Ten of the Best: Rejects at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

Held during the month of June, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of the most prestigious races in the world, joining the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 as part of motorsport’s coveted Triple Crown. The first ever 24 Hours of Le Mans was run in 1923, and features a number of winners who, although didn’t quite cut it in Formula One, managed to find success in the most grueling endurance race of them all. Here are the 10 best races won by F1 Rejects at Le Mans.

1952: Fritz Riess and Hermann Lang, works Mercedes W194

The #21 Mercedes of Riess and Lang en route to a famous Le Mans win.

The #21 Mercedes of Riess and Lang en route to a famous Le Mans win.

Ahead of the 1952 race, the main story was the return of Mercedes. Alfred Neubauer’s confident professionalism and the return of Karl Kling and Hermann Lang was a major talking point, and Lang (partnered with Fritz Riess) was duly fastest in practice. Neubauer preferred to run slower in the race, and after many retirements early on, the Ferrari of Simon and Vincent was leading from the small Gordini of Manzon and Behra.

The Gordini’s brakes eventually failed, allowing Pierre Levegh to take the lead. Levegh had sensationally decided to run the race solo, and despite engine worries, was comfortably leading with the reliable Mercs running 2-3. Sadly, what would become a legendary drive was ended just over an hour from the finish, when the Talbot’s engine finally failed.

It took over 20 minutes for the Mercedes to catch up, but after an uneventful end to the race, Lang and Riess won the race, ahead of teammates Theo Helfrich and Helmut Niedermayr. The win signalled the beginning of Mercedes’ successful comeback to motorsport.

This would be Riess’ only major win, and his sole F1 appearance at his home race in 1952 ended with seventh place. The win was the last highlight of Hermann Lang’s illustrious career. He later drove in two Grands Prix, the 1953 Swiss GP for Maserati and the 1954 German GP for Mercedes, and retired from the sport soon thereafter. Fifth place in Switzerland was his best result.

1953: Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt, works Jaguar C-Type

Having supposedly driven "over the limit", Hamilton and Rolt took victory.

Having supposedly driven “over the limit”, Hamilton and Rolt took victory.

With Mercedes missing this race and Jaguar entering their new C-Type, the race dynamic was bound to change for 1953. Jaguar had entered three cars for Peter Walker/Stirling Moss, Peter Whitehead/Ian Stewart and Tony Rolt/Duncan Hamilton. In practice, test driver Norman Dewis and Stirling Moss took the wheel of the spare car, but as this car had the same number 18 as the Rolt/Hamilton car, it was assumed that they were driving the race car instead. This was deemed illegal, and Rolt and Hamilton were promptly disqualified. If Hamilton’s recollections are to be believed, the pair soon hit the bar.

Upon protest, the disqualification was overturned in exchange of a fine, and the allegedly hungover Rolt and Hamilton took the start. Ferrari and Alfa Romeo were quick, but the Jag was more reliable, and after Moss lost time due to a clogged fuel filter, Rolt/Hamilton led the way, albeit impaired by an early bird strike. The Ferrari of Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi followed for many hours, but as clutch issues developed, they dropped behind and eventually retired.

Untroubled for the last hours, Rolt and Hamilton won the race by four laps from Moss and Walker. Both drivers had unremarkable F1 careers, limited to a handful of starts. Rolt retired from all three of his, all in the UK, while Hamilton branched out to the continent, finishing seventh at Zandvoort in 1952. Rolt is more notable from his multiple escapes from POW camps, while Hamilton’s exploits are recounted in his excellent autobiography ‘Touch Wood’.

1971: Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep, works Porsche 917K

1971 would be marked by a dearth of works teams. Aside from a lone Matra and some privateer Ferraris, the win would be exclusively fought between the works Porsche team and the sister 917Ks entered by John Wyer. After the 1969 death of John Woolfe and the underwhelming standing start of 1970, the race began under a rolling start for the first time ever, dubbed the “Indianapolis start”.

