Archive: The Le Mans minnows that caused legendary upsets
This year marks the 100th anniversary edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours, and to celebrate Autosport is revisiting archive content centred on the world's most famous endurance race. From the 2017 Le Mans supplement, we recall five occasions where an underdog sprung a surprise by featuring well up in the overall classification
Endurance racing is teeming with stories of teams that overcame long odds to achieve landmark results - both in class and in the outright classification. And while the Le Mans 24 Hours hasn't witnessed a GT car triumph over prototypes in the modern era - as in the 2003 Daytona 24 Hours or 2015 Petit Le Mans - the event has produced more than its fair share of surprises.
When this feature originally appeared in Autosport magazine, the standfirst predicted that "an LMP2 car could finish well up this year" as a new breed of more powerful Gibson V8-powered machines arrived to bulk out a thinning field of ultra-complex hybrid LMP1 prototypes. Sure enough, only a rapid recovery from the #2 Porsche 919 Hybrid that had lost 65 minutes to a change of electrical motor denied a remarkable outright victory for the #38 Jota ORECA 07 after the #1 Porsche lost its 13-lap advantage to a loss of oil pressure.
Here are five of the best Le Mans minnow tales from the event's long history.
2010 - Supreme Strakka's LMP2 shock yields fifth outright
Watts and Kane were supreme alongside Leventis as Strakka's HPD claimed LMP2 spoils
Photo by: Alastair Staley / Motorsport Images
The British Strakka Racing squad achieved the kind of result in 2010 that every LMP2 team is dreaming about going into the Le Mans 24 Hours this year. A clean run combined with a high rate of attrition among the prototypes – three of the four Peugeots succumbed to engine failure – allowed its HPD ARX-01c to climb to fifth, the first top-six finish for an LMP2 car at the French enduro.
Strakka, in only its second real attempt on the race, wasn't the pre-race favourite in LMP2 even though it had a potent weapon in the latest HPD. That honour fell to Honda Performance Development's works squad, Highcroft Racing, which was on its way to winning a second American Le Mans Series title.
It didn't help that Strakka had an amateur driver as part of its line-up in the days before LMP2 was a pro-am category. Team owner Nick Leventis shared with Danny Watts and Jonny Kane at the British team, while Highcroft had two former outright Le Mans winners, David Brabham and Marco Werner, and Marino Franchitti on its roster.
”Highcroft came with a lot of hype, and a lot of people thought they were going to wipe the floor with us," remembers Piers Phillips, Strakka’s team manager and technical director. "We knew we were up against an established outfit with a car that we'd only had for six months."
But Strakka held the upper hand from the outset. Its HPD, at least when Watts and Kane were at the wheel, had the legs of the Highcroft version early in the race. But Leventis couldn't match his team-mates and blotted his copybook when he lost three minutes with a gravely spin behind the safety car.
"We were as quick, if not quicker, than the Highcroft car," continues Phillips. "We went as fast as we possibly could and it was a bloody hard race until they had their late issues."
That strategy made the Strakka HPD the second petrol-powered car home behind the trio of Audis and an ORECA LMP1. A class win had become a top six when the fastest of the Lola-based Aston Martin P1s suffered gearbox issues in the final third of the race and then sixth became fifth when its sister car blew up with 50 minutes to go.
Highcroft eventually dropped back to finish outside the top 20 with water system problems. Strakka found out much later that it might have lost its hard-earned result to a similar issue.
“The HPD guys revealed that the engine had been losing water pressure, but they decided not to tell us," explains Phillips. "When they took it apart back in California they discovered it was toast."
2006 - Corvette's top-four a cherry on the cake
Gavin, Beretta and Magnussen enjoyed bulletproof run in #64 Corvette C6-R to defeat Prodrive once more
Photo by: Mark Capilitan
Corvette Racing claimed an amazing sequence of top-six finishes in the mid-2000s with its Chevrolet GT1 racers. Sixth in 2004 was followed by fifth in 2005 and then an even more amazing fourth at Le Mans in 2006. As astounding as these results were, all the Chevrolet factory team cared about was beating its arch-rival, the Prodrive-run Aston Martin squad, to class victory.
