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Gallery: the greatest Le Mans cars ever

  1. This weekend will see the 83rd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. First staged in 1923, it has made heroes of the toughest, fastest racers ever to grace this planet, and made fools of quite a few more.

    From Bentley Speed Sixes to Ferrari 250s, from Ford GT40s to Porsche 956s, the list of Le Mans winners stands not only as a roll-call of the greatest cars in history, but also as testament to the human race’s obsession with finding new, clever ways to go ever faster.  

    So, to whet your appetite for this weekend’s race, we’ve cobbled you together a gallery of the very greatest Le Mans racers of the last ten decades, no fewer than 20 cars spanning the epic endurance race’s history.

    It’s all thanks to the La Sarthe Automobile Museum, who generously put their fabulous collection of Le Mans winners on display, many as grimy as when they crossed the finish line.

    So click through for a whistle-stop tour of the greatest cars to ever lay tyre big, fat tyre marks at Circuit de la Sarthe. And then tell us: which is your favourite?

    Pictures: Rowan Horncastle

  2. Chenard & Walcker ‘Sport’

    This, ladies and gents, is the first-ever winner of Le Mans: the Chenard & Walcker “Sport”.

    Boasting a mighty 98 horsepower, it managed to pound round the French track at a top speed of 93mph in the hands of André Lagache and René Léonard. If that sounds a little pedestrian, remember this was in 1923, when safety was, at best, a mere wistful afterthought. Andre and Rene had stones.

  3. Chenard & Walcker ‘Sport’

    This, ladies and gents, is the first-ever winner of Le Mans: the Chenard & Walcker “Sport”.

    Boasting a mighty 98 horsepower, it managed to pound round the French track at a top speed of 93mph in the hands of André Lagache and René Léonard. If that sounds a little pedestrian, remember this was in 1923, when safety was, at best, a mere wistful afterthought. Andre and Rene had stones.

  4. Bentley Speed Six

    The Speed Six was the car that cemented the legend of the infamous ‘Bentley Boys.’ A club that’s only recently just been revived. And just like the new 600bhp Conti GT3, the Speed Six is a race car based on a big, luxury car normally reserved for plump oligarchs.

    But where the GT3 has a 600bhp twin-turbo V8, the Speed Six, with its 6.5-litre straight-six, made just 84 horsepower. Even so, in the hands of those Bentley Boys, the Speed Six it won Le Mans in both 1929 and 1930.

  5. Bentley Speed Six

    The Speed Six was the car that cemented the legend of the infamous ‘Bentley Boys.’ A club that’s only recently just been revived. And just like the new 600bhp Conti GT3, the Speed Six is a race car based on a big, luxury car normally reserved for plump oligarchs.

    But where the GT3 has a 600bhp twin-turbo V8, the Speed Six, with its 6.5-litre straight-six, made just 84 horsepower. Even so, in the hands of those Bentley Boys, the Speed Six it won Le Mans in both 1929 and 1930.

  6. Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 LM

    In 1931, only six out of the starting 26 cars finished the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This gorgeous Alfa 8C driven by Lord Howe and Sir Henry Birkin did it first. But don’t think was solely due to the horrendous rate of attrition amongst its competitors. No, with a top speed of 124 mph, this Alfa also stomped Le Mans in 1931, 1932, 1933, and 1934. Domination.

  7. Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 LM

    In 1931, only six out of the starting 26 cars finished the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This gorgeous Alfa 8C driven by Lord Howe and Sir Henry Birkin did it first. But don’t think was solely due to the horrendous rate of attrition amongst its competitors. No, with a top speed of 124 mph, this Alfa also stomped Le Mans in 1931, 1932, 1933, and 1934. Domination.

  8. Chenard & Walcker ‘Tank’

    Calling a car the ‘Tank’ doesn’t exactly conjure up images of a lithe and nimble racer. But in the 1920s, Le Mans was pretty darn close to warfare, so maybe the name is fair.

    But unfortunately this Chenard and Walcker wasn’t as successful as the firm’s maiden voyage in endurance racing. The Tank only managing to finish 10th in 1925. Even so, despite only packing a tiny 1.0-litre four-cylinder engine, it managed to get 1,170 miles under its belt in 24 hours. Respectable.

  9. Chenard & Walcker ‘Tank’

    Calling a car the ‘Tank’ doesn’t exactly conjure up images of a lithe and nimble racer. But in the 1920s, Le Mans was pretty darn close to warfare, so maybe the name is fair.

    But unfortunately this Chenard and Walcker wasn’t as successful as the firm’s maiden voyage in endurance racing. The Tank only managing to finish 10th in 1925. Even so, despite only packing a tiny 1.0-litre four-cylinder engine, it managed to get 1,170 miles under its belt in 24 hours. Respectable.

  10. Ferrari 166 MM

    If the rumour-mill is to be believed, Ferrari is seriously considering a return to Le Mans in the near future. But it was this – the wonderfully simple 166MM – that kicked off Ferrari’s racing success at La Sarthe.

    The 166 MM (for Mille Miglia, natural) featured a compact V12 engine that displaced just two litres. Still, that was enough to win the 1949 race – the first 24 hours of Le Mans after World War Two.

  11. Ferrari 166 MM

    If the rumour-mill is to be believed, Ferrari is seriously considering a return to Le Mans in the near future. But it was this – the wonderfully simple 166MM – that kicked off Ferrari’s racing success at La Sarthe.

    The 166 MM (for Mille Miglia, natural) featured a compact V12 engine that displaced just two litres. Still, that was enough to win the 1949 race – the first 24 hours of Le Mans after World War Two.

  12. Jaguar D-type

    There are only three cars in this legends lineup that didn’t win Le Mans. This particular Jaguar D-type was one of them.

    The D-type dominated Le Mans, clocking up three victories on the trot between 1955 and 1957 thanks to its groundbreaking disc brakes and sophisticated aerodynamics. With 250bhp produced from its six-cylinder engine and slippery bodywork, this Jaaaag could hit 162 mph down Le Mans’ long Mulsanne straight.

  13. Jaguar D-type

    There are only three cars in this legends lineup that didn’t win Le Mans. This particular Jaguar D-type was one of them.

    The D-type dominated Le Mans, clocking up three victories on the trot between 1955 and 1957 thanks to its groundbreaking disc brakes and sophisticated aerodynamics. With 250bhp produced from its six-cylinder engine and slippery bodywork, this Jaaaag could hit 162 mph down Le Mans’ long Mulsanne straight.

  14. Ferrari 250 TR

    This Ferrari 250 TR (Testa Rossa) was one of the cars that fell foul to the dominance of the Jaguar D-Type. However, it still secured three of Ferrari’s nine victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in 1958, 1960 and 1961. Belgian Olivier Gendebien was behind the wheel, along with Paul Frère (1960) and the American driver Phil Hill (1958 and 1961).

  15. Ferrari 250 TR

    This Ferrari 250 TR (Testa Rossa) was one of the cars that fell foul to the dominance of the Jaguar D-Type. However, it still secured three of Ferrari’s nine victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in 1958, 1960 and 1961. Belgian Olivier Gendebien was behind the wheel, along with Paul Frère (1960) and the American driver Phil Hill (1958 and 1961).

  16. Ford GT 40 MK II

    Ooof. Now this is a good looking race car. With a massive 7-litre V8, the GT40 was hugely powerful, too. And hugely successful.

    This Ford GT 40 MK II won Le Mans in 1966, beginning a four-year reign for the American race car. It was a big stars-and-stripes-flavoured two-finger salute to Ferrari, whose six year dominance at La Sarthe was ended.

  17. Ford GT 40 MK II

    Ooof. Now this is a good looking race car. With a massive 7-litre V8, the GT40 was hugely powerful, too. And hugely successful.

    This Ford GT 40 MK II won Le Mans in 1966, beginning a four-year reign for the American race car. It was a big stars-and-stripes-flavoured two-finger salute to Ferrari, whose six year dominance at La Sarthe was ended.

  18. Porsche 917 K

    Porsche took its first Le Mans victory in 1970 with this 917 K race car. It may look pretty, but that doesn’t mean that it was a peach to drive.

    British driver Richard Attwood and German legend Hans Herrmann - a former team-mate of Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss in the 1950s Mercedes Silver Arrows F1 squad - piloted the incomparable 917 to victory that year.

    “In 1969, we were eight laps in the lead,” Attwood told Top Gear, “and then the gearbox broke. I was absolutely delighted! Remember, I hadn’t won Le Mans at that point, and nobody believes me when I say I was glad we went out, but the car was truly horrible to drive. It suffered from understeer, oversteer, it had no balance, it lacked downforce… frankly, it was bloody awful.

    “They’d tested it at an airfield, but didn’t go much beyond 180mph. That wasn’t much use to us when we were touching 235mph on the longest straights, and most of the problems occurred at 200mph. Of course, they developed the upswept tail, sorted the chassis out, and that did the trick. It was 20mph slower, but much more manageable…”

  19. Matra MS670C

    There’s no better feeling than winning on home soil. And after a slog of 337 laps in 24 hours, Henri Pescarolo and Gérard Larrousse brought this Matra MS670C home first, the third victory on the spin for the French company.

  20. Renault Alpine A422 B

    More success for the French. The bumble-bee liveried Alpine A422 won in 1978 with Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud behind the wheel, and a Renault-built 2.0-litre V6 providing the power. But the Porsche 936 was hot on their tail, and took victory the following year.

