9 Le Mans Legends

16w ago


24 Hours of Le Mans has been held for 96 years, starting in 1923. It is an endurance race held in France on the Circuit de la Sarthe and around 60 racers are entered, trying to beat the track both mentally and physically. The cars that dominated the track and managed to win are legends, as are the cars that could've won but didn't.

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Toyota GT-ONE

This worthy Le Mans competitor was originally designed to compete in GT1 class races (hence the name) but eventually developed as a prototype racer. Its chassis is built of carbon fibre and aluminium honeycomb shell. It was quite lightweight (902kg) and was paired with a 3.6 litre 90 degree twin-turbo V8 engine developed by Toyota themselves purpose-built for Le Mans. 600 horsepower from the engine allowed it to reach 100mph in just under 6 seconds. Acceleration this extreme hinted at a top speed just north of 230 miles per hour. It was designed to be as drag-reducing as possible by utilising intakes all over including a massive one on the roof. Three cars entered in 1998 with quick qualifying at 2nd, 7th and 8th. Only one survived to win a respectable 9th position and Toyota decided to give it another shot the next year with a refined car. After obtaining 1st 3rd and 5th at qualifying, they had more of a chance now. Before they could even get halfway, two of them suffered from a burst tyre which left car #3 on its own in first. Despite the faliures of the other two GT-ONEs, Toyota could still win. Another tyre faliure, which this time was repairable, lost them the race but still came 2nd overall. Almost there, but not quite.

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Mazda 787B

A Group C sports prototype racer with a beautiful R26B Wankel engine, this Mazda was one-of-a-kind. This is because of its win at Le Mans in 1991 and the fact that it uses a naturally aspirated 4-rotor, 2.6 litre, 900 horsepower monstrous rotary engine that can rev as high as 9000rpm. Despite its lack of pace during the start, Mazda did not give up and its reliability led to victory. 830kg meant that it was one of the lightest cars of the time and its weight helped when it came to pulling the car around the track at lightning speeds. 900hp was reduced to 700 for the sake of longevity. As well as Le Mans, the 787B was entered into races such as 430km of Suzuka and 1000km of Fuji. Two 787Bs and one 787 was entered in 1991. All three cars finished, with the No. 55 car taking the glory. It is still to this date the only car to have won with a rotary engine, and the first Japanese manufacturer to win, after which regulations changed and prohibited Wankel engines. Spoilsports.

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Porsche 917K

19 overall victories for Porsche makes it the most prominent name in Le Mans. The bad results of the original 917 in 1969 led Porsche to try and improve the car. The 'K' stands for Kurzheck; German for "short tail". After a short discussion, they removed the plastic engine cover and cut off a portion of the rear. The air now flowed over the tail much easier, improving downforce and making it so that the airflow was not revealed by any gnats that happened to stick along for the ride at the rear. A 4.9L longitudinally mounted flat-12 engine sat right at the back had a massive 630 horsepower with just 800kg. After being switched for a turbocharged 5.4 litre 1100hp (an extra 470 horsepower), a top speed of 220mph ensured it a victory against the likes of Ferrari and Ford and their first victory since 1951. After the 1970 win, the 917K continued to dominate motorsport for a year afterwards in races other than Le Mans. There is absolutely no stopping this legend.

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Sauber Mercedes C9

Another Group C prototype which made it to the endurance leagues is this C9. A mostly aluminium frame kept weight at 905kg and the 5 litre V8 pumped out 720hp in 1989 along with 597 lbs/ft (one of the only Group C cars with an official torque output). A huge 230 miles per hour kept the C9 the top of the leagues for about three years. They made a good impression at the 1987 Le Mans by qualifying high but sadly succumbing to gearbox failures by midnight. Another year meant more improvements and they were not deterred whatsoever by their performance in '87. They won the Jerez 800km but failed to start 1988 Le Mans due to dangerous burst tyres during qualifying, even more of a disappointment than the previous year. Switching to the new 5-litre engine which produced more horsepower. Finally, 1989 proved to be their year as the two cars entered into the race came top in qualifying and took a 1-2 victory. A victory that was definitely well worth the wait.


Nissan R90CP

The R90CP utilised a platform which won Nissan many endurance races during the years it was used. It competed in many races, some it won and others it came very close to doing so. One thing it is notable for achieving - during the pole position lap of Le Mans, piloted by Mark Blundell - an insane speed of 226.9 miles per hour on the Mulsanne Straight. This record still stands to this day. Mechanical issues during this time actually boosted the power output by 100bhp, up to a huge 1100 from its 3.5L V8 powerplant. And with a curb weight of 900 kilograms, it had more than one horsepower per kilogram. That is a lot. At the 1990 Le Mans, many Nissans of the same body would be entered - four R90CKs, a single R90CP and two older R89Cs. Only three out of seven cars made it to the end. Nissan Motorsports' single R90CP made them confident in their car as it made it all the way to the end in 5th place. The only R90CK left entered by would take 17th place, while the surviving R89C would finish 22nd. A pretty decent performance, I'll have you know.

