Countdown to Le Mans EP6: The story of the unluckiest driver at Le Mans

30 starts, 4 class wins, 6 podiums, but not a single win

10w ago

8.4K

Winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of the highest goals not only an endurance racing driver, but all racing drivers would have. Although nearly 200 drivers challenge the mighty circuit each year, only 2 or 3 of them get to taste the sweetness of victory, making it an incredibly competitive sport. There were many drivers who came close, but there was no one else who was as close as winning Le Mans like this man, Bob Wollek.

Bob Wollek was born and raised in the French city of Strasbourg. Unlike most other racing drivers, racing for Bob Wollek was more of a hobby than a profession. He was exceptionally talented in skiing, being in the French National Skiing Team from 1966 to 1968. Although he won his first race in 1967 at the Mont Blanc Rally with a Renault 8 Gordini, it was nothing more than entertainment for him as he was preparing for the 1968 Winter Olympics as well. He did win three gold and one silver medal in the 1966 Universiade, making him a great candidate for a potential Olympic medal. Sadly, he suffered a career-ending injury during practice, thus ending his life as a professional skier.

The Alpine A210 Wollek had his debut

The Alpine A210 Wollek had his debut

As much as he was heartbroken, he turned his focus towards racing, where he indeed was successful. He came 2nd in the Volant Shell Scholarship race for young drivers while also winning the Alpine Trophy Le Mans competition. This earned him a seat to take part in the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans, which would be the first of his thirty attempts. Driving an Alpine A210, he finished 11th overall along with a 2nd place finish in class.

Wollek's unfortunate Matra MS670B at Le Mans

Wollek's unfortunate Matra MS670B at Le Mans

In 1969, Wollek started driving in Formula France before graduating in the French Formula 3 championship. He did return to Le Mans again with the Alpine team, although this time, he failed to finish due to a mechanical failure. For the next three years, Wollek started racing in Formula 2 with the hopes of going into Formula 1. In 1972, he had his first victory and finished seventh in the points, while in 1973, he finished 6th. Sadly, this was not enough to get him into Formula 1, but his experience and activity in the French championships earned him a seat in a Matra MS670B in the 1973 24 Hours of Le Mans. Sadly, he would retire again only after 84 laps.

Wollek's RSR at Le Mans

Wollek's RSR at Le Mans

With his road to Formula 1 closed, Wollek focused on sportscar racing instead, which he truly excelled in. In 1975 he joined Kremer Racing with their 911 Carrera RSRs to take part in DRM (German Racing Championship), which was basically IMSA of Germany. This was the start for his long connection with Porsche cars, as he would mostly race Porsches until the end of his career. He scored one victory that year, although he was still unlucky at Le Mans being disqualified due to a premature pit stop. Le Mans back then still had a fixed fuel window, meaning you could only pit after a certain number of laps.

Wollek at the Nurburgring

Wollek at the Nurburgring

Wollek’s 1976 season was even better with new machinery. He now drove the much faster Porsche 934, which was turbocharged, unlike the older RSRs. With this new 934, he had three wins in the season, finishing 3rd overall in the DRM championship. Still being with Kremer, he took part in the 1976 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing 29th overall, and 4th in the GT class. It was 1977 that Wollek would have his first taste of victory at Le Mans, finishing 7th overall, but winning the GT class with Kremer Racing’s 934.

The unlucky 936 that would have a gearbox issue later on.

The unlucky 936 that would have a gearbox issue later on.

With Wollek having considerable success with the customer 934s and 935s, he was soon approached by Porsche to join their factory squad in the 1978 edition of 24 Hours of Le Mans. But this time, he was not in the 911 based machine, but rather the fully-fledged 936 prototype. Paired with Jacky Ickx and Jurgen Barth, they were able to finish 2nd overall, due to a gearbox issue that cost them 40 minutes to fix. Without it, they would have been ahead of the Alpine A442 that would eventually win the race.

Another unlucky year with the 936

Another unlucky year with the 936

Wollek once again joined the Porsche factory squad for the 1979 Le Mans, and this time with little competition from other manufacturers, it seemed evident that he would at least guarantee a podium finish. The other car driven by Jacky Ickx was disqualified by receiving outside aid to repair it, but the misfortune did not end there. The Wollek-Haywood car was struck by another mechanical issue despite driving in 2nd place and had to retire after 236 laps. The eventual winner was the Whittington Brother’s team that basically bought their way into Le Mans with drug money.

The oddball: the 917 K81 was a fright to drive according to Wollek.

The oddball: the 917 K81 was a fright to drive according to Wollek.

Wollek’s lack of luck continued for the next 3 years, failing to finish in all three of the races. Still, it had to be said that he was gaining immense amounts of experience each year with different cars. In 1980 he drove a Porsche 935, while in 1981, he drove a Porsche 917, which was retired for nearly 10 years. In 1982, he had his first try in a Group C 936C, but would again have no luck in winning or even finishing the race. Still, he finally was able to gain a long-awaited victory in DRM with his Porsche 935.

The 935s were still a popular choice in IMSA due to the regulations that did not allow 956s

The 935s were still a popular choice in IMSA due to the regulations that did not allow 956s

1983 was a turning point for Wollek as it would be his first year with real Group C machinery as the 936C was basically an older 936 with a roof. With Porsche’s brand new 956, he won his first Daytona 24 Hours, although with a bit of beef with the legend AJ Foyt. Wollek was replaced mid-race by Foyt after Foyt’s car, and he was absolutely mad this time. Why? Well, because Foyt had never driven a Porsche until then. So for someone who had been racing Porsches for 8 years, that was definitely something to be angry. Still, a win is a win, and he was also able to score his 2nd DRM championship, which is the record for the number of DRM championship wins.

From 1984 to 1985, Wollek decided to race with Lancia with their LC2s, which was a massive shift from his Porsche-focused career. Despite the LC2’s underwhelming reliability and performance, he managed to finish 8th and 6th in the 1984 and 1985 24 Hours of Le Mans, which was honestly a great feat for such an unreliable Italian car. Especially in 1984, he would lead one third of the race, only to suffer from suspension issues to finish 8th. This was when he earned his reputation of being a good fuel economy driver(yes, the LC2s were terrible on fuel economy, again) and being able to go fast without pushing the car. He also was able to score two victories with the LC2 during his time with Lancia, which was an incredible result considering how powerful and reliable the Porsche armada of 956s was.

Wollek's Daytona winning 1985 962.

Wollek's Daytona winning 1985 962.

Of course, Wollek still occasionally raced Porsches during the period. He was great at Daytona, scoring 2nd in 1984 and 1st again 1985 with Foyt, who became a good friend of him by then. In 1985, he was also able to score a huge victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring as well. With Daytona and Sebring checked off the list, he only had Le Mans left to achieve the triple crown of endurance racing.

Wollek's 1986 car at Le Mans

Wollek's 1986 car at Le Mans

It seemed that he had hope in 1986 as he returned to the factory Porsche team after the two seasons with miserable Lancias. With Jochen Mass and Vern Schuppan, they would challenge Le Mans two times together in 1986 and 1987. In 1986, an early accident ended their hopes of winning, while in 1987, a faulty microchip on pretty much all of the factory and privateer Porsches once again would end their race. For Porsche, at the least, they were able to find the issue after a handful of failures on the first few hours of the race, and keep their last factory 962 running to the victory lane. Wollek just was in the ‘wrong car’ to win. Wollek was again unlucky with the 1988 24 Hours of Le Mans, with another DNF and with the 962s showing its age, he was not highly competitive in America either.

By 1989, it seemed the time has come for Bob Wollek to retire, especially with faster Saubers and Jaguars, along with an ageing 962 that Wollek was campaigning with Joest. But as if both Wollek and the 962 wanted to show that there was something left in them, 1989 actually turned out to be one of Wollek’s best years. He started the year with his 3rd Daytona 24 Hour victory in a Porsche 962, only to be followed by a win over the unbeatable Sauber C9s at Dijon despite being in a privateer team. In fact, his team was the only car to beat the Sauber C9 that season in WSC.

Wollek's iconic Italya Sport backed Joest Racing 962.

Wollek's iconic Italya Sport backed Joest Racing 962.

