Porsche’s Le Mans return part of proud history

After Porsche's Le Mans re-up, Shane O’ Donoghue looks back at the company's illustrious past at the 24-hour race.

The winning Porsche 917K at the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours. Courtesy Newspress
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History books will show that Audi took a one-two at the 2014 instalment of the Le Mans 24-hour race, while the best-placed Porsche in the LMP1 group crossed the finish line in 11th position overall, or fifth in class. Hardly a dream weekend for the German company’s return to Le Mans in the top racing category. Nonetheless, the final results don’t tell the full picture, and you can be sure that Porsche is being taken very seriously indeed. After all, just three hours before the end of the race, the Porsche 919 Hybrid racer of Mark Webber was leading the pack. But that’s how endurance racing works.

Porsche is no stranger to the theatre of Le Mans. It has won the event 16 times, which is more than any other constructor – even Audi. But that statistic only begins to reveal how closely Porsche and Le Mans are linked.

The relationship began in 1951, when a Porsche 356 Super Light finished 20th overall. It took Porsche nearly 20 additional years of trying before it won the race outright, despite coming close several times in the interim. Nonetheless, each year, more and more Porsche models were part of the grid, most of them from privateers. In 1970, the factory team dominated proceedings with the legendary Porsche 917 racer, which Richard Attwood took to victory, leading a Porsche one-two-three. It was pandemonium that year, however, as it was the first time that drivers started from within their cars – rather than running to them – and particularly poor weather meant that only 16 racers finished.

Proving that it didn’t win just because of the elements, Porsche took the top two spots on the podium the following year, again with the dominant 917 racer. That year, the lap record, set by Jackie Oliver, was an average speed of more than 250kph. It was 1985 before that speed was achieved again. Not only was Porsche winning the race outright, but its cars were considered to be the best by customer teams, too, resulting in 33 Porsches on the start line in a grid of 48 cars. The grid is far more diverse these days at Le Mans.

Porsche racked up the wins through the 1970s and 1980s, including an unbroken string of seven consecutive victories from 1981 to 1987, which is still a record. Audi would have to win for the next two years to equal that. The Porsche 956, introduced in 1982, changed the face of the event, with a much smoother, streamlined look. The factory team of three cars locked out the podium, and, in a neat marketing move, they finished in the one-two-three order of their race numbers. The following year, a staggering 11 examples of the 956 competed (eight were private entries) and they took positions one to eight at the finish line, with another in 10th. Porsche famously put out an advertisement after the race with the tagline “Nobody’s perfect”.

The most famous victory since then was in 1998, when Allan ­McNish was part of the team that took the Porsche 911 GT1 to the chequered flag ahead of everyone else, the only time that a 911 has won at Le Mans, albeit a car that was rather different to the regular road-going model. It was, however, homologated for racing by a limited-edition road car, of which 25 examples were required. The Porsche 911 dominates many forms of motorsport, ensuring that Porsche’s motorsport division is a successfully profitable one.

But the stats and trophies are all very well and good; Le Mans has also given Porsche a rich heritage to draw from. Winning race cars that competed there, such as the 917, 935, 936, etc, now have iconic status with car enthusiasts, and fans of the Porsche brand itself. The company is inextricably linked with winning at Le Mans, and you can be sure that it intends to do just that again very soon.

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