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Ranking the top 10 Le Mans races of all time

Autosport's sportscar expert goes through the archives, and back through his own memories, to pick out the most unforgettable races in the epic history of the Le Mans 24 Hours - featuring extended highlights clips of every race

Le Mans start 2011

Ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Le Mans 24 Hours, Autosport has revisited and updated a top 10 list which first ran ahead of the 2019 race covering the greatest editions of the race in its history.

Taking into account the action, quality of the field, rivalries and iconic moments witnessed over the years at the Circuit de la Sarthe has helped shape the list of the greatest Le Mans races.

From an edition 90 years ago right up to the modern era, here’s how the top 10 Le Mans races shakes out – in podcast, written and video form.

 

10 - 1933

This was arguably the first fast and furious Le Mans. The distance record was broken and the Alfa Romeos in the top two positions finished on the same lap, a first in the short history of the 24 Hours.

Tazio Nuvolari, making his only appearance in the 24 Hours, and Raymond Sommer claimed Alfa Romeo's second consecutive victory, but they would have won by more in their 8C 2300MM but for a leaking fuel tank. They were two laps up at half distance when the problem struck.

A rivet had fallen out of the tank, the issue manifesting itself during an already long stop in the 13th hour during which repairs had been made to the off-side front wing. That allowed the 8C 2300 shared by Louis Chiron and Franco Cortese to move into the lead, with Luigi Chinetti and Philippe Varent de Gunsburg up to third in another of the Italian cars.

Soap is reputed to have been the first 'Heath Robinson' means by which the leak was plugged. But a second solution was hit upon - the liberal application of chewing gum! The Arthur Fox team even lent a hand, or rather its jaws, in helping to turn the gum into something suitably malleable.

The delays for Nuvolari and Sommer meant that a trio of Alfas were on the lead lap at three-quarters distance, though Cortese would crash out shortly afterwards.

The shorter stints of the Nuvolari/Sommer car ensured that the two Alfas repeatedly swapped positions, Chinetti retaking the lead with only 10 minutes to go. Nuvolari was quickly back into the lead and crossed the line with an official winning margin of 401 metres.

It would take 33 years for that record to be broken.

9 - 2016

Apologies to Toyota for picking 2016 as one of the great Le Mans, a race it would surely like to forget. But few editions of the 24 Hours have produced such high drama. The Japanese manufacturer's last gasp-failure to finally get a win at the Circuit de la Sarthe on the board was gut-wrenching.

It is easy, for all the 11th-hour tragedy, to forget that this was a cracking race fought out by Toyota and Porsche. The Toyota TS050 HYBRID that should have won the race in the hands of Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima came back from a slow start and then engaged in a thrilling race with the Porsche 919 Hybrid shared by Neel Jani, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas.

The Toyota and the Porsche were evenly matched in the night, but when it mattered on Sunday morning, the TS050 had the advantage. Toyota had victory seemingly in the bag when Nakajima lost power on the Mulsanne Straight with just six minutes to go.

A fixing on a pipe from turbo to intercooler had fractured. The Toyota jinx had struck again - and not for the last time.

8 - 1956

Had Stirling Moss and Peter Collins managed to win Le Mans '56, their performance would no doubt be heralded as one of the greatest ever at the 24 Hours. The two grand prix drivers had no right to be in contention for victory with their ageing Aston Martin DB3S against the might of a multi-car effort from Jaguar.

Jaguar had updated the D-type that won at Le Mans the previous year, whereas Aston was turning its attention to the DBR1, a future Le Mans winner making its race debut in the 24 Hours that year. But when the Jaguar factory effort wilted early - two cars went out after a shunt on lap three and the third was hit by a misfire in the first hour - Moss and Collins got a whiff of victory and responded as you might expect.

They were able to keep the Aston in contention, and were at the top of the leaderboard for seven hours, in what turned into a straight fight with the Ecurie Ecosse D-type shared by Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson. Rain during the night undoubtedly helped in their bid for an unlikely victory against the more up-to-date car.

The faster Jaguar, a semi-works car in today's terminology, got ahead as the circuit dried out around dawn, before the DB3S lost second gear shortly afterwards. The D-type went on to take Jaguar's fourth Le Mans victory, but Moss and Collins finished just one lap down after a heroic performance.

