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The greatest sportscar drivers never to win Le Mans

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The greatest sportscar drivers never to win Le Mans
Jun 14, 2020, 11:58 AM

Most of the great sportscar drivers have tasted success in the Le Mans 24 Hours, but such is the nature and challenge of the event that there are some notable absentees from the winners list. So who were the best losers?

To select our top 10, we looked at a number of factors. The key ones were how well the drivers got on at Le Mans, the circumstances of their failures, and the amount of success scored elsewhere.

And before you cry foul on the absence of Anthony Davidson, we have excluded current drivers. When we first did the list in 2018, Davidson's co-drivers in the Toyota that narrowly missed out on victory in 2016 - Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima - were absent for that reason and they won the next two editions, so let's hope Davidson's appalling luck at the French classic also turns in the years to come.

10. Thierry Boutsen

Starts: 10
Best result: 2nd (1993, 1996)

#25 Porsche AG Porsche 911 GT1: Hans Stuck, Thierry Boutsen, Bob Wollek

#25 Porsche AG Porsche 911 GT1: Hans Stuck, Thierry Boutsen, Bob Wollek

Photo by: Jean-Philippe Legrand

The three-time Formula 1 winner twice found himself in the 'wrong' right car at Le Mans and was then involved with two programmes that should have resulted in victory.

In 1993 Boutsen was second in a Peugeot 1-2-3 and the following year he was third in a Dauer 962 as the sister car took victory.

The Belgian was then in the Porsche GT1s that were marginally outraced by the Joest TWR Porsche in 1996 and inexplicably crashed by Bob Wollek in 1997.

To cap it all, Boutsen then joined Toyota to drive its awesome and rapid - but unfortunate - GT-One. Transmission problems robbed the car he shared with Ralf Kelleners and Geoff Lees late on in 1998, and a backmarker clash ended his 1999 effort.

Outside of Le Mans Boutsen won two world sportscar races, including a narrow success at Spa in 1986 with Brun, and the 1985 Daytona 24 Hours, all in Porsches.

9. Jean-Louis Schlesser

Starts: 7
Best result: 2nd (1981)

#1 Mercedes-Benz C11: Jean-Louis Schlesser, Jochen Mass, Alain Ferte

#1 Mercedes-Benz C11: Jean-Louis Schlesser, Jochen Mass, Alain Ferte

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Schlesser deserves to be remembered as much more than the driver Ayrton Senna collided with at the 1988 Italian Grand Prix, which prevented McLaren taking a clean sweep of the season's F1 races. Only one driver on this list (Brian Redman) scored more world sportscar championship wins than Schlesser, who lost out to Martin Brundle in the 1988 standings before taking the next two titles.

He wasn't a fan of Le Mans, but he twice took pole and should have won it. Although Schlesser's best result in the 24 Hours came in 1981 - on his debut - he was really denied on his last appearance a decade later.

The Mercedes C11s dominated the 1991 edition. Sharing with Jochen Mass and Alain Ferte, Schlesser's car was three laps clear with just over three hours to go when a bracket failure led to the twin-turbo V8 overheating.

8. Juan Manuel Fangio

Starts: 4
Best result: Retired

#19 Daimler Benz AG, Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR: Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss

#19 Daimler Benz AG, Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR: Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss

Photo by: Motorsport Images

One of the all-time motorsport greats, Fangio was more comfortable at the wheel of a single-seater but he was still formidable in a sportscar.

Fangio finished a fine second in the 1953 Mille Miglia for Alfa Romeo, despite steering problems, then won the epic Carrera Panamericana road race at the end of the year for Lancia. He also twice won the Sebring 12 Hours.

The Argentinian's luck at Le Mans was appalling, but in 1955 it wasn't the car that let him down. Fangio fought an intense duel with Mike Hawthorn's Jaguar D-type early on before handing over to co-driver Stirling Moss. Their Mercedes 300SLR was well clear of eventual winners Hawthorn/Ivor Bueb when the team decided to withdraw following teammate Pierre Levegh's horrific accident.

"I left, feeling mixed relief and horror," wrote Fangio in his autobiography My Twenty Years of Racing.