After a chaotic start to the race, the John Wyer Porsches immediately took the lead and locked out the 1-2-3 positions. However, their pace was not backed up by reliability. Jo Siffert and Pedro Rodríguez were forced to retire, and the third car of Richard Attwood was severely set back. The private Ferrari of Juncadella/Vaccarella now led but, just as dawn broke, their gearbox failed. Marko and van Lennep’s works Porsche took the lead ahead of Beltoise and Amon’s Matra, which soon retired as well.

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Despite a late charge from the Attwood/Müller Porsche, Marko and van Lennep hung on to win by two laps, setting a distance record that would last until 2010. Both drivers later drove in Formula 1; the aristocratic van Lennep raced part-time for small teams throughout the decade, recording two points for Williams and Ensign. Marko went on to drive for BRM, but he lost an eye to a volcanic stone at Clermont-Ferrand in 1972, ending his young career. He is now better known as the demanding head of Red Bull’s young driver programme.

1973: Gérard Larrousse, works Matra MS670B

Team-mate: Henri Pescarolo

Larrousse - in the #11 Matra - dukes it out with the #17 Ferrari.

The #11 Matra of Pescarolo and Larrousse dukes it out with the #17 Ferrari.

Matra were the defending winners in 1972, and to beat Ferrari again, they decided to stick to a single strategy. The Italian team sent the car of Arturo Merzario and Carlos Pace out front, but a fuel leak soon put them behind a Matra 1-2-3. The other Ferraris soon picked up the pace, and with Jaussaud/Jabouille and Cevert/Beltoise hitting trouble, Ferrari held the top two spots by midnight. The leading Schenken/Reutemann car soon retired with engine failure, but Ickx and Redman still led Pescarolo and Larrousse by a lap. A thrilling race of attrition followed.

Ferrari lost the lead when the exhaust system had to be replaced, but a faulty brake system held back the Matra on the next lap. The French car kept the lead and increased the gap, as the Ferrari was forced to pit again due to another fuel leak. Pescarolo now led handsomely but, during a routine stop, he stalled the Matra and damaged its starter motor. The ensuing repairs allowed Ickx to remain on the lead lap, at least until the Ferrari’s engine finally called it quits. The Merzario/Pace Ferrari was left to finish second, six laps behind the Matra.

Perhaps best remembered for leading an eponymous F1 team between 1987 and 1994, Gérard Larrousse’s F1 efforts as a driver were limited to two appearances for the fledgling Scuderia Finotto in 1974. Driving a Brabham BT42, he made one start and duly retired.

1983: Vern Schuppan, works Porsche 956

Team-mates: Hurley Haywood and Al Holbert

The works Porsches had dominated in 1982, and this would not change in 1983. Porsche got a grasp of the 1-2-3 placings early on; Jochen Mass and Stefan Bellof took the early lead ahead of the Schuppan/Haywood/Holbert car, while Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell occupied third despite an early spin after contact with Jan Lammers. At around midnight, the Mass/Bellof car dropped back, later retiring, and Schuppan/Haywood/Holbert took the lead.

Ickx and Bell lost another four laps at 6am when the car stopped at Mulsanne, but the leading Porsche also hit trouble when the rear subframe, rear windshield and left door all had to be replaced in separate incidents. The gap was quickly reduced to just two laps between Holbert and the catching Derek Bell.

The #3 Porsche of Schuppan/Haywood/Holbert won the race by 17 seconds.

The #3 Porsche of Schuppan/Haywood/Holbert won the race by 17 seconds.

The Holbert/Haywood/Schuppan Porsche started to experience overheating issues, and when Holbert pitted, the header tank had to be refilled. The issue with the radiator was not fixed, and with Bell now on the same lap, a plume of smoke soon left Holbert’s engine. On the final lap, the engine briefly seized before re-firing but, despite Bell’s best efforts, Holbert, Haywood and Schuppan won the race by just 17 seconds.

This was Schuppan’s only major win, having given up open-wheel racing the year before. He competed in F1 throughout the 1970s, including stints for Ensign and Surtees, where his best result was a seventh place at Hockenheim in 1977.

1987: Derek Bell, works Porsche 962C

Team-mates: Hans-Joachim Stuck and Al Holbert

The 1987 Le Mans victory was hotly contested between Porsche and Jaguar.