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Bentley Speed 8

Bentley was truly astonishing when Le Mans first came about, with five wins in a row between 1924 and 1930. They were clearly dominating until bought by Rolls-Royce shortly after. Whilst part of another company, Bentley as a manufacturer disappeared from races for a total of 68 years before being bought by the Volkswagen-Audi Group. There was a newfound hope, as VAG was interested in building a Bentley Le Mans racer and in 2000 announced this officially. The following year, Bentley were ready. It was called the EXP Speed 8 and did well. Although one of the cars was abandoned due to fire damage, the other one fought bravely through the terrible weather conditions to take third position. The single car was revised for 2001 and again performed outstandingly with fourth place. Bentley were not going to give up, so they gave it another shot with the drastically re-designed Speed 8. A 4-litre V8 powered it to claim 3rd and 4th spot despite starting at the back. They finally took home first place at the 2003 Le Mans and immediately retired from Motorsports having done what they set out to do. Gain a sixth victory.

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By the time Le Mans racing changed from grand tourers to supercars, McLaren had pulled the F1 GTR out of motorsport racing but BMW, who supplied the engine for the F1, would not give up easily. The result: a BMW V12 LM, constructed by Williams in partnership with the German company's motorsport division. Inside there was a monstrous 6 litre V12 producing 611 horsepower paired with a 900kg chassis. It was an open-top racer, which sadly did not have much hope because it finished the test day behind grand tourer-style racers. During the actual qualifying, they fared better gaining sixth place. Soon into the race, however, both cars had to be retired because the drivetrains were vibrating - not a good sign. BMW Motorsport was not deterred by their defeat and came back stronger in 1999 with the aerodynamic features more prominent and performance upped so that the engine had 656hp and 556 lbs/ft of torque. This car gave BMW its only win at Le Mans; an astonishing achievement.

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Jaguar XJR-9

This astounding effort by Jaguar bore a massive, naturally aspirated 7 litre V12 displacing 720hp and . It used a carbon composite body made of carbon fibre and kevlar which kept the weight down to a mere 880 kilograms. This low weight meant that it performed well - a maximum speed of 245mph - as well as being reliable. These were the only two things in Le Mans that mattered in terms of the car. Five XJR-9s were entered into Le Mans in 1988. The first car suffered with the transmission and could not continue; another one's head gasket blew. And then there were three. One of them was leading during the final stages of Le Mans and almost suffered a transmission problem. Jan Lammers was able to spot this and had to keep it in 4th gear for the rest of the race. This lost him valuable time but the car was so light and fast that it hardly mattered. Jaguar had yet again won another LM race, just as it did in the 1950s.

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Ford GT40

Ah, the legendary GT40. So called because of its 40-inch height, and, being the car which dominated Le Mans until the 1970s, it has earned the right to be in this article. The MKI, MKII and MKIII were built on the Lola MK6 chassis (built in the UK) whereas the MKIV was built on an all-new body. Let's start from the beginning of the GT40, the MKI. Ferrari had been dominating for years, beating everyone else to the top every year. During this period, Ford tried to take back victory by building what would become the GT40 MKI. In 1964, Ford made a deal with Lola to use their car's body and put their own 4.7L V8 into there. Initially, there was little hope for the MKI at Le Mans, so later on Ford swapped out the engine for something even more potent: a 7.0 V8 with 485 horsepower and 350 lbs/ft . This engine, along with a little bit of upgrading, led to a 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans in 1966. The car shown above is the #2 car which crossed the finish line first. The next year, the MKIII was built as a road car and after that the MKIV came with a fresh design developed using their new J-car. This Mark 4 conquered the 1967 race like its predecessor.


But as unlimited capacity engines were banned due to regulation changes, the GT40 MKII or MKIV could not be raced again at Le Mans. Ford was not deterred by this, not even after their outstanding 1987 all-American victory. Because the MKI had a smaller engine than the other two race cars and it was not just a pure prototype (these could only have three litres), it was able to compete. But first, they increased the capacity by about 200cc and lightened the chassis. The new 4.9 litre power unit was just under the capacity limit of 5L for cars which had a 50-car production. 425hp was produced by this engine and was enough to let them cruise to victory in '68 and '69 despite having a lower top speed than the old MKIIs. Finally, they had not only defeated Ferrari multiple times but dominated Le Mans whilst doing so.