7. Rolf Stommelen

Starts: 13
Best result: 2nd (1979)

#70 Dick Barbour Racing Porsche 935: Dick Barbour, Paul Newman, Rolf Stommelen

#70 Dick Barbour Racing Porsche 935: Dick Barbour, Paul Newman, Rolf Stommelen

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Just about the only thing Stommelen didn't manage at Le Mans was outright victory. He was a class winner three times in Porsches, the last occasion - in 1979 - also netting second overall with Paul Newman and Dick Barbour in a 935.

He starred in the rain on his way to third in 1968 and put in one of the all-time great Le Mans qualifying performances, hurling his wayward 917 around to qualify on pole by 3.8 seconds (averaging over 148mph) in 1969. 

The only reason he isn't higher on this list, probably harshly, is that he perhaps could have been kinder to the machinery during an era when that was a primary concern. But Stommelen did win the Targa Floria (1967), Nurburgring 1000km (1977 and 1980) and Daytona 24 Hours (1968, 1978, 1980 and 1982).

Highly rated by his co-drivers, Stommelen died following an accident at Riverside during an IMSA race in 1983.

6. Vic Elford

Starts: 8
Best result: 6th (1973)

Vic Elford, Gerard Larrousse, Porsche 908/03

Vic Elford, Gerard Larrousse, Porsche 908/03

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Elford was one of the fastest drivers of his era, with a charging comeback drive to victory at the 1968 Targa Florio being perhaps his greatest triumph. He was also a star on the world's finest circuit, the original Nurburgring.

Not one to play it safe, Elford preferred to opt for the most-potent cars available when it came to Le Mans. That's why he chose the new and aerodynamically unstable Porsche 917 in 1969, and subsequently stuck with the Langheck (long tail) versions of the five-litre monster when others preferred the shorter tail.

He and Richard Attwood dominated much of the 1969 event. They treated the 917 carefully and made it far further than most had predicted, but eventually retired with under four hours to go.

"We treated it with kid gloves," says the 82-year-old. "It lasted longer than expected and it was the bellhousing that cracked.

"It was so fast - even though it was a bit of a bastard to drive, we were leading by five laps [at one stage]."

The following year, Elford again went for the Langheck, run by Porsche Salzburg while John Wyer's JW Automotive team, which ran the works Gulf Porsches, rejected it. Elford took pole - at an average of over 150mph - and was in the mix in the race despite rain that negated some of the long tail's straightline speed advantage.

"John Wyer did not want the long tail," explains Elford. "No one wanted it, except me. It was more difficult to drive than the short tail - you had to be more precise. Once you had committed to a line you couldn't adjust it, but it was 20mph quicker."

After Jo Siffert's engine blew, Elford/Kurt Ahrens moved ahead, but then got a puncture and finally broke an inlet valve.

The long tails were sorted by 1971 and the two JWA examples and the Elford/Gerard Larrousse Martini car qualified 1-2-3. This time a bolt holding the cooling fan broke while Larrousse was driving. "I felt cheated," says Elford, who instead watched a short tail win for the second consecutive year.

Either side of his 917 efforts, Elford won his class - with a Porsche 906 in 1967 and a Ferrari 365 GTB/4 in '73 - but they were the only times he saw the chequered flag.

"Sure it grates, because there were a couple of times I should have had it," reckons Elford.

5. Jo Siffert

Starts: 7
Best result: 4th (1966)

 Jo Siffert, Brian Redman, Porsche 908

Jo Siffert, Brian Redman, Porsche 908

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The two-time world championship grand prix winner was another Porsche ace in the second half of the 1960s. Siffert took 14 world sportscar championship victories (including the classics at Daytona, Sebring, Nurburgring and Spa), still enough to put him ninth in the all-time winners list.

Siffert's Le Mans career started well, with two class successes (and two overall top-fives) in his first three outings. But he didn't finish on his remaining four appearances.

If he was unlucky in 1969 and '71, Siffert had to take some responsibility for the '70 failure. A missed shift blew his 917's engine right in front of the pits - and team boss Wyer...

Siffert's co-driver on that occasion was Brian Redman. It was a formidable pairing, winning eight races in 908s and 917s in 1969 and '70. Redman remains a Siffert fan.

"Team manager Rico Steinemann asked if I'd like to be number one in my own car or go as number two to Siffert," recalls the 81-year-old. "I knew if I went as number two I would get little time in the car during practice and little publicity when we won, but thought it was worth it.

