Mercedes-Sauber takes flight (Photo Courtesy of Mulsanne Corner)
Le Mans, France. Home to the Circuit de la Sarthe and the host of the greatest sporting event on the planet. If the tarmac could speak, doubtless there would be many lined up to lend an ear. At the heart of the track is the spirit of endurance. Teams come from around the world attempting to conquer and tame the beast that is the Le Mans.Many find out, anything and everything will be thrown at teams as obstacles en route to achieving their ultimate goal. We have compiled some of the wildest Le Mans moments below highlighting some of the most unbelievable events to have taken place on the hallowed ground that is La Sarthe. Both tragic and triumphant, these moments shed light on what draws hundreds of thousands of fans each year.
10. ANTHONY DAVIDSON TS030 CRASH 2012 LE MANS
Toyota’s return to Le Mans in 2012 is probably best remembered for the wrong reasons. With their No. 7 car challenging the all-new hybrid Audi’s for the race lead, the sister No. 8 car brought the race to a halt in spectacular fashion in the fifth hour of the race.
Davidson rapidly closed on the No. 81 AF Corse Ferrari piloted by Piergiuseppe Perazzini as the two approached the Mulsanne corner. Davidson flashed his lights indicating he was coming through, which Perazzini missed. Traveling at 190 MPH, Davidson was clipped by the AF Corse sending the car airborne. Covering a distance of a few hundred feet, the Toyota crashed down and went into the tire barrier shortly followed by the Ferrari which would end up on its roof.
Fortunately, neither driver was seriously injured. Both cars retired from the race. In the fallout of the incident, the No. 7 Toyota crashed into the Garage 56 entry Delta Wing car taking it out of contention for the race lead, leaving the Audi’s to battle amongst each other for top honors. A Le Mans to forget for Toyota, sadly this has become a common theme for the Japanese team.
9. 1991 MAZDA 787B VICTORY
A near perfect storm of conditions benefited the 1991 MazdaSpeed Le Mans effort, which lead to the first, and thus far only, overall Le Mans victory for a Japanese manufacturer. Rules and regulations played a large part in the 1991 race which allowed the Mazda 787B to be competitive with the more powerful Peugeots, Mercedes-Sauber’s, Jaguars, and Porsches. An opportunity the team would capitalize on.
The race quickly became an attrition based affair with the Peugeots suffering from mechanical failures and fires, the Jaguar drivers unable to handle their cars due to a mandated weight minimum their car was not designed for, and the Porsches being outdated machinery. This left Mazda competing with Mercedes-Sauber’s for the win.
After running in fourth place at the midway point behind the three Sauber’s, the No. 55 Mazda continued to lap trouble free while one by one problems struck the silver cars. With a few hours left in the race, a lone Sauber held a twelve-minute lead over the No. 55 Mazda when smoke began to pour out of the lead car. An alternator mount had broken, costing the Sauber 35 minutes in the pits and the race win. Ultimately, the No 55 would continue to the checkered flag problem free. The three Mazda’s in the race made up nearly half of the total eight cars that were running at the end of the race which proved to be a true test of endurance. The win made the No. 55 possibly the best looking/sounding victor the race has ever seen.
8. 2011 ALLAN MCNISH AUDI CRASH
The race at La Sarthe in 2011 was a mixed bag for Audi. The four-ringed manufacturer would continue its winning ways once the clock reached its 24th hour, however the carbon scraps from their garage and paddock area would be piled high thanks to two significant accidents. Both making our list.
In the first hour of the race, Allan McNish was determined to control from the front of the field despite a relatively disappointing performance in qualifying the day before. Up to second from staring fifth, McNish made a move under the Dunlop bridge to take the lead of the race from the sister Audi on lap fourteen.
The ambitious move put him in the position where he had to overtake a Ferrari 458 to make the move stick. Not expecting the move having just exited the pits, the Ferrari GT car clipped the rear of McNish’s Audi sending him through the gravel and into the barriers. The impact spun, upended, and disintegrated the Audi chassis as carbon shards rained in the gravel pit. The debris narrowly missed multiple photographers and corner workers who still occupied the edge of the track in high numbers in the race’s first hour. Fortunately, all involved with the accident walked away with little or no injuries.
7. 2011 MIKE ROCKENFELLER AUDI CRASH
The scarier of the two Audi accidents in 2011 occurred under the cover of nightfall at nearly 200 MPH. Mike Rockenfeller was piloting the No. 1 Audi and had just moved into second place overall. With the Peugeots threatening, Rockenfeller was pushing the pace.
