Top 10: Ranking the greatest cars never to win Le Mans
Plenty of the most iconic sportscars of all time have somehow missed out on glory in the greatest endurance race of them all. Here are the 10 we believe top that unfortunate list
Many great sportscars have won the Le Mans 24 Hours. In fact, victory at the world's most famous endurance event has made the reputation of many fine racers. But there have been some that missed out.
To pick out the best cars never to have won the Grand Prix d'Endurance, we looked at several factors. The key ones were how well they got on at Le Mans, the circumstances of their failures, and the amount of success scored elsewhere. The impact the candidates had on the race and motorsport was also considered.
When we first did this list in 2016, the incredible Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Coupe featured strongly, but we have subsequently produced a top 10 Le Mans cars list that included the 8C series of racers. It seemed odd to have it in both lists, so we’ve made a revision, but if you’d like to know more about the sensational 1938 machine, take a look here.
The only rule was that the car had to have actually raced in the Le Mans 24 Hours, so no Jaguar XJR-14 or Mercedes CLK GTR – that’s a different list. Similarly, we focused on individual models rather than teams or marques, so the Cunningham efforts of the 1950s and the hard-trying Courage squad of the 1980s and 1990s – both of which scored podiums – don't make the cut either.
10. Pescarolo C60
Best result: 2nd (2005, 2006)
Lancia’s LC2 was in contention for this slot but, despite its 1984 pole, the popular Italian machine never really looked like stopping the Porsche steamroller at Le Mans. The Pescarolo, however, really should have dented Audi’s domination during the 2000s.
Originally known as the Courage C60, the design first appeared in 2000 and various versions were run by Courage and Pescarolo Sport. It’s the five-litre V10 Hybrid variant run by Le Mans legend Henri Pescarolo that gets it a place on this list.
With the benchmark Audi R8s hit with extra weight and smaller air restrictors, the C60 was the fastest car at Le Mans in 2005. The two entries qualified first and second, with the polesitting Emmanuel Collard/Jean-Christophe Boullion/Erik Comas machine being three seconds faster than the best Audi.
They raced away at the start as well, Audi driver Emanuele Pirro saying the Pescarolos were “racing in a different category”.
“I told everyone that the only people who could beat us were ourselves,” said team boss Henri Pescarolo and that’s exactly what they did.
In the second hour Soheil Ayari, who shared the other car with Eric Helary and Sebastien Loeb, sideswiped a GT2 Panoz and lost six minutes to repairs. The car lost more time with a puncture before Ayari had another clash with lapped traffic. He had a third incident that finally resulted in retirement.
The other car hit trouble too, losing nearly half an hour when it needed its gearbox internals changed. But lapping 4-5s quicker than the leading Champion Audi – the only major runner to avoid a significant delay – the Pescarolo pulled back from five laps down to within two with a quarter of the race still to go.
Boullion briefly got onto the lead lap but a combination of Tom Kristensen’s pace in the R8 and climbing engine temperatures meant Pescarolo had to settle for second. The C60’s best race lap was 3.6s faster than the quickest non-Pescarolo and 4.8s clear of the winner’s fastest.
Collard and Boullion would go on to take the Le Mans Endurance Series title with two victories. The car dominated the renamed Le Mans Series the following year, winning all five rounds in Audi’s absence, and finished second – splitting the new Audi R10 TDIs – in the 24 Hours. But its best chance in the Big One had gone.
9. Aston Martin DB3S
Best result: 2nd (1955, 1956 and 1958)
The underpowered but well-balanced DB3S does not immediately spring to mind when it comes to Le Mans greats, but the three-litre straight-six Aston racked up an impressive CV.
No other car on this list has three second places to its name at Le Mans. The DB3S also steadied the Aston Martin ship after a poor run in the 24 Hours.
The 1955 and '58 runner-up spots can be attributed more to the problems suffered by faster rivals, but the '56 contest was a different matter.
Stirling Moss and Peter Collins fought a duel with the Ron Flockhart/Ninian Sanderson Jaguar D-type, ultimately losing out to the bigger-engined Ecurie Ecosse machine by a single lap.
Elsewhere, the car proved its worth with victories in the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod and the Goodwood Nine Hours.
8. Mercedes SS/SSK
Best result: 2nd (1931)
The rival 'Blower Bentley' is better known, but the 7.1-litre supercharged Mercedes is more worthy of this list.
Firstly, the solo 1930 entry driven by Rudolf Caracciola and Christian Werner put up a heroic fight against two teams (supercharged 4.5-litres and unsupercharged 6.6-litres) of Bentleys before expiring with a flat battery, leaving the British firm to secure a one-two with its unblown Speed Sixes.