"Although we had our individual seats, we never changed and I adapted to being closer to the pedals and steering wheel, to save time in pitstops.

"Jo was brilliant. If he had a fault as an endurance driver, although easy on the equipment, he had only one speed: flat-out. We got on really well and never had a cross word - even at Le Mans in 1970!"

4. Brian Redman

Starts: 14
Best result: 5th (1978, 1980)

#15 Ferrari 312PB: Brian Redman, Jacky Ickx

#15 Ferrari 312PB: Brian Redman, Jacky Ickx

Photo by: Sutton Images

Redman is surely one of the all-time most under-rated drivers. As well as being a three-time Formula 5000 champion in the United States, he won almost all the classic enduros and drove for some of the most legendary teams: Porsche, Ferrari, JWA and Jaguar.

He won at diverse events too, including the Targa Florio, Daytona 24 Hours, Sebring 12 Hours and Nurburgring 1000Km.

Arguably Redman's best season came in 1969, when he and Siffert won half of the world sportscar championship's 10 rounds. Le Mans, however, eluded the duo, despite them eschewing the new and very fast 917 with finishing the race in mind.

"The reason we chose the new long-tail 908 spyder for Le Mans is that we thought it would be more reliable," says Redman. "We were leading when the gearbox failed due to a lack of cooling because of the long tail."

The following year Siffert missed a gear and blew the engine on their 917 when they were in the lead, while in 1973 the Ferrari of Redman and Jacky Ickx was still fighting Matra for victory when the engine failed in the penultimate hour.

Such a result was typical for Redman in the French classic. Of his 14 starts, he only finished four times. He was fifth overall and won his class in a Porsche 935 twice, but that was poor reward for his efforts.

"Winning the IMSA class in 1978 and '80 means very little to me, although if it was today, I'd be going around telling everyone that, 'I won Le Mans!'," says Redman.

"Le Mans is the pinnacle of sportscar driving success, even though it's not as difficult as the Targa [Florio] and the Nurburgring - or for that matter, Daytona and Sebring, at least in a Porsche 917K."

3. Mario Andretti

Starts: 8
Best result: 2nd (1995)

#13 Courage C34: Bob Wollek,Mario Andretti,Eric Hélary

#13 Courage C34: Bob Wollek,Mario Andretti,Eric Hélary

Photo by: Jean-Philippe Legrand

American legend Andretti's poor luck at the Indianapolis 500 is infamous, but at least he did win it once. He could, perhaps should, have won Le Mans as well, but misfortune and the odd error denied him.

In 1967 he was in one of the fancied Ford MkIVs, but crashed out in controversial circumstances, while an extra lap could have brought him an emotional victory in '83 with son Michael and Philippe Alliot, given the state of the two works Porsche 956s ahead.

In 1995, Andretti arguably lost the race twice. There was originally a plan for him to drive the TWR Porsche that later became a double Le Mans winner with Joest. But politics meant Porsche withdrew the car.

Andretti then joined the works Courage Le Mans squad, alongside Bob Wollek and Eric Helary. Andretti was caught out while lapping Antonio Hermann's Kremer and crashed at the Porsche Curves early in the race. The ensuing repairs cost the Courage-Porsche five laps. They charged to second, finishing a lap behind the winners.

Mario Andretti Q&A

There were a few near misses, but were you happy you did the best job that you could, that factors out of your control cost you?

Well, you have to go with that. In 1995 I made a mistake. It was wet, it was early on in the race. I didn't have to force the situation but I thought that in the car in front of me was Hans Stuck, instead it was another driver and he put me off. But we still won the [WSC] class, I still have a first place Le Mans trophy in my trophy case.

Of course you want to win overall, but I can still claim on my record that I won Le Mans if I won the class, don't you think? The battle that we did, coming back from the deficit that we had, I think was pretty good. We had fun doing that and I think I did my part too in the wet at night - I made up a lot of laps.

What about 1967, when a crash put you out?

I knew the car very well and we had won at Sebring. I had been a part of all the tests with Bruce McLaren and so in '67 they put me with Lucien Bianchi, who was a good friend and a very reliable partner, but he wasn't the quickest guy there. The formidable team that we were up against turned out to be Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt.

I was up against AJ and Lucien against Dan. I knew quite honestly that I was quicker than AJ, so I felt that I really needed to put time between us when AJ and I were out there, and I did. But we had some issues with the brakes. The rotors would come apart, but you had to live with it until you changed the pads and then they would change the discs as well.

I handed the car to Lucien around 1am and he went out and, of course, the brake pedal was jumping all over the place and he came in. He hadn't done much testing so he wasn't familiar. He was discussing the situation just like we're in practice and I said, 'I busted my balls to put time between us' and then he went out again and came in again. He made them change the pads, but changing the pads was not the issue. I pulled him out of the car and said, 'You know what, I'm going back in'.

Braking for the Dunlop chicane [on the out-lap], the steering wheel came right out of my hand. On the right side where they changed the brake pads, they had put them on backwards. One of the mechanics was not very familiar with disc brakes because they were stock car mechanics and stock cars still had drum brakes.

It just locked the right. We had 80 gallons of fuel so the car was very heavy. I tried wrestling with the steering wheel and just turned right head-on into the earth bank. I was lucky there, but they blamed me because the Roger McCluskey and Jo Schlesser cars were right behind and they crashed to avoid me, so I took two team cars out. That was an unfortunate time for sure.

2. Bob Wollek

Starts: 30
Best result: 2nd (1978, 1995, 1996, 1998)

#6 Martini Racing Porsche Porsche 936/78: Bob Wollek, Jürgen Barth, Jacky Ickx

#6 Martini Racing Porsche Porsche 936/78: Bob Wollek, Jürgen Barth, Jacky Ickx

Photo by: Philippe Hubert

An international sportscar stalwart for three decades, Wollek took six outright podiums at Le Mans and four class victories.

Although he scored other endurance successes, including four Daytona 24 Hours wins, Wollek's Le Mans near-misses are part of the legend of the race, like Jim Clark at the Monaco Grand Prix or the Andretti family at Indianapolis.

Brilliant Bob's unlucky 13

1973 - Wollek's first competitive Le Mans car was the Matra MS670B, in the year the French team fought its epic battle with Ferrari. As was to become the norm during his career, Wollek did lead the 24 Hours, but he was in the wrong car - the V12 he shared with Patrick Depailler suffered failing oil pressure and retired early, while two of its three sisters finished first and third.

1974 - An even better chance appeared to come the following year. Wollek was again in a Matra (with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud and Jose Dolhem) but this time with no Ferrari opposition. Once more Matra finished one-three, and again Wollek was in one of the two blue cars that failed to see the flag thanks to engine maladies.

1978 - Porsche team leader Jacky Ickx was moved over to join Wollek and Jurgen Barth in their 936 after problems on his own car. The trio rose to second - ahead of the eventual winner - until the 936 required a gearbox rebuild on Sunday morning and lost nearly 40 minutes, finishing second.

1979 - Sharing with Hurley Haywood, Wollek was in one of two ageing 936s that were the quickest cars in the field. The Ickx/Redman example hit trouble when a tyre blowout caused radiator damage. Poleman Wollek's car took over, only to suffer a misfire that eventually cost an hour. They recovered to second, only to retire with engine failure.

1984 - In the absence of the works Porsche team, Wollek took pole for Lancia by more than three seconds. He and Alessandro Nannini led for a third of the closely fought race, but suspension and transmission troubles left them an unrepresentative eighth.

1986 - Jochen Mass took pole in the works Porsche 962 he shared with Wollek and Vern Schuppan. The car was in contention in the early stages before Mass crashed out on oil. The sister 962 of Hans Stuck/Derek Bell/Al Holbert took victory.

1987 - Once again Wollek/Mass/Schuppan were in the wrong 962. Wollek took another Le Mans pole and Mass led, but the car retired early in the second hour with piston failure, thanks to incompatibility between the centrally supplied fuel and Porsche's electronic control system. The 'other' car won again.

1988 - This time Wollek - with co-drivers Schuppan and Sarel van der Merwe - was part of the Porsche fight with Jaguar for longer. Wollek spent time in the lead, but water-pump problems and then engine failure ended another challenge.

1989 - The 962 was long in the tooth, but the Joest example of Wollek/Stuck was a formidable threat to Sauber and Jaguar. The duo ran in the top five throughout and led until a coolant problem cost 15 minutes. They eventually finished third, despite several minor setbacks, beating the leading Jaguar and only losing out to the two best Silver Arrows.

1995 - Wollek was third on the grid in the Courage C34, pole for the 'real' contenders given the front row was a WR-Peugeot lock-out. With many cars ill-prepared or unreliable, the main opposition was the horde of unproven McLaren F1 GTRs. Andretti's early error meant he, Wollek and Eric Helary were always playing catch-up and finished second.

1996 - Wollek, Stuck and Thierry Boutsen had a fine run in their new Porsche 911 GT1 to win the GT class. But they couldn't defeat the lighter, Joest-run Porsche WSC95 sports-prototype, which Stuck described as "unbeatable". A key delay was Stuck being pushed over a kerb, which eventually led to the front undertray needing replacing.

1997 - This was the year Wollek was the architect of his own downfall. The revised 911 GT1s were quicker than the WSC95 and Wollek's car, which he again shared with Boutsen and Stuck, led throughout the night. It was still ahead when Wollek uncharacteristically spun into retirement at the Porsche Curves with a third of the race to go. "I don't really know what happened," said a disconsolate Wollek.

1998 - Wollek's last chance of victory came with the 911 GT1-98 alongside Jorg Muller and Uwe Alzen. The challenges of Toyota and Mercedes fell away, leaving Porsche to score a one-two. An off by Muller at the first chicane, which led to underbody repairs, meant Wollek was again second, behind Laurent Aiello/Stephane Ortelli/Allan McNish.

Allan McNish on Wollek

"He's probably the guy that did more Le Mans, had the chance of victory at more Le Mans and never quite achieved it. He did everything else in sportscar racing.

"He was super-quick. He was very, very good at floating the car through corners, so he was extremely good on fuel economy. He didn't force the car to do anything, which is why I'm quite amazed he didn't win Le Mans because he was in an era when you really required that. It just never happened for him.

"In 1998 it was between us and them. We had a problem and at the same time Jorg Muller went through the gravel and damaged the floor so they had to change the floor. Without that, with our problem, they'd probably have won.

"I felt for Bob so much because his skill and talent were clear, and he was a really determined character. I wouldn't say it was anything really down to him that caused him to have won everything else bar Le Mans."

1. Stirling Moss

Starts: 10
Best result: 2nd (1953, 1956)

#4 Aston Martin DBR1: Stirling Moss, Jack Fairman

#4 Aston Martin DBR1: Stirling Moss, Jack Fairman

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Even better than 1950s Formula 1 benchmark Juan Manuel Fangio in sportscars, Moss could lay claim to the title of the greatest endurance racer ever.

He won the Nurburgring 1000km - at a time when it was a much greater driver test than Le Mans - four times and performed some of the finest comebacks in the category's history, such as his drive to clinch Aston Martin the world sportscar title at Goodwood in 1959. His record-breaking Mille Miglia victory in '55 is one of motorsport's most epic performances and, had there been a drivers' championship, he would surely have topped the standings that season.

Moss's performances in the 24 Hours were no less impressive. Invariably he led the charge for whichever team he was with, but things never quite fell his way. He was part of the Jaguar 1-2-4 in 1953, sharing with Peter Walker, but fuel starvation early on pushed them outside the top 20. Their comeback drive netted second.

Moss also fought against the odds - alongside Peter Collins - for Aston Martin against the bigger-engined and more-suitable Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-type of Ninian Sanderson and Ron Flockhart in 1956. Using the sporadic rain showers to their advantage, they exchanged the lead with the Jaguar and missed out by just a lap.

Arguably Moss's best chance, however, had come the year before. Sharing one of Mercedes' all-conquering 300SLRs with Fangio for the only time, Moss was well ahead of the field when the call came to withdraw in the wake of teammate Pierre Levegh's horrific accident, which had claimed the lives of over 80 spectators.

It was a decision Moss never agreed with. "It didn't do anyone any good," he said in a 2015 interview. "You couldn't bring people back, but [Mercedes driver] John Fitch said he thought [team boss] Alfred Neubauer should ring the directors.

"We could easily have won."

Just as not winning the F1 world championship did not diminish Moss in the eyes of his peers, the fact he never won Le Mans didn't prevent him being the leading endurance driver of his generation - and one of the greatest sportscar aces of all time.

by Kevin Turner, Alex Kalinauckas, James Newbold

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