The ALL time Top 10 Le Mans Cars – Enjoy!
The middle weekend of June always brings with it the fever of the world’s greatest endurance race, les vingt-quatre heures du Mans at that Mecca of motorsport venues, the Circuit de la Sarthe in France’s beautiful Loire country.
This year’s race is shaping up to be a bit of a classic and every time someone mentions the words “classic” or “all-time great” you start to ponder what that really means. For me, above everything else it’s the glorious nature of the cars themselves that make the event so special. Le Mans has produced the best looking and most evocative cars in motorsport since 1923 and I thought I’d look back over the years and reflect on the best machines this great race has given us during the past nine decades. It’s also an interesting time to discuss Le Mans car designs, with the announcement this week that the radical “Delta Wing” design will be present at La Sarthe in 2012. This eye catching new design has a triangular layout, a drastic departure from the traditional rectangular shaped cars.
But that’s the future and for now I’ll be focussing on some greats from the past. So here it is. My top ten Le Mans cars of all time: it’s in order of how much I feel they epitomise everything that’s great about Le Mans. So that’s how much passion they conjure up in the average petrol head, how good looking the car is, how successful it was and their general Le Mans legacy. Feel free to disagree; it’s a debate that will probably rumble on for at least another nine decades.
10. BMW V12 LMR
I’m probably a bit biased in my first choice as BMW’s one and only victory at La Sarthe came in 1999 with the LMR and it was, as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, the race that got me into sportscar racing properly to begin with.
BMW had a catastrophic Le Mans in 1998, with both cars proving not that quick and very unreliable. The German marque subsequently threw all their weight behind the 1999 campaign and in a bizarre race where each successive leading car seemed to hit problems, including the #17 LMR, the #15 car was left to come through to take the spoils.
BMW are one of Le Mans’ greatest one-hit wonders. The following year the manufacturer put all their efforts into the Formula One tie-up with Williams, and it was felt unnecessary to return to defend their crown. Still, it won one of the all-time classic Le Mans, and its failure to return means the car has a 100% record at La Sarthe: I couldn’t not include it in this list.
9. BUGATTI TYPE 57
This list features four German cars, three British cars, an Italian car, an American car and only one car from the country which has hosted the race for all these decades. There’s an argument for honouring Peugeot’s current prototype, the mighty 908 which was dominant in 2009, but its too soon: its inclusion in the all-time greats list requires it to achieve more success first (even though the new 908 is apparently a totally different car to the old 908, confusingly).
The Bugatti Type 57, however, is iconic and more than worthy of its place here. Of the three races between the First and Second World War, the Type 57 won two of them, both times with an all-French driver line-up. The victories of the Bugatti Type 57G Tank in 1937 and the Bugatti Type 57S Tank in 1939 cemented the car’s place as the defining “voiture” of the era.
8. AUDI R10 TDI
Like the first car in this list, the inclusion of the Audi R10 is possibly biased due to my seeing it win on its first outing in 2006. But it’s so much more than that: not only did the R10 TDI take a 100% record of three Le Mans victories in three attempts from 2006 to 2008, it heralded the introduction of a new era of diesel racing a Le Mans which continues today.
Though not the first Diesel to race at Le Mans, it was the first Diesel-powered machine to achieve notable success and it opened the door for the likes of Peugeot to enter with their Diesel-powered 908 the following year.
7. ALFA ROMEO 8C
This car won the Italian Grand Prix at the hands of racing legend Tazio Nuvolari and was the world’s first single seater F1 car, but it was the two-seater Alfa Romeo 8C sports car which dominated Le Mans in the early thirties.
Officially titled the Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 in reference to its 2.3 litre engine, this car also won the Targa Florio in Sicily in 1931 and 1932, again driven by Tazio Nuvolari, and was unbeaten at Le Mans between 1931 and 1934.
6. JAGUAR XJR9
Le Mans is often cited as a British race held in France; such are the consistent numbers of us that hop across the channel for the annual pilgrimage in the middle of June. In 1988 there was more reason than ever for Brits to be excited about the race, as Jaguar took their first victory at La Sarthe since 1957.