"Such is the reputation of the famous German marque for speed and stamina that elaborate team tactics were adopted by the two Bentley groups," said the Motor's 1930 race report. "They took it in turns in luring the German on to unwise speeds."
Secondly, unlike the famous Bentley, the shortened SSK returned to finish second the following year, albeit defeated by the smaller (but legendary) Alfa Romeo 8C 2300.
7. Ferrari 312 PB
Best result: 2nd (1973)
"The 312 PB was a fabulous car," recalls factory Ferrari driver Brian Redman. "But right from the start in 1973, the Matra was slightly better, with more efficient aerodynamics, and also the handling was somewhat better."
Even so, Matra's defeat of Ferrari in their epic 1973 Le Mans tussle was a close-run thing.
Ferrari had won every championship round it entered in 1972, but skipped Le Mans as the Formula 1-derived engine was thought not to be ready to last 24 hours. Matra, which only entered Le Mans, therefore took a dominant one-two.
In 1973, Matra entered the championship and Ferrari added the French classic to its schedule, with three long-tailed 312 PBs taking on four Matras. Arriving at Le Mans, the two marques had scored two wins each.
Arturo Merzario led a Ferrari one-two in practice and he charged off into an early lead before dropping from contention while a fuel leak was fixed. After the two leading Matras hit trouble, the Carlos Reutemann/Tim Schenken 312 led for five hours until its engine broke.
Top 10: The greatest Le Mans Ferraris
Even then, the conservatively driven Redman/Jacky Ickx Ferrari moved to the front. A broken exhaust, bodywork repair and fuel leak allowed the Henri Pescarolo/Gerard Larrousse Matra ahead, but the French car's run was not perfect either and Redman/Ickx still had an outside chance when the flat-12 engine failed with 90 minutes to go.
Between them, the three 312s had topped 14 of the hourly bulletins, but second place was the best they could manage at the flag. And that was the end of the Ferrari factory's last attempt at outright Le Mans success until 2023...
6. Porsche 911 GT1
Best result: 2nd (1996)
Not for the first time, Porsche moved the goalposts in endurance racing with the 911 GT1, even if it was perhaps not quite within the spirit of the prevailing regulations.
The two works GT1s led at the start of the 1996 Le Mans, but were soon overcome by the Joest TWR Porsche WSC95s. The Hans Stuck/Bob Wollek/Thierry Boutsen 911 GT1 was the only car to lead the metronomic Davy Jones/Alexander Wurz/Manuel Reuter Joest machine, which had far better fuel economy than the other open prototypes and more speed than the GTs.
The Joest-run car also suffered no serious delays, which could not be said of the tricky-to-handle GT1s, both of which lost time due to driver-induced excursions. Stuck suffered an altercation with another car, while the #26 machine had a number of minor offs.
"The sports-prototypes were unbeatable today," reckoned Stuck, whose car suffered no reliability issues. "We are nearly 200kg heavier and have narrower tyres, so to be so close to victory is great."
Stuck/Wollek/Boutsen led a Porsche one-two in class, thrashing the McLaren F1 GTRs, which were not quick or reliable enough to challenge, but fell a lap short of overall honours.
Things looked even better for the revised GT1 in 1997, but the result was worse.
This time the closed Porsches had the edge over the solo Joest WRC95 for much of the contest. Stuck/Wollek/Boutsen led through the night before veteran Wollek uncharacteristically went off at the Porsche Curves and retired on Sunday morning. That still left the other example, driven by Yannick Dalmas, Emmanuel Collard and Ralf Kelleners, out front.
Victory looked assured with three hours to go, but then a dramatic fire - caused by an engine oil leak - forced Kelleners to make a rapid exit, leaving Joest to win again. The older privateer GT1s weren't in the fight, so rival McLaren even took the GT class honours.
The 911 GT1-98 finally gave the works squad another Le Mans success the following year, but that was essentially an all-new machine.
5. Ferrari 330 P4
Best result: 2nd (1967)
It's a cliche to say the P4 is one of the most beautiful racing cars of all time. It's true, but that tends to overshadow the fact that this was also a very fine thoroughbred sports-racer, which fell short at Le Mans thanks to one of the biggest invasions La Sarthe has ever seen.
After being defeated by Ford's big-bucks assault in 1966, Ferrari produced the 330 P4, complete with gem of a four-litre V12. And it took revenge on its American rival by finishing 1-2-3 at the Daytona 24 Hours. Ferrari would go on to win the over-2000cc class in the International Championship for Sports-Prototypes, but Le Mans remained the big prize.
The late works Ferrari driver Chris Amon, who had won Le Mans the year before with Ford, told Autosport in a 2016 interview: "As a team, Ferrari went to Le Mans in 1967 with high hopes and confidence, but personally - having driven the big block Fords in the preceding two years - I had serious reservations about being competitive with the Fords due to the nature of the circuit.
"I expected us to be at least 20mph down in top speed and, given the length of the Mulsanne alone, that was always going to be significant. I don't think Ferrari ever appreciated how good those big capacity American pushrod units were."
Four factory Ford MkIVs and three Mk2Bs were ranged against three works P4s (alongside a number of older Ferraris) and the seven-litre Fords predictably made the running.
Nevertheless, myriad problems for Ford - not least a multi-car accident that removed three V8s - meant its hold over the race looked fallible.
"I don't recall having reliability concerns," added Amon, whose own Ferrari only retired after catching fire following a puncture. "I always felt the P4 was pretty bulletproof mechanically."
In the end, only the carefully driven Dan Gurney/AJ Foyt MkIV had a trouble-free run, but that was enough to limit hard-working Ferraris to second and third.
4. Porsche 908
Best result: 2nd (1969)
A car that scored two outright Le Mans podiums and won races in three consecutive decades, the 908 should be on everyone's list of great sportscars. It stormed to the 1969 world sportscar title, and won at events as diverse as the Targa Florio, Nurburgring 1000km and Spa 1000km.
But it's a stealth great, partly because of the iconic status of its successor - the 917 - and partly because the three-litre prototype never won Le Mans.
A faulty brake light and inspired Jacky Ickx defeated Hans Herrmann's surviving 908 in 1969, but the car's longevity was underlined when it took another second place as late as 1980 (though how much of that car was actually 908 and how much was 936 is open to debate).
Brian Redman, who dominated the 1969 season in 908s alongside Jo Siffert, says: "Jo and I both tried the 917, we just felt that we'd have a better chance in the 908 [in 1969]. We had a special long-tail spyder. We were leading when the gearbox failed due to lack of cooling caused by the new long tail.
"If Jacky Ickx hadn't been driving the JWA Gulf GT40 or - with the greatest respect to Hans Herrmann - if Jo Siffert had been driving the [remaining] 908, then we would probably have seen a 908 win Le Mans."
3. Toyota GT-One
Best result: 2nd (1999)
Several Toyotas could make it onto this list: the 1992 TS010; 1994 94C; or even the TS040 Hybrid, which would surely have won had it not been for a dramatic incident after a rain shower and bizarre wiring loom failure in 2014. The GT-One's Nissan R390 rival was also a candidate, but it is the 1998-99 Toyota that really captured the imagination.
Pushing the GT1 regulations to the limit, the GT-One qualified second on its Le Mans debut in 1998, but its gearbox would be Toyota Team Europe's undoing first time out.
When the rapid Mercedes CLK-LMs wilted early, the Martin Brundle/Eric Helary/Emmanuel Collard Toyota took command. A series of setbacks - including gearbox problems and two accidents - eventually put it out, allowing the Thierry Boutsen/Ralf Kelleners/Geoff Lees GT-One to move to the front.
Gearbox issues plunged Toyota into a battle with Porsche, but the #29 car still looked like a potential winner before the dreaded transmission woes struck with less than two hours to go.
Allan McNish, who won Le Mans for Porsche in 1998 before joining Toyota the following year, has no doubts about the car's pace. "In terms of pure one lap performance it was the quickest car," he says. "At the pre-Le Mans test in '98 I was the fastest [for Porsche] but I hung everything out."
Toyota arrived as favourite in 1999 and duly lined up first and second. All three entries were in contention, with the frugal and efficient BMW squad emerging as the main threat.
"Thierry got into the lead and buggered off, but our pitstops were very slow," recalls McNish. "The last time they had raced was the year before; they weren't totally up to speed and got faster as the race went on.
"I remember three or four hours into the race that we were fighting with the BMW so we could pull enough of a gap to still be ahead after the stops. It was nip and tuck."
As it was, the fastest cars from both squads retired. Brundle's polesitting GT-One had a troubled event before crashing out thanks to a puncture, while the McNish/Boutsen/Kelleners car was taken out by an errant backmarker early on Sunday morning. BMW then lost its leading Tom Kristensen/JJ Lehto/Jorg Muller V12 LMR when the throttle stuck open and Lehto crashed.
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All that left the Yannick Dalmas/Joachim Winkelhock/Pierluigi Martini BMW leading, chased by the all-Japanese Toyota crew of Ukyo Katayama, Keiichi Tsuchiya and Toshio Suzuki.
Former F1 driver Katayama responded to the challenge and set the race's fastest lap. He was still charging when the Toyota was forced onto kerbs while lapping a privateer BMW and suffered a puncture. For the third time in the decade, Toyota had to settle for second.
McNish believes his GT-One could have beaten BMW without the traffic mishap. "We had the speed to do it and we had the reliability," he says. "We showed that with the Japanese car."
2. Mercedes-Benz 300SLR
Best result: Withdrawn (1955)
It's one of the great Le Mans questions: would Mercedes have beaten Jaguar in 1955 had the team not withdrawn after motorsport's worst accident? It should not be hard to answer.
D-type ace Mike Hawthorn had battled Juan Manuel Fangio's 300SLR early on, before Stirling Moss - quicker than Fangio in sportscars - took over the Mercedes.
Hawthorn's co-driver Ivor Bueb was a good sportscar driver, but he was not in the Moss/Fangio league and the #19 Mercedes was comfortably in the lead when the call from HQ came.
Any doubts over the 300SLR's reliability should be quashed by its successes in the punishing Mille Miglia and Targa Florio road-racing classics. It was a robust, rapid all-rounder, though it is fair to say it also had the two best drivers in the world in the shape of Moss and Fangio.
The Silver Arrows only entered six sportscar races in 1955 and finished one-two in five of them. Three of those victories - Mille Miglia, RAC Tourist Trophy and Targa Florio - helped the German marque to secure the World Sports Car Championship.
"We could have easily won," asserted Moss, who died in 2020. "We were well ahead and I can't remember a 300SLR breaking, certainly not with me."
Mercedes was not going to lose this one.
1. Mercedes-Benz C11
Best result: 5th (1991)
The ultimate Group C turbocar failed to show up at Le Mans in 1990 after a lot of politicking and the removal of the race from the championship calendar. Given the fact the C11 was only beaten once during the campaign and that the C9 had won the year before, the Silver Arrows would have been hot favourites.
They were in 1991 too and the C11 topped qualifying and set fastest lap, but not one of the three entries made it onto the podium. Engine problems accounted for two, while the Michael Schumacher/Karl Wendlinger/Fritz Kreutzpointner car simply suffered too many setbacks.
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Kept off pole by rules that required the new-era 3.5-litre normally aspirated cars to start ahead of the Group C turbos, the C11 was fastest in practice despite only running race boost. Jean-Louis Schlesser quickly moved through to third in the early stages, behind the fragile Peugeot 905s, before allowing Oscar Larrauri's charging Porsche to go by.
The 905s soon hit trouble, and Schumacher headed the Mercedes attack as the Silver Arrows gradually moved into first, second and third.
The junior car led until the inexperienced Kreutzpointner took over in the evening, allowing Schlesser to move the 'veteran' machine ahead. Wendlinger then dropped the #31 on cold tyres, necessitating repairs.
Kurt Thiim in the third Mercedes couldn't match Jochen Mass, so after six hours the #1 car held a lead of almost a lap and headed a C11 1-2-3. The fourth-placed Mazda was already four laps behind. Shortly after 1am, the charging junior car retook second.
The first real crack in the Mercedes armour appeared shortly before the 10-hour mark, with Jonathan Palmer pitting #32 with an underbody damaged by debris.
Nevertheless, at half-distance, the Schlesser/Mass/Alain Ferte car led Schumacher/Wendlinger/Kreutzpointner by a lap and, more importantly, the Mazda-Jaguar duel for third by three. Despite the rotary Mazdas being allowed to run 170kg lighter than their key rivals - a crucial edge against the reliable Jaguar XJR-12s - the 787B simply did not have the pace to challenge the C11.
Then the hard-pushed second-placed car hit gearbox trouble and dropped down the field. When the recovering #32 car retired with an engine problem, it was thought to be the result of the earlier damage.
The lead car did start overheating, but such was its advantage that the drivers were able to back off and were still three laps ahead after 18 hours.
Schumacher's car then hit overheating issues and a water pump drive belt was replaced, giving a hint to the team as to a potential problem. But the part in question had not broken before so Mercedes pressed on.
Then, with just over three hours to go - and while still three laps ahead - the leading C11's alternator support bracket fractured and Ferte crawled in. The same pulley drove the alternator and the water pump so the C11 was retired with a cooked engine. Anodising the part for no apparent reason had made it too brittle.
That allowed Mazda to take its famous Le Mans win, with Jaguar 2-3-4, and the recovering junior car, now itself running hot, fifth. Schumacher's fastest lap was little consolation. In all, a C11 had topped the hourly classification 20 times during the race...
"We should have won, we were so far ahead, but things like that happen," says a philosophical Mass. "There wasn't a better car around. Despite the 1000kg in 1991, the car was still fantastic.
"I regret most the car didn't win because it deserved the pedigree to be a Le Mans winner."
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