6 Of The Best... Le Mans-Winning Brits

09th June 2016
Henry Hope-Frost

The debate over whether the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Indianapolis 500 or the Monaco Grand Prix is the greatest race in the world will rage ad infinitum. But at this time of year, with the 84th edition of the twice-round-the-clock French enduro fast approaching, Le Mans is never far from the thoughts of most race fans – especially British ones.

And British drivers have always been part of the success story at Le Circuit de la Sarthe, from Frank Clement anchoring the winning Bentley in the race’s sophomore year in 1924, to Porsche ace Nick Tandy’s historic triumph in the 919 Hybrid 12 months ago.

You may be surprised to know that more British drivers have stood on the top step of the podium, having won the great race outright, than any other nationality since 1923. That puts us ahead of next-best France (28 drivers), Germany (17), United States (12) and Italy (11). Yet, more startling is the fact that only six of those 32 have conquered Le Mans more than once.

These six Brits, some you’ll almost certainly have heard of, others possibly not, are part of a special club.

Derek Bell – 5 wins

Our greatest exponent of the 24-hour art, Derek Bell first competed at Le Mans in 1970, in a works Ferrari 512S alongside Ronnie Peterson. He tackled the race a further 25 times, for Porsche, Mirage, Renault, Courage, Kremer and McLaren, which makes him one of the most-capped Le Mans racers of all. His first win came in 1975, with Jacky Ickx in the Gulf Mirage GR8, and he shared the top step of the podium with the Belgian ace twice more – in 1981 and ’82 aboard Porsche’s 936 and 956 variants respectively. His final two wins came in 1986-’87, both with Hans-Joachim Stück and Al Holbert, in the Rothmans 962C.

Woolf Barnato – 3 wins

Woolf Barnato holds the unique distinction of competing in the Le Mans 24 Hours three times – and winning on each occasion. The public-school-boy-turned financier and racing driver was the son of a diamond- and gold-mining entrepreneur and would become one of the legendary ‘Bentley Boys’ in the 1920s after inheriting much of his father’s wealth. His Le Mans wins were all scored with Bentley – in 1928 with British-domiciled Australian Bernard Rubin and a 4.5-litre machine, 1929 with Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin and 1930 with Glen Kidston – both times with Speed Six ‘Old Number One’. Barnato died after suffering a thrombosis following cancer surgery in London in 1948, aged 53.

Allan McNish – 3 wins

The Scot broke into sportscars after a successful junior single-seater career that included wins in British Formula 3, International F3000 and a testing contract with the McLaren F1 team alongside Ayrton Senna. He made his first start at Le Mans in 1997 in a Rook Porsche 911 GT1, although the car failed early on. In year two, he was part of the works Porsche squad and took an historic victory – in the car’s 50th anniversary year – in a 911 GT1-98 with Stéphane Ortelli and Laurent Aïello. He retired a factory Toyota LMP1 prototype in 1999 before beginning a long and successful career with Audi. A second and two thirds followed over the next few years, with win number two finally coming 10 years after his first – with long-time team-mates Rinaldo Capello and Tom Kristensen and the Audi R10 TDI. McNish took his third victory – in his final appearance at La Sarthe in 2013 – with Kristensen and Frenchman Loïc Duval in the R18 e-tron quattro. Only Bell ranks ahead of McNish in the British winners’ league table at Le Mans.

Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin – 2 wins

Nicknamed ‘Tim’ during childhood after comic book character ‘Tiger Tim’, Birkin turned to motorsport, against his family’s wishes, in 1921 having served in the Royal Flying Corps in World War 1. Resplendent in trademark blue-and-white silk scarf while competing, he led Le Mans in 1928 before dropping to fifth with a jammed wheel. It all came good the following year, Birkin sharing the Speed Six model dubbed ‘Old Number One’ with Woolf Barnato and heading a trio of 4.5-litre Bentleys. He won again in 1931, this time with Alfa Romeo, becoming the first Brit to win the race for two manufacturers. Sharing Earl Howe’s 8C 2300, Birkin kickstarted a run of four consecutive victories for the Italian marque. He suffered an exhaust burn to his arm during a pitstop at the 1933 Tripoli Grand Prix, which is reputed to have turned septic. This, combined with his having carried malaria since WW1, contributed to his death in June that year, aged just 36.

Ivor Bueb – 2 wins 

Londoner Ivor Bueb shared the winning factory Jaguar D-type with Grand Prix hero Mike Hawthorn during the infamous 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours, in which more than 80 people were killed in motorsport’s worst disaster. A late call by Hawthorn to stop at the pits (there was no pitwall in those days) two hours into the race caused fellow Brit Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey to swerve into the path of Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes 300 SLR. The big German car was launched off the back of the small Healey and tore through the crowd with horrific consequences. Bueb took his second win in an ex-works D-type, run by the Scottish Ecurie Ecosse team, two years later, alongside Scot Ron Flockhart. He died six days after crashing a Cooper F2 car at the French Charade circuit in 1959, aged 36.

Ron Flockhart – 2 wins

Edinburgh-born Ron Flockhart enjoyed success in a variety of disciplines. He won numerous domestic events, including a British Hillclimb Championship round, in the ex-Raymond Mays ERA R4D and finished third in the 1956 Italian Grand Prix in a Connaught. He’s best known, however, for back-to-back Le Mans wins in an Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-type in 1956 and ’57. In that first year, co-driven by Glaswegian Ninian Sanderson, the ex-factory machine took a one-lap win over the works Aston Martin DB3S driven by no less than F1 aces Stirling Moss and Peter Collins. The following year, Flockhart was paired with 1955 winner Ivor Bueb. The duo defeated ’56 winner Sanderson and John Lawrence, who shared the sister Ecurie Ecosse Big Cat, by eight laps. Flockhart was also a keen airman, but lost his life, aged 38, practising for a record attempt in Australia at the controls of a Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation-built Mustang WW2 plane.

There are plenty of opportunities for further British success in the 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours, throughout the four classes – LMP1, LMP2, GTE Pro and GTE Am.

Look out for Audi’s Oliver Jarvis and Toyota pair Anthony Davidson and Mike Conway in LMP1, all three bidding for a maiden outright Le Mans win. In the ‘baby prototype’ class, LMP2, several home-grown drivers have a good chance of class honours, as do the Best of British in the GT classes. The line-ups from Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Ferrari and Ford all feature several top names from our sportscar-racing roster.

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