Rapidly closing on yet another Ferrari, an unexpected move by the GT car put the Audi R18 onto the grass on the run from the Mulsanne corner to Indianapolis. Rockenfeller went into a spin and slammed into the barrier at nearly full speed. The terrifying sound and force of the impact of the accident left many spectators silenced fearing the worst for Rockenfeller.
After taking the race win some hours later with their only remaining car, Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich reflected on the teams’ emotions during the race.
“Due to the two extremely serious accidents this has been the most difficult Le Mans race for us in an emotional sense so far… our team managed to keep the strong competition at bay for 16 hours with just 1 car is almost unbelievable. Everyone at Audi can be proud of this triumph.”
The trophy for Audi’s 2011 win takes up a special spot in the trophy case at their headquarters. It is one the team truly earned through grit, determination, and their spirit of endurance.
6. 1999 UKYO KATAYAMA TOYOTA TIRE FAILURE
Arguably one of the best races around the French circuit, the 1999 race was drama filled from the drop of the green flag through the last hour. Five world renowned manufacturers realistically were within a shout of claiming top honors. BMW, Mercedes, and Toyota all led the race at various points. Reliability and accidents proved to be the deciding factor as it so often does.
With an hour left in the race, the sole remaining No. 3 Toyota had closed down a three-minute gap to the lead No. 15 BMW to just over a minute. At the hands of Ukyo Katayama, the red Toyota GT-One was flying and setting some of the fastest laps of the race. The team eyed becoming only the second Japanese auto maker to win the 24-hour race in its long history.
Having suffered tire failures on their other two cars, the aggressive attack for Toyota was risky. While hunting down the lead BMW, the Toyota’s tire failed exploding in shards of rubber and acrid smoke. Katayama miraculously kept the car from hitting the barrier and limped the No. 3 to the pits. The incident meant Toyota would have to settle for second behind the BMW which took its maiden win in this classic race.
5. 1995 MCLAREN F1 GTR WIN
Not often does the winner of a multi-class race come from outside of the top-class. In fact, it is very, if not extremely rare. The right set of circumstances affected the 1995 24-hour race which led to one of the most improbable Le Mans wins.
With the fastest McLaren qualifying ninth and lacking the downforce and horsepower of the prototypes, even the most imaginative dreamers on in the 1995 Le Mans paddock could not foresee what was about to unfold. A race in the elements put the grid on a more level playing field and produced a spectacular result.
Seventeen hours of rain during the race slowed the prototypes and allowed the McLarens to be in the thick of the battle for the race win. Forced to run at a naturally slower pace in the wet conditions, the stress on the McLaren’s fragile transmission was eased as well, further contributing to the car’s strong showing. By the end of the race, the McLaren F1 GTR’s occupied four out of the top five positions with the No. 59 car taking the race win. JJ Lehto is often credited to being the difference maker, putting on a master class display in the rain, lapping 30 seconds faster than his rivals at certain points in the race.
4. 1999 MERCEDES-BENZ CLR CRASHES
The cars that race Le Mans are always toeing the razor thin edge. There is perhaps no better example than Mercedes-Benz’s experience at the 1999 Le Mans race weekend where a car engineered to the extreme limits proved unable to stay on the track.
Mark Webber airborne during warm up session (Photo credit Kashmr Shane)
During qualifying, Mark Webber flipped his CLR, which somehow landed on its wheels. Troubling… Nonetheless, after adding some additional aerodynamic elements, Mercedes-Benz downplayed the incident and carried on with their program.
The following day in pre-race warm ups, Webber flipped his Mercedes-Benz yet again, this time for all the cameras to see and without a smooth landing. Surprisingly, the remaining two CLR’s took the grid and began the race despite obvious indications the car design may be unsafe. Battling with Toyota and BMW for the lead during the race, Mercedes-Benz could not afford to lessen their pace in favor of safety. In the fourth hour of the race on lap 75, predictably, Peter Dumbreck’s CLR took lift off on live TV flying end over end through the air and over the Armco surrounding the track.
Dumbreck was miraculously not seriously injured. The accident forced Mercedes-Benz to retire their only remaining car to avoid another wreck. The accident is perhaps the most famous auto racing crash ever.
3. 1966 FORD GT40 BREAKTHROUGH WIN
Countless books and documentaries have told the story of Ford vs. Ferrari at Le Mans during the golden era. Originating when Enzo Ferrari backed out of the Ford Motor Company’s potential purchase of the Italian racing powerhouse, the rivalry produced some epic storylines in the 60’s.
