Wednesday, 23 September 2009

My 5 “Legends of Le Mans”

With the Petit Le Mans taking place this weekend at Road Atlanta, I had a think to myself what my favourite 5 Le Mans machines of all time are. Le Mans and the whole sportscar genre that goes with it has been one of my favourite forms of motorsport over the years and all of these cars come from the 90s, possibly one of, if not the best era of Le Mans. So, let’s not waste any more time and get straight in with number 5.

5. 1999 BMW V12 LMR
imageWe start with a Le Mans winner from Germany – the very strik ing V12 LMR from BMW. The car was originally the V12 LM, which was run in the 24 Hours by the Schnitzer team with works backing. Unfortunately, both cars entered suffered vibrations in their drivetrains and both were out after just 60 laps. With this in mind, these chassis were sold off to private teams and the guys in Munich set about redesigning a new car for an assault to win in 1999. With support from Schintzer and Williams F1, the created the V12 LMR.

The cooling ducts were relocated and a wide rollhoop was incorporated to aid airflow to the rear wing. Overall, the entire chassis looked sleek and aerodynamic. Power would come from a 6.1L V12, which was estimated to put out about 580hp and allow the LMR to reach 214mph at Le Mans’s Mulsanne Straight. It was a race winner straight away with victory in the 1999 Sebring 12 Hours. Two cars were entered into the event, but one suffered a huge accident which damaged it beyond repair.

Onto Le Mans and despite the challenge from Toyota, Mercedes, Audi and Nissan, they stood firm and stayed consistent to triumph over their rivals and take Pierluigi Martini, Joachim Winkelhock and Yannick Dalmas to a legendary win in one of the most famous 24 Hour races ever. They continued to campaign the car for the rest of the year and throughout 2000, taking two wins and one car infamously flipping at the Petit Le Mans. With BMW and Williams now focusing on their F1 partnership, the cars were retired. Just 18 races saw one of these cars in action.

It’s a car which I remember for the sound – that beautiful wailing BMW V12 engine makes this car so memorable. I was fortunate to see it in action at the BMW Power Festival at Rockingham, Corby in 2005. Even though it’s at #5, it’s still one heck of a machine.

4. 1993 Toyota TS010
imageNow let’s rewind 6 years to 1993 and this beauty of a machine. Yes, it’s a Toyota but what a Toyota it is! The TS010 was a machine that again only race for a couple of years and never really that big an impression, but for those who truly appreciate cars like this, it really is a stunning looking thing.

Conceived in 1991 by legendary designer Tony Southgate, the car made its competition debut at the final round of the World Sportscar Championship that year at Autopolis, Japan. It managed a respectable 6th place finish in the hands of Brit duo Geoff Lees and Andy Wallace. For 1992, it now face opposition from Peugeot and the two battled it out for the next couple of years. Toyota struck the first blow with a win at Monza, but from there it was a case of staring at the 905’s exhaust pipes as it finished behind them in the rest of the races that year. It was enough to give them 2nd in the teams championship. Toyota also left one car to race in the final 2 rounds of the Japanese Sports Prototype championship, and it won both, with a second car ending up 4th at the final round at Suzuka, helping them secure the title ahead of Nissan and Mazda.

After 1992, the following year saw both the world and Japanese sportscar championships cancelled, meaning their only focus would be Le Mans. After coming 2nd and 6th with 2 cars while a third retired in 1992, they were aiming for the win. But once again Peugeot were in the way. With an updated car, the 905B, Japan’s best efforts could not overhaul them and they had to settle with 4th place behind their 3 car effort, that best-finishing car being lead by Eddie Irvine. With nowhere else for it to compete, the TS010 was retired.

It’s another car I remember for it’s noise. The beautiful F1-inspired 3.5L V10 meant it sounded like and went like an F1 car of that time period. But it also had the looks to go with it. Not that any of the other cars in this list don’t look good, but I would go so far as saying it’s the best looking out of the 5. Plus that engine is just wonderful. Thankfully, they returned 5 years later, and we’ll take a look at that effort in a sec. But first…

3. 1991 Mazda 787B

Here we have what is probably the most successful Japanese Le Mans prototype. It may have only won one race in its lifetime, but it’s the only Japanese car to have won this particular event. The Mazda 787B is the only Japanese car to have won Le Mans, ladies and gentlemen. That is why it’s so legendary.

The car went through a few generations before making to this version. It started for Mazda in 1983 with the 717C and the story with this car starts in 1990. The car itself was originally the 787, an evolution of the the 767 (you still with me? Thought not!) and that car’s updated version the 767B. The 787 was first raced at Fuji, but after a mediocre performance, Mazda’s motorsport division Mazdaspeed focused its efforts on Le Mans with the car, getting Jacky Ickx to lead preparation of the cars and tests taking place at Silverstone and Estoril.

With their initial performance with the car at La Sarthe ending up with both cars having to retire following electrical fires caused by overheating, Mazda decided to start developing the car into the 787B for 1991. The updated car first appeared at the inaugural round of the WSC at Suzuka, where it came 6th overall and 4th in the C2 class. The car was then kept back for further development while the previous 787s ran Mazda’s campaign in Europe. They were only seen again when the season went back to Japan, coming in 9th and 10th places.

Come Le Mans 1991, they had massive competition from Peugeot, Sauber-Mercedes, Jaguar and Nissan as well as a whole host of Porsche 962s. But as the bigger cars fell by the wayside with mechanical faults and driver errors, the little Mazda soldiered on, it’s thoroughly spine-tingling Rotary engine screaming round lap after lap. The Rotary was more fuel efficient which meant less time in the pits topping up and more time out on track. It also proved to have excellent reliability. And so the record books show that car #55, the bright orange and green, Renown-sponsored Mazda driven by Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler, crossed the line after 362 laps and made history.

This car is now preserved in Mazda’s history and is brought out to be demoed at promo and historic events. It still send gives people goosebumps every time the engine is fired up and at full chat down a main straight. It truely is a Le Mans legend.

2. 1999 Toyota GT-ONE (TS020)
OK, so it’s not technically a Le Mans prototype, but it is an LMGTP – a Le Mans GT Prototype, and in my eyes that counts.

It was tough to pick this over the 787B for #2, but I like it because of the styling. It’s functional and aggressive, yet elegant and beautiful. I think it’s one of the best looking Le Mans cars ever. It was created by Toyota Team Europe, who at the time also had a WRC program to look after. But they found the budget to go back to Le Mans. It’s first race was of course Le Mans in 1998 on the back of promising pace at the pre-race test. All 3 cars suffered problems but one still finished, ending up 9th and 25 laps behind the race-winning Porsche 911 GT1.

For 1999, Toyota knew they had to get stronger. So they set about on an extensive testing program, conducting long distance tests at Spa and, if I recall correctly, Magny-Cours too. They went to the Le Mans test day, 3 cars entered, filled with confidence. And it showed, with all 3 cars taking 1st, 3rd and 5th respectively. Qualifying saw a front row lock out and throughout the race a fierce battle developed with the Mercedes and BMWs. But again, it was not to be. Cars #1 and '#2 both crashed during the night and #3 looked set to win only for a heartbreaking puncture to to occur at high speed in the closing stages. Still, 2nd place was a respectable result but Toyota left knowing what might have been.

With an F1 program now the main focus, Toyota gave the GT-One one last hurrah at the Fuji 1000km in ‘99, but again victory was denied due to mechanical problems and 2nd place was the result again as Nissan’s R391 LMP took the win. It is one of Le Mans’s greats and will never be forgotten. Thanks to racing games such as Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, the GT-One still lives on in racing fans’ memories and is a firm favourite with them.

