Porsche has won Le Mans a record 19 times since 1970.
The most recent, with the all-wheel-drive hybrid 919 in 2017, couldn’t have been further removed from the first in the fearsome 917, a race car with a 246 mph top speed if only rudimentary aerodynamics, but Porsche’s victories thread between these eras like stitches through Le Mans history.
Richard Attwood won Le Mans 1970 with Hans Herrmann. Attwood remembers the first 917s striking fear into almost all those who drove it. “None of the factory drivers wanted to drive it at the Nürburgring, it was almost like a strike. I didn’t want to either!” says the 80-year-old Brit. But Attwood scored strong results with Vic Elford in a 908—eight-cylinder predecessor of the 917—and when Elford requested Attwood co-drove with him at Le Mans 1969, his fate was sealed.
“Vic said he liked the 917,” says Attwood. “I don’t know if it was bravado, but the first time I drove it in practice for Le Mans, it was wandering horrendously. The testing had been done on an airstrip, and I don’t believe they were getting to the terminal velocity, maybe 185 mph. If you looked in the mirror in the pits you got a very good view behind, but on the Mulsanne Straight you couldn’t see anything.”
Attwood and Elford retired with a six-lap lead after 21 hours in 1969, but Porsche worked hard to cure the handling maladies with the JWA Gulf Team. The development led to the 917K, for Kurzheck or Shorttail, with its truncated, upswept tail that complemented the lower drag Longtail.
When Porsche allowed Attwood to choose his co-driver and 917 configuration for 1970, he opted for Herrmann and a Shorttail fitted with the least powerful 4.5-litre flat-12 engine with 500 bhp, not the new 5.0-litre with over 630 bhp. The gearbox had failed the year before, after all, so why stress it with more power?
Qualifying 15th, it seemed a catastrophic decision, but a combination of bad weather and impatience turned the tables.
“Three Ferraris (512s) went out in one go, and it was one of the wettest races ever—you’d have pace cars and probably red flags today. When I wasn’t driving, I just wanted to rest because I had the mumps and was sustaining myself with milk and bananas, so I was staggered to learn we were leading when I got back to the garage.”
“It was all quite fraught, but I felt I was going so slowly.”
A Martin Racing 917 Longtail was instructed to hold station in second after 14 hours, but Attwood recalls a challenging drive nonetheless. “It sounds simple to circulate at reduced speed, but it’s easy to lose concentration for a fraction and you’re gone,” he says. “The car was misfiring because of the conditions. There was a lot of aquaplaning, and I had a wobble coming out of the esses. It was all quite fraught, but I felt I was going so slowly.”
Herrmann took the final stint and the flag and retired from racing immediately. Attwood had to settle for second in 1971, with Gijs van Lennep and Helmut Marko securing the 917’s final Le Mans victory for Martini Racing. “I did 22 races in the 917, more than anyone and it’s one of my favorite cars,” says van Lennep. “I never crashed it, I was never afraid of any understeer or oversteer, and because it had a 100 percent limited-slip differential, you could drive it on throttle fantastically, but I was lucky not to drive it in 1969!’
Unbeknown to van Lennep, he would be racing a new magnesium chassis for 1971—the first chassis had broken in testing after three or four hours, and Porsche had tested this experimental car at Weissach for only 12 hours. “I didn’t feel angry after finding out it was magnesium, not at all, if Porsche says you race, you race,” van Lennep says.
Rather than chassis stress fractures, it was braking problems that could’ve cost van Lennep and Marko the win. “Six hours before the end, maybe five, we ran out of brakes more or less. We considered changing them but we were two laps in front of the John Wyer Gulf (917) team, and it was a little bit Gulf against Martini, and we knew that if we changed the brakes we wouldn’t win, so we decided to lift early, not brake so much. Thankfully it stayed together. It was the first time we drove with drilled brakes and you can still see all the little cracks in the disc at the Porsche Museum.”
After winning in 1971, new rules outlawed the 917 at Le Mans and it left for a successful new turbocharged chapter in Can-Am, but van Lennep won again at Le Mans 1976, co-driving with Jacky Ickx in the Porsche 936.
A new open-cockpit model with a spaceframe chassis and turbocharged flat six, the pairing built an 11-lap margin at one point, though a broken exhaust manifold (and therefore loss of turbo boost) cost the team a 30-minute pit stop. “The mechanics burned their hands, even with gloves on, everything was red-hot, but we were still three laps in front after the stop,” says van Lennep, who was also almost caught up Andre’s Haller’s fatal crash in a Datsun 260Z. “It was at the kink on the straight, it burst into flames straight away. I was 500 yards behind it, but if it had been 200 yards I would’ve probably been in the same fire. He instantly died. When I passed him he was sitting with his hands on the steering wheel, a terrible sight, and then 200 yards later we got the green flag, there’s no time to think.”