7 - 1988

Jaguar scored its first victory at Le Mans for more than 30 years at the end of a nip-and-tuck battle with the existing king of the place, Porsche. But it was a close-run thing, much closer even than the official winning margin of two and a half minutes suggests. And much, much closer than the German manufacturer imagined at the time.

The best of the TWR-run Jaguar XJR-9LMs, with Jan Lammers, Andy Wallace and Johnny Dumfries driving, battled hard with the factory Porsche squad for the first two thirds of the race. The Porsche challenge ultimately wilted shortly before 7am on Sunday when the 962C shared by Hans Stuck, Derek Bell and Klaus Ludwig underwent a precautionary change of water pump.

But there was one final twist in the tale that could have deprived Jaguar of Le Mans win number six. Gearbox failure had already put the XJR-9LM driven by Henri Pescarolo, John Watson and Raul Boesel out of the race in the 10th hour. A repeat problem for the race leaders would almost certainly have spelled a late retirement had Lammers not overheard Boesel talking about the moment his 'box went pop.

As the Dutch driver changed up through the gearbox in the final hour, the strange noises he could hear rang a bell. They sounded just like his Brazilian team-mate's description. So when he reached fourth, that's where he left the gearstick for the remainder of the race.

Only he didn't tell his team, remarking only that he had a surprise for them. The remaining factory 962C had closed to within a minute at one point, and Lammers decided that maintaining radio silence was the best course of action even though he had a final pitstop to make.

A late push from the Porsche could very well have changed the outcome.

6 - 2011

This thriller, the final instalment of the Audi versus Peugeot confrontation at Le Mans, raged all the way through the 24 Hours. It was nip and tuck between the two old adversaries, except that the German manufacturer's eggs were all in one basket.

Its hopes rested on the R18 TDI shared by Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler after its other two entries crashed out, but it did have the faster car and one that was kinder on its tyres. Peugeot, however, had a fuel economy advantage with its 908 - it could go a lap longer on a tank of diesel.

The battle wasn't resolved until the final hour. Lotterer had to pit twice, whereas Simon Pagenaud in the chasing Peugeot he shared with Sebastien Bourdais and Pedro Lamy needed just one stop. A slowly deflating left-rear puncture risked derailing Audi's victory bid, but Lotterer was left out on track until he was into his pit window. He stopped on the same lap as the Peugeot, and even with a change of four tyres, still came out ahead.

The race was over. Lotterer in the quicker car on fresh Michelins was able to extend a six-second advantage after the pitstops to win by just over double that amount.

5 - 1995

McLaren never intended for its F1 three-seater supercar to race, nor did it want the GTR version it hurriedly developed for a select group of customers early in 1995 to go to Le Mans in year one. But an irresistible momentum took the BMW-powered machine into competition, straight to Le Mans in its first season and then all the way to an unlikely victory in the world's toughest endurance race.

It might have been based on the world's fastest production machine, but the first iteration of the F1 GTR was still very much a road car. It had no right to pitch up at the Circuit de la Sarthe and win on its debut.

But some of the worst conditions seen at Le Mans in years played into the hands of the five teams running the first batch of F1 GTRs. Or more pertinently played against the faster prototypes - rain is the greatest leveller of them all. The wet-weather skills of a raft of sportscar greats - John Nielsen, JJ Lehto, Andy Wallace and Derek Bell - played a big role, too.

A McLaren sat at the top of the leaderboard for almost the whole race. Nielsen starred in the David Price Racing-run West Competition car early on (even though the windscreen wiper had failed!), before the race boiled down into a straight fight between DPR's Harrods car and the Kokusai Kaihatsu team put together by the factory and run on the ground by Lanzante Motorsport.

The Harrods McLaren, which Derek and son Justin shared with Wallace, looked to have done enough as the race drew to a close. That was until a clutch problem intervened in the 23rd hour. Lehto, Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya came through to take an amazing win at the head of a 1-3-4-5 result for the British marque.

4 - 1999

There were 15 full-factory cars bidding for Le Mans victory in 1999, more if you include a pair of Panoz. It was only fitting that this field should create one of the great races of all time on the Circuit de la Sarthe.

The race quickly came down to a straight fight between BMW and Toyota. Actually, it was two races: the first was fought out by the quickest of the cars from each manufacturer; and the second, in the closing stages, between the slowest.

It was nip and tuck between BMW's new V12 LMR driven by JJ Lehto, Tom Kristensen and Jorg Muller and the Toyota GT-One shared by Thierry Boutsen, Ralf Kelleners and Allan McNish during the night. That battle came to an end when Boutsen was punted into the barriers at the Dunlop Curve.