It was also the first time since 1980 that Porsche hadn’t won and is one of the most memorable victories in Le Mans history, especially for us Brits. The iconic Silk Cut livery is evocative and the sleek design of the car itself makes this one of the most glorious and mouth watering cars ever to grace the Mulsanne straight. The XJR12 may have won two years later but it is its 1988 predecessor that stands out as one of the all-time Le Mans greats.
5. BENTLEY SPEED SIX
The Bentley Speed Six won two of Bentley’s six Le Mans victories, making it their most successful model ever to race at the circuit. These came in 1929 and 1930; the next time Bentley would claim victory was with Guy Smith at the wheel in 2003, the one year between 2000 and 2008 that Audi didn’t take victory at La Sarthe (although they were effectively run by the same organisation). The image of the Bentley Speed Six, though, is synonymous with Le Mans and, if the word can be applied to cars, this one is a legend.
As well as being successful at motor racing in the 1920s and 1930s, the Bentley Speed Six was developed into a road car. Legend has it a “Top Gear” style race was conducted in March 1930, when at dinner one evening at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, the discussion surrounded the subject of Rover’s claim that its Rover Light Six could go faster than the famous “Le Train Bleu” express, the train which ran from Calais to the French Riviera. This claim became known worldwide and led to a series of “Blue Train Races” between automobiles and trains in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The claim led to “Bentley Boy” and Le Mans winner Woolf Barnato claiming this was not a special achievement. He wagered £100 sterling that if “Le Train Bleu” set off from Cannes at the same time as he did in his Bentley Speed Six, he could be at his club in London before the express reached Calais.
The following day, on the 13th of March 1930, both the train and Barnato, along with his friend acting as a second driver, set off from Cannes. Despite losing time searching for fuel in Auxerre at twenty past four in the morning, heavy rain from Lyon onwards, heavy fog through central France and a burst tyre leaving Paris, they reached Calais by half past ten in the morning and were parked outside the Conservative Club in St James Street in London by twenty past three in the afternoon. The train reached Calais a mere four minutes later. And unlike some of Top Gear’s more dubious close finishes, you can be sure that that one wasn’t faked. Unfortunately for Woolf Barnato, he was later fined far more than his £100 winnings by the French authorities for racing on public roads.
4. JAGUAR D-TYPE
Jaguar won Le Mans in 1951 with their XK-120C and won again in 1953 with the C-type. The British marque entered the D-Type for the first time in 1954 but the team were hampered by sand in their fuel. The car, driven by Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt, eventually recovered to finish only a lap down on the winning Ferrari, though, and it was clear the Jaguar D-Type had the potential to win.
The following year was the tragic 1955 event, featuring one of the worst crashes in motorsport history. The D-Type’s first victory was understandably marred by the events of the crash three hours into that race, their rivals Mercedes withdrawing immediately. Mercedes withdrew from motorsport altogether at the end of the 1955 season and Jaguar’s D-Type again won in 1956. Jaguar then withdrew from motorsport at the end of the 1956 season, but the small Edinburgh based team Ecurie Ecosse, with considerable help from Jaguar, took a one-two finish with the D-Type in the 1957 Le Mans 24 Hours. A hat trick of victories and a stunning iconic design give the Jaguar D-Type fourth place in this list.
3. FORD GT40
Famously named after its height in inches, the Ford GT40 is the only racing car built in America to ever win the Le Mans 24 Hours; the GT40 took four victories in a row from 1966 to 1969. It was built to beat the Ferraris, who had won at La Sarthe for the previous six years and would have made this list had it been just one car and not been a variety of different models of Ferrari winning.