The 1987 Le Mans victory was hotly contested between Porsche and Jaguar.

1987 started badly for Porsche, as faulty fuel management chips led to piston burnouts. Pitting for a change early enough, only the Bell/Stuck/Holbert car remained after one hour. Running in second place sandwiched between the legendary Silk Cut Jaguars, the Porsche 962C became very fuel-thirsty and as night fell, the Porsche was well behind the Jags. Then, Win Percy’s Jaguar cut a tyre in the Hunaudières straight, crashing spectacularly and bringing out the safety car. Saving fuel, the Porsche took the race lead, closely followed by Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguars.

Although quicker than the Porsches, the Jaguars then conspired to lose the race. First, Raul Boesel span at Arnage and needed repairs to continue, losing three laps in the process. Then, John Nielsen started to suffer from overheating problems. The car was brought into the pits and quickly retired. Finally, Eddie Cheever, Boesel’s teammate, accidentally engaged reverse gear, destroying the gearbox and losing over 40 minutes for repairs. They eventually finished fifth.

With little or no reliability issues, Bell, Stuck and Holbert cruised to the finish 20 laps ahead of the privateer Primagaz Porsche, co-driven by reject Bernard de Dryver. It would be the last Le Mans win for all three, and their second together. Derek Bell drove on until 1996, eventually retiring with five wins, three of them with Jacky Ickx. Despite brief appearances for Ferrari and McLaren, Bell only scored one point in F1, with Surtees in 1970, and focused on sportscars after 1974.

Watch: Win Percy’s crash that brought Porsche back into the fight for victory.

1991: Volker Weidler, works Mazda 787B

Team-mates: Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot

With a phase-out of Group C cars on the horizon, FISA decided to increase the minimum weight of the older, more powerful cars to 1000kg. The new Mazda 787B, with a 2.6-litre engine, was allowed to race at just 830kg, unnoticed by the top manufacturers. Jaguar, meanwhile, increased to 7.4 litres, making the heavier car extremely thirsty.

Early on, it was the Mercedes squad that led and controlled the race, and just three hours in, they were running in a 1-2-3 formation, nearly a full lap ahead of their rivals. This would not last. The leading Schumacher/Wendlinger/Kreutzpointner car lost time when Wendlinger span coming out of the pits. Palmer, Dickens and Thiim then took the lead, but Dickens then ran over debris, causing bodywork and engine damage, which later became terminal on the Sunday morning.

The third Mercedes of Schlesser/Mass/Ferté took the lead, but with just three hours remaining, Ferté pulled into the pits with a blown engine. The reliable rotary-engined Mazda of Weidler, Herbert and Gachot took the lead and never looked back. The 787B crossed the line to take the first and only win for a Japanese marque in the race’s history.

After ten attempts to qualify for a Grand Prix with Rial in 1989, Volker Weidler had moved to Japan, where he found success again. Shortly after his Le Mans win however, he retired from the sport due to hearing loss, possibly associated with the Mazda’s loud engine.

Watch: the final lap of the 1991 race (with Japanese commentary!)

1994: Yannick Dalmas, Porsche-backed Dauer 962 Le Mans

Team-mates: Hurley Haywood and Mauro Baldi

Exploring a loophole, the successful Dauer 962 was banned for the following year.

Exploring a loophole, the successful Dauer 962 was banned for the following year.

 

In 1993, a small company called Dauer Sportwagen had the crazy idea of modifying a Group C Porsche 962C to make it road legal. As the 1994 24 Hours of Le Mans approached, it was noticed that through a loophole in the regulations, this car was eligible for the GT1 category. With the category allowing for more power and a larger fuel tank, Porsche threw their lot in with Joest Racing to enter two Dauers to replace the obsolete 962Cs: the first for Stuck/Sullivan/Boutsen, the other for Haywood, Baldi and Dalmas.