The BMW looked home and dry until a freak suspension failure jammed the throttle and put Lehto into the wall at the Porsche Curves on Sunday morning. The race was now on between the second BMW of Yannick Dalmas, Joachim Winkelhock and Pierluigi Martini and the all-Japanese crew of Ukyo Katayama, Toshio Suzuki and Keiichi Tsuchiya.

The remaining Toyota came alive as the sun came up. The two cars were out of sync on pitstops as the race came to a head and the calculations of both teams suggested the BMW would still be ahead after their final scheduled stops. But Katayama, who set the fastest lap of the race on Sunday, had the pace to catch it.

The race never came to a head. Katayama was forced onto the kerbs at the first Mulsanne chicane by the year-old privateer BMW of Thomas Bscher. The resulting puncture forced him into the pits and deprived the world of a grandstand finish.

3 - 1969

How many times the first two cars across the line at Le Mans '69 swapped positions in the closing stages will probably never be known. What we can say with some certainty is that they passed each other at least four times over the final two laps.

Jacky Ickx had a plan as he battled with the factory Porsche driven by veteran Hans Hermann. The JW Automotive Ford GT40 he shared with Jackie Oliver and the Porsche 908/2 in which Hermann was joined by Jochen Neerpasch were evenly matched as the race drew to a close.

The Belgian's masterplan called for him to be ahead out of Tertre Rouge on the final lap, knowing that the Porsche would draft past him once on the Mulsanne and he'd then be able to use the tow to get back ahead before the end of the straight.

The tactic appeared to have worked, but Ickx crossed the line at what he had hoped would be his final lap with 15 seconds left on the clock. He had to put his plan into action once more and came out the winner again, too. By a scant margin. Officially, it was just 120 metres.

2 - 1977

The greatest drive by one of the greatest sportscar drivers of all time has to be in the top 10. Jacky Ickx produced the race of his life when all looked lost to give victory to Porsche's 936 Group 6 racer over the big-buck multi-car attack from Renault.

Ickx's chances of a fourth Le Mans victory appeared to have gone when Henri Pescarolo retired their 936 early in the race. They barely looked much better when he jumped into the second Porsche to join Jurgen Barth and Hurley Haywood, who had already been delayed by nearly half an hour.

The three factory Renault-Alpine A442s were out of sight at the front of the field. But the French manufacturer was counting without an amazing performance from Ickx.

His first stint in the #4 car lasted three hours, yielded a new lap record and a place in the top-six, albeit eight laps off the lead. He had also lost four kilos of body mass, but still jumped back in the car after a 90-minute stint from Haywood.

The scene was set for one of the greatest Le Mans comebacks. Porsche was putting Renault under increased pressure. The French cars didn't drop their pace and one by one the Alpine prototypes dropped by the wayside.

Ickx and his team-mates took the lead in the 18th hour when the last of the Renaults hit problems. There was one twist in the tale: the hard-worked Porsche engine holed a piston with 45 minutes to go.

The offending cylinder was blanked off and Barth, whose role in the victory has always been understandably overshadowed, went back out to complete a famous victory.

1 - 2008

This was arguably the biggest heist in Le Mans history. Audi had no right to win the race with the ageing R10 TDI against the faster Peugeot 908 HDi, a car that was five seconds quicker in qualifying.

Yet the German manufacturer triumphed courtesy of an endurance masterclass from Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello and the Joest team, aided by the German car's superiority in the rain.

The task for the drivers of the winning R10 was to hang in there until expected wet weather (expected by Audi but not by Peugeot) arrived during the night. When it did, they came into their own as the Peugeots struggled in the conditions and with a cooling issue caused by sand and dust forming into what it described as a "pate" on its cars' radiators.

The disappearance of the rain brought the best of the Peugeots, in which Nicolas Minassian was teamed with Jacques Villeneuve and Marc Gene, back into contention. A late gamble by Peugeot to leave Minassian out on slicks during a brief rain shower didn't pay off and Audi completed the greatest Le Mans victory of all time.

Their storming drive aboard inferior machinery in 2008 earns McNish, Capello and Kristensen the top spot

Their storming drive aboard inferior machinery in 2008 earns McNish, Capello and Kristensen the top spot

Photo by: Jeff Bloxham / Motorsport Images

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