Le Mans is but five weeks away and, if the first two rounds of the World Endurance Championship are any guide, it’s going to be one of the best on record. This also means that, between now and then, you’re going to be bombarded with previews from every quarter. So I’m not going to hazard whether Audi, Porsche, Toyota or Nissan will win – besides, the views of the august Mr Hope-Frost on that subject would be far more worth reading than mine.
Instead I’m going to list my ten greatest Le Mans drivers and try to explain why. Note for those pondering the absence of Messrs Moss, Fangio, Schumacher etc that is not the ten greatest drivers to race at Le Mans, for that would be a very different list. And, what I’m hoping is that some or more of you will write back and let me know those I missed off and why they deserve to qualify.
Because I don’t believe you can compare different achievements in different times and different cars, they are ranked chronologically, from their first or most notable participation in the race.
Woolf Barnato. Powerboat racer, boxer, crack shot, race horse owner, sometime wicket keeper for Surrey and chairman of Bentley Motors, Barnato’s Le Mans record is unique: played three, won three. In wins to starts, no one else even gets close. (won 1928, 29, 30)
Luigi Chinetti. He won three times and put 17 years between his first and last, a record equalled only by Hurley Haywood who won in 1977, 83 and 94. The reason Chinetti makes this list is his final win in 1949, where aged 47 he drove almost the entire race – reports vary between 22 and 23 hours – to win in a 2-litre Ferrari, the first time since the first Le Mans that the race had been won by a marque at its first attempt. (won 1932, 34, 49)
Pierre Levegh. How tragic that his name will be remembered for the appalling accident that claimed both his life and those of over 80 others at Le Mans in 1955, and not the drive that got him hired by Mercedes in the first place. That was in 1952, where he attempted not only to drive the race single handed, but win it. And Pierre Bouillin, as he was actually called, very nearly made it. The engine of his Talbot – which he knew was sick and explained why he refused to let his less sensitive team-mate drive – finally quit with less than an hour to go. At the time he was leading the works Mercedes team, that eventually won, by four clear laps. (almost won, 1952)
Olivier Gendebien. He won Le Mans four times (not to mention the Targa Florio and Sebring 12-hours three times each), but it is not what he did so much as the way he did it that earns my admiration. He personified how a gentleman should go racing, a man who’d win in the right way with chivalry and sportsmanship or not at all. His partnership with the similarly minded Phil Hill made Ferrari the dominant force in sports car racing in the early 1960s. (won 1958, 60, 61, 62)
Jackie Oliver. Oliver only won once, and that’s not why he’s here. His place is earned because in 1971, driving a long tail Gulf Porsche 917 he lapped the then 8.37-mile circuit in 3min 18.4sec, an average of 151.6mph. And while some believe that this year the record will finally fall, to this date none has gone faster. And yes, that’s because of changes to the circuit, but just imagine driving a car as flimsy as a Porsche 917 that, despite having to come to an almost dead halt at both Mulsanne and Arnage, averaged over 151mph… The very thought beggars belief. (won, 1969)
Jacky Ickx. There are those who thought his record of six wins at La Sarthe would never be beaten, though in the end it took a trifling 22-years for Tom Kristensen to finally come up with the goods. Ickx was everything you’d want in a sports car driver: blindingly quick, unapproachable in the wet, a true team player and a fabulous ambassador for the brand. (won 1969, 75, 76, 77, 81, 82)
Henri Pescarolo. If anyone deserves to be considered as Mr Le Mans, it is surely Pesca himself. In the 34 races between his first entry in 1966 and his last in 1999, Pescarolo missed just one, a record perhaps more astonishing than any other at Le Mans. In that time he drove for Porsche, Ferrari, Jaguar, Sauber-Mercedes, Courage, the Matra team that gave him his hat-trick of wins in the early ‘70s and of course his own Pescarolo Sport. (won 1972, 73, 74, 84)
Derek Bell. Even now only two people have won Le Mans more times than our own Derek Bell with five victories, but really he his here for his sheer durability. No other driver was contracted to Porsche throughout its entire participation in the Group C era from 1982-88, yet despite first racing at Le Mans for Ferrari as long ago as 1970, as recently as 1995 he would have won it and in awful conditions had the gearbox of his McLaren F1 not failed. One of the true all time Le Mans heroes. (won 1975, 81, 82, 86,87)
Jean Rondeau. Just as Jack Brabham remains the only person to win the F1 title in a car bearing his own name, so Jean Rondeau remains the only person ever to win Le Mans in a car of his own creation, a contribution to Le Mans history that cannot be ignored. (won 1980)
Tom Kristensen. There is no need to explain in detail why Kristensen is the greatest Le Mans exponent of them all. His nine victories – half as many again as the next most successful – speak for themselves. Not only did he win over half the 17 Le Mans he contested and six of them on the trot, he failed to finish just four and was on the podium on every other occasion. (won 1997, 2000, 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 08, 13)