In practice, the car was much faster than the existing 962Cs entered in the LMP1 class and on par with the top runners. The Kremers and Courages ran out front at the start, but the Dauers’ larger fuel tanks allowed them to soon take the lead, although they were passed by the faster Toyotas as night approached. By 5am, the Toyota of Irvine, Martini and Krosnoff was leading handily, with the Dauers second and third. With less than two hours remaining Krosnoff lost drive, and the Toyota lost over 10 minutes in the pits for repairs. The Toyota rejoined in third place and, despite a late charge, they finished the race one lap adrift from Baldi, Haywood and Dalmas.

Once touted as a future great, Dalmas’ career never recovered from a bout of Legionnaire’s disease in 1988. After stints at Larrousse and AGS yielded no points, he switched to endurance racing and later won Le Mans in 1992, 1994, 1995 and 1999.

Watch: The final laps of the 1994 edition:

2011: André Lotterer, Audi Sport-run R18 TDi

Team-mates: Marcel Fässler and Benoît Tréluyer

With brand new regulations for 2011, the win would be contested by the updated Peugeot 908 and the brand-new Audi R18. The German team’s line-up included the star-studded Kristensen/McNish/Capello, defending winners Rockenfeller/Bernhard/Dumas and the up-and-coming Marcel Fässler, Benoît Tréluyer and André Lotterer. Lotterer in particular was a rising star, driving a Kolles Audi to seventh with Charles Zwolsman on début in 2009 following Narain Karthikeyan’s pre-race fall.

The race started badly for Audi, when first McNish, then Rockenfeller were knocked out in major accidents involving lapped Ferrari GTs. In a bittersweet twist for Audi, these incidents helped Lotterer, Fässler and Tréluyer, as the resulting safety cars reduced Peugeot’s fuel-saving advantage. Nonetheless, the second half of the race would be run on strategy; Audi had to pit more often for fuel, but less often for tyres, and they had a slight advantage on pure pace. The order changed after each pit stop phase, and the Audi team was helped by the Davidson/Wurz/Gené Peugeot losing three laps after a brush with the barriers.

Lotterer emerged only marginally ahead after the last round of pitstops, and the short gap between his Audi and the Peugeot of Sébastien Bourdais, Simon Pagenaud and Pedro Lamy meant that the German had to push until the end, ultimately winning the race by just over 13 seconds. This would be the first of three wins for the winning trio. In a surprising move largely backed by energy drink manufacturer Hype Energy (run by none other than Bertrand Gachot), Lotterer found himself with an F1 drive for Caterham at Spa in 2014, which sadly ended after only one lap.

Watch: McNish’s early contact with a GT Ferrari

2014 – André Lotterer, Audi Sport-run R18 e-tron quattro

Team-mates: Marcel Fässler and Benoît Tréluyer

With Porsche returning to Le Mans in 2014 to challenge Audi and Toyota, the race developed into one of attrition, hitting all three manufacturers equally and only settling down with two hours left.

Early on, it was the #7 Toyota of Wurz/Nakajima/Sarrazin that led from pole position. Rain soon began to fall, and Lapierre crashed his Toyota into the barriers, requiring repairs for an hour. Bonanomi’s Audi, meanwhile, was beached in gravel and had to retire.

The #1 Audi of Kristensen, Gené and di Grassi encountered problems during the night and had to be wheeled to the garage for repairs, as did the Lieb/Dumas/Jani Porsche. The #7 Toyota remained in front, but as dawn broke, Nakajima pulled over with a melted wiring loom. Unable to repair it, Nakajima was forced to retire, letting the Fässler/Tréluyer/Lotterer Audi into the lead.

An hour later, Fässler stopped for repairs with turbocharger issues, falling to third place. Kristensen/Gené/di Grassi took the lead, but with three hours remaining, the #1 Audi’s turbo failed again, requiring further repair.

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The #20 Porsche of Bernhard, Hartley and Webber moved into the race lead, 90 seconds ahead of Lotterer. The gap remained stable, but an hour later, the Porsche’s anti-roll bar failed terminally, leaving the #2 Audi out in front. Able to keep the lead for the final two hours, Fässler, Lotterer and Tréluyer took their third Le Mans victory as a trio.

Watch: The early crash that took out a Toyota and Audi: