The 24 Hours of Le Mans. Even just the name evokes memories of classic races, unbelievable tragedy, and some of the fiercest battles ever fought over an 8.5 mile (13.6 KM) stretch of road known as “le Circuit de la Sarthe.” These hallowed grounds are where Porsche ultimately proved their expertise in making race cars, with several legendary drives, victories, moments of glory, and, in one instance, utter perfection.
Today we will be looking at four of these legendary drivers, the ones that are seared into the memories of Porsche enthusiasts young and old. These are stories of pushing man and machine to the limit, racing on that thin line that separates the greatest drivers and names from the rest, dancing the car on the ragged edge to get any advantage. These are the stories that made Porsche into the motorsports giant it is today.
Gijs Van Lennep & Helmut Marko: Attrition At the 1971 Le Mans
1971 is an important year for endurance racing, as it was the swan song year of the 4.9 flat-12 and 5.0 liter V12 engines from Porsche and Ferrari, respectively, in the prototype class. The races before and after the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year would be hard fought between the Porsche 917K and the Ferrari 512M, but it was at the Great Race that a piece of Porsche history was born.
Dutch driver Gijsbert (Gijs) van Lennep and Austrian driver Dr. Helmut Marko (Juris Doctor) were two drivers in their prime, young enough to be able to endure racing over 24 hours, while also old enough to know that consistency with a healthy dose of caution is what ultimately wins endurance races. They raced in the Martini Porsche 917K carrying number 22, which those who have visited the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart know is the one of three 917s on display there to this day.
In an almost prophetic manner, the #22 917K took part in practice and qualifying without a single issue or mechanical failure, while cars of all classes were having issues all around them. A Porsche 908/2 from the Wicky team suffered a suspension failure in practice while traveling at 290 KPH (180 MPH) down the Mulsanne Straight, which resulted in the tail hitting the road surface and being dragged for 500 meters while Andre Wicky braked.
There was another incident where a Porsche 911 from the Paul Watson team did not see Jo Siffert in one of the Porsche 917LH’s closing in on him down the Mulsanne, and so the driver took his normal line. This, in effect, cut the 917 off with meters between them, and Siffert reacted instantly, dodging to the side and putting the outside wheels on the grass. This sent the 917LH into a series of spins as Siffert fought to regain control. Miraculously, it did not hit the walls and suffered no damage.
After qualifying, a massive field of 49 cars formed the grid for the big race. Instead of the Le Mans start of running across the track, jumping into the car, firing it up and setting off, the 1971 race was the first to perform the now-standard 2×2 rolling start. However, even during the formation lap, two cars started to have fuel flow issues, the NART Ferrari 512S Spider and the Piper Ferrari 512M, pulling into the pits as the rest of the field took the start.
The Piper Ferrari just needed to have the whole car cycled off and then on again to restore fuel pressure and roared off after the field, while the NART Ferrari spent 30 minutes in the garage to replace the fuel pump, only to retire after seven laps due to the clutch disintegrating.
However, at the head of the field, Porsche 917s were in the top three positions, with the Ferrari 512S and 512Ms chasing. The 917LH proved to be so unbelievably fast that by the end of the Mulsanne Straight on the second lap, it was already passing backmarker GT cars who were still on their first lap. Marko, who had taken the start in the Martini 917K, knew that the first hour of an endurance race was crucial, and that you needed to be patient and set a rhythm, so the car settled into ninth place by the end of the first hour.
It was the start of the third hour that saw the first retirements, with a privately-entered Porsche 910 crashing into a sandbank at Arnage, and a Lola T70 Mk III B throwing a rod down the Mulsanne, which disintegrated into the engine and caused terminal damage. The Penske Ferrari 512M lost its engine in the sixth hour as dusk started to fall. It was at the ninth hour, as night was starting to settle, that things went from bad to worse.
While Marko and van Lennep had kept their 917K running by focusing entirely on smooth, consistent pace, the other Martini Porsche 917, an LH model driven by Gerald Larousse and Vic Elford, was reaching top speed down the Mulsanne. However, just after the famous Mulsanne Kink, the top mounted fan for the flat-twelve departed from the engine. It flew off into the night, and without that crucial cooling air, the car overheated in mere seconds, causing terminal damage.