  21. Renault Alpine A422 B

    More success for the French. The bumble-bee liveried Alpine A422 won in 1978 with Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud behind the wheel, and a Renault-built 2.0-litre V6 providing the power. But the Porsche 936 was hot on their tail, and took victory the following year.

  22. Rondeau M379

    In its long history, there’s only one man who’s tackled the 24 hours of Le Mans in a car bearing his own name and won. That man is Jean Rondeau. And this is his car: the Rondeau M379.

    In very Top Gear fashion, Rondeua built the steel tubular spaceframe and aluminium sheet reinforcement chassis in his back garden. Then he dumped a 450hp, F1-sourced Cosworth DFV V8 in it and went racing.

    In 1980 Jean and his teammate, Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, managed 338 laps, holding off Jacky Ickx in a privately entered Porsche 936 who was two laps behind. Heroes.

  23. Rondeau M379

    In its long history, there’s only one man who’s tackled the 24 hours of Le Mans in a car bearing his own name and won. That man is Jean Rondeau. And this is his car: the Rondeau M379.

    In very Top Gear fashion, Rondeua built the steel tubular spaceframe and aluminium sheet reinforcement chassis in his back garden. Then he dumped a 450hp, F1-sourced Cosworth DFV V8 in it and went racing.

    In 1980 Jean and his teammate, Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, managed 338 laps, holding off Jacky Ickx in a privately entered Porsche 936 who was two laps behind. Heroes.

  24. Porsche 956

    This was the car that established Porsche as the winningest manufacturer at Le Mans, supplanting Ferrari’s nine victories when it took its tenth title in 1985.

    According to Vern Schuppan, one of the drivers (and also the owner of this Ferrari 275 GTB owned by Steve McQueen), the winning 956 crossed the finish line in slow motion, releasing a billow of smoke from its driver side exhaust. According to Schuppan, it probably wouldn’t have made it another lap.

  25. Porsche 956

    This was the car that established Porsche as the winningest manufacturer at Le Mans, supplanting Ferrari’s nine victories when it took its tenth title in 1985.

    According to Vern Schuppan, one of the drivers (and also the owner of this Ferrari 275 GTB owned by Steve McQueen), the winning 956 crossed the finish line in slow motion, releasing a billow of smoke from its driver side exhaust. According to Schuppan, it probably wouldn’t have made it another lap.

  26. Sauber-Mercedes C9

    In 1989 ­– thirty-seven years after becoming the first German manufacturer to win at Le Mans – Mercedes claimed the podium’s highest step with the Sauber C9.

    Its five-litre V8 boasted twin turbochargers, a fuel-injection system and lots of power. Enough power to push the Silver Arrow to 248mph during the 1989 qualifying. These monster speeds were shackled the year after, when the giant Mulsanne Straight was broken by two chicanes for safety reasons.

  27. Sauber-Mercedes C9

    In 1989 ­– thirty-seven years after becoming the first German manufacturer to win at Le Mans – Mercedes claimed the podium’s highest step with the Sauber C9.

    Its five-litre V8 boasted twin turbochargers, a fuel-injection system and lots of power. Enough power to push the Silver Arrow to 248mph during the 1989 qualifying. These monster speeds were shackled the year after, when the giant Mulsanne Straight was broken by two chicanes for safety reasons.

  28. Mazda 787B

    Before you do anything, click these blue words and listen to the 787B clearing its throat.

    Good, isn’t it? Mazda’s Wankel rotary-powered race car boasts one of the most unique engine sounds of any race car ever. It was also a big deal for Mazda, which in 1991 became the first – and to date only – Japanese manufacturer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

    When the Mazda 787 B took the lead on Sunday morning, Japanese media shuffled their schedules round in order to transmit the last hours of the race live. And Mazda’s driver Johnny Herbert was so excited at winning the race (and quite possibly being in a state of Very Much Knackered) that he fainted when he got out of the car. Herbert missed the podium ceremony, his teammates Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler picking up the trophy instead.

  29. Mazda 787B

    Before you do anything, click these blue words and listen to the 787B clearing its throat.

    Good, isn’t it? Mazda’s Wankel rotary-powered race car boasts one of the most unique engine sounds of any race car ever. It was also a big deal for Mazda, which in 1991 became the first – and to date only – Japanese manufacturer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

    When the Mazda 787 B took the lead on Sunday morning, Japanese media shuffled their schedules round in order to transmit the last hours of the race live. And Mazda’s driver Johnny Herbert was so excited at winning the race (and quite possibly being in a state of Very Much Knackered) that he fainted when he got out of the car. Herbert missed the podium ceremony, his teammates Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler picking up the trophy instead.

  30. Jaguar XJR-12

    In 1988 Jaguar went to Le Mans with a locker full of XJR-9s, each powered by a V12 engine producing 750bhp. Two of the cars retired, but the remaining three went on to finish first, fourth and sixteenth. The winning Jaguar, driven by Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace, completed 394 laps and covered a distance of 3313.63 miles in the 24-hour race.