Van Lennep retired after that win, but Ickx would become the most successful of all 936 drivers, also winning in 1976, ’77 and coming out of retirement to win again in 1981. “The 936 was fabulous to drive, so well balanced, so easy,” says the 75-year-old Belgian. “The most special win for me was 1977. I was driving with Henri Pescarolo, but we had an engine issue, so I switched to the second car with Jürgen Barth and Hurley Haywood. We had such opposition from Renault Alpine, they’d been leading the whole time and we were I don’t know how many laps behind. I drove flat out, we did a great job in very difficult conditions and pushed them hard until they had mechanical issues.”
The fairytale comeback almost became a nightmare when the 936 dropped to five cylinders. Too nervous to watch, Ickx hid in his motorhome until Barth took the flag.
When Ickx drove to his final 936 win in 1981 (after the a surprise 1-2-3 for the 911-based 935 in 1979), it was with a 936 adapted to run a new 2.6-litre engine that was being stress-tested for the upcoming 956. And it was in the Group C 956 that Ickx took his final Le Mans with Derek Bell the following year, starting a six-year winning streak for the 956 and closely related 962 that would be brought to an end by Hans-Joachim Stuck, Derek Bell and Al Holbert’s back-to-back wins in ’86 and ’87.
Stuck had already driven extensively in Formula 1, but he describes driving the 956 and 962 as the pinnacle of his driving career. “The 956 was the best car I had in my career, and professionally I was lifted to the next level, I really enjoyed working with all these great guys like Norbert Singer, and it was like a father/son relationship with Peter Falk.” Stuck says.
The only factory driver within two hours of Weissach, Stuck racked up the most test miles of the era, even shaking down Porsche customer cars. “You didn’t have to worry about engine or gearbox failure, you could 100 percent concentrate on driving the 962,” says Stuck. “The combination of horsepower, aerodynamic downforce and tire width, this was the mixture that made this car so unique—you had immense downforce from the ground effect and corner speeds you couldn’t normally achieve, I had to change all my driving style and force myself to do it.”
“The combination of horsepower, aerodynamic downforce and tire width, this was the mixture that made this car so unique”
As his first win, the 1986 victory was the most special, but it was also bittersweet as his friend Jo Gartner, with whom he’d only recently won the Sebring 12 Hours, was killed during the race. “I was in the car when it happened, then they called me in, told me, and I said ‘I don’t drive anymore.’ Peter said you have a contract, you have to drive. After the race, the funeral was constantly in my mind, but I never thought of stopping driving,’ says Stuck, a 69-year-old German.
When the three drivers teamed up again for 1987, their victory marked the end of Porsche’s winning streak.
Porsche went on to take two less expected wins in the following years—in 1994 again with a 962 that exploited a loophole in regulations mandating a road-legal model should be produced (Dauer had put licence plates on a 962), and with the Porsche WSC-95 in 1996 and ’97, a re-engineered, Porsche-powered Jaguar XJR-14 run by Joest Racing that gave Tom Kristensen his first taste of Le Mans champagne.
The 911 GT1 was the next clean-sheet design, built to new GT1 rules stipulating race cars should be based on road cars—though Porsche effectively reverse-engineered the road cars from a purpose-built mid-engined racer. Initially based on a steel 911 bodyshell mated to a mid-engined 962 rear end, the GT1 would evolve into a full carbonfiber race car called 911 GT1-98 that foretold the LMP prototype era.
“… it was the last time a car won that was designed by a man drawing…”
The GT1 won Le Mans only once, driven by Stéphane Ortelli, Allan McNish and Laurent Aïello in GT1-98 specification against one of the most fiercely competitive Le Mans grids ever—the Toyota GT-One, Mercedes CLK-LM, Nissan R390 and BMW V12 LM were all fighting for the win.
“I loved the GT1 from the first time I drove it,” remembers Ortelli. “I never had so much downforce, and I loved the story of Norbert Singer—it was the last time a car won that was designed by a man drawing, not a computer giving the direction.”
Ortelli remains close friends with McNish, and he attributes their 1998 victory and enduring bond partly to McNish crashing the GT1 in the earliest stages of Le Mans 1997. “Our boss Herbert Ampferer asked me are you OK to race again with Allan. I said he deserves a second chance, we want to win together,’ remembers the 50-year-old Monegasque.
Aïello was the last-minute part of the jigsaw for 1998, drafted in after Yannick Dalmas had a huge crash at Spa, and was already good friends with McNish and Ortelli.
The GT1 was not the fastest car on the grid. “It was more conservative than competitors, but we wanted to push 120 percent and know the car was going to last,” remembers Ortelli. “But the competition was so intense that two Zakspeed GT1s failed to pre-qualify.”
The factory cars made it, but their pace was compromised when Porsche switched from a dog ’box also used by Toyota to a synchromesh gearbox on the Saturday warm-up because of doubts over reliability. “We were super-slow and super-frustrated, we couldn’t flat shift, the travel of the gear shift was like four times longer. Porsche said you are going to hurt your hand and feel frustrated, but you will have a car you can push,” says Ortelli.
“… you are going to hurt your hand and feel frustrated, but you will have a car you can push.”