Through the night, Marko and van Lennep steadily climbed the rankings, the 917K an absolute paragon of reliability. Other Porsches, along with Ferraris and Lolas, suffered mechanical failures and a couple of dramatic accidents, one of which van Lennep remembers as being among the scariest he has seen. 30 seconds up the road from van Lennep, during his 1 AM stint, a Porsche 908/2 driven by Guy Chasseuil went off at Maison Blanche, the last of the major Porsche Curves.
The force was severe enough that it ruptured the fuel lines to the engine, and the car burst into flames. Guy was able to jump free, astoundingly uninjured after crashing at nearly 200 MPH, but when van Lennep came across the crash, the fuel had started to spill across the track, which created a rolling river of fire. He kept the 917K away from the wreck and drove by “at walking pace” as there were firefighters arriving at the scene, and he feared the worst because of the state of the car and the fire. He chanced a look to his left, and saw Guy there—somehow alive, out of the car, and uninjured.
By 6:20 AM, as the sun started to rise, a shocking statistic emerged. Since the start of the race, nine out of eighteen Porsche 911s, cars famed for their reliability, had retired due to mechanical issues.
Still, Marko and van Lennep kept their steady, quick pace up, racing more to a stopwatch than against other cars. Ferraris and Lolas were starting to develop mechanical issues, or their drivers had momentary lapses of concentration and crashed out, and so by 9:40 AM, the 22 Martini Porsche 917K was leading the field.
Through the last four hours of the race, no less than seven cars retired, almost all of them from transmission or engine failures. Yet, by not pushing the car too hard or stressing it too much, the 917K just kept thundering in the laps. When the checkered flag dropped with Marko in the driver’s seat, the 917K had completed 397 laps—a record distance that stood for decades. This was the equivalent of 3,375 miles (5,432 KM), a full three laps ahead of the second placed car, another 917K from JW Automotive (another customer team).
Shockingly, out of the 49 starters, only 14 cars made it to the line, and two of those were not classified due to not having covered enough distance. This level of attrition had never been seen before and was never seen again. It was also the end of an era, as the new FIA regulations for 1972 had built and then nailed shut the coffin of the big five liter engines.
Van Lennep went on to race in Formula One, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Formula F5000, and won the last Targa Florio ever held before retiring from racing in 1976.
Dr. Helmut Marko entered Formula One for half of 1971 and had a full-time seat for 1972, racing for BRM. During the French Grand Prix, round 6 of 12, he was chasing Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus when a stone shot off of the rear tire and pierced Marko’s visor, destroying his left eye but fortunately not killing him.
Marko retired from racing and is now famous for being the sporting and driver advisor for the current Red Bull Racing/Scuderia Alpha Tauri racing teams, as well as the head of the Red Bull Racing Young Drivers Academy, with his crowning achievement being convincing Red Bull Racing to sign one Max Verstappen from Formula Three straight into Formula One.
Jacky Ickx, Hurley Haywood, Jurgen Barth: The Le Mans Miracle of 1977
The start of the 1977 24 Hours of Le Mans could not have gone any worse for Porsche as a whole. Within the first hour of the race, the #42 Porsche 935 K2 blew a turbo, which damaged the engine and the cylinder liners. The #38 Porsche 935/77 also lost oil pressure, damaging the engine too much to continue, and the #4 Porsche 936/77 of Haywood and Barth had to pit to replace a faulty fuel pump, which took 20 minutes.
It didn’t get much better from there, as the #4 936 would suffer a blown head gasket not even an hour later. Since it required actual disassembly of a screaming hot engine, the process took 30 minutes. By this point, the #4 936 was in 41st place overall, and the #3 Porsche 936/77 of Jacky Ickx and Henri Pescarolo blew its engine in the third hour.
Pescarolo was out, but Ickx, through some sensible planning, had signed on to drive the #3 as his primary car (he was also signed up for the #4 car as a reserve driver).
As night fell, the Le Mans Miracle was about to happen. 15 laps down from the leaders, since Ickx was a valid driver for the #4 Porsche, he was told that he could open all the taps, push the car to its absolute limit, and do everything he could to move through the field to at least get Porsche into a respectable position.
From 9 PM until 9:10 AM, Barth and Haywood only drove one 23-lap stint each. The rest of the night, Ickx was absolutely thrashing the 936 around the course, at times eating away at the leaders pace by a scarcely believable 10 or more seconds per lap. He drove for 11 hours, the maximum allowed for a reserve driver, with only two one-stint breaks to get food and water onboard, and then he was back in the cockpit.
It was one of the truly heroic drives of the Great Race, of one of the world’s greatest motorsports talents pushing man and machine to the ragged edge of endurance and performance. Ickx would say that he thinks it was his greatest achievement—the Le Mans Miracle—when he took the #4 Porsche 936 from the very back of the field, needing to lap the leaders fifteen times, and then passing them all to have the #4 car in first place when he finally pulled into the pits for his last driver change at 9:10 AM. Completely and utterly exhausted, he famously leaped out of the 936, ran into the garage, sat down, and promptly fell asleep.
While this video is during the daytime, imagine spending 11 hours racing at this speed, on these roads, with that much traffic, all night long! Video via Porsche Official Youtube Channel.
However, he had done enough. Not only was the #4 Porsche in the lead, it was in the lead by two laps, and that only increased as the equally fast Barth put in a massively impressive first stint: the absolute class of the field, every corner perfect, the highest top speed down the Mulsanne, and pushing the car as hard as he could.
He only truly backed off when Porsche’s primary rival, Renault, lost both of their remaining cars in the 18th and 21st hours of the race, both to engine failures. This put the #4 a full 16 laps ahead of second place car, and Barth brough the car in for Haywood to take over.
Haywood would drive for the early afternoon, lapping a full fifteen seconds faster than most of the field, which was now in conservation mode to keep their cars running until the end. Everything looked set up to make Ickx’s heroic drive through the night worthwhile when, just under an hour from the end of the race, the #4 came into the pits trailing smoke and sounding rather ill. Because of the stress the engine had been put under, a cylinder had holed itself, and it was time to make the hardest call of all.
Instead of retiring, however, Porsche used the 16-lap buffer to their advantage. The mechanics disconnected the turbo, effectively making the 936 a naturally-aspirated car, and isolated the affected cylinder. They put Barth into the car, but told him to wait.
With exactly ten minutes remaining, having lost a full 5 laps, Barth was sent out on the track with a clock taped to his steering wheel. This was so that he could track the time to the end of the race, as the final lap had to be completed within a certain percentage of the previous lap in terms of speed and time.
Limping the car around the circuit, Barth managed to complete two laps, crossing the line mere seconds after the race time ended. He did this with no turbo, with only five cylinders, and kept the car going fast enough that he wouldn’t be considered a hazard on the massive Mulsanne and Indianapolis Straights.
#4 crossed the line a full 11 laps up from second place. It had gone from 41st to 1st in a little over 20 hours, 11 of which were driven by Ickx, who had timed his nap so he could enjoy the champagne on the winners podium even more. The Miracle had been completed.
Hans-Joachim Stuck: The Perfect Lap, 1985 Le Mans
As skilled as many racing drivers are, there are those among them, a rare few, that can extract the absolute maximum from a car, and become one with it to such an extent that it becomes part of their nervous system. These are the drivers that deal in decimals, finding the percent of a percent of performance, who can clip an apex perfectly and have the sixth sense of where the grip is so they can accelerate out of the corner as soon as possible. These are the drivers that can realistically pursue the perfect lap.
Hans-Joachim Stuck is one such driver, and in 1985, he was driving for Porsche. His car was the #2 Rothmans Porsche 962C, in the last year before the PDK semi-automatic gearbox would become the standard for all their cars. This suited Stuck fine, as he likes to feel the car through every part of his body, including his clutch foot and the shifter.
What makes this moment legendary is that it did not occur during the actual race.
Instead, in full qualifying setup with new tires and enough fuel to do four full laps of the Circuit de la Sarthe, Stuck drove the #2 962C out of the pits and began the process of scrubbing in his tires and adjusting what he could to make the car as perfect as it could be for him. About 5 minutes after leaving the pits, he exited the last corner and put the pedal to the floor.
What followed was quite simply an awesome display of driving skill and complete confidence in the car.
