Sportscar racing is a discipline that has produced more variety in successful cars than any other. From the very early days of canvas-topped leviathans to the ultra-modern LMP1 cars we see today. But which are the best sportscars that have ever raced? We thought we would have a go at picking them, ranking them not on most successful, or absolute outright greater than any other, but by which stand the test of time best for a place as icons of the sport.
The seven best racing sportscars of all time
Where else do you start? The Porsche 956 won Le Mans four times in a row, it finished first, second, fourth and fifth in the 1985 race (only missing third because of a sister Porsche 962C). It set and still holds the qualifying and race lap records around the Nürburgring Nordschleife. It was driven by the likes of Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell, Stefan Bellof and it won the World Endurance/World Sports Prototype Championship in 1982, ’83, ’84, ’85 and ’86. The Porsche 956 could easily be said to be the king of racing sportscars.
Developed to replace the Porsche 936 – which itself had won three of six championships – the 956 was Porsche’s first go at Group C, and pretty much blew the opposition away from the word go. The 1982 Le Mans 24 Hours was the 956’s first ever race (having skipped the first two rounds of the season for development reasons) and with Ickx and Bell at the wheel it won by a mind-boggling 14 laps. In ’82 they won again, this time by ‘only’ three laps, as 956s locked out the podium. It was not until Porsche retired the 956 that another car would win – Porsche’s 962C taking glory in 1986 – although even then a 956 still finished third. The 956’s record is unmatchable, but its shape – the sleek profile that Group C cars would all take on – added to the visuals we can still marvel at on YouTube today of those iconic laps of the ‘Ring, mean the 956 is impossible to leave off any list like this.
Bentley Speed Six
The Speed Six is the most successful racing Bentley of all. And in an era when The Bentley Boys were so dominant, that says something. Sitting at an incredible 11 feet long, the Speed Six is a leviathan of its era. Powered by a mighty 6.5-litre straight-six, producing 200PS, the big Bentleys competed at a time when cars were give a distance target at Le Mans. In 1929 the leading car blew past its target by 37 laps (which equated to over 300 miles in those days) leading home a Bentley 1-2-3-4. So in 1930, to start the new decade, their target was revised up. Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston beat it by a paltry 27 laps this time, heading another Bentley 1-2. Still in its infancy the Le Mans 24 had become a Bentley party in the late 1920s, but the Speed Six took the opposition apart in a way that hadn’t been seen before. The ’29 race, with Barnato this time partnered by Sir Henry Birkin, was 21 laps clear of the nearest non-Bentley at the end of the race.
In 2000 Audi had entered Le Mans once – they had finished on the podium, several laps down from the leader and had no real history of top level sportscar racing. When the Audi R8 finally retired in 2006 Audi had won Le Mans five times, the American Le Mans Series seven times and the Sebring 12 Hours six. In fact, so incredible was the dominance of the R8, that Audi Sport themselves didn’t actually enter Le Mans from 2003 until 2006 and it still won, instead they backed privateer teams to keep winning with the R8, which they did.
The R8, with its revolutionary 3.6-litre ‘FSI’ V8 engine, was head-and-shoulders above the competition for its entire lifetime, not only in terms of speed, but in making the world of sportscars a super-professional arena. Sure the R8 was fast, but it was everything else the Audi did around it that made them so much better than everyone else and revolutionised the sport. Audi made every bit of the R8 easy to change, and they drilled the team around it to replace everything in the shortest possible time. At one point they changed an entire gearbox so fast at Le Mans (five minutes) that the rulemakers changed the regulations so such a feat would not be possible again – you can watch that here. The R8 is also tied with Le Mans greatest name – Tom Kristensen was the only constant at the wheel of every R8 victory. Between them Audi Sport, TK and the R8 created and unstoppable force that began over a decade of sportscar dominance.
It is amazing to think that Jaguar did not win the World Sports Car Championship until 1987, considering the incredible dominance they had over the Le Mans 24 Hours – the championship’s centerpiece – during the 1950s, just when the WSCC was starting.
Jaguar won the race for the first time in 1951, with the rather languid XK-120. Then it returned and won again in 1953, with the revolutionary, disc-braked C-type, but it was two years later in 1955 that it really hit its stride – now armed with the drop-dead-gorgeous D-type, Jags would win the race three years in a row. Indeed such was this period of dominance that the D-types finished the 1957 race first, second, third, fourth and sixth. The D-type would add Sebring titles and race successfully across the globe, but such was Jaguar’s focus on just the main race, that it would never properly compete for World Championship glory.
