Top 5 Le Mans drivers and their breathtaking stories
The most important part of the legend of the Le Mans 24-hour race are not the famous track or the glorious machines. It’s the people. The racers. The drivers that battled each other through decades and built the Le Mans legend with their lives, triumphs and tragedies. Every racer that ever raced at 24 hours of Le Mans had left part of him there and become part of the legend of motorsport.
However, some of the drivers were more successful than others and become famous names and winners of this prestigious race. The Le Mans racer is a specific type of racing driver since person must be fast, concentrated for a long periods of time and able to keep up with tempo of the race. In a world of motorsport there aren’t many true Le Mans racers and even some of the famous Formula One drivers are not able to be fast at the Le Mans. Here is the list of Top 5 most successful Le Mans drivers in a history, listed by the number of their victories.
4. and 5. Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela (5 wins)
Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela have to be together on this list because all of their five Le Mans victories were achieved together. Pirro and Biela won at Le Mans five times between 2000 and 2007, three times in a row from 2000 to 2002 and then again two times in a row in 2006 and 2007. All five wins were scored with just one manufacturer – Audi.
The Italian – German couple partnered for the first time in the cockpit of the factory entered Audi R8R at 1999 24 hours of Le Mans. It was the third participation for Pirro and debut for Biela. The third driver was Didier Theys and they finished third overall.
In 2000, the duo was joined by Tom Kristensen, who already had one Le Mans victory in his pocket. The #8 Audi R8, driven by Pirro, Biela and Kristensen, took the victory ahead of two more Audi prototypes. That glorious 1-2-3 finish marked the beginning of Audi’s dominance at Le Mans, with thirteen overall wins in fifteen races between 2000 and 2014.
In 2001 and 2002, the trio Pirro-Biela-Kristensen repeated Le Mans victories with Audi R8, both times with number 1 on their car. In both occasions, they won ahead of another Audi.
In the following two years, the trio parted their ways. Kristensen scored two more wins in 2003 and 2004, while Pirro reached two podiums with Champion Racing, finishing third two years in a row. His co-drivers were JJ Lehto (two times), Stefan Johansson and Marco Werner.
Frank Biela wasn’t so successful. In 2003, he partnered Perry McCarthy and Mika Salo in the Arena Motorsport’s Audi R8, but they didn’t reach the finish. In 2004, Biela was driving Team Veloqx’s Audi R8 to the fifth place finish, alongside Allan McNish and Pierre Kaffer.
In 2005, Pirro and Biela were again in the same car, the Champion Racing’s Audi R8, together with Allan Mc Nish, and they finished third.
In 2006, Audi’s factory team returned to the endurance racing and came to Le Mans with diesel-powered R10 TDI. Pirro, Biela and Marco Werner were driving the #8 car and they scored a dominant victory over Pescarolo Sport’s C60 prototype.
The trio Pirro-Biela-Werner repeated their triumph in 2007, after a 24-hour battle against diesel-powered Peugeot 908 HDi FAP. In the last Le Mans race together, the 2008 edition of Le Mans, Pirro and Biela finished sixth overall.
To summarize, during the period of Audi’s domination Pirro and Biela competed together eight times at Le Mans, scoring five wins and two more podiums. In addition to that, Emanuele Pirro earned two more podiums with other drivers, so his overall score is better than Biela’s.
3. Derek Bell (5 wins)
The British driver Derek Bell had a short Formula One career without notable results, but in the endurance racing, he became one of the greatest drivers ever, winning two world championship titles and scoring five overall wins at Le Mans.
Bell participated in 26 Le Mans races between 1970 and 1996, with five different manufacturers, but mostly with Porsche. The golden age was between 1981 and 1988, with four wins and three podiums in three different Porsche cars – 936, 956 and 962C.
Derek Bell debuted at Le Mans in 1970, pairing Ronnie Peterson in the one of four factory-entered Ferrari 512S. Bell and Peterson retired early, after just 39 laps. In the following years, Bell was driving five different cars with different teammates – Porsche 917LH (with Jo Siffert), Ferrari 365 GTB/4 (with Teddy Pilette and Richard Bond), Mirage M6-Ford (with Howden Ganley) and Gulf GR7-Ford (with Mike Hailwood).