Driving the car hard, he braked deeper and harder than most, was smooth in his inputs on the wheel, and was able to find the grip to power out of each corner earlier than anyone else. He took the Dunlop Curve—the downhill section after the small hill that sits on the start/finish straight—completely flat, dancing the car around the limits of grip. Even at that early stage in the lap, those watching sat up and paid attention, as they knew that Stuck was on a mission.
To get the best possible speed down the Mulsanne Straight, a driver needs to start the process as far back as the Esses, building up speed to generate downforce to plant their cars to the road so they can attack Tetre Rouge, the corner that opens up to the Straight, as fast as they possibly can without spearing off the track. Stuck clipped both inside wheels over the apex perfectly without having to bleed too much speed off, so when he punched it down the Mulsanne, the 962C was being shoved into the ground with downforce. The car simply catapulted out of the corner, building speed from its twin turbo flat-six at a prodigious rate.
The #2 962C drove the entire length of the Mulsanne, from Tetre Rouge to the Mulsanne Corner, a distance of 3.7 miles (6 KM), faster than anyone else did that entire weekend. He took the Mulsanne Kink, which in 1985 was approached at maximum speed, without lifting, trusting entirely in the downforce the car was under to keep the tires shoved hard into the tarmac, and then braked at the last possible moment for the Mulsanne corner.
Again clipping the apex perfectly, the 962C became a missile down the Indianapolis Straight, including through the two minor kinks before braking for the sweeping right that led to the sharp left of Indianapolis. Stuck ran the car perfectly, the outer lip of the right tires just kissing the edge of the track before taking Indianapolis, once again millimetrically perfect.
Arnage, the slowest corner on the circuit, was dispatched of with that same precision, and those watching were no longer sitting, they were standing, because Hans-Joachim Stuck was way, way up compared to any previous run.
He attacked the Porsche curves in a way only a prototype car can, feathering the throttle and brake to turn the car yet keep it at speed. When he exited the Ford Chicances, he raced to the line, crossing it at a time of 3 minutes, 14 seconds, and 80 milliseconds.
That is an average speed around the lap of 156.471 MPH (251.815 KPH), which set the fastest average speed and the fastest time on the circuit for 32 years. Stuck would later recall that it had been his greatest motorsports moment, in a career that spanned Formula One, DTM, Touring Cars, Group C endurance racing, and many other disciplines.
What makes this an even more amazing feat is that the 962C had no power steering, and used ground effects to literally suck the car down onto the road using both underbody and over body aerodynamics. The centrifugal forces he had endured during each corner were estimated to be anywhere between 2 to 5 G’s, and he was also using a six-speed manual transmission, so some corners would be taken one-handed as he was downshifting while braking.
Even Stuck still can’t believe the lap he achieved, stating: “My Le Mans moment lasted three minutes and 14.8 seconds. Pole position with the Porsche 962C, a perfect lap.”
To date, only one car, ever, since 1985 has gone faster: the Toyota TS050 Hybrid in 2017, which did the lap in 3:14.791, with an average lap speed of 156.512 MPH (251.882 KPH). To give you an idea of just how fast Stuck was driving the car, here is the lap that beat his by less than a hundredth of a second:
Stuck’s perfect lap, however, will remain the fastest ever lap on the original layout.
Earl Bamber, Nick Tandy, Nico Hulkenberg: The First Porsche Hybrid Win at Le Mans 2015
Porsche has been a constant presence at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, at least in the GTE and GTLM classes with the 911 RSR and 911 GT3-R (LM), respectively. However, they had been missing from the prototype class as a works competitor since the 911 GT1-98 raced in 1998. That changed in 2014 as, after 3 years of development, the 919 LMP1-Hybrid entered as the fourth works team racing in LMP1.
In 2014, due to teething problems with a brand new car, the highest placed 919 was down in 11th place. Porsche, of course, was not entirely happy with that result as 6 LMP2 cars, the class below 919, finished ahead of it. They doubled down, and opened their files to find the greatest drivers that were either open for a contract, or who were Porsche Works drivers. From this “star search,” a trio of the most unlikely collaborators became the #19 2015 919 LMP1-H team.
From New Zealand, Earl Bamber, a Porsche Works driver by the time he was 23, was brought in to race for the first time in an LMP1-H. He had been picked up by Porsche very early in his career, and had been racing in the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia and the Porsche Supercup in Australia before his big chance.
Since they had their rookie, Porsche then brought in Nick Tandy, a driver from the UK that is known for his ability to get a handle on pretty much any car within a lap or two of driving it. He had previously competed in two seasons of the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia, and had remained on Stuttgart’s radar as a patient but aggressive overtaker—if he saw a gap, he was in it and then was past the car that left it.
With the rookie and the aggressive passer on the team, an anchor driver was needed, and as such, Nico Hulkenberg, nicknamed “The Hulk” after he escaped uninjured from a fairly dramatic crash in 2018, was contracted in from the Force India Formula One team. He became the mentor to Bamber, and the balancing force against Tandy, making the team into an odd bunch of drivers that nonetheless became a cohesive unit.
As the #19 team, they were entered into two rounds of the 2015 WEC season at the 6 Hours of Spa and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, placing a respectable 6th at Spa in their first laps in competition with each other. It was at Le Mans, however, with Porsche challenging the three 919 LMP1-H teams to get at least one of them on the overall podium, that the team gelled perfectly.
The three 919 cars covered the top three spots in qualifying, with the #19 team in third. The start of the race went well for the #17 and #18 919s as they sped off at the start, leaving the #19 to try to keep the multi-championship winning Audi team at bay. This didn’t last long, as by the end of the second lap, all three of the Audi cars had passed the #19. The top 6 cars remained within seconds of each other, pulling away from the field and leaving the Toyota LMP1-H cars behind them.
The major difficulty of the 2015 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was quite similar to that of the 1971 edition, in that the LMP1-H cars were lapping so fast that the GTE and GTLM cars became rolling roadblocks. This required the highest levels of concentration for each and every stint, and even a minor lapse in concentration could end any one of the top teams’ chances.
This nearly came to pass for the #18 Porsche 919 as dusk settled over the circuit, when Romain Dumas was momentarily distracted and braked too late for the Mulsanne Corner, spearing straight off the road and impacting the tire barrier. In a testament to just how tough the LMP1-H cars were, he was able to drive it back to the pits, and all the car needed was new bodywork.
The turning point of the race happened soon after, as a Signatech Alpine LMP2 car also went straight on at the Mulsanne Corner, but instead of digging into the gravel trap, skipped across the top of it and hit the tire barrier much harder. This required the safety cars to come out, and critically bunched the top five LMP1-H cars nose-to-tail. When the race was green flagged, Nico Hulkenberg, using his vast experience and trademark patience, was able to pass another 919, and the Audi e-Tron LMP1-H of Rene Rast, to take the lead.
In a display of strategic mastery and outright endurance, Hulkenberg, Tandy, and Bamber each did a quadruple stint during the night, meaning that they stayed in the car for three fuel and tire pit stops and changed drivers on the fourth stop. This allowed them to remain much more connected to the car, feel everything, and settle into a rhythm that saw the #19 start to lap the entire field during the night, all the way up to the LMP1s.
When morning broke, the #19 919 came very close to crashing when Hulkenberg made a pass on the #96 Aston Martin Vantage GTLM car, driven by Roald Goethe. Cutting to the inside of the Aston in Corvette Corner, the last of the Porsche Curves before the Maison Blanche chicane near the end of the lap, he drove so close to the inside of the #96 that Goethe thought that he was understeering wide, and caused him to brake hard, spinning the car.
As it spun, the nose of the Aston missed the rear of the Porsche by barely a couple of feet, and the #96 slammed into the retaining wall sideways—while Hulkenberg drove on, unaware of how close the two had come to contact.
It was much the same for the rest of the morning, with the #19 919 lapping consistently. The last major scare of the race came when the Audi #7, driven by Andre Lotterer, clipped the rear of the #19 919, in the hands of Nick Tandy at the time, as they approached a slow zone.
The damage was minimal to the #19, although it was inspected during the next pit stop. The #7 Audi was penalized with a drive-through penalty, which was enough to drop it from contention with the #19.
When the checkered flag finally flew, the #19 crossed the line a full lap ahead of the #17 Porsche, bringing not one, but two Porsche teams to the podium. This was more than Porsche was expecting or had been working towards, and sent a strong signal that Stuttgart was serious about winning in the top prototype class again.