The 5 most thrilling Porsche Le Mans moments

Quite simply, Porsche is the most successful manufacturer ever to compete at Le Mans. This weekend sees a momentous return to La Sarthe after a 15-year hiatus, and we’ve gathered five of Porsche’s most gripping Le Mans moments together in celebration…

1969: Almost...

The 1969 race marked the arrival of the legendary Porsche 917, although these early versions were notoriously unstable at speed – tragically proven within minutes of the running race start by the death of privateer John Woolfe. In more experienced hands, though, the 917 was a real force, dominating practice and race alike, and breaking lap records along the way. However, both factory 917s withdrew with mechanical issues while leading the race (after four and 21 hours respectively), leaving the older 908 Longtail of Herrmann/Larrousse to battle the John Wyer Ford GT40 in search of Porsche’s first overall win. After spending the final hour-and-a-half swapping the lead, Jacky Ickx’s GT40 would cross the finish line mere seconds ahead of Herrmann’s 908.

1970: The wait is over

With the embers of disappointment still aglow the following year, Porsche not only brought in John Wyer (and, just as importantly, his accompanying Gulf livery) to represent the primary factory effort, but also provided secondary support to two further teams. This illustrated Ferry Porsche’s firm intention to win overall (he was allowed to wave the starting flag in recognition of entering for 20 consecutive years), but Ferrari was also to field a fleet of competitors. The Modenese threat was reduced considerably when four 512Ss crashed into one another within a few hours, although the terrible weather during the night would claim victims from all sides. All three factory 917s eventually retired – but the semi-Works 917 of Porsche Salzburg, piloted by Herrmann/Attwood, clinched victory. In celebration of the momentous win, the triumphant car was paraded across Stuttgart alongside the second-placed Martini Racing 917, and Herrmann followed through on his promise to his wife by retiring.

1983: Holbert seizes (before) victory

Having cruised to a 1-2-3 victory at the previous year’s race – the first of the Group C era – Porsche’s factory squad looked set to repeat the clean-sweep in 1983, until the Rothmans-Porsche 956 driven by Mass and Bellof retired with mechanical trouble. Within the final hour, Al Holbert’s leading Porsche began overheating after taking damage and was forced to slow down; Derek Bell’s car began closing rapidly, the Brit showing disregard for his cracked front brake discs. Holbert managed to nurse it home despite the engine seizing on the final lap, and Bell arrived just seconds later. Oh, and in case you were wondering what 230mph-plus on the Mulsanne Straight looks like from the inside of a 956, you can view a Bell’s-eye-view video here.

1988: End of an era

Despite repeated challenges from Jaguar, Porsches had taken the chequered flag at every Le Mans race during the fabulous Group C era. Now dressed in Shell livery with colours from the German flag, the factory team looked likely to bring another victory back to Stuttgart, locking out the top three grid positions in qualifying. In the race, though, the much-evolved Jaguar XJR-9s were well-matched to the Porsches, and the British machine of Lammers/Dumfries/Wallace exchanged first place with the 962C of Stuck/Ludwig/Bell umpteen times. Offically, the former would eventually cross the line 2 minutes and 36 seconds ahead of the latter, but in truth the gap was a lot narrower: the large British contingent of spectators had swarmed the track in delight upon seeing the first-, fourth- and sixteenth-placed XJR-9s cross the line as a pack. Beaten for the first time in eight years, the factory Porsche team withdrew from the Prototypes category, and thus called time on its memorable Group C era achievements. 

1998: The final win

Porsche’s frustration at watching the BMW-engined McLaren F1 GTR take the Le Mans crown in 1995 was compounded when its Works-fielded 911 GT1 was denied overall victory by a non-factory Porsche entry the following year (the mid-engined quasi-911 lost by just one lap). A double retirement added to the agony in 1997. Competition for the updated 911 GT1-98 would prove even tougher in 1998, with increased factory involvement from the likes of Mercedes, Nissan and Toyota; a pair of Porsche LMP1 entries was also fielded. Despite this, the rules favoured GT1 over LMP1 cars that year and Lady Luck favoured Porsche in particular: faster competitors proved unreliable, and the Works 911s finished first and second overall. Then followed a 15-year Le Mans sabbatical to allow Audi a near-dominant spell – but will that be brought to an end with another magical Porsche Le Mans moment this weekend?

Photos: Porsche, Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Getty Images

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