The decision paid dividends in the race, after Ortelli and his teammates dropped from first to second behind the Toyota GT-One following time in the pits to repair of an oil leak. “A friend was at Indianapolis corner and called me to say the Toyota was making a funny noise on the downshift. Because of this information we kept pushing them, stressing them, and they broke down,” says Ortelli. “I think at the time we were the youngest Le Mans winners, with an average 28 years old. People say I invented the selfie on the podium—it was the spirit of us. And it was 50 years of Porsche, Wolfgang Porsche came to the top of the podium, the whole story is special.”
Porsche moved aside for Audi’s remarkable dominance for more than a decade, competing for some of the period in LMP2 with the RS Spyder, but when it returned in 2014, it once again set the benchmark. The 919 was one of the most advanced race cars ever constructed, featuring a compact 2.0-litre turbocharged V4 engine, all-wheel drive and the most efficient hybrid system on the grid.
Timo Bernhard began racing for Porsche in the 1999 German Carrera Cup, just as the GT1 program wound down. “The plan was always to win overall with Porsche at Le Mans. I was 18, it was still possible, I just didn’t believe it would take that long!” laughs the 39-year-old German.
“Earlier generations had set the bar so high, we had to have the same kind of success.”
Bernhard first achieved his Le Mans goal with Audi in 2010, but he was involved with the 919 from the earliest stages in 2011—testing components on an RS Spyder, even helping to set the vehicle architecture with feedback on seating bucks.
“It was the most technical project I’d been part of,” Bernhard remembers. “I’d done race car set-up with tires and dampers, but his was the next level, being part of a new hybrid era, the big comeback of Porsche to Le Mans. Earlier generations had set the bar so high, we had to have the same kind of success.”
Bernhard had strong results in the 919 (including winning the 2015 World Endurance Championship), but he retired late from a likely Le Mans win on the car’s 2014 debut with engine failure, and victory proved elusive in the following two years, while sister 919s cleaned up.
Le Mans in 2015 saw Nico Hülkenberg, Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy take victory against the factory Audi and Toyota squads, adding to Porsche’s Le Mans tally for the first time since 1998.
“To everyone else in the paddock, ours was the third car, but we had the same opportunity, we knew we could do it,” Tandy told Autoweek soon after that historic win. “I first thought we could win just before midnight. Nico was in the car, and we were making time. I thought ‘now’s the time to turn the switch’. I drove for three-and-a-half hours and took the lead with a healthy advantage.
“To everyone else in the paddock, ours was the third car, but we had the same opportunity …”
“Winning was unbelievable—I’d just won the biggest race in the world on my first attempt with Porsche, a manufacturer with all that incredible history. It was the most emotional moment in my entire career, the culmination of all my aspirations.”
Bernhard and teammates Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley then had to settle for second in 2016 after leading earlier in the race, leaving the sister car of Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb to steal the win from Toyota, when its TSO50 famously coasted to a halt at the start of the final lap.
As preparations intensified for Le Mans 2017 with teammates Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber, Bernhard knew this could be his last chance. “There was maybe more pressure for myself, there were rumors that LMP1 might take a different direction, and rumors it might be the last Le Mans for the 919, but I didn’t want to think about that,” he says.
Toyota, by now the only other LMP1 competitor, took pole, the Japanese reasserting themselves after retiring from the lead on the last lap in 2016. “Toyota had the upper hand in some places, but we still had the best team, strategy and working relationship so we knew we could win,” says Bernhard. But after just three hours’ racing the dream was in tatters, when problems with the front axle cost 62 minutes. “The strategy people told us if we went flat out it was going to come down to the last ten minutes just to get on the podium,” he says.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything until I crossed the line!”
If it seemed an improbable hope, Le Mans 2017 had a more surreal twist in store. Every other LMP1 entry bar the No. 8 Toyota retired, and it wasn’t even in contention for the podium. It left Bernhard needing to catch the LMP2 Oreca of Jackie Chan DC Racing, which unexpectedly held the lead. “It was a push from the beginning of the last three hours,” he remembers. “I unlapped myself first, eventually overtook the LMP2 car, and in the last hour I continued to push in case of an issue, then slowed down in the last 15 minutes. I wasn’t thinking about anything until I crossed the line!”
Bernhard vividly recalls driving the packed pit lane with his teammates on the 919. “It was already beyond dreams to win with Audi, but this was the pinnacle of my career, you cannot get better than that day, to achieve the goal I set myself so long ago,” he says.
The Le Mans-winning crew went on to win the final race of the 2017 World Endurance Championship at Bahrain, and take the title. Fittingly, having been so key to the car’s development, Bernhard drove the winning 919’s final stint.
For now the 919 closes the book on Weissach’s remarkable run of success in cars that have evolved beyond belief over the last 50 years, but if one thing remains constant throughout these eras, it’s the humility of Porsche’s winning drivers. All made similar points to Autoweek, but it was perhaps Jacky Ickx who summed it up best.
“Behind the winning car you have talent at Porsche: engineers, mechanics, people who are passionate and do their best at 100 percent without compromise, but they don’t get the glory,” Ickx said. “The driver is a very small part of that success. All the people who have driven have been very privileged to be a member of that unique company.”
Porsche might well return for the new LMDh era, but whenever it does, the last 50 years tells us it’s a matter of when, not if, Porsche adds to its tally of Le Mans 19 wins.
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