In 1975, Bell joined Jacky Ickx, who already won Le Mans in 1969, and the pair scored their first of three joint victories. The winning car in 1975 was Gulf’s Mirage GR8-Ford.
Between 1976 and 1980, Bell again was changing the cars and co-drivers, competing at Le Mans with Mirage GR8-Ford, Renault Alpine A442, Mirage M10-Ford and Porsche 924 Carrera GT. His teammates were Vern Schuppan, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Jean-Pierre Jarier, David Hobbs and Al Holbert.
In 1981, Bell was again in the same car with Jacky Ickx and they won again. The winning car was the #11 Porsche 936. In 1982, Bell and Ickx won the third time together, this time driving the #1 Rothmans Porsche 956 in the 1-2-3 victory for the German manufacturer. Bell and Ickx competed together for the last time in 1982, finishing second.
Bell skipped Le Mans in 1984 and rejoined Porsche in 1985, partnering Hans-Joachim Stuck for the first time. They finished third overall in the #2 Rothmans Porsche 962C. In the next two editions (1986 and 1987), Bell and Stuck were joined by Al Holbert and they won both events. Derek Bells’ golden age at Le Mans was concluded with second place finish in 1988, together with Stuck and Klaus Ludwig in the #17 Porsche 962C, behind Silk Cut Jaguar.
In the next eight years, between 1989 and 1996, Bell regularly competed at the 24 hours of Le Mans race, four times with Porsche 962C, two times with McLaren F1 GTR, one time with Courage C30LM-Porsche and Kremer K8 Spyder-Porsche. His best result was third place overall in 1995, alongside Andy Wallace and his son Justin Bell in the #51 Harrods Mach One Racing McLaren F1 GTR. In the same car, Bell competed for the last time at Le Mans in 1996, finishing sixth overall.
2. Jacky Ickx (6 wins)
Unlike other drivers from the Top 5 list, Jacky Ickx had a successful Formula One career, with eight Grand Prix wins in 116 starts between 1967 and 1979, and two runner-up spots in the F1 championship (1969 and 1970). But, his Le Mans record was what made him a racing legend. He participated at Le Mans fifteen times, scoring six victories and three more podiums.
Ickx debuted at Le Mans in 1966, driving the #60 Essex Wire Corporation Ford GT40, alongside Jochen Neerpasch. The duo retired after 154 laps. One more retirement followed in 1967, alongside Brian Muir in the John Wyer’s Mirage M1-Ford.
In 1969, John Wyer Automotive Engineering entered the race with #6 Ford GT40 MkI, pairing Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver in the cockpit. They won the race, earning the place in the motorsport history not only because of victory but also because of Ickx’s behavior at the start. It was the last event with the traditional Le Mans-style start, in which the drivers run across the track to enter their cars. The safety belts were the new feature in the cars. Jacky Ickx had demonstrated against such a starting procedure by walking slowly to his car, putting on his safety belts properly, and thus starting voluntarily at the back of the field. Later in the first lap, John Woolfe was killed in a crash, dropping out of a car because he didn’t wear the seat belt properly.
In 1970, Ickx returned to Le Mans in the factory-entered Ferrari 512S, alongside Peter Schetty, but they didn’t finish the race. One more retirement followed in 1973 when Brian Redman and Jacky Ickx were driving Ferrari 312PB.
Ickx skipped Le Mans in 1974 and then the most successful period followed from 1975 to 1978, with three consecutive wins and one podium. In 1975, Ickx and Derek Bell won the race in the #11 Gulf’s Mirage GR8-Ford. In 1976, Ickx joined Martini Racing Porsche team to drive #20 Porsche 936 together with Gijs van Lennep. The Belgian-Dutch duo dominantly won the race.
In 1977, Jacky Ickx, Jurgen Barth and Hurley Haywood won the race in the #4 Martini Racing Porsche 936. It was the fourth victory for Ickx and he became the most successful driver in the Le Mans history. It was easy to achieve that, because his #3 car, the chassis 002 that had won in the previous year, broke down after 45 laps, so Ickx joined Haywood and Barth in the team’s #4 sister chassis 001 and managed to win with 11 laps advantage over the closest rivals.
In 1978, Ickx, Barth and Bob Wollek finished second,behind Renault Alpine A442B. In 1979, the streak of good results was over, as Essex Motorsport’s Porsche 936, driven by Ickx, Barth and Brian Redman, stopped after 200 laps.
In 1980, Ickx returned to the Le Mans podium finishing second together with Reinhold Joest in the Joest Racing’s Porsche 908/80. Ickx was planning to retire, but Porsche management persuaded him to race at 1981 24 hours of Le Mans and they did a fantastic job. Ickx was partnered with Derek Bell and their #11 Porsche 936 dominantly won the race, 14 laps ahead of the second-placed car.
In 1982, Ickx and Bell repeated the success with a new car, Porsche 956, leading the 1-2-3 victory for Rothmans Porsche team. It was Ickx’s sixth and the last victory, the record which would be broken 23 years later, in 2005, when Tom Kristensen scored his seventh victory.
Ickx competed two more times at Le Mans, finishing second in 1983, driving the Porsche 956 together with Derek Bell, and finishing tenth in 1985, driving the Porsche 962C with Jochen Mass.
1. Tom Kristensen (9 wins)
It was considered that nobody would ever surpass Jacky Ickx‘s six wins and Porsche’s 16 wins at Le Mans, but Audi’s management and Danish driver Tom Kristensen didn’t agree. Audi (still) didn’t reach Porsche’s number od wins, but Tom Kristensen repeated Ickx’s success and added three more wins, to close his racing career with nine overall wins and five more podiums at the world’s greatest endurance race. After all those victories and podiums, Kristensen earned a nickname Mister Le Mans.
A journey to this unprecedented achievement started in 1997 when Kristensen was hired by Joest Racing team as a replacement for injured Davy Jones. In the race which he even didn’t plan to participate, Kristensen took the victory, driving the #7 TWR Porsche WSC-95 alongside Stefan Johansson and Michele Alboreto.
In the following two years, Kristensen participated at Le Mans with BMW Motorsport’s V12 LM and V12 LMR prototypes, sharing the cars with Hans-Joachim Stuck, Steve Soper, JJ Lehto and Jorg Muller. He didn’t reach the finish in both races.
In 2000, Kristensen joined Audi and began the victorious streak of six consecutive victories at 24 hours of Le Mans. From 2000 to 2002, he was sharing the Audi R8 with Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro. Audi factory team left Le Mans in 2003, so Kristensen joined Team Bentley to drive Bentley Speed 8 together with Rinaldo Capello and Guy Smith. They won the race ahead of another Bentley.
Although Audi didn’t participate in the endurance races, many private teams had used proven Audi R8 cars. Two of those teams were victorious at Le Mans – Audi Sport Japan Team Goh in 2004 and ADT Champion Racing in 2005. Kristensen was driving on both occasions, surpassing Jacky Ickx with 2005 victory and setting the new Le Mans record. Kristensen’s co-driver in 2004 were Rinaldo Capello and Seiji Ara, while in 2005 he shared the car with JJ Lehto and Marco Werner.
In 2006, when Audi launched diesel-powered R10 TDI, the new crew was created, with Tom Kristensen, Rinaldo Capello and Allan McNish sharing the car. In 2006, they finished third, in 2007, Capello crashed while leading and they retired after 262 laps.
In 2008, the trio finally scored the first victory and Kristensen broke his own record, increasing the number of Le Mans wins to eight.
The new Audi R15 TDI came in 2009. Kristensen, Capello and McNish finished third two years in a row. In 2011, McNish had an accident in the first hour of the race and the #3 Audi R18 TDI had to retire. The trio had their last Le Mans race in 2012, finishing second in the #2 Audi R18 e-tron quattro.
The ninth victory for Kristensen came at 2013 Le Mans race. His partners in the record-setting race were Allan McNish and Loic Duval. Two new co-drivers Lucas di Grassi and Marc Gene joined Kristensen in his last participation at 24 hours of Le Mans, finishing the race in the second place.