Henry Ford II decided to take the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” sales tactic on a worldwide tour. He became possessed with winning the race. With the help of Carroll Shelby and the most powerful engine up until that time to power a car around the track, the monstrous GT40 was created.After failing miserably in 1964 and 1965. Ford and the GT40’s finally broke through and swept the podium in 1966. Controversy surrounded the final race classification. Ford arranged the finish so the three cars would cross the line simultaneously.
However, due to a quirk in the rule book at the time, in the event of a tie, the car that started further down the grid would be declared the winner. The logic behind the rule is that the car starting further down the grid would have covered a longer distance during the race. As a result, the No. 2 Ford GT40 of Bruce McLaren and Chris Miles were declared the winners. Ken Miles and Denis Hulme who had been leading the race at the time Ford decided to try to arrange the finish wound up on the second step of the podium.
2. 2016 TOYOTA LAST LAP FAILURE
File this one in the heartbreaking folder. Toyota set out on one objective when they returned to the top level of endurance racing after over a decade’s absence in 2012; to win Le Mans. The Japanese manufacturer set out to end the winless drought for their country, and win the race that had eluded them in the late 90’s.
Entering the race weekend, experts favored Porsche, and Audi to contend for the race win with Toyota having to rely on problems of the other teams to be in contention. Early in the race, Toyota showed it had the pace and taking control through the night running first and second. A late off for the leading No. 6 Toyota handed the lead to the No. 5 car carrying a comfortable one to two-minute lead over the No. 2 Porsche which had just inherited second place.
On the second to last lap, with six minutes remaining, driver Kazuki Nakajima radioed to the team, “I have no power, no power!” The TV screens quickly showed a panicked driver and a Toyota that had slowed to a crawl trying to work through a mechanical issue. Nakajima took the white flag still leading the race then stopped on the grid. The No. 2 Porsche passed the stopped Toyota shortly after. With the Porsche crew in a state of elation and disbelief in the garage, Toyota mechanics and managers looked at their monitors shocked.
The No. 2 Porsche would complete the final lap and win the race. Nakajima and his Toyota would be unclassified in the final race results after what looked like a sure win just ten minutes’ prior, thanks to a connecting turbo plug failure. A seemingly insignificant part. The finish, still fresh in the minds of many, would be written off as impossible if it were a movie script. La Sarthe is not a beast easily conquered. Anything can, and will, happen in this race twice around the clock.
1. 1955 LE MANS DISASTER
WARNING! Video is graphic in nature and may be disturbing.
Tragedy is an unfortunate characteristic of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Although most races run without a major injury or incident, the horror that struck the circuit in the 1955 race is still discussed to this day with some regularity.
In the 1955 race, Mike Hawthorn dove for his pit box causing a chain reaction which ultimately led to Pierre Levegh, driving in a much faster Mercedes, to crash and travel up an embankment propelling Levegh out of the car, killing the driver in the process. The momentum of the car carried debris into the crowd and engulfed spectators in flames and shrapnel.
In total, 84 lives were lost that day because of the accident. The wreck is to this date the worst in auto racing history and forced Mercedes-Benz to withdraw from motor racing until 1989. Race organizers (the ACO) set to make the track safer in the aftermath and although spectator deaths were not completely eliminated, future races were done under much safer conditions.
BONUS LE MANS MOMENT PALETE CLEANSER: 1990 MARK BLUNDELL NISSAN R90CK POLE LAP
Does not feel right to end on such a sobering moment. Since this next moment did not occur during the race, it was left out of the main list. Nonetheless, the story deserves a spot among the best moments in the events history.
As the story goes, Mark Blundell piloting the No. 24 Nissan reported a turbo malfunction and was ordered to abort his qualifying lap and bring the car into the pits. Ignoring his radio call, Blundell set off on a screaming lap that would become a legend.
With the over boosted turbo, Blundell reached 238 mph on the Mulsanne straight. The newly installed chicanes were the only thing preventing the car from eclipsing the tracks top speed record set by Peugeot in the pre-chicane layout at 253 mph. Blundell turned an unheard of 3:27.020s lap time, demolishing the field. The lap set the track record and was a full six seconds clear of the nearest car. Amazing. Enjoy the onboard as a treat to end the list, it is one of the wildest rides Le Mans has ever produced!
Here is a quick recap video of the entire list put together by our editor Alex Lane.