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The cars that shaped Le Mans – the coolest endurance racers

By Tom Fraser, 15 Jun 2018 Motorsport

The cars that shaped Le Mans – the coolest endurance racers

Before you settle in to watch this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, take a look back at some of our favourite entrants in years gone by

The world’s greatest endurance race is back this weekend with the 86th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans taking place this Saturday. Flag drop is set to occur at 3:00PM in France, or 11:00PM AEST locally.

But before you get yourself settled in your couch-groove for a 24-hour racing marathon, have a look at some of Wheels’ favourite Le Mans racers from years gone by.

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McLaren F1 GTR

Arguably one of the greatest cars of all time, how could we not start with the legendary McLaren F1. In ‘GTR’ race guise, this BMW-powered hero won its debut Le Mans race in 1995 and continued on to race competitively around the world until 2005.

Creator of the McLaren F1, Gordon Murray, never intended to go racing with the F1, however as the Global GT Series started in 1994 many teams needing a car turned to Murray who eventually agreed to modify the F1 into the GTR as we know it today.

Weekend Watch: McLaren F1 GTR battles Porsche GT1 911

Ferrari 250 GTO Breadvan

Like many cars of the era, the bizarre Ferrari 250 GTO Breadvan was born out of a feud involving Enzo Ferrari. Ferrari refused to sell any 250 GTOs to Giovanni Volpi due to Volpi’s hiring of ex-Ferrari engineers, so Count Volpi set to work on creating his own car which was based off a Ferrari 250 GT SWB Competition.

The result was unveiled at the 1962 24 Hours of Le Mans, with the aerodynamic shooting-brake design piquing everyone’s interest. The French called it “La Camionnette” (little truck) and the English called it the “Breadvan”, but it went on to pass all of Enzo’s 250 GTOs and was 7th overall before its driveshaft gave way. It was competitive in other races however, proving the design.

BMW M1 Procar

Despite initially being created for a one-make race series, the M1-based Procar was entered into the 24 Hours of Le Mans for a period spanning 1979 until 1986. The naturally aspirated six-cylinder produced 350kW, however it compared poorly to the competition of the time, who employed the use of turbochargers and lighter materials – BMW achieved just two class wins over the eight year period.

Top 5: Coolest BMW endurance racecars

DeltaWing

One of the more left-of-field entries to grace the Circuit de la Sarthe, the DeltaWing debuted at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans powered by Nissan’s 1.6-litre in-line four-cylinder engine. Nissan acquired the naming rights at Le Mans, however the project was created by Ben Bowlby out of Panoz in Braselton, Georgia.

The DeltaWing was invited by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to compete as a Garage 56 entrant (an experimental category) and weighed an incredible 475kg dry.

Porsche GT1

Porsche bent the rule book with their 1996 entry to Le Mans, the 911 GT1. Rather than develop a race version of one of their road cars, they developed the GT1 as a sports-prototype and made a road legal version to comply with regulations.

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In 1996, the GT1 developed 441kW from its 3.2-litre twin-turbo flat-six which enabled it to reach 330km/h down the legendary Mulsanne straight. It ended up taking an outright victory in the GT1 class from McLaren, who won the class the year before.

Mazda 787B

The only Japanese car to have ever achieved victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans was Mazda’s 787B in 1991. Rotary power isn’t always thought of as reliable, yet despite it lacking outright lap pace, Mazda’s decision to use a naturally aspirated 4-rotor paid off over a season allowing them to win championships in the nineties through reliability and consistency.

Sauber-Mercedes C9

Using Sauber as a constructor and Mercedes-Benz as the engine supplier, the C9 was created in 1987 for the World Sportscar Championship. It managed meagre success until the 1989 season, where it dominated by winning almost every race, including the 1989 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Porsche 917K

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Porsche’s first ever wins (1970, 1971) at Le Mans saw drivers crossing the finish line at the helm of the Porsche 917K. Developed initially in the late sixties, the 917 was further revised into the much-improved 917K chassis which featured a shorter tail which helped combat aerodynamic lift experienced the year prior.

It competed at almost every race event in 1970 under the factory Porsche Salzburg team, and won all the races it competed in.

Ford GT40

One of the most well-known Le Mans legends centers around Ford’s first venture into the 24-hour race with the now-iconic GT40. Angered by a blocked deal which would have seen Ferrari owned by Ford, Henry Ford II hit back at Ferrari by directing his racing division to build a Ferrari-beating contender – the GT40.

Review: 2017 Ford GT

Developed throughout the early sixties, Ford’s competitive plans came to fruition throughout the latter half of the decade having won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four consecutive times – with a stunning 1-2-3 finish in 1966.

Bentley Speed 8

First set upon Circuit de la Sarthe in 2001, the Bentley Speed 8 took two years before winning the race in 2003. Its third-time’s-a-charm win was courtesy of adjustments made after 2002’s race which saw the team move further away from the Audi R8 base car by boring out the engine to four litres, tapering the cockpit design to improve air flow and switching to Michelin tyres.