    Its ultimate successor was this, the XJR-12. In its 1990 incarnation it finished first and second at Le Mans. This car pictured came second in 1991 to that mighty Mazda 787B 

  31. Jaguar XJR-12

    In 1988 Jaguar went to Le Mans with a locker full of XJR-9s, each powered by a V12 engine producing 750bhp. Two of the cars retired, but the remaining three went on to finish first, fourth and sixteenth. The winning Jaguar, driven by Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace, completed 394 laps and covered a distance of 3313.63 miles in the 24-hour race.

    Its ultimate successor was this, the XJR-12. In its 1990 incarnation it finished first and second at Le Mans. This car pictured came second in 1991 to that mighty Mazda 787B 

  32. Peugeot 905B Evo 1B

    This is the Pegueot 905 quite possibly the only car to ever be carved from a billet of 90s. But this soppy-looking wedge also brought Peugeot its first victory at the Le Mans in 1992, making it – and its French driver Yannick Dalmas – a national hero. The next year Peugeot, under Jean Todt’s management, romped home with a 1-2-3, led by Geoff Brabham, Christophe Bouchut and Eric Helary.

  33. Peugeot 905B Evo 1B

    This is the Pegueot 905 quite possibly the only car to ever be carved from a billet of 90s. But this soppy-looking wedge also brought Peugeot its first victory at the Le Mans in 1992, making it – and its French driver Yannick Dalmas – a national hero. The next year Peugeot, under Jean Todt’s management, romped home with a 1-2-3, led by Geoff Brabham, Christophe Bouchut and Eric Helary.

  34. #26 Porsche 911 GT1 ‘98

    2014 sees Porsche returning to La Sarthe with their first full works effort since 1998. That year it won the race – the German outfit’s 16th overall victory – in this: the 911 GT1.

    Lower and longer than its two predecessors, the 1998 evolution of the GT1 featured Porsche’s very first full carbon fibre monocoque chassis. It was also up against some mighty tough competition from Mercedes, BMW and Toyota.

    But Le Mans is all about mechanical endurance, and that’s where the Porsche was strongest, stomping home after 351 laps as the competition lagged behind.

  35. #26 Porsche 911 GT1 ‘98

    2014 sees Porsche returning to La Sarthe with their first full works effort since 1998. That year it won the race – the German outfit’s 16th overall victory – in this: the 911 GT1.

    Lower and longer than its two predecessors, the 1998 evolution of the GT1 featured Porsche’s very first full carbon fibre monocoque chassis. It was also up against some mighty tough competition from Mercedes, BMW and Toyota.

    But Le Mans is all about mechanical endurance, and that’s where the Porsche was strongest, stomping home after 351 laps as the competition lagged behind.

  36. Audi R8

    Audi began a decade and a half of dominance at Le Mans in 2000 with this R8. To date, the firm has won all but two races in the new century. No other automobile manufacturer shaped the sports-prototype scene in the last decade like Audi.

    The R8 was powered by a 3,600cc twin-turbo V8 petrol engine and made 610bhp. But it wasn’t a winner from the off: when Audi tackled Le Mans for the first time in 1999, they could only scramble third and fourth at La Sarthe.

    The next year the domination began. In 2000, Audi ended with a one-two-three victory, followed by a one-two the year after. A one-two-three victory after that. And a first, third and fourth places the year after that. You get the picture.

  37. Peugeot 908 HDI FAP

    The 908 was Peugeot’s first Le Mans winning car since the 90s-tastic 905. However, the fuel of choice had changed by 2009: the more favourable power source at Le Mans now came from the black pump.

    The 908 was the second-ever diesel powered Le Mans racer. Audi had proved that diesel was a silent but deadly way to win modern Le Mans, its R10 TDI winning in 2006, 2007 and 2008. The 740bhp 908, with its 5.5-litre Peugeot-produced V12, broke Audi’s winning streak with victory in 2009, 16 years after Peugeot’s last.

  38. Audi R18 e-tron quattro

    Audi’s dominance at Le Mans hit new heights in 2013 as they recorded the first-ever victory for a hybrid prototype at Le Mans.

    The Audi R18 e-tron quattro ushered in a new era of endurance racing, and was the first step towards this year’s new LMP1 regulations.

    Besides the diesel engine at the rear, the 2013 R18 e-tron quattro could send 200hp of electric energy to the front axle, energy recovered when braking. That made it momentarily four-wheel-drive and incredibly good at sticking its power down out of corners. Which is helpful at Le Mans

    Piloted by ‘Mr Le Mans’ Tom Kristensen, the R18 saw the extend his own record for 24 Hours of Le Mans driver victories with a ninth win.

    Can he and Audi do it again this year? We’ll find out on Sunday…

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