The 1989 Le Mans seemed to be another Sauber vs Jaguar battle, but with both of the teams losing cars due to mechanical failures, the Joest Racing 962s had a comfortable 1-2 by the middle of the night, with Wollek driving the car in 1st. However, with the 2nd place 962 retiring due to a cooling issue and the 1st place 962 suffering the same issues, Wollek could end up in another DNF. Thankfully the cooling issue could be managed with more pit stops but at the cost of losing time to the chasing Saubers.

Note that the car is more black than pink due to the grime and the aftermath of the small fire on the car.

Note that the car is more black than pink due to the grime and the aftermath of the small fire on the car.

However, to make things worse, the clutch started slipping on Wollek’s 962, and there was no way to fix it if the clutch did fail. With more frequent pit stops, this meant the 962 had a higher chance of stalling, and if unlucky being out of the race. Thankfully, the genius mechanics of Joest Racing poured Coca Cola every time the 962 came into the pits on the bellhousing, which actually worked. Although Wollek would make it home this time, he would lose two places to the Sauber, missing another potential win.

Wollek's 962 at Daytona

Wollek's 962 at Daytona

From 1990 to 1994, Wollek would race in a variety of cars from a Toyota 94C-V to a Jaguar XJR12. He would have another 3rd place finish at Le Mans in 1991 with the XJR12. Despite having a fast car, reliability issues would force the Jaguar to lose several laps from the leading Mazda 787B, which was way slower than the Jaguars. He thankfully would be rewarded with his 4th and final win in Daytona with a Porsche 962. In 1992, he would win the Group C3 class at Le Mans(a class for Porsche powered Group C cars) with a Cougar C28, and in 1993, finished 9th overall with a 962. In 1994, he surprisingly went to Toyota instead of Porsche with their Dauer 962s, finishing 4th and 2nd in class. He once again missed the opportunity for a win or a podium, which he would’ve had if he was in a Dauer instead.

Wollek and his C34-LM

Wollek and his C34-LM

In 1995, Wollek was now 52, but he was far from retirement, and he would actually see some of his best results. In 1995, he was back in a Porsche powered Courage C34. Although the C34 in WSC class was meant to be faster than the McLaren F1s in the GT1 class, the heavy rain threw a wrench in their plans. By midnight the McLarens had a 1-2-3, while the leading WSC car was far down in 11th. Once the day broke, and the rain calmed down, the WSC class cars got incredibly faster, catching up with the GT1s. Wollek’s teammate Mario Andretti pushed the car up into the lead lap with 2 hours to go, and Wollek started a furious chase. He was able to reduce to the gap to just 3 minutes and overtook the other McLarens, but just did not have enough time to catch the leading McLaren. Had it rained a bit less, then the Wollek car could have had its win, but like the saying, you don’t win Le Mans, Le Mans chooses you.

In 1996, Wollek was back with the factory Porsche team at Le Mans, but this time in a Porsche 911 GT1. This year, the weather was favourable for the WSC cars again, meaning that the Joest Racing’s Porsche powered prototypes, which had wider tires, better aero, and less weight, could single-handily get away from the 911s. Although the leading GT1 driven by Wollek, Stuck, and Boutsen could get close, they never got close enough to take the lead, and had to be satisfied with their 2nd place.

Wollek's #25 911 GT1

Wollek's #25 911 GT1

In 1997, Wollek once again returned with the 911 GT1 at Le Mans, and this time, Wollek himself was the architect of his own downfall. Wollek, despite being old, was known for consistent long stints and fuel management, which made him suitable for long races like Le Mans. The 911 GT1 Wollek was in led for two-thirds of the race until Wollek uncharacteristically spun his car, forcing them to retire. Wollek’s answer to the disappointing finish was “I don’t really know what happened.”

In 1998, Wollek had his one last shot at winning Le Mans overall. With the introduction of newer LMP cars next year and his age, this meant that this year would be Wollek’s last year in top-class racing. In 1998 there was some serious competition from other marques like Toyota and Mercedes Benz with their GT Ones and CLK LMs being clearly faster than the old 911 GT1s. Yet, these cars were ill-prepared; both the CLK LMs and the GT Ones retired with reliability issues. That left the old 911s 1st and 2nd, with Wollek being in the runner-up car. The leading car was suffering some performance issues, which meant as long as Wollek’s car could keep up, they had a chance of an overall victory after all these years. But then Jorg Muller, his teammate, went wide at the Dunlop chicanes, forcing a full underbody repair, which lost significant amounts of time. Although they would reduce the gap to 1 lap, once again, Wollek was in the ‘wrong car’ to win.