“The racing in GT1 was pretty special in that period and I think everyone looks back on it with rose-tinted spectacles," says Oliver Gavin, who took class honours with Jan Magnussen and Olivier Beretta in those three seasons. "We never went to Le Mans thinking about finishing that high up. We were just focused on beating our competition."
The Pratt & Miller-run Corvette team's battles with Prodrive, first with privately-funded Ferrari 550 Maranellos and then factory-supported Aston Martin DBR9s, became the stuff of Le Mans legend in years that weren't the strongest for the LMP1 class. Prodrive had claimed GTS honours in 2003, and by the time the 2006 race came around, it was desperate to overturn the reverses of the previous two years.
Tomas Enge claimed the class pole for Aston, an amazing fifth in a row, in what was undoubtedly the faster car at Le Mans in 2006. The second Aston shared by Pedro Lamy, Stephane Sarrazin and Stephane Ortelli appeared to have come out on top in a straight fight with the Gavin/Magnussen/Beretta Corvette when clutch failure resulted in a 50-minute stop with three hours to go.
The defeat was a hard one to take for Aston Martin, as Gavin found out when Prodrive team principal George Howard-Chappell had to settle up on a pre-race wager.
"I had a bet with George in 2005 that we’d win, and he paid out the fifty quid," recalls Gavin. "We had the same bet the following year and, after we’d beat them three times in a row, you could see that it was particularly difficult for him to hand over the money.”
1975 - Loos Porsche punches above its weight for freak fifth
John Fitzpatrick anchored the GELO Racing Loos Porsche's run to fifth in 1975
Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images
John Fitzpatrick was more than happy to qualify his Loos Porsche 911 Carrera RSR 20th on the grid for Le Mans in 1975. Which was why he wasn’t expecting to end up in fifth place behind the prototypes at the end of the race. But a near-perfect race and a high attrition rate among the faster cars resulted in a freak result.
“If you’d said we’d have finished fifth overall, I would have laughed, because we were nearly 20 seconds off the pace of the prototypes,” recalls Fitzpatrick, who did most of the driving in the fifth-place cars alongside Gijs van Lennep. “Actually, we didn’t even expect to finish.”
The other two RSRs entered by Georg Loos’s GELO Racing Team didn’t manage that. One retired as a result of an accident, having already undergone an engine change (something that really was permissible in for a brief period in the mid-1970s), while the other succumbed to gearbox failure. That explains why five of the drivers listed across the three GELO cars – Fitzpatrick, van Lennep, Loos, Toine Hezemans and Manfred Schurti - took turns behind the wheel of the class-winning car.
Many of the prototypes didn’t make it to the finish, either. Two of the three Ligiers in the race went out early, while Alain de Cadenet's latest Lola-based creation was delayed with a cracked exhaust. Which goes a long way to explaining the GT-winning Porsche's lofty overall position.
“It wasn’t until Sunday morning that we began to have any kind of aspirations of finishing up the order," says Fitz. “We had a pretty prefect race. We won the prize for the car spending the least time in the pits. We only refueled, changed the tyres and, I think, did the brake pads once."
Not that they took it easy at GELO.
“We drove the first few hours like it was a DRM German championship race," reckons Fitzpatrick. "Tim [Schenken], Toine and I were running nose to tail when we arrived at Indianapolis and found that someone had dropped a load of oil. We spun in unison, looked at each other and continued on our way."
1927 - Salmson springs a surprise
The de Victor/ Hasley Salmson finished a surprise second in 1927 after Bentley's dramas
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Bentley claimed a second victory at Le Mans in 1927, but a French marque that has long since been consigned to the history books might have been first across the finishing line that year. Salmson took second and third positions with its little 1100cc Grand Sport two-seaters behind a Bentley that was lucky to be in the race at the finish.
