Warning: This post is filled with gratuitous onboard footage of legendary race cars.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of the longest running motorsports events in history. Its played host to both great successes, and catastrophic disasters. Over the years, it has turned ordinary men into legends, and their dreams into motorsports folklore. This year marks the 80th running of the race, and we thought it would be fitting to pay our respect to some of the most epic race cars in Le Mans history.
From Alfa Romeo to Zagato, anyone who’s anyone in motorsports has entered a car at Le Mans. Of the many that came, some failed spectacularly while others, determined to make their mark in history, continued to develop and improve. Of those, only a few have managed to combine the aspirations of their designers with the competitive durability of the drivers. Here are our heroes of the 24 hours of Le Mans:
The D-Type was perhaps the first real superstar of post World War II racing at Le Mans. It was a product of a time when cars were driven, not trailored, to the track. The racers who drove it were gentleman drivers who spoke impeccably, wore bow ties, smoked pipes and wore tweed sport coats. Their formality didn’t hinder their competitiveness, however, as the D-Type took the top podium spot at Le Mans three years in a row beginning in 1955.
The D-Type was Jaguar’s follow up to the successful C-Type sports racing car. It carried over all the important parts from the C-Type, like the aerodynamic styling, 3.4-liter straight-six engine and four-wheel disc brakes. The 250-horsepower straight-six used an early dry sump lubrication system, and was later increased to 3.8 liters, making 265 horsepower in 1956 while still made all the right noises. Technological milestones aside, the D-Type is a perfect example of the foundation of Le Mans that has made the race so legendary. Nothing says it better than this video of Mike Hawthorne lapping the circuit in 1956 with, umm, lots of slower traffic:
The Audi R8R is the most successful Le Mans racer of all time with five wins, or technically six, if you count the nearly identical Bentley Speed 8. Powered by a twin-turbo, 3.6-liter V-8 that produced up to 700 hp, the R8R was capable of reaching 210 mph on the Mulsanne straight. Unfortunately, the story of the R8R is not as impressive as the rest of the cars here. Maybe because it was so clinically good at decimating the competition, its legacy has become almost boring.
The speed of the R8R was undeniable, but the key to its success depended on it being incredibly simple to work on. Flashback: 2000 24 Hours of Le Mans- late night gearbox problems bring the R8R into the pits for a transmission swap. Normally this would take anywhere from 1-3 hours. The Audi team completed the repairs in literally five minutes at the cost of one lap. Think about that. 120+ minutes cut down to five. It was German precision engineering at its finest. This was the brilliance of the R8R and all the Audi prototypes that followed. They weren’t blindingly fast, but they could set an ideal lap time and hit it hour after hour for the entire race. If something broke, it could usually be repaired in five minutes. Problem solved, and domination of toughest sports-car race in the world achieved.
The Ford GT40 needs no introduction. It’s one of the most legendary race cars in history, and its back story is the basis of A.J. Baime’s book Go Like Hell. The GT40 is one of the larger than life stories of Le Mans. It began with the Ford wanting to buy Ferrari in order to go racing, but Enzo Ferrari, being the kind of man that he is, turned down the offer. Henry Ford II, infuriated by Enzo Ferrari’s unwillingness to be corrupted by capitalism, set out to build a race car that would destroy the Ferrari and introduce Ford Motorsports to the world. He enlisted the expertise of Caroll Shelby and a whole bunch of nerds, and the rest was history. The GT40, and its evolutions, went on to win Le Mans four years in a row, besting the efforts of both the Ferrari 512 and Porsche 917. More on that 917 bit a little later.
The Porsche 956/962 was the second to last chapter in Porsche’s domination of the 24 hours of LeMans that spanned from the late 1960′s through the 1980′s. As the successor to the accomplished 936 racer, the 956 was designed to race under the FIA’s new Group C formula rules. Group C had some pretty big shoes to fill as the replacement to the FIA Group 5 and Group 6 regulations. Those same set of rules gave rise to the BMW M1, Ferrari 512 M/S, Ford GT40 and the Porsche 917.
The 956 didn’t dissapoint. Powered by a 2.65-liter, turbo flat-6 motor carried over from the 936, the 956 shot out 800 horsepower which gave it a top speed of over 240 mph. It was also a highly technical car that incorporated the use of an early dual clutch gearbox, and insane levels of grip generated by its aggressive ground effects. However, the 956 wasn’t exactly safe, nor did it meet the requirements for IMSA GTP racing. So Porsche quickly developed the evolution of the 956, the 962. It incorporated a pedal box, steel rollcage and carbon Kevlar body panels. The results were phenomenal, with the 962 going on to win Le Mans races well into the 1990′s. Combined, the 956 and 962 have seven overall Le Mans victories.
Though the 956/962 might be the most successful Le Mans car ever, the Porsche 917 is without a doubt the most heroic. Drivers were either stupid or had their balls carried in a wheelbarrow behind them, because for all intents and purposes, the 917 was a death trap. It was cramped, the body flexed, early models were incredibly skittish, and drivers could barely see out of it. Porsche did designed more sucessful cars that were also easier to drive. But only the 917 had a movie made about it staring the paramount of cool, Steve McQueen.
No, the 917 is first on our list because going down the un-chicaned Mulsanne straight at 240+mph in a car that only weighed 1,600 lbs. sounds crazy. Doing it on bias ply tires in the rain is utterly insane. The amount of skill needed to drive the earlier cars at speed is proof of how far motorsports technology has come, or how batshit mental the drivers were. It was the brain child of some crazy German engineers who wanted to go fast, but hadn’t quite figured out how to do it safely. It was just a big motor strapped to an aluminum frame with a set of enormously wide tires bolted on, and a body thrown over it. Oh, and the noise from that flat-12 engine was intoxicating. It must have been a treat to hear it flat-out, bellowing against the trees at as it cut through cool late night air at 2:00 am.
The 917 is our ultimate Le Mans hero because it captures the essence of Le Mans. Its very much about speed, but more so about gumption and endurance. Its the ability to keep the throttle buried even though you can’t see where you’re going, or to keep pushing even though your brain is frazzled from constantly making corrections as the wild beast your strapped to tries to kill itself. It was scary and it was tough, but it worked. In that way, it’s just like Le Mans itself. It’s far from perfect, but the only winners are those who show up with the sole intention of surviving.
There’s a lot to be said about the short lived GT1 homologation special cars of the mid-to-late 90′s. They were hypercars specially built to go racing, and you could just walk into a dealership and take one home. Unfortunately, the McLaren and the Porsche only tasted victory at Le Mans once each. But for five years, the competition for top honors at Le Mans was pretty close, as seen in this video below. McLaren and Porsche doing battle in the early hours of the morning. What could be better?
The Mazda 787b was the only Japanese-built car to win the 24 hours of Le Mans. The Mazda wasn’t particularly successful by the standard of the cars on this list. It only won Le Mans once in 1991. Even so, it’s probably the best sounding car ever to survive the 24 hours: