another of Ingolstadt’s touring car aces, the Italian partnered Biela at Le Mans. The pair took all five of their victories together.
Tom Kristensen – The most successful endurance driver of all time. Eight victories at Le Mans, including a first with Porsche in 1997 and six in a row from 2000-05 (one with Bentley), will be a tough record to beat.
Oliver Gavin –Gavin has been a GT stalwart since 2001, finishing on the class podium seven times in the last decade, including four wins in Corvettes. He’s still winning races in America and might yet add to that tally.
Car to remember: Audi R10 TDI
When an electric vehicle wins the Le Mans 24 Hours, or a prototype powered by a hydrogen fuel cell manages the feat perhaps some time after 2020, its inspiration will be traceable to a racing machine we now consider almost conventional. Audi’s R10 TDI was anything but when this turbodiesel first pitched up at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2006, at the start of a three-year winning streak.
The R10 wasn’t the first dieselpowered Le Mans racer: there had been so-called ‘oil-burners’ straight after World War II and a small British privateer team had brought the fuel back to Le Mans in 2004. But the Audi was the first purpose-designed diesel racer with, most pertinently, the first bespoke diesel racing engine.
The Audi changed attitudes, both inside and outside motor sport. It showed what could be possible with what was still called an alternative technology in the world of racing and it showed the outside world, most pertinently in the USA, that diesel engines could be sporty, even sexy.
The R10 was a winner from the outset: it was one of a line of Audis, stretching from the R8 to the original R18, to notch up a debut victory in the Sebring 12 Hours.
It wasn’t an easy car to drive initially, thanks to the weight of the V12 turbodiesel and its massive torque. But once long-time Audi tyre supplier Michelin had honed its rubber for the car in time for Le Mans, it was a dream for the drivers.
“It was a tricky car to tame:’ says Emanuele Pirro, who scored two of his five Le Mans victories with the R10 together with Frank Biela and Marco Werner. “Even if the car looks big and bulky today, it was a big step forwards on the R8; it had to be because it was designed six years later.
“In the beginning, we didn’t know how to handle the weight and the torque, but it became agile and even user-friendly. It was a car you could really push on street circuits in the American Le Mans Series and rain was the ultimate test. I was really worried when it was wet in qualifying in 2006, but it was still enjoyable to drive.”
The R10 is important for reasons other than its technology. It is often forgotten that the car was unbeaten at Le Mans in the hands of the Joest team. It won first time out in 2006, beat the new Peugeot turbodiesels one year later and then, in its dotage, scored arguably Audi’s greatest victory.
The German manufacturer’s ageing contender wasn’t a match for the Peugeot 908 HDi in 2008, but Joest, Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello ran the perfect race to snatch a final victory for this trend-setting design. GW
Anarchy rules, OK?
Once you start bending the rules, the habit takes hold. The Sportscar World Championship, subtitled ‘The Bartered Bride' is now pushed, pulled and pummelled by FISA, by teams and by…
Dave Charlton The South African racer, who contested 11 World Championship Grands Prix between 1967 and 1975, has died in Johannesburg aged 76. Born in Yorkshire, Charlton was best known…
Light Car Company Rocket: When perfection costs too much
Maybe it seems odd to be investigating the previous Gordon Murray super-light sportster during the razzmatazz around his new superlight sportster. But in fact author Clive Neville tells us he…