Fifty years ago today, Porsche won its first overall victory at Le Mans, beginning a sequence that would make it the most successful manufacturer in this history of the endurance race.
Today, its record stands at 19 overall wins at what is commonly considered the toughest circuit race in the world, including a stint of seven years unbeaten during the 1980s.
Behind the figures is a of cult heroes and racing legends that have piloted a Porsche to victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe throughout the years. From the likes of Richard Attwood and Jacky Ickx to Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, the extensive list begins back in 1970 and carries on right through the 2000s to 2017, when Porsche announced it was bowing out of the top class in endurance racing – for the time being.
In this list, we take a look back at some of Porsche’s famous Le Mans-winning cars, including the famed 917, iconic 956 and technological marvel in the 919 Hybrid.
The one that got the ball rolling, the Porsche 917 had proven to be immensely quick in 1969 but not yet stable enough to conquer the field over 24 hours. That changed in 1970 when Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood wrote their names into the history books with overall victory.
As Ferrari and Alfa Romeo – plus longtail versions of the 917 – fell by the wayside, the Anglo-German pairing emerged at the front and once the lead was secured, never looked back, taking a commanding victory.
For Herrmann, it marked the end of his motor sport career but for Porsche, it was the start of the marque’s love affair with Le Mans.
1976/77: 936 Spyder
After repeating victory in the 1971 edition of the race, a spell off of the top step followed until 1976 when Jacky Ickx and Gijs van Lennep piloted their 936 to victory. One year on and Porsche secured a further consecutive win, with Ickx partnering Hurley Haywood and Jürgen Barth in another 936.
After a breakdown early on in the race put the 002 chassis on the sidelines, Ickx joined Haywood and Barth in the sister car. The team overcame the Renault threat and despite running into reliability troubles of their own in the final hour of the race, scored Porsche’s fourth Le Mans win and second in a row in a repeat of their ’70/71 showing.
Porsche’s chances of victory in 1979 fell to the 935s in the field after both factory 936s dropped out of the running. Ickx’s hopes of a fifth Le Mans win were over after he was disqualified for receiving outside assistance in repairing his poorly 936 and the other car, driven by Bob Wollek and Hurley Haywood, retired with engine issues. It left the Group 5 Porsche’s to fly the flag.
Klaus Ludwig, Don and Bill Whittington stepped up and secured victory with the least distance completed in a Le Mans race by the victor since 1953. Behind them, the 935 of Rolf Stommelen, Dick Barbour and Hollywood’s Paul Newman finished runners-up and a third 935, driven by Laurent Ferrier, François Servanin and François Trisconi, meant it was a 935 1-2-3 on the podium.
1981: 936 – the first in seven-straight Le Mans wins for Porsche
1980 went by without a win but 1981 was the start of a historic spell for Porsche at Le Mans. While the Porsche 936 might have failed to secure the victory two years prior, it would not be denied in ’81 and dominated the race at the hands of Ickx and Derek Bell.
The car wasn’t a part of Porsche’s original plan for that year. Only after Peter Schutz, who was at the helm of Porsche at the time, was told that the team would not win with the 944 Turbo did plans begin to change.
A hasty reworking of the 936 was the result. Pulled from the museum and fitted with a six-cylinder turbo intended for use at Indianapolis, the Ickx/Bell car sailed to victory with no reliability issues to speak of, heading the field by 14 laps.
Porsche did bring a new car the following year and was the dominant force, locking out the podium with three 956s.
Ickx and Bell made it two-in-a-row themselves, piloting the No1 956 to victory in what was a relatively straightforward affair for Porsche and was the Belgian driver’s final Le Mans triumph.
Jochen Mass and Vern Schuppan finished in second with Hurley Haywood, Al Holbert and Jürgen Barth, who had to replace Haywood partway through due to the American becoming unwell, securing a 1-2-3 show of dominance.
The 956 went on to take another three-straight Le Mans victories before the introduction of the 962…
The first appearance at Le Mans for the 962 resulted in another first-time victory for the latest Porsche, built to comply with the newly-implemented Group C regulations, the 962 carried on from where its predecessor left of.
Derek Bell, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Al Holbert recorded the manufacturer’s sixth Le Mans win in a row and 11th since 1970.
The trio repeated their success one year later in the same machinery, evading any reliability scares that had put the sister entries on the sidelines to win comfortably by 20 laps.
1994: 962 Dauer Le Mans GT
While the 962’s success had started to wane following regulation changes and the rise of rival manufacturers’ growing competitiveness at Le Mans, the car would taste success once more.
Though rules had been drawn up to bring back production-based GT cars, the rules failed to specify the number of production vehicles required to satisfy the requirement. Narrow tyres, flat floor and 13 production versions gave Porsche an opening it fully exploited.
An altered version, stripped back from the original design specification to feature carbon fibre body panels but retention of engine and gearbox and implementation of a larger fuel tank, was vital to its victory.
While rivals spent longer in the pits, the Dauer 962 rose up the order and eventually secured overall victory, with the second car making the podium in third position.
1996/97: WSC Spyder
Porsche secured another 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans, this time headed up by the WSC Spyder of Joest Racing.
The factory Porsche teams entered 911 GT1s over the WSC intended for competition in the US, while the Tom Walkinshaw-run Joest team ran the new open top prototype.
After taking the lead within the first hour of the race, the Joest Racing team only ever relinquished the lead during the pit stop phases. By the end, Manuel Reuter, Davy Jones and Alexander Wurz finished one lap clear of the nearest factory team.
Joest Racing repeated its victory a year later, this time with Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Tom Kristensen at the wheel.
1998: 911 GT1
Porsche’s 16th overall win at Le Mans came on the 50th anniversary of its founding, beating tough competition in the form of Mercedes, BMW and Toyota to overall victory.
After failing to capture victory in the 24-hour race in the two years prior, the Porsche teams returned with a tweaked GT1-98 version designed to prioritise reliability over outright speed.
It was an inspired decision as rivals fell during the race. All three rival manufacturers succumbed to reliability woes, leaving Nissan to secure a distant third over McLaren. It was the final Le Mans win for Porsche for over a decade as the company bowed out of competition in endurance racing’s top class until 2014.
2015/16/17: 919 Hybrid
After well over 10 years on the sidelines, Porsche returned to Le Mans in 2014 where it lost out to Audi and Toyota. The following year though the marque returned to the top step.
The 17-year wait for victory number 17 ended as Nico Hülkenberg, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy earned victory in only the second Le Mans appearance for the 919 Hybrid.
Following the reliability issues suffered by the no17 and 18 Porsche teams, the no19 crew was able to bring their car home for the win.
As it had done in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Porsche then went on to record a back-to-back victory, winning the following year in the most dramatic of circumstances.
With a Toyota victory looking assured as the leading car began the final lap, the no5 Toyota slowed to a halt, allowing the second-placed Porsche Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb to close the minute-plus gap and take the lead on the final tour.
The team won once more a year later in the final year of the 919 Hybrid project as Porsche shifted focus away from sports cars and into Formula E.