Top 10 Le Mans Heroes

As the greatest race in the world, the Le Mans 24 Hours has an enormous draw to drivers. We pick ten of the most legendary

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Jacky Ickx

A winner in everything from Formula 1 to endurance rallying, Jacky Ickx is nothing if not an overachiever. A peerless sportscar driver, the Belgian won the Le Mans 24 Hours on six occasions. His maiden victory – in 1969 – was the most memorable. Vehemently opposed to the then-traditional start procedure whereby drivers sprinted to their cars before jumping aboard and tearing off, Ickx chose to amble. He was last away, which was fortuitous as he missed out on the first lap accident that claimed the life of Porsche driver John Wolfe and ended the career of Willy Mairesse.

AutoFact: In 1969, his margin of victory over Hans Hermann’s Porsche 908 to win was just 110-metres.

Alain de Cadenet

Despite the French-sounding name, ‘de Cad’ did more than anyone to maintain British interest in the 24 Hours during the 1970s. At a time when manufacturer interest had dwindled to nothing, he and a ragtag bunch of like-minded enthusiasts began competing at Le Mans in 1972 with the Duckhams Special. Based on an obsolete Brabham BT33 F1 car, and penned by future McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray, de Cadanet built the entire car for less than £5000 and tested it at more than 200mph on the M4. It placed 12th in ’72. He ran cars at La Sarthe until 1981, his eponymous team’s best finish being third place in 1976.

AutoFact: de Cadenet won the 1980 Monza 1000km and Silverstone 6 Hour races in cars bearing his own name.

Derek Bell

One of motorsport’s greatest ambassadors, ‘Dinger’ had been chewed up and spat out of grand prix racing by the time he won Le Mans in 1975. That initial triumph for the Gulf squad didn’t bring about any great reversal of fortune for the jobbing freelancer. His second victory in 1981 undoubtedly did. Driving for the factory Porsche team, he was subsequently taken on as a full-time works driver and claimed three more wins that decade along with two World Sportscar Championship titles. Oh, and three victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona. After retiring from front-line competition, he became a consultant to Bentley’s Le Mans programme.

AutoFact: Bell made his Le Mans debut in 1970. His final start there was in 1996.

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Jean Rondeau

A Le Mans local, this mercurial Frenchman won the 1980 race running alongside Jean-Pierre Jaussaud. In doing so, he became the first – and to date only – man to ever triumph in a car carrying his own name. That year’s event was also among the wettest in the event’s history. Ultimately, he would never win there again, although he did finish second in 1984 aboard Preston Henn’s Porsche 956. His eponymous team had by this time run out of money. Rondeau died in December 1985 after he attempted to jump a queue at a level crossing. His car was struck by a train at unabated speed.

AutoFact: Rondeau’s earlier efforts were named Inaltera in honour of his sponsor which made wallpaper.

Tom Kristensen

This multifaceted Dane won in every discipline he ever attempted but his success at Le Mans is belief-beggaring. He won the race at his first attempt in 1997 for the Joest Racing team and has since conquered the endurance classic a further eight times. All the more remarkable is that six of his triumphs were consecutive (2000-2005). Kristensen’s victory in 2008 was particularly impressive as he had been forced to sit out most of the previous season following injuries sustained from a monstrous shunt in a German touring car race. Kristensen claimed his final win in 2013, and retired from driving a year later.

AutoFact: Kristensen also won the Sebring 12 Hours a record seven times.

Pierre Levegh

Remembered primarily for his unwitting role in the apocalyptic accident that killed him and 83 spectators in the 1955 running of the 24 Hours, this Parisian veteran deserved better. Born Pierre Bouillon, he was a talented sportsman in various arenas before taking to motorsport, and in 1951 he placed fourth overall in the 24 Hours. A year later he drove his Talbot-Lago single-handedly for 23 hours. With a four-lap lead in his pocket, Levegh wasn’t to be rewarded after he wrong-slotted in the closing stages. Fatigue had likely gotten the better of him although he never talked publicly about the cause of his retirement.

AutoFact: Levegh was born Pierre Eugène Alfred Bouillin.

Steve McQueen

A useful, if over-hyped, wheelman in real life, ‘The Cooler King’ never competed in the 24 Hours. He did, however, make the movie Le Mans which gave rise to an upsurge of interest in the great race. Roping in a roll-call of big name drivers to realise his vision, both Derek Bell and David Piper were involved in terrible accidents during staged sequences: the former received facial burns, the latter lost a leg. Poorly received on its release in 1971, the movie has nonetheless become required viewing for all race lovers and few real-life drivers have ever been as compelling as McQueen’s Porsche-driving hero ‘Michael Delaney’.

AutoFact: McQueen famously finished second in the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours, but his co-driver Peter Revson did most of the driving.

Chris Lawrence

This prolific racer and engineer pulled off an improbable class win in the 1962 Le Mans 24 Hours aboard his self-prepared Morgan. A year earlier, the event organisers had thrown out his application on the grounds that his car was ‘too old’ and ‘not in keeping with the spirit of the race’. It later transpired that Triumph’s competition manager had used his influence to get the application overturned as he didn’t want competition from Lawrence’s Triumph-engined roadster. For 1962, Lawrence persuaded Morgan to back him as a ‘works’ entrant and his bid was finally accepted. It would take a further 47 years before Morgan would win again at international level.

AutoFact: Lawrence later engineered the Morgan Aero 8 production car.

Luigi Chinetti

A pre-war sportscar great, Chinetti won Le Mans in 1932 and ’34 for Alfa Romeo. After gaining American citizenship, he became Ferrari’s US concessionaire and also claimed the Maranello firm’s first 24 Hours win in 1949 aboard a 166 roadster. Nominally sharing with Lord Selsdon, he drove for 23 1/2 hours. After retiring as a driver, he fielded cars under the North American Racing Team (NART) banner for a roll-call of aces. As a team owner, Chinetti would claim Ferrari’s last outright victory at la Sarthe in 1965 with Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt taking a surprise win in an aging 250LM.

AutoFact: Chinetti was also a two-time winner of the Spa 24 Hours (1933 and 1949).

Paul Newman

Unlike arch-rival McQueen, Newman competed in the 24 Hours. Famously discovering a passion for motorsport after making race flick Winning in 1969, he began competing while already the wrong side of 40. What’s more, he was a natural, winning several Sports Car Club of America titles. Keen to participate at international level, he completed the distance in the 1979 running of the 24 Hours aboard a Porsche 935. Teamed up with Rolf Stommelen and the car’s owner Dick Barbour, he placed second overall. And this despite the paparazzi blocking his way in pit stops which caused him to lose valuable time.

AutoFact: Newman hated the attention and never raced in the 24 Hours again.

Images courtesy of LAT and Rota Archive

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