It is the world’s oldest and most famous endurance motor rally: The 24 Hours of Le Mans. Over the past decade or so the list of winners has been dominated by Audi, but over the last 90s years there have been a host of British winners, both elite and pioneering.
The Bentley Speed Six
The Bentley Speed Six was one of the most special cars developed by Bentley founder W.O Bentley, based on the Bentley 6 ½ litre it became unstoppable on the track. Winning Le Mans in both 1929 and 1930 with Bentley Boy Woolf Barnato at the helm, its path to success had not been straightforward.
Barnato had taken control of the company in 1925 after it sailed close to financial peril and together with race partner Henry Birkin had pushed through the development of a supercharged Bentley 4 ½ litre, in spite of W.O.s reservations about its durability. His doubts were proven when neither of the 4 ½ litre cars entered in the 1930 Le Mans completed the race.
The Speed Six triumphed in 1930, but it was to be a lust hurrah as further financial woes and the global depression saw Bentley sold to its main rivals Rolls Royce in 1931.
The debut of the D-Type Jaguar saw their previous successes at Le Mans overshadowed by a hat-trick of victories between 1955 and 1957. Their first win was in controversial circumstances when a serious accident involving the death of 83 spectators and the driver caused Mercedes to withdraw from the race. With the hotly favoured Mercedes car gone, Jaguar opted to continue and easily won the race with other rivals Ferrari suffering from mechanical failures.
The 1955 victory was defended in 1956 and 1957 by the Scottish Ecurie Ecosse team and driver Ron Flockhart. Although Jaguar had withdrawn from racing, they continued to support the Scottish team and with their powerful 3.8 litre engine, the D-Type had its best year ever in 1957, taking 5 of the top 6 places.
Aston Martin DBR1
Sir David Brown had made his money in tractors before buying Aston Martin, whose production of road cars had diminished in the run up to World War II before being halted completely. From the day he bought the company, winning Le Mans had been a defining goal, but despite racing success in the early fifties, it would not be straight forward.
The three litre DB3S brought some success, a 2nd place Le Mans finish in 1955 and eventually provided the inspiration for the DBR1. Thought it would have immediate success, the holy grail of a Le Mans victory remained elusive until a change in regulations in 1957 limited engine size to three litres. This one change ended the dominance of the more powerful Jaguars and Maseratis, allowing the DBR1 team to dominate the 1959 race, taking 1st and 2nd, and 25 laps ahead of the team in third.
McLaren F1 GTR
The F1 GTR was originally conceived purely as a road car meaning along with its elite technology and speed were compromises made for usability and comfort. Given the allure of the supercar and its potential in the racing world, it was inevitable that McLaren were tempted to convert the F1 into a car that would meet GT1 regulations and make it eligible for Le Mans.
Nine F1 GTR chassis were built for the 1995 season, with seven entering Le Mans, one of which was the original chassis still owned by McLaren and raced by Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing. Though the purpose built prototypes were quicker than the McLaren, torrential conditions neutralised their advantage and saw Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing win thanks to a phenomenal drive from Finnish driver JJ Lehto. Five McLarens finished the race, with four of them finishing in the top five. The first time a
This was only the second time a manufacturer had won Le Mans at its first attempt.
Bentley Speed 8
British designed cars had dominated the pre- and post-war periods, but by 2003, some notable exceptions aside, the field had been dominated by the Germans. In a way this was no exception in 2003, as five years earlier Bentley and Rolls-Royce were absorbed into the Volkswagen Audi Group.
Audi already had an established race team and although some of their expertise was used in constructing the Bentley Speed 8, the only common part between the new Bentley and Audi R8 was the turbocharged V8.
After promising showings in 2001 and 2002 and Audi opting not to race their own cars, the two Bentley Speed 8s dominated the 2003 Le Mans race, finishing 1st and 2nd. After their first victory in 73 years, the new Bentley car was retired and the race team discontinued. Although the comeback was short-lived, its success recalled the pioneering days of the 1920s and 1930s and the birth of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.