Henry Ford II had wanted Ford to win at Le Mans since the early sixties. When Ford’s multimillion dollar programme finally looked set to happen in the closing stages of the 1966 race, the team were running first, second and third and were stuck with a dilemma. They could not afford to let their drivers race and risk crashing into each other during the final stint but did not want to upset any of their drivers. Funny how some things never change in motorsport…
So Ford tried to be clever and stage a photo finish tie, except it didn’t work out and the race finished amid controversy. The organisers of the race, the ACO, informed the team that in the event of a tie geographical distance between grid positions would be taken into account, meaning the car starting 80 metres lower down the grid would have travelled a greater overall distance and would be declared the winner. In the end, one of their drivers, Ken Miles, slowed down at the last corner in protest at what he saw as the team’s disloyalty to his efforts to win the triple crown of Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans after his dedication to the program and let their other driver Bruce McLaren through to win.
Tragically, Miles was killed in testing just two months later. But that finish has gone down in history as one of the most famous Le Mans moments. The famous photograph of that finish is one of sport’s most enduring images and to this day it is the closest finish of the Le Mans 24 Hours race ever. Indeed, in 2003, the Goodwood Festival of Speed display outside Goodwood House was designed by Ford, and featured replica GT40s vertically mounted in their finishing positions from that race on scaffolding designed to look like the spray from that wet day in 1966. The car itself has an even greater legacy than that finish and is truly deserving of its top three spot in this list.
2. AUDI R8
In 1997 sportscar racing was popular with a lot of major manufacturers and Audi’s Dr Wolfgang Ulrich looked into entering Le Mans, a move that would pay off massively with the phenomenally successful Audi R8 winning every year except one from 2000 to 2005.
It started in 1999, though, with the Audi R8R, which fought with BMW and Toyota for the race win but ultimately lost out. But it was a different story after that, with the same driver line up of Tom Kristensen, Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro winning for three years straight in the Audi Sport Infineon Team Joest car. Bentley broke this streak in 2003 but did so with help from Joest Racing and Audi Sport UK; the Bentley is referred to by some as the “Audi R9” due to its similarities with the R8’s successor, the diesel-powered R10 which won every Le Mans it entered from 2006 to 2008.
In 2004 and 2005, customer run Audi R8s made it five wins out of six for this legendary car. Tom Kristensen’s success in the R8 helped him become the most successful Le Mans driver of all time with eight wins, six of which were on the trot between 2000 and 2005, including when he switched to Bentley for their winning year in 2003. No one else has come close to his record of six consecutive wins.
The legacy of the R8 lives on through its successors: the R10, the R15 and this year’s all-new Audi R18, two of which fill the front row of the grid for this weekend’s 2011 Le Mans 24 Hours.
1. PORSCHE 956/962/917
There are several Porsches that could have made this list, most notably the 956 and its successor the 962. On its debut in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1982, Porsche 956s led for the entire 24 hours and finished 1-2-3 in the order they started. That’s a staggering domination and was followed up by another three victories on the trot for the Porsche 956, which in turn was followed up by two more consecutive victories for the Porsche 962. Given that in 1981 Porsche also won with its 936, that’s a phenomenal seven straight wins for the most successful Le Mans manufacturer of all time, with sixteen victories in total to their name (that’s nearly twice as many as anyone else).
But statistical success at La Sarthe is not what earns a number one placing on this list. Instead it’s the fact that the Porsche 917 pretty much sums up everything that’s glorious and fundamental to sportscar racing. In my opinion it is the most iconic sportscar of all time (in no small part due to the success of the 1971 Steve McQueen Le Mans film) and just looking at it tells you everything you need to know about what makes endurance racing so evocative and exciting. Put it this way: if, god forbid, Le Mans ever had to become a single-make event, you’d want all the cars to be Porsche 917s.
The Porsche 917 project was incredibly expensive for Porsche, who initially just built 25 models when the rules changed so that was the new lower minimum production number necessary for the car to compete. Essentially the 917 was built with just one goal in mind: to win the Le Mans 24 Hours. Despite problems to begin with, the car won twice. That, combined with a certain film, makes the Porsche 917 the greatest Le Mans car of all time in my opinion. The Gulf livery is just as synonymous with Le Mans but it is the car that is the real hero. Over the years the 917 has run in many different liveries: it’s never stopped looking awesome, and it never will.