Triumph vs Tragedy: The 5 greatest Le Mans victories

The 90-year history of the Le Mans 24 Hours is rich in heroic wins that inspired the world, sitting alongside heartbreak and loss of life – often in the same race. As we wait for the Saturday start of the world’s greatest endurance race, we recall five of the greatest Le Mans victories in history…


1924 – Playboys and Heroes

Triumph vs Tragedy: The 5 greatest Le Mans victories

Back in the 1920s, what could be more thrilling than to drive from Britain to France in an open-topped Bentley, enter the same car in a 24-hour road race… and win it outright, beating all the local French heroes? It was a real-life comic-book story, featuring super-wealthy playboys and outrageous derring-do.

The second-ever Le Mans race took place in 1924, and saw Captain John Duff and Frank Clement sweep past the chequered flag in their Bentley 3 Litre Sport – the first of five pre-War victories for the British marque and the legendary ‘Bentley Boys’.

1963 – The Ox That Pushed the Cart

Triumph vs Tragedy: The 5 greatest Le Mans victories

Enzo Ferrari was famously sniffy about mid-engined cars. “The ox pulls the cart” was his mantra, and he remained stubbornly insistent in the face of the engineers’ arguments – right up to the point when a mid-engined Ferrari, the 250P of Bandini and Scarfiotti, won Le Mans in 1963.

It was the first mid-engined car ever to win Le Mans and no front-engined car has won there since. With a result like this, even Enzo was forced to accept the arrival of the mid-engined revolution.

1969 – From Last to First

Triumph vs Tragedy: The 5 greatest Le Mans victories

At the start of the 1969 race, as the drivers sprinted across the track and leapt into their cars for the traditional ‘Le Mans start’, Jacky Ickx refused to run. Instead, he walked slowly across, climbed into his Ford GT40 and deliberately did up the belts, relegating himself to last place on the grid. It was a dramatic way to rebel against the dangers of not belting the driver in properly.

Despite his slow start, Ickx – and co-driver Jackie Oliver – came through to win the race… by a few nail-biting seconds only, the closest genuine finish in the history of Le Mans. (Only ‘staged’ finishes have been closer.) It was the last Le Mans to feature the traditional start: in a tragic endorsement of Ickx’s stand on safety, John Woolfe was killed in a first-lap accident.

1970 – Porsche's First of Many

Triumph vs Tragedy: The 5 greatest Le Mans victories

Over the entire history of Le Mans (so far), one marque has stood out as – far and away – the most successful. Porsche has, to date, won the 24 Hours a staggering 16 times… but it wasn’t until 1970 that the German marque scored its first outright win. Up until the late 1960s, Porsche had enjoyed immense success in the smaller-engined classes but steered well clear of the big boys.

Then came the Porsche 917: phenomenally fast and – at first – notoriously unstable. Rushed through in double-quick time for the 1969 Le Mans race, the lack of development time made it hair-raising to drive. (It was in a 917 that John Woolfe died in 1969.) But for 1970, the aerodynamic problems were – at least partially – sorted. The 917K of Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann crossed the line five laps in the lead.

2006 – Burning Oil

Triumph vs Tragedy: The 5 greatest Le Mans victories

In one of the biggest technical turnarounds in the history of Le Mans, the 2006 race was famously won by a diesel car – the Audi R10 TDI. Spectators were amazed as the oil-burning Audi sped between the stands that surround the start-finish line, emitting not the high-pitched wail of a petrol-engined endurance racer, but a softer, smoother whoosh. Not everyone was delighted by the change.

Nevertheless, after 24 hours of racing, when the Audi took the flag four laps ahead of the second-placed Pescarolo, it justified the German marque’s vast investment in the new breed of Le Mans car. The era of the diesel-engined racer had arrived. What would Enzo have said?

Photos: Rainer Schlegelmilch / Getty Images