But nonetheless the D-type was a dominant force. Indeed it was not until the rules were changed, banning the use of engines over 3.0-litres, that the D-types winning run would end. Even then (and with Jaguar having quit racing at the end of 1956) the D-type was fitted with a 3.0-litre motor and continued to fight. In 1958 a D-type led the race for significant periods of one of the wettest races in Le Mans history. But the new engine was unreliable, and Jaguar were not developing the actual car around it any more, so the competition left it behind by the start of the 1960s. But it is those incredible three years in the middle of the ‘50s that make the D-type one of the undeniable greats.
We thought about leaving the GT40 off the list. Its story has been told so many times now that it’s even a major Hollywood movie (incidentally, one I still haven’t seen). The GT40 took on the might of Ferrari, armed with some good old American muscle, a big honking V8 and boatloads of courage from Ken Miles and co. and won. And then it won again in sleek MkIV form. And then it won again in the original form... and then again. It’s those later two races that cement the GT40 in this list for us. Much like the Audi R8 they came after the factory team had left, leaving just a group of independents, including the legendary Gulf-backed J.W. Autmotive team, to keep the GT40s fire going. While the Ferrari factory team had also withdrawn from the competition, the privateer teams still had to overcome the likes of Porsche and Alfa Romeo, fielding much more up to date cars. But no matter what the other teams tried, they could not overcome the incredible reliability and speed of that old GT40. And I say that GT40 because it was literally the same car, winning Le Mans twice in a row. Over the four years that the GT40 competed in the race, only in its final year did the competition get anywhere close.
The modern one on the list. This is the car that ended that period of Audi domination started by the R8. When the regulations for the LMP1 class changed at Le Mans to allow hybrids to compete, and with the reformation of the World Endurance Championship, Porsche were tempted back out of retirement for the first time since 1998. In 2014 they trailed the established entries from Toyota and Audi, getting back up to speed with a quiet efficiency – they still lead big the race for a period.
By 2015 they were ready, and the 919 slowly began a transformation from competitive also ran to utter domination. First it won Le Mans with a one-off third entry featuring F1 star Nico Hulkenberg. This was Porsche’s first victory of the season but it kicked off a run of six victories in a row that stretched into the next season. Porsche won the World Endurance Championship in 2015, then retained it in 2016 (winning six of nine races) and again in 2017. Over all, across 33 races the 919 won 17, including three Le Mans wins, and took three World Championships. There have been many dominant sportscars, but few have done it with such sustained and crushing style. And then, after it had retired, Porsche went and refettled the 919, just to smash some records – so when it finally rolled into the museum for the rest of its days, the 919 Hybrid Evo was the outright lap record holder at both Spa and the Nürburgring. Not bad going for a car powered by a V4...
Another Group C car in this list? Well, yes, and no. We began with the car that dominated most of the Group C era, and we end with the car that killed it off. In the early 1990s the wish for convergence between Formula 1 and the World Sportscar Championship led to a change to the regulations. Gone were the easy to look after, turbocharged, engines of Group C, replaced by high-revving, naturally aspirated 3.5-litre units. This was meant to mean that manufacturers could make one engine for both sportscar racing and F1. In reality it killed sportscars dead as costs spiralled. But it didn’t do so before producing some magnificent machines. Jaguar’s XJR-14 is a masterpiece, the Mazda MXR-01 was an XJR-14 to all intent and purposes and Mercedes had the brilliant-looking C291 and unraced C292. But all of them were blown away by a company with no real sportscar racing history.
In the late 1980s Jean Todt had gone from rally co-driver to boss of Peugeot’s motorsport arm, mostly still focused on rallying. But in 1988 Todt’s focus turned to Group C and its potential, especially to the new 3.5-litre regulations. The result was the 905, which ran in 1990 and 1991 in its original form, finishing second in its second season in the sport behind the mighty Jaguar team. The Peugeot 905 was refreshed into Evo form, and proceeded to blow Toyota and Mazda away not only in the World Championship, but also at Le Mans – becoming the first home manufacturer to win since Jean Rondeau’s famous own-brand victory in 1980. Such was Peugeot’s dominance that all its competition withdrew in 1993, and the World Championship was scrapped. Peugeot and Toyota returned for Le Mans that year, and the 905s left La Sarthe with not only a second consecutive victory, but also a complete podium lockout. And then, they too left. And more’s the pity, because it robbed the world of the chance of seeing the 905’s Evo2 update race, a car so bonkers it was nicknamed the ‘supercopter’. Oh if only.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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