Bentley stepped up its Le Mans assault after the failures that followed its previous victory in 1924 and fielded three works entries in a race that attracted just 23 cars. All three Bentleys were involved in an infamous multi-car pile-up at Maison Blanche that has become known as the 'White House Crash'. Two were out on the spot, while the winning 3-Litre Super Sport, 'Old Number Seven' shared by Sammy Davis and Dr Dudley Benjafield, sustained a bent chassis and front axle and completed the race with a police torch strapped in place to do the job of a damaged headlight.
The damaged car still crossed the line with the biggest advantage in the history of the race. The only other large-capacity car in the field in the absence of former winners Chenard-et-Walcker and Lorraine-Dietrich, a three-litre Aries Surbaissee, had retired with ignition problems. That meant the second-placed Salmson was 21 laps – more than 220 miles – behind in the hands of Andre Victor and J Hasley. A further lap in arrears was the second of the Salmsons shared by George Casse and Andre Rousseau.
Salmson wasn't racing in a different category to Bentley in 1927. There were no classes back then, just different target distances for cars of varying engine capacities. Nor was there even an overall classification. Le Mans was one year away from that. Rather cars competed for the second Biennial Rudge-Whitworth Cup that covered the 1926 and '27 24-hour races.
Salmson took the big prizes that year. Victor and Hasley claimed the FF50,000 for winning on handicap and the final Rudge-Whitworth Cup went to the third-placed drivers who'd finished ninth the previous year.
Bentley certainly celebrated as though it had won, however. The Bentley Boys later partied at the Savoy Grill in London with a battle-scarred 'Old Number Seven' as guest of honour at the 11-course banquet.
2001 - Stealthy Seikel scores top-six finish with Porsche
Drudi, Babini and Rosa kept #83 Seikel Porsche on the island amid difficult conditions in 2001
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Will a GTE Am car finish in the top six in this year's race? If so, it would be as big a shock as the Seikel Porsche team's sixth-place finish on the way to GT class honours at Le Mans in 2001.
That year's grid was packed full of prototypes racing in the top classes. There were 18 entries in LMP900 (the original name for LMP1), two GTP cars in the pair of Bentley EXP Speed 8s and a smattering of cars in the LMP675 class conceived to be the equal of LMP900. Remember the MG-Lola EX257? But one of the wettest Le Mans for years helped to turn this into race of attrition in which only five of the LMP900s would make it to the finish. The weather also played into the hands of Seikel.
The German team certainly wasn't one of the pre-event favourites in GT, even with the talented Fabio Babini on board its lead Porsche 911 GT3-R alongside Luca Drudi and Gabrio Rosa and a bit of Le Mans form after playing a part in the Japanese Taisan team's class victory 12 months before. What it did have, however, was Yokohama tyres.
"The weather was extremely changeable, but our Yokohama tyres were excellent. Fabio said he’d never driven on such good rain tyres," remembers team boss Peter Seikel. "We had the perfect race. The drivers didn’t make any mistakes, we were good in the pits and we normally judged the conditions correctly."
Seikel ended up winning the class by a lap from the more-fancied Freisinger entry that had future two-time Le Mans winner Romain Dumas on its driving roster. Babini and co were ensconced in seventh behind the best of the factory Chevrolet Corvette C5-R GTS cars in the closing stages when the American manufacturer opted to bring both its entries in for what it called at the time "full service". The car shared by Scott Pruett, Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell slipped down the order to ninth while it sat in the pits for the best part of an hour.
Seikel would go onto to field cars in an amazing 59 24-hour races as a team owner – as well as taking in 32 as a driver – before hanging up both helmet and headphones. He has no doubt that Le Mans 2001 was his great achievement.
“I had something like nine or 10 class wins at the Nurburgring 24 Hours and maybe two or three at the Spa 24 Hours," he says. "But to finish sixth at Le Mans ahead of the Corvettes was undoubtedly the best."
Le Mans result remains team boss Seikel's fondest memory in motorsport
Photo by: Motorsport Images
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