24 moments that made the Le Mans 24hrs

Published: 13 June 2014

Ahead of this weekend’s 82nd running of the world-famous endurance race, here’s CAR’s countdown of the 24 most iconic men, motors and moments that have defined the 24 Heures du Mans.

1923: The first Le Mans
The inaugural race on 26-27 May 1923 featured 33 cars and was won by a Chenard et Walcker, covering 1380 miles at an average speed of 57mph. Just like every subsequent Le Mans it was run on French country roads that are public highways for the other 363 days of the year.

1923– 2003: The Bentley Boys
A sole Bentley was at the first race in 1923 and finished fourth, but the British marque secured its status as a Le Mans legend by winning in 1924, and then four years in a row from 1927. Bentley returned to Le Mans in 2001 with an R8-derived racer, won in 2003, and hasn’t been back since.

1949: The Prancing Horse
Forever associated with F1, Ferrari is a legend at La Sarthe too. The Prancing Horse took part in the first post-WW II race in 1949, won, and kept on winning, beating the D-type Jags on their debut in ‘54, filling the top six positions in ’63 and holding off the GT40s for two years. Ferrari’s last victory was in 1965, but nine wins means it’s the third most successful marque.

1952: One man’s 23 hours
Glance at the history books and you’ll see Pierre Levegh as the man killed in a Mercedes fireball in 1955, but his stunning solo drive in ’52 should be remembered. Levegh built up a huge lead in his Talbot, refused to let his teammate drive, and only a fluffed gearchange (which blew the engine) with an hour left denied him a solo victory.

1953: Disc brakes
Innovative Dunlop-Girling disc brakes appeared on the C-types in 1953 and allowed the factory Jags to out-brake the more powerful Ferraris and take the Coventry company’s second win.

1955: The worst motorsport accident in history
After making contact with another car on the pit straight at the 1955 Le Mans 24hrs, a Mercedes 300 SLR hurtled into the grandstands, erupting into a fireball and scything through the crowd. Over 80 people were killed, but it wasn’t the fault of the 50-year old Frenchman behind the wheel, Pierre Levegh, rather the poor pit lane design and lack of safety. Mercedes withdrew from circuit racing until the 1980s.

1959: Aston Martin wins… eventually
Aston didn’t miss a race after ’31 but didn’t win until 1959 when Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby brought their DBR-1 home in first place. Journalist and racer Paul Frère and his teammate made it a 1-2 for the marque – the nearest Ferrari was over 200 miles behind.

1966: Ford GT40
Enraged that old man Enzo wouldn’t sell Ferrari, Henry Ford II commissioned a car to beat the I-talians. The GT40 failed in its first two attempts, but in 1966 finally ended Ferrari’s six-year stranglehold on Le Mans. Ford choreographed a dead-heat photo finish in ‘66 and planned for Ken Miles and Denis Hulme to win, but victory was handed to Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon as their GT40 started 20 metres further down the grid. The rules were subsequently changed. The GT40 won again in ’67 and ’68, and Jackie Ickx would hold off the faster Porsches in 1969 to give Ford its fourth and final victory.

1969: The Le Mans start… finishes
Since the first race drivers have sprinted across the track to their cars. In 1969, on his Le Mans debut, Jacky Ickx walked rather than ran to his out-dated GT40 in protest at this dangerous, out-dated rule – many drivers, in the rush to get ahead, didn’t secure their harnesses before setting off. Ickx effectively started last, but went on to win the race (plus five more in the future) and in 1970 drivers started in their cars.

1970: Porsche 917
It had to start somewhere for Porsche, and in 1970 Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood’s 4.5-litre flat-12 917K clinched Stuttgart’s first overall victory – it started from 16th on the grid. Another 917 would win the 1971 Le Mans 24hrs, with Dr Helmut Marko (now of Red Bull F1 fame) and Gijs van Lennep covering 3316 miles at an average of 138mph, a record that would not be beaten until 2010.

1971: Le Mans, the film
Little plot, next to no dialogue, but the achingly cool Steve McQueen and awesome in-car footage makes this battle between Porsche and Ferrari a must-watch for every petrolhead.

Porsche 956 no.2, driven by Jochen Mass and Vern Schuppan

Porsche 956/962
The most successful racing cars of all time, the 956 won at La Sarthe in ’82, ’83 (when nine 956s finished in the top ten), ’84 and ’85, while its longer wheelbase 962 descendant was victorious in 1986 and 1987. The 962 even won again in ‘94, after Porsche took advantage of rules designed to encourage converted road cars like to race. Porsche helped Jochen Dauer convert the 962 to road-legal spec, entered it in the Grand Touring category against Vipers and F40s, but bested the faster Group C Toyotas. The ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) subsequently re-wrote the rulebook to stop it coming back.

1988: Jaguar breaks Porsche’s dominance
After a trio of competitive Jaguar XJR-8s only managed a fifth and two retirements at the 1987 Le Mans 24hrs, Tom Walkinshaw Racing entered a total of five XJR-9s in ‘88. The 7.0-litre V12-powered Silk Cut cars looked familiar but had undergone heavy modifications and boasted 15% less drag, thanks in part to the re-adoption of the rear wheel covers that were abandoned in 1987. The result was an historic victory for Jaguar as it ended Porsche’s seven-year dominance of the famous French race; the no.2 car finished ahead of no less than nine 962Cs, and apart from the no.22 Jaguar in fourth place, Porsche’s filled the rest of the top ten. It was 31 years since Jaguar’s last French triumph, and messrs Johnny Dumfries, Jan Lammers and Andy Wallace took the chequered flag as the youngest trio ever to win Le Mans, with Wallace winning on his first visit to the Circuit de la Sarthe.

1990: Mulsanne chicanes
As a response to ever-increasing top speeds in the 1980s (a WM-Peugeot touched 253mph in ’88) the Automobile Club de l’Ouest introduced two chicanes on the Mulsanne straight in 1990 to slow the cars.

1991: Mazda wins at Le Mans
Victory for the 787B in 1991 was not just Mazda’s first victory, but also the first for a rotary engine, and the only time a Japanese manufacturer has won at La Sarthe.

1995: The McLaren F1
After developing the world’s fastest road car, McLaren produced a racing version, the GTR. It won on its debut in 1995 against faster prototype opposition, while four other F1s finished 3rd, 4th, 5th and 13th. It was the last true road car to win Le Mans.

1997– date: The most successful driver
Dane Tom Kristensen first won Le Mans in 1997, was victorious with Bentley in 2003, and has taken the chequered flag another six times with Audi. His eight overall victories are unmatched, and his other seven results aren’t bad either: three thirds and just four retirements (all from podium positions).

1998: Porsche’s unrivalled record
No marque has been more successful than Porsche at La Sarthe, and the 911 GT1’s first place in 1998 was Stuttgart’s 16th overall victory. Porsche returns to race in the LMP1 class in 2014…

1998: Flying CLRs
Mercedes dominated the 1997 FIA GT Championship but its CLK-GTRs proved brittle at Le Mans; twelve months later Merc returned to La Sarthe with three short wheelbase, super-sleek CLRs. The eternally unlucky Mark Webber flipped his car in practice and in the warm-up on Saturday, though the drivers agreed to race with winglets on the nose and new aero settings. That evening Peter Dumbreck’s CLR took off, and while Webber’s accidents had remained within the confines of the track, the no.5 CLR ended up amongst the trees. Dumbreck emerged unhurt, but the remaining CLR was called in, the team withdrew and Mercedes hasn’t raced at Le Mans since.


1999– date: Audi = unstoppable
Audi’s record is incredible – it’s achieved ten wins in 13 years, filled 24 of the possible 39 podiums and had four 1-2-3 finishes.

2006: The first diesel win
Before Audi arrived with an oil-burner in 2006, diesels had raced at Le Mans but only sporadically. Spectators were treated to an eerie silence as the R10 TDIs took first and third – never before had a Le Mans-winning car sounded so boring. Petrol power hasn’t won since, and Audi made history again in 2012 when its R18 E-tron Quattro became the first hybrid and first four-wheel drive vehicle to win.

2009: Peugeot beats Audi
Audi won Le Mans in 2000, 2001 and 2002, sister company Bentley took the chequered flag in 2003, and then the Germans notched up another five victories on the trot. That Peugeot managed to break the lockout in 2009 can be seen as significant as Jaguar’s ’88 victory – especially if you’re French.

Audi R15 TDI Plus
In 2010 the Peugeots broke while Audi broke records: all four 908s retired (three suffering identical conrod failure) and Audi took a 1-2-3 victory (the first for diesel power) in what was the fastest ever race. The winning car averaged over 140mph and covered 3381 miles, and even the R15s that finished second and third beat the records set in 1971.