So despite 30 attempts at Le Mans, Wollek came close on multiple occasions but never had enough luck to win one. Yet, the fact that he never won Le Mans should never diminish his career. Wollek was one of the most successful drivers of the era, winning 4 Daytona 24 Hours, 7 Porsche Cup Championships(current record), sole European Endurance Championship victory and 2 DRM Championships(current record). He had an impressive 76 race wins in his career, with 71 of them in Porsche cars. His love with Porsches would eventually give him the nickname Monsieur Porsche, and even after 1998, he would enter two more Le Mans and raced in the ALMS with 911 GT3s.

He was an incredibly fit and competitive driver for his age, considering there are not a lot of drivers that can not only endure longer races but also be competitive at the same time. His driving skills were exceptional according to fellow drivers, with the 3-time Le Mans winner Allan McNish saying, “He was super-quick. He was very, very good at floating the car through corners, so he was extremely good on fuel economy. He didn't force the car to do anything, which is why I'm quite amazed he didn't win Le Mans because he was in an era when you really required that. It just never happened for him.”

Wollek originally planned to retire from racing after his final Sebring 12 Hours race in 2001. Wollek had a tradition of cycling between his accommodation and the circuit, which was one of the reasons why he could stay so fit despite being in his 50s. On March 16th, after finishing his practice for the event, he was cycling back to his hotel but never made it as he was hit by a van driven by an 82-year-old driver. He was transported to a medical center but was pronounced dead on arrival. On race day, the organizers held a minute of silence in memory of him, and his car was withdrawn from the race out of respect. He was at the age of 57.

"I will never lift" -Bob Wollek

"I will never lift" -Bob Wollek

Bob Wollek is one of, if not the most respectable racing drivers hence his attitude. He was never fortunate enough, considering his racing career started only after his bright skiing career ended due to an accident. He failed to make it into F1 and never was able to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans despite his immense talent, yet he never gave up. He was over 50 years old by the mid-90s, yet he kept soldiering on. He had countless years of experience, yet was always humble and reserved. Racing legends often receive many flashy adjectives in front of their nickname, and Le Mans winners are no exception. Although there are many lovely titles like, ‘grand’, ‘flying’, and ‘fast’, there will always be only one racing driver who deserves the adjective ‘brilliant’. He was not the fastest, nor the most successful, but Bob Wollek will always be the ‘Brilliant Bob’ in our hearts.

Rest in peace.

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Comments (4)

  • A real incredible story with a very sad ending. He really should have deserved better, you couldn't have told it any better!

    A small thing I noticed was the remark of the flying CLR's, that was 1999 not 1998. Other then that it's a brilliant article!

      2 months ago
    • Oops, my bad with the CLRs! Definitely got confused with the CLK LMs which retired early with engine failures. Thank you for pointing that out and glad you enjoyed it!

        2 months ago
  • Never even heard of the guy before, but that was one determined man! I've always considered Pierre Levegh as the unluckiest Le Mans driver ever. His multiple DNFs, including one in his privately-owned and privately-financed Tallbot, which he drove alone, and was leading by six laps, when 22 hours into the race his gearbox decided to call it a day, and the engine followed it shortly afterwards. And then there was the horrible crash in 1955, thanks to which he is mostly remembered as the driver of the car that collided with another car and then blew up, throwing engine, gearbox and suspension parts into the crowd and killing 86 people.

    But Wollek beats him by miles. 30 god damn times, thirty... Can't even imagine the amount of patience, selfesteem and confidence this guy had to come back again, and again, and again, for thirty times...

    Thanks for the piece, mate, its a good read!

      2 months ago
    • Pierre Levegh was definitely one hell of a driver as well, just never had the luck with his cars. But when he finally got a car that clearly had the pace and could win outright (SLR), it really did end up horribly.

      But yes, that is one reason I...

      Read more
        2 months ago

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