Today, Porsche can boast a total of 19 overall victories together with countless class successes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s most respected and revered endurance motor race. Porsche’s first year of participation at Le Mans was back in 1951 when the company was just three years old, but it would have to wait nineteen years before it could claim its first overall victory in this great event. This weekend in 2020, marks exactly 50 years since the Stuttgart manufacturer lifted that coveted trophy on 14 June 1970, when Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood crossed the finishing line first in the #23 Porsche the 917 KH.
But it has been a long and winding road for Porsche since the days of the diminutive #46 Porsche 356 SL driven by Edmond Mouche and Auguste Veuillet which finished in 20th place overall and first in the 1100cc class in ‘51. Ferry Porsche’s philosophy was always to produce smaller, lighter and more nimble sports cars, and the company followed this line throughout the ‘50/60s. Although they were fast and agile, the Porsches lacked the large engine capacity of the Jaguars and Ferraris of the day, but they quickly became known as ‘giant killers’ through their greater reliability. In this way, Porsches were constantly snapping at the heels of the bigger marques, which resulted in numerous class wins.
In 1955, the 550 RS Spyder of Herman Polensky and Richard von Frankenberg finished fourth overall but in 1958, Porsche claimed its first podium finish at Le Mans. In that year, the 718 RSK of Jean Behra and Hans Herrmann (a name that would become increasingly prominent in the world of Porsche) finished third behind a Ferrari 250 TR and an Aston Martin DB3S.
Ever since Porsche first participated at Le Mans in 1951, this legendary endurance race has become very much part of the sports car manufacturer’s DNA. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, Porsche skilfully played the role of underdog and successfully concentrated on the smaller displacement classes. But as from 1964, Porsche produced a new race car almost every year up until the introduction of the 917 in 1969. This change in motorsport strategy would see Ferdinand Piëch push the race department almost to breaking point in his drive to produce a Le Mans race winner.
In 1969, the racing world held its collective breath as Jacky Ickx and Hans Herrmann battled it out, swapping the lead multiple times until the Ford GT40 of Ickx/Oliver triumphed over the Porsche 908 of Herrmann/Larrousse. The margin was only 75 metres or just one second short of victory for Porsche, in the closest Le Mans finish in history, and that after 24 hours of racing! Although the 917 had given an excellent account of itself in that ’69 race, with just three hours left to run, it was a transmission problem that prevented the 917 from taking victory on its debut.
1969 was a watershed year for Porsche, as this was a mere 18 years since the company had first raced at Le Mans, and with the 917, the company now had a potential race winner on its hands. Over the winter of 1969/1970, the 917 was further developed and at the start of the ’70 season, it was a well sorted race car. Richard Attwood remembers with a smile, “The factory rung me in February and asked what car I would like to take to Le Mans and I said, well a 917 would be handy!” But Attwood specified a 917 short tail to be powered by the smaller 4.5-litre engine, because by that time the 4.9-litre engine had already been introduced. “Instead of a 5-speed box we had a 4-speed box and that’s where the ratio choice was restricted. But we only really had three gears because we couldn’t use first gear, and that is why we were so slow in practice. After qualifying, I realised that we just had no chance in this race whatsoever,” Attwood added.
Extract from interview with Richard Attwood in 2008:
Porsche has never been a company to rest on its laurels for long, and work continued apace to strengthen the engine and gearbox. Attwood again, “I still say that it was an error of mine because I took the decision in February [to run with the smaller engine] but by June, the new engine was bullet-proof. I thought maybe it wouldn’t be, but I did not know that at the time, and of course it was good and the gearbox had been strengthened too.”
Despite his misgivings before the race, Richard Attwood and partner Hans Herrmann stuck to their race plan. “I remember the beginning of that race, it was like a Grand Prix, it was unbelievable, everybody was going absolutely berserk, but you know, it’s only your own race that you are going to worry about. It was just a race of attrition, a lot of it through driver error. It was very wet, but after ten hours we were in the lead which was totally ridiculous,” Attwood admitted.