It’s also the only car in this list that doesn’t have a high-pitched wail. This car has a twin-turbo V8 which gives a lovely gruff engine note. I reckon that this is the greatest Le Mans racer that never won the great race. Such a shame, but it doesn’t take anything away from it. It is still one of a kind.

1. 1993 Peugeot 905B
This is it. This is the car that started it all for me. The car that kicked off my love for Le Mans. I remember when I was younger I would watch the video of the 1993 Le Mans 24 Hours endlessly and pick out this machine as my favourite. The way it looked, the way it drove and most of all, the way it sounded. Even now, it still gives me goosebumps. I give you – the Peugeot 905B.

Peugeot came off the back of a succesful World Rally and Paris-Dakar program with the 205 T16 and 405 T16. Mastermind of the project was head of Peugeot Talbot Sport, Jean Todt. He decided the next chapter in the team’s history in motorsport should be in sportscar racing and so the 905 was born. The project was announced in 1988 and the car was unveiled and debuted in late 1990, taking part in the last few races of the WSC, driven by Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Keke Rosberg.

The first full season came in 1991 with competition from Jaguar. The car had early pace and reliability problems with Jaguar’s XJR-14 performing as fast as F1 cars of the time. Despite a lucky win at Suzuka, come Le Mans both cars never made it past 4 hours. Something had to be done, hence the 905B. Introduced at the Nurburgring that same year, the car finally had the race winning package and promptly took wins at Magny Cours and Mexico City to put Peugeot 2nd in the championship.

1992 was much better, with the 905B winning all but the first round of the WSC at Monza, which went to Toyota’s TS010. The car took 1st and 3rd at a rain-soaked Le Mans ahead of the Toyotas once again as well as the Mazdas which were effectively old Jag XJR-14 chassis with Rotary engines dropped in them. Peugeot were now looking to make it 2 wins in a row.

Jean Todt then made the decision to leave his post at Peugeot to become team principal at Ferrari’s F1 team. This meant the end of Peugeot Talbot Sport, so they were determined to go out on a high and, despite strong competition from a reinforced Toyota squad, they did it. Locking out the podium, it was an emotional end to what had been a brilliant team and a great project.

That 1993 race-winning car is now in the hands of AGS who use it on their F1 school programs. There was also a 905B sold at auction earlier this year, the car that won at Suzuka in 1991. But to me, this is my all time favourite. There is a shot early on in the 1993 Le Mans VHS which shows the car flying past the camera down Mulsanne and then coming over the crest down and round Mulsanne Corner. No commentary, just pure noise and the distinctive wail from that F1-spec 3.5L V10 engine. Watching that scene still gives me goosebumps and I’m sure it always will.

The 905B – my #1.

I would love to hear what you think of my top 5 Le Mans machines and indeed what are yours? What makes your top 5?


Stuart C said...

Very good list, Scott. The Toyota GT-One was a remarkable car. My strongest memory of it was watching Martin Brundle take Indianapolis flat – this was in the days before the gravel trap was installed there. He was extraordinarily quick.
The BMW V12 LMR was a different beast. I don't think it had much in common with its predecessor – apart from the full-width roll hoop, that car had a quite eccentric cooling system that drew air in from under the nose, and it didn't quite work. It wasn't as quick as the Toyota and Mercedes, but during the race it always seemed to squeeze an extra lap out of the fuel tank; over the opening hours the Toyotas and Merecedes would sprint away, then after the pit stops had shaken out the Lehto BMW would always be there or thereabouts.
Something had to give; Schneider (Merc) and Brundle (Toyota) were absolutely caning their cars. Ditto Lehto and co in the leading BMW. The race fell into the lap of the 'tortoise' BMW when the others broke (or withdrew).
As an interesting aside, the winning BMW didn't go into a museum; they carried on racing it. In fact, the winning chassis met with a rather nasty fate – Bill Auberlen flipped at at the Petit Le Mans in 2000...