In the world of racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans holds a special place. In the event’s 98-year history, one automaker has stood out above the rest. With 19 overall victories, Porsche sets the standard for excellence at Le Mans. Team Porsche has enjoyed consistent success since the 1970s winning three or more races in four different decades.
Every time Porsche enters a vehicle at Le Mans, that car is a contender to take home the victory. From their very first entry to the modern-day, Porsche has finished near the front of the pack. The automaker also holds the record for class victories with an incredible 108 wins. Read on to learn more about the history of Porsche at Le Mans.
What is Le Mans?
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is perhaps the world’s most prestigious auto race. A test of endurance, the race has no fixed distance. Instead, it measures how far a car can drive over the course of 24 hours. The event is held annually at the Circuit de la Sarthe in Northwest France.
Held annually since 1923, Le Mans has evolved significantly since its inception. Today, teams have become incredibly skilled at building cars for the event and finding the right drivers. The 8.5-mile track challenges racers, but today most qualifying cars can complete the duration of the event. While that was not always the case, the success of Porsche helped push other teams forward, making the event what it is today.
How Porsche joined Le Mans
Porsche entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time in 1951. Previously, private groups had raced Porsche vehicles at Le Mans to decent results. Porsche knew that with their own teams handling the race, they would have a chance at earning victories. It was also a good marketing opportunity for the brand. Ferry Porsche, the longtime head of Porsche, famously spent little money on advertising. Therefore, Le Mans presented the perfect opportunity to showcase his car’s capabilities on the track.
The Porsche team decided to enter the 356 in their first trip to Le Mans. At the time, this was a little-known model. It was a production vehicle that had existed for just a few years. Engineers modified three 356 models to enter Le Mans. At the end of the race, just one Porsche finished the race, however, it earned a class victory. Winning in their first attempt signified tremendous success for Porsche and set the following decades in motion.
Starting in 1953, Porsche entered the 550 at Le Mans. This was the automaker’s first mid-engine car. The 550 ran in the race until 1958. During that time, it performed well in its class but could not break through to compete with overall winners.
To start the new decade, Porsche introduced the 718, which earned a class victory and fifth place overall. Throughout the decade, Porsche continued to innovate searching for their first victory. They got creative with their vehicles and had some close calls. In the final years of the 1960’s Porsche almost got its breakthrough.
With the 908, Porsche nearly entered the winner circle in 1969. They led on the final lap of the race but driver Hans Herrmann experienced technical issues. Neck and neck with a Ford GT, Herrmann was passed on one of the race’s final turns. Ford won the race by less than 80 meters, the closest margin ever.
One year after the near-miss in 1969, Porsche came back stronger than ever. They entered the race as co-favorites with the Ferrari team. It appeared that little would separate the two racing teams, however, the weather turned favors in Porsche’s favor. Ferrari was unable to handle the heavy rain. This opened the door for Herrmann and co-driver Richard Atwood to take first place.
Porsche repeated as champions in 1971 and then saw their dynasty at Le Mans begin in 1976. This year, Porsche got an overall victory for the third time with its new model, the 936. An unconventional open-cockpit car, the 936 took home overall victories in 1976, and 1977. In 1979, Porsche won with a 935, a GT car based on the 911.
In 1981, new CEO Peter Shultz was determined to earn more overall victories. He decided to take the 936 out of the Porsche museum, knowing the 944 only had a shot at a class win. After a new engine and modifications, the 936 won again. The next year, Le Mans introduced new restrictions. Porsche adapted immediately, creating the 956 which would win four times in a row.
Porsche eventually extended their streak of overall victories to seven. They did this with the 962C, setting a record for fastest lap in 1985 which stood for over three decades. Highlights of the decade of dominance included Porsche taking the top three places in 1982. The 956 earned seven of the top 10 spots in 1984.
The 962 returned to Le Mans in 1994. Entering a heavily modified version, Dauer Racing delivered another outright victory for Porsche, an unexpected result. Two years later, Joest Racing won in consecutive years with the TWR Porsche WSC-95. This custom car combined a Jaguar Chassis with a Porsche engine.
Porsche AG entered Le Mans one final time in 1996. Driving a 911 GT1-98, the team claimed its third consecutive overall win and fourth victory in five years. This brought the total to 16 Le Mans titles.
Returning from an extended absence, The Porsche Racing team entered Le Mans again in 2015 with a 919 Hybrid. In its first race, it set a new 24 Hours of Le Mans record, driving 5,383 km. That total broke Jaguar’s record that had stood since 1988, the year they snapped Porsche’s record streak of seven-straight victories. The 919 was the second hybrid to win Le Mans and took home overall victories three consecutive years.
What has made Porsche so Successful?
Winning at Le Mans takes dedication from all levels. Over the years, Porsche has entered the race with a simple philosophy. They enter will the expectation of an overall victory. Since the glory days to the present, Porsche continues to put the best resources possible into winning at Le Mans. This commitment has made their name synonymous with the famous race.
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