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Le Mans 24 Hours of Le Mans

Top 10 Le Mans drivers

While it takes a team to secure glory at Le Mans, drivers can put in superstar and superhuman performances to lead a charge or bind together an unstoppable squad. Here’s a rundown of the top 10 drivers to race at the Le Mans 24 Hours

Jacky Ickx and Tom Kristensen

This is one of the big ones. Many drivers have made their names in the Le Mans 24 Hours and some are synonymous with the event.

More than 350 have stood on the outright Le Mans podium, so selecting the top 10 from the event’s first century was one of the most challenging tasks we’ve taken on…

For this list, we considered the drivers’ success and impact specifically at the 24 Hours. We’ve focused on outright winners but acknowledge the many fine performances that have been part of the important class battles around the Circuit de la Sarthe.

There are a couple of non-winners who could have made this list, but we decided to give them a piece all of their own - plus many others:

 
Le Mans Top 10s:

10. Woolf Barnato

Barnato is one of only eight drivers in the history of Le Mans to have a 100% wins record

Barnato is one of only eight drivers in the history of Le Mans to have a 100% wins record

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Starts: 3 (1928-30)
Wins: 3 (1928-30)
Poles: N/A
Fastest laps: 0

It’s hard not to include people who won the 24 Hours every time they started it. Eight drivers have a 100% record but only one contested the race three times.

One of the famous pre-war Bentley Boys, Barnato had access to impressive family wealth but put a lot of effort into whatever he tried. He bought a controlling share in Bentley following the marque’s first Le Mans win in 1924 and threw himself into motorsport.

W.O. Bentley regarded Barnato as a disciplined and error-free driver, which his record in an era of sometimes unreliable cars tends to support.

Barnato had already scored numerous Brooklands successes before his first Le Mans appearance in 1928, sharing a 4½ Litre model with Australian Bernard Rubin. They saw off challenges from Stutz and Chrysler despite having to nurse a cracked chassis, which had caused the demise of a sister car.

Armed with the impressive Speed Six, Barnato and Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin were always likely to win in 1929. They duly dominated and led a Bentley 1-2-3-4, a trio of 4½ Litre models finishing behind the duo’s new and mighty 6.6-litre machine.

The 1930 race was less straightforward, with the factory team of three Speed Sixes and two Dorothy Paget-run ‘Blower’ Bentleys taking on the monstrous 7.1-litre SSK of Christian Werner and Rudolf Caracciola.

PLUS: Top 10 pre-war grand prix drivers

In an epic battle, all three teams led but only the works squad made it to the end. One Speed Six was lost in an accident but the other two pressed on to finish 1-2, Barnato completing his hat-trick alongside Glen Kidston in the same chassis that had won in 1929.

9. Jan Lammers

Lammers makes the cut despite just a single outright victory to his name

Lammers makes the cut despite just a single outright victory to his name

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Starts: 24 (1983-2018)
Wins: 1 (1988)
Poles: 0
Fastest laps: 1

He’s the only one-time winner on this list, but the popular Dutchman was often a star of the event and, appropriately, started 24 Le Mans. That puts him seventh on the all-time list.

Lammers’ most famous Le Mans moment is his brilliant win for Jaguar in 1988 with Andy Wallace and Johnny Dumfries. Not only did he put on an early charge to get among the works Porsches that had qualified 1-2-3, Lammers nursed the XJR-9LM to the finish with the gearbox on the verge of failure.

PLUS: The disaster lurking behind Jaguar’s 1988 Le Mans win

Always a contender in the Tom Walkinshaw Racing Jaguars, Lammers added a second place in 1990 before joining Toyota. He set fastest lap in his TS010 in 1992 as the Japanese manufacturer failed in its bid to beat Peugeot.

After 1993, Lammers was rarely in cars that were likely to contend for victory. But in his own Racing for Holland Lola and Dome machinery, he often created early interest by getting stuck into the pacesetting Audis.

“Jan was such a complete driver,” says Wallace. “He knew how to look after the car and how to rally the troops.”

8. Raymond Sommer

Sommer drove for more than 20 hours in his maiden Le Mans triumph

Sommer drove for more than 20 hours in his maiden Le Mans triumph

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Starts: 9 (1931-50)
Wins: 2 (1932-33)
Poles: N/A
Fastest laps: 2

Home hero Sommer was one of the quickest Le Mans drivers before the Second World War. He was twice credited with the fastest lap and probably should have won the race at least three times with Alfa Romeos.

Sommer was relatively inexperienced and had contested the big race just once prior to driving for more than 20 hours to win the 1932 edition alongside Luigi Chinetti in an 8C 2300.

Staying as a privateer rather than taking a factory seat limited his chances in grand prix racing, but there was little doubting his ability. Sommer shared an Alfa with GP ace Tazio Nuvolari in 1933 and played his part in a victory that would have been comfortable had it not been for the infamous fuel leak that created one of the great Le Mans finishes. It was he and not Nuvolari who scored the fastest lap.

That was the last time Sommer would finish the 24 Hours but he remained a threat throughout the decade and invariably led.

Perhaps his cruellest miss came in 1938. Sharing the unique 8C 2900B coupe with Clemente Biondetti, Sommer’s frantic pace broke the fastest French entries. At one stage the big Alfa led by around 100 miles, but then a front tyre blew with less than four hours to go.

Sommer saved the ensuing moment but it seems likely a valve was broken while he did so. Both Sommer and Biondetti battled to continue but it was in vain – and they had to watch as the leading Delahayes eventually overhauled the stationary Alfa.

PLUS: Fast Failures - The great Le Mans robbery

7. Olivier Gendebien

Gendebien and Hill combined for a formidable partnership

Gendebien and Hill combined for a formidable partnership

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Starts: 8 (1955-62)
Wins: 4 (1958, 1960-62)
Poles: N/A
Fastest laps: 0

A versatile driver, Gendebien competed in rallying and started 14 world championship GPs but it is for his endurance racing exploits that he is best known. And as well as hat-tricks at the Targa Florio and Sebring 12 Hours, the Belgian had a superb record at Le Mans.

His first two visits resulted in class wins in Porsche and Ferrari machinery, the second of which also yielded third overall. He failed to finish in 1957 but then came a sequence of four wins and a near-miss in five years.

Gendebien formed one of the great sportscar partnerships with Phil Hill. They won the 1958 race in a 250 Testa Rossa and almost repeated it the following year in the epic Aston Martin-Ferrari contest. Having survived the early battles, Hill/Gendebien held the advantage over the chasing DBR1s until overheating struck their V12 late on Sunday morning.

With Aston Martin gone, Ferrari should have had an easier ride in 1960, but a fuel miscalculation meant two of the works cars ran dry. Gendebien alone managed to coast back to the pits and, sharing with Paul Frere, went on to win by four laps.

Reunited with Hill, Gendebien’s uprated Testa Rossa was always in the mix in 1961 and outlasted the main opposition to win again. Armed with the one-off four-litre 330 TRI/LM, the duo thrashed the field in 1962, after which Gendebien retired.

Though not the fastest driver of his era, Gendebien’s mechanical sympathy and knack for pacing himself made him a formidable endurance competitor. Few have bettered his 50% strike rate from eight Le Mans starts.

6. Andre Lotterer

Lotterer is the only active driver on this list

Lotterer is the only active driver on this list

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Starts: 11 (2009-present)
Wins: 3 (2011-12, 2014)
Poles: 1
Fastest laps: 4

The high-tech LMP1 battles of the 2010s provided some of the hardest-fought Le Mans races. The reliability and quality of the manufacturer operations from Audi, Peugeot, Porsche and Toyota meant that the 24 Hours sometimes became a flat-out blast.

Lotterer’s sheer speed was a major asset in such competition. Not only did he take pole in 2012, his impressive race pace is underlined by four fastest laps. That puts him tied with Mike Hawthorn for second on the list and it’s probably fair to say that he didn’t have the clear fastest car for all of those.

Lotterer’s Le Mans career was impressive from the start, finishing seventh on his debut in an ageing Kolles-run Audi R10 in 2009 when co-driver Narain Karthikeyan injured himself beforehand and left the German and Charles Zwolsman Jr to run as a duo.

Lotterer then formed one of the great Le Mans partnerships with factory Audi colleagues Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler. A close second in 2010 was followed by victories in 2011-12, the former scored by just 13.9 seconds as Lotterer beat Peugeot’s Simon Pagenaud in the final stint.

The trio had the edge in 2013, too, only to be thwarted by alternator failure, but came back to win in 2014. Even as Porsche stamped its authority on Le Mans in 2015, Lotterer showed his speed and took his fourth fastest lap in five years – as well as another podium finish.

After Audi’s withdrawal from LMP1, Lotterer joined Porsche and looked set to win in 2017 when the 919 Hybrid he shared with Nick Tandy and Neel Jani lost oil pressure late on Sunday morning. He then scored a pair of fourths with Rebellion in 2018-19.

Back with the Porsche Penske LMDh operation, can Lotterer add to his tally now that he is in his forties?

5. Phil Hill

Hill won every time his car finished at Le Mans

Hill won every time his car finished at Le Mans

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Starts: 14 (1953-67)
Wins: 3 (1958, 1961-62)
Poles: 1
Fastest laps: 3

Highly regarded by his peers, the 1961 Formula 1 world champion was almost certainly a better endurance ace than a GP driver. It’s true Ferrari usually had an advantage during Hill’s period of success, but there were numerous crews who had the chance to win and Hill was often in the car that came out on top.

After four failures to finish (Hill didn’t even get to drive the Ferrari he shared with Peter Collins in 1957 before a piston seized), Hill formed a fine partnership with Gendebien.

Armed with ever-improving versions of the 250 Testa Rossa, the duo won Le Mans twice in three starts between 1958 and 1961, then added a third success with the 1962 330 TRI/LM in which Hill broke the lap record. Only in 1960 did Ferrari split them, co-driver Wolfgang von Trips running out of fuel early on.

After a year with the promising but underfunded Aston Martin Project 215, Hill joined Ford’s onslaught. The GT40 Mk1 was fast but fragile, Hill setting the fastest lap before the gearbox failed.

It was a similar story for Hill’s final three Le Mans. The American took pole in the hastily prepared seven-litre Mk2 in 1965 and the Chaparrals of 1966-67 also showed speed, but none made it to the finish.

Nevertheless, in his decade and a half of Le Mans appearances, Hill had both proved his sportscar prowess and won every time his car finished.

4. Henri Pescarolo

A home hero with a record 33 Le Mans 24 Hours starts to his name

A home hero with a record 33 Le Mans 24 Hours starts to his name

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Starts: 33 (1966-99)
Wins: 4 (1972-74, 1984)
Poles: 1
Fastest laps: 0

One of the true legends of Le Mans, Pescarolo holds the record for the highest number of starts and continued his association with the race long after he retired with his own team that almost took victory in 2005.

The home hero’s first start came in 1966 with Matra. Finishes were hard to come by, particularly galling after a great performance was thwarted late on in 1968, but the squad was ready by the time the three-litre world sportscar regulations kicked in for 1972.

Matra skipped the championship to focus on Le Mans, while Ferrari did the opposite. The result was a crushing Matra 1-2 in the 24 Hours, Pescarolo (initially reluctantly) sharing with Graham Hill, who thus completed his triple crown.

Archive: How Graham Hill completed his legend at Le Mans

It was all about Ferrari versus Matra in 1973. The 312 PBs qualified first and second but Matra was better prepared. After a back-and-forth struggle, Pescarolo and Gerard Larrousse were assured of victory when the Ickx/Brian Redman Ferrari blew up in the closing stages.

Matra had things pretty much its own way in 1974, Pescarolo taking his sole Le Mans pole and then completing his hat-trick as he and Larrousse won by six laps.

Pescarolo then entered a fallow period – though there was a class victory in 1976 with the GTP Inaltera – until 1984. Perhaps past his best, Pescarolo teamed up with Klaus Ludwig in Joest’s Porsche 956 and took a famous win, recovering from an early low fuel pressure delay and a suspension repair.

Despite some competitive machinery over the next few years, Pescarolo never again stood on the overall podium, but there was a class win in 1992 and he finished ninth overall on his final start in 1999, by which time he was already into team management.

3. Derek Bell

Bell took nine podiums, including five wins, split across three different manufacturers

Bell took nine podiums, including five wins, split across three different manufacturers

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Starts: 26 (1970-96)
Wins: 5 (1975, 1981-82, 1986-87)
Poles: 0
Fastest laps: 0

Bell was the perfect foil for sportscar star Ickx but is an endurance legend in his own right. Five Le Mans victories top a glittering CV that also includes three Daytona 24 Hours successes and make him the most successful British driver in the first century of the French classic.

Having proved himself alongside Ronnie Peterson in the 1970 event with a Ferrari 512 and Jo Siffert in a JW Automotive Porsche 917 in 1971, Bell became a Gulf/Mirage stalwart. He and Ickx won the 1975 event in a GR8, though the strict fuel consumption rules kept some major players away.

His Alpine-Renault efforts of 1977-78 went unrewarded and it was at Porsche that Bell really forged his Le Mans credentials. He and Ickx dominated the 1981 event in a 936 powered by the defunct Indycar engine that ended up in the 956. They led a 1-2-3 on the 956’s Le Mans debut the following year and came close to a hat-trick in 1983.

Two of Bell’s finest Le Mans drives came when he didn’t win and 1983 was one of those. Bell and Ickx had already put on a recovery charge when the brake discs cracked in the closing stages. Given the choice of changing them and losing the race or pressing on in a bid to catch the ailing sister car in the lead, Bell attacked and hurled the 956 around at near-lap record speed, finishing a close second in a dramatic finish.

Autosport 70: The greatest forgotten Le Mans finish

Porsche’s factory team skipped Le Mans in 1984 – the only year Bell didn’t race in the 24 Hours between 1970 and 1996 – and was beaten by Joest the following year, Bell finishing third with Hans-Joachim Stuck.

They teamed up with Al Holbert for 1986 and 1987, seeing off a growing Jaguar challenge to win both times in the 962. Bell and Stuck might have won in 1988 too, had new co-driver Ludwig not run out of fuel early on or Porsche been more aware of the leading Jaguar’s transmission trouble in the final hour.

Bell raced on into his fifties – and got one more chance to win. Sharing a David Price-run McLaren F1 GTR with son Justin and Wallace, Bell impressed in the wet 1995 edition. They were in contention for victory when a clutch problem struck and they finished third. That was Bell’s ninth Le Mans podium, scored with three different marques.

2. Tom Kristensen

Kristensen has become known as Mr Le Mans - but just misses out on top spot

Kristensen has become known as Mr Le Mans - but just misses out on top spot

Photo by: Drew Gibson / Motorsport Images

Starts: 18 (1997-2014)
Wins: 9 (1997, 2000-05, 2008, 2013)
Poles: 1
Fastest laps: 3

“Toss a coin,” said an experienced sportscar scribe when Autosport came to choose between Kristensen and Ickx for the number one slot. It’s so close between the two biggest Le Mans figures that you could make a strong case for either, but we didn’t want to leave this ranking to chance.

Kristensen was a star pretty much from the moment he arrived, at the last minute, to make his Le Mans debut with Joest’s WSC95. A stunning stint during the night, which also yielded fastest lap, heralded his arrival and contributed to a famous victory when the leading Porsche 911 GT1 Evo caught fire.

Brought in to join Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela in the Audi R8 at Le Mans in 2000, Kristensen started an incredible run. The same trio won for three consecutive years, then Kristensen helped knit together the Bentley effort that triumphed in 2003, when the Dane also took his sole Le Mans pole.

Kristensen helped lift the Team Goh squad to Le Mans success in 2004, then took his sixth consecutive success (his seventh in total and fifth in an R8) with Champion Racing the following year.

Perhaps Kristsensen’s greatest victory came in 2008 when he, Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello drove flat-out to keep the faster Peugeots in sight in the dry, then brilliantly stormed ahead when rain arrived.

Even as the younger generation of Audi drivers came through, Kristensen remained a factor at Le Mans and scored podiums in his last three visits, including his ninth victory in 2013 with McNish and Loic Duval on their way to the WEC crown.

PLUS: How Kristensen became Mr Le Mans

Bizarrely, Kristensen’s biggest leads at Le Mans came in years he didn’t win. After the rival Toyota was punted off in 1999, the BMW V12 LMR he shared with JJ Lehto and Jorg Muller was four laps ahead when a strange suspension failure jammed the throttle and caused Lehto to crash on Sunday morning.

In 2007, Kristensen/Capello/McNish seemed to have the race in the bag when a wheelnut came off and a wheel parted company at high speed with Capello at the helm.

Perhaps the ultimate team player, Kristensen’s Le Mans record from 18 starts stands at nine wins, two seconds, three thirds and two near-misses. Or, put another way, every time he reached the finish he stood on the podium…

1. Jacky Ickx

Ickx on his way to winning his first Le Mans and forging a legendary status

Ickx on his way to winning his first Le Mans and forging a legendary status

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Starts: 15 (1966-85)
Wins: 6 (1969, 1975-77, 1981-82)
Poles: 5
Fastest laps: 5

So, why does Ickx beat Kristensen on this list, given he is three shy of the great Dane’s wins record?

One reason is that, while Kristensen was a brilliant part of an entire operation that conquered Le Mans, Ickx arguably had more moments when he made an impact on the result as an individual. Partly that’s a function of him operating in an era of two drivers per car, rather than three, but it’s also due to some phenomenal race-turning drives.

Few would dispute that it was Ickx’s speed and racecraft that enabled the ageing Ford GT40 to beat Hans Herrmann’s Porsche 908 to victory at the end of the famous 1969 edition. And then there was the 1977 24 Hours, the event Ickx chose as the race of his life.

After the Porsche 936 he shared with Pescarolo blew up, Ickx was switched to the delayed Hurley Haywood/Jurgen Barth car and put on one of motorsport’s great comeback charges, one that yielded victory when the phalanx of Alpine-Renaults wilted.

Race of my life: Jacky Ickx on the 1977 Le Mans 24 Hours

Yes, Porsche often gave Ickx the machinery to do the job, but the Belgian usually led a strong group of factory drivers – and almost won when he was ‘loaned’ to Reinhold Joest for a low-key assault in 1980. That turned out to be one of three second places Ickx scored at Le Mans, to go with his six victories.

Ickx also holds both the pole position and fastest laps Le Mans records, with five of each. And he did all that with fewer starts than most of the other leading drivers on this list, in an era when car reliability hadn’t yet reached the level we know today.

During his pomp Ickx was the undisputed king of the Circuit de la Sarthe in a way that even the great TK would struggle to match.

Do you agree with our pick for the top 10 Le Mans drivers?

Do you agree with our pick for the top 10 Le Mans drivers?

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

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