“It was a race dominated by rain and it felt like we had to permanently keep changing the tyres and adapt to the situation at hand. It was not the wear that forced us to change tyres, but the constantly changing weather. The fact we harmonised so well together as a driving team led us to victory. To compete in a 24-hour endurance race with just two drivers is no mean feat,” Hans Herrmann remembered.
That victory in 1970 opened the floodgates for Porsche, because at last they had not only won the coveted Le Mans trophy, but they also had a world-beating race car. As if winning Le Mans wasn’t enough, apart from winning the race, another Porsche 917 finished in second place and a trusty 903/02 came home third, giving Porsche a podium whitewash that year. That first victory set a precedent for Porsche, because one year later, 33 of the 49 starters were driving sports and racing cars made in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen – a record which is still held today. Following that victory, those incredible emotions have stayed with the company, fuelling the drive for further wins as the 1970s turned out to be an incredible decade for Porsche. By the end of the ‘70s they had banked no less than five wins at Le Mans, including the first win by a turbo-powered engine with the 936 Spyder in 1976!
If the 1970s worked out well for Porsche, the 1980s saw a total domination with seven Le Mans victories in succession, from 1981 to 1987, the longest winning run in the history of the 24 Hours. In fact, nine Porsche 956 cars featured in the top ten winning teams in 1983, followed by eight in the top nine in 1984, and eight again in the top ten in 1985.
As the decade of the ‘90s dawned, the Porsche 962 was still doing battle, although the shine on this old warrior was beginning to fade. The regulations began to favour more GT-based racers, and to this end, the Dauer Porsche 962 was born, giving Porsche another victory in ’94. This was followed by the TWR Porsche WSC Spyder developed by Porsche, in which a customer team won in 1996 and again in 1997. Then, in 1998, the Porsche 911 GT1-98 entered the race with the first carbon fibre monocoque designed by Porsche as well as the first carbon fibre brakes used by the works team. This victory coincided with the 50th anniversary of the founding of Porsche. Thus, the 1990s saw Porsche bagging a haul of another four wins at Le Mans.
Extract from interview with Allan McNish in 2010:
Scotsman, Allan McNish, was one of the drivers in the race-winning #26 Porsche GT1/98. “When we arrived at Le Mans, it was just like arriving at another part of the factory. Yes, it was in France, but for them it might just as well have been on the other side of Weissach. They were very much at home there, and all the guys seemed to sit down in the same place where they had sat for the previous fifteen years. It was also very clear that they had a passion about it too, because it wasn’t just a marketing exercise. It was an attitude that was embedded in the company.”
Following this success, Porsche turned its attention in motorsport to developing production-type race versions of the Porsche 911 and its support of private teams. At Le Mans, this commitment was rewarded with eleven class victories between 1999 and 2018.
In 2014, the works team returned with a prototype to once again compete for overall victory. The Porsche 919 Hybrid featured unique technical solutions, and in the LMP1 class, only the Porsche generated electric power for its battery by converting kinetic energy produced when braking and additionally by means of a turbine generator unit in the exhaust gas stream of a V4 turbo engine. The overall system comprising the electric motor and combustion engine delivered around 900 PS. This avant-garde solution proved to be a success, as from 2015 to 2017, Porsche scored a hat trick of victories at Le Mans.
With 108 class wins and 19 overall victories under its belt, Porsche is by far the most successful manufacturer in the almost 100-year history of Le Mans. Porsche’s incredible haul of Le Mans victories started back in 1951, and through a constant series of improvements, the little cars from Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen have steadily eaten away at the mountain, until now when they stand at the summit. In recognition of this feat, exactly 50 years on from that memorable victory on the weekend of 13-14 June 1970, the Porsche Museum will show off the original winning car in an anniversary exhibition on 13-14 June 2020.
In 2020, at the later date of 19-20 September, Porsche will continue the unique tradition of a Porsche sports car taking part in Le Mans every year since 1951. Porsche Road & Race will be there to record the action.
Note: After being shut for eight weeks due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Porsche Museum has, since Tuesday 12 May 2020, once again opened its doors to the public.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto & Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale