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Top 10 Le Mans 24 Hours heartbreaks

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Top 10 Le Mans 24 Hours heartbreaks
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Jun 16, 2020, 3:28 PM

From retiring after a 22-hour heroic solo effort to losing victory in sight of the flag, here are Autosport's top 10 picks for the most heartbreaking retirements at the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Unsurprisingly for a test of endurance that has been around for nearly a century, the Le Mans 24 Hours has had many heartbreaking late-race retirements. Given the amount of effort - physical and mental - that goes into the event, any failure to finish is felt keenly, but some really stand out.

For this list, we've picked out the saddest and most dramatic. The story of the victim's race prior to the failure has been taken into account, as has the potential result that was lost.

Disqualifications have not been included, so these are the mechanical problems and mistakes that help demonstrate that Le Mans is one of the hardest races in the world.

10. Jaguar's first Le Mans experience, 1950

#17 Jaguar XK-120S: Leslie Johnson, Bert Hadley

#17 Jaguar XK-120S: Leslie Johnson, Bert Hadley

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Jaguar became synonymous with Le Mans in the 1950s, winning the race five times, but its first foray was a mixed bag. Three XK120s, with aluminium bodies, engine modifications and other improvements, were prepared by the factory, though registered as private entries. Two of the cars finished - in 12th and 15th - but the one that didn't is the Jaguar that made the biggest impression.

Against Ferrari, Aston Martin, Gordini and Talbot-Lago opposition, the versatile Leslie Johnson and Bert Hadley soon established themselves in the top six. As others hit trouble, their 3.4-litre XK120 moved forward and reached third during the night, behind two 4.5-litre Talbot-Lagos of father/son duo Louis and Jean-Louis Rosier, and Pierre Meyrat/Guy Mairesse.

When the leader lost time to a rocker shaft change the Jaguar moved into second, though Louis Rosier was soon able to reassert himself on his way to victory as Johnson/Hadley struggled with fading brakes.

The Nash-Healey of Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton looked as though it could deny the Jaguar third position until it suffered a collision while lapping traffic.

But Johnson and Hedley were not safe. They had been forced to use heavy engine braking to help slow the car and, with just under three hours to go, the clutch failed.

"To everyone's sorrow the car had to be withdrawn," reported Autocar.

The result was not what the duo deserved, but the performance of the XK120s encouraged Jaguar to press on with developing a sharper machine for endurance racing, the C-type...

9. Aston Martin Ams denied, 2015

#98 Aston Martin Racing Aston Martin Vantage GTE: Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy, Mathias Lauda

#98 Aston Martin Racing Aston Martin Vantage GTE: Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy, Mathias Lauda

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Pedro Lamy, Paul Dalla Lana and Mathias Lauda formed one of the best GTE Am combinations in the World Endurance Championship in the second half of the 2010s. The Aston Martin trio scored 13 victories between 2015-19, taking the GTE Am crown in 2017.

And yet success in the 24 Hours always eluded them, with 2015 surely being the most painful failure. The pre-race favourites dominated the event to the point "that the Aston's triumph turned into a formality hours before the race's end," reckoned Autosport.

But going into the final hour, Canadian entrepreneur Dalla Lana - one of the best bronze-graded drivers - lost control at the Ford chicane on old tyres, on his out-lap. The Vantage was severely damaged in the ensuing crash, handing victory to the SMP Racing Ferrari that Russians Viktor Shaytar and Aleksey Basov shared with Andrea Bertolini.

Lamy had at least won the GTE Am category in 2012 with Larbre's Chevrolet Corvette, but Dalla Lana and Lauda are still waiting for their first taste of success at Le Mans.

8. Rodriguez brothers take on the factory, 1961

#17 North American Racing Team, Ferrari 250 TRI/61: Ricardo Rodriguez, Pedro Roriguez

#17 North American Racing Team, Ferrari 250 TRI/61: Ricardo Rodriguez, Pedro Roriguez

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Ferrari was the dominant marque at Le Mans in the 1960s and it often seemed simply a case of which one would win.

"This might have led to a relatively uninteresting 1961 Le Mans, but this was not so due to two factors," wrote Anders Ditlev Clausager in Le Mans 1923-99, Volume One. "The spirited performance of the Rodriguez brothers, and the appearance of the 2.4-litre mid-engined car driven by Richie Ginther and Wolfgang von Trips."

Ricardo and Pedro Rodriguez were young but already had Le Mans experience - having shared a car in 1959 - and, most importantly, were rapid. Armed with a North American Racing Team three-litre Testa Rossa, they battled the works Testa Rossas of Olivier Gendebien/Phil Hill and Willy Mairesse/Mike Parkes, and the more frugal Ginther/von Trips 246 SP (another factory Ferrari) for much of the race.

The NART car moved to the front after the early skirmishes, but the lead went back and forth even after rain arrived on Saturday evening. Mairesse/Parkes and von Trips/Ginther lost time during the night, creating a straight fight between Gendebien/Hill - winners in 1958 - and NART. After 14 hours, just 10s separated them.

On Sunday morning the Rodriguez brothers lost nearly half an hour with a misfire, falling to fourth, but they now upped their pace to recover. They were still striving valiantly when the V12 cried enough with two hours to go.

There's wasn't the only late failure in 1961 - the Jean Kerguen/Jacques Dewez Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato failed at its final stop - bit it was the most keenly felt.

"All the time, the crowds were rooting for the young Mexicans and showed their disappointment unrestrainedly when the car came in to retire," reported Autocar.

"Without the Rodriguez boys it would have been a considerably duller Le Mans."

Sadly, Ricardo - who had set the fastest lap - would only contest one more Le Mans before being killed at the 1962 Mexican Grand Prix. But Pedro would go on to win the race in 1968, with Lucien Bianchi in a John Wyer Automotive Engineering Gulf Ford GT40.

7. Bentley efforts robbed then rewarded, 1926-27

#7 Bentley Motors Ltd, Bentley 3 Litre Speed: Sammy Davis, Dudley Benjafield

#7 Bentley Motors Ltd, Bentley 3 Litre Speed: Sammy Davis, Dudley Benjafield

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Stung from its defeat the year before but boosted by investment from Woolf Barnato, 1924-winner Bentley had three cars at the 1926 24 Hours.

All three ran near the front, but two suffered engine failures. That left the Sammy Davis/Dudley Benjafield three-litre Sport, fitted with lightweight body among various other racing tweaks, to battle the homegrown machinery.

Its pace was increased when the other Bentleys dropped out and the car was homing in on the second-placed Lorraine-Dietrich of Gerard de Courcelles and Marcel Mongin when Davis climbed in for the final stint. He caught Mongin with half an hour to go and, despite fading brakes, made a bid at Mulsanne Corner.

Davis went in too hot and slid into the sandbank. The race finished before he could get it out, despite Mongin's offer of assistance, and although the car had covered enough distance to be fourth, it wasn't classified. Lorraine scored a 1-2-3, but this entry has a significant postscript.

Most of the frontrunning French manufacturers skipped the 1927 24 Hours, making Bentley the pre-race favourite. The British firm duly won, but it was not a straightforward victory: most of the team was wiped out in the famous White House smash and the sole survivor - 'Old Number 7', the very car that Davis had put in the sandbank the year before -­ faced a challenge from the three-litre Aries of Jean Chassagne and Robert Laly.

The multi-car White House incident, which happened on Saturday evening, involved all three factory Bentleys. Davis, again sharing with Benjafield, managed to extricate his car, but the Aries moved into the lead.

The Bentley's chassis frame and front axle was bent, but the Aries was the only other big-engined car in the race so the duel was on. While Davis/Benjafield struggled to keep their Bentley together, the Aries looked set to win until it lost 25 minutes early on Sunday afternoon when the starter motor jammed. Davis got back onto the lead lap and an exciting finish looked likely.

But the battle was resolved with less than two hours to go when the Aries stopped with a broken distributor, making it another contender for this list. The sole serious French challenger had failed, leaving the battered Bentley to avenge its 1926 heartbreak and beat the second-placed 1100cc Salmson by over 200 miles.

6. Trying to nurse a monster, 1969

The last true Le Mans start: All drivers had sprinted to their cars with Rolf Stommelen, Porsche 917, in the lead, followed by Vic Elford's and Jo Siffert's Porsches LeMans 1969

The last true Le Mans start: All drivers had sprinted to their cars with Rolf Stommelen, Porsche 917, in the lead, followed by Vic Elford's and Jo Siffert's Porsches LeMans 1969

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

"We talked about how to drive it and we both drove it with kid gloves," recalls Vic Elford about his drive with Richard Attwood in the new Porsche 917 in 1969.

Even Porsche didn't believe the under-developed, ill-handling 4.5-litre monster would last 24 Hours, but Elford disagreed. While Rolf Stommelen took pole and set off at a frantic pace in the sister car, Elford and Attwood aimed to get the 917 to the finish. Attwood has suggested in the past that Elford still wanted to push on, but that's not Vic's view.

"I was convinced that if we drove it very carefully and didn't take any risks it could finish," explains the 84-year-old, whose account is backed up by contemporary reports. "And if it finished, because it was so vastly superior in terms of speed to everything else, we'd win.

"It was 25mph quicker than anything any of us had ever driven. And it was very difficult to drive. Richard hated it! I liked it because it was so much quicker than anything else. The fact that it was a little bit more difficult to drive didn't really bother me because I was used to driving unstable cars from my time in rallying."

The pacesetting Stommelen/Kurt Ahrens Jr 917 and Jo Siffert/Brian Redman 908/2 were in trouble within the first four hours, whereupon Elford/Attwood took over.

And there they stayed for hour after hour. With four hours to go the 917 was not only still running, it had a four-lap lead. Then transmission problems struck. The bellhousing had cracked and the car was retired.

"A storm of sympathetic cheering marked its progress past the pits of all its rivals, for it was the sad end to a great drive by Elford and Attwood," reported Motor.

For Elford, it remains one of his biggest disappointments: "Everybody told us it was going to break and I was convinced we could make it last and win. And three hours from the end it broke - that was the worst 917 moment."

Porsche would have to wait one more year to break its Le Mans duck, but despite twice winning his class, Elford never managed that elusive outright win.

5. Kelleners' double trouble, 1997-98

#26 Porsche AG Porsche 911 GT1: Emmanuel Collard, Yannick Dalmas, Ralf Kelleners

#26 Porsche AG Porsche 911 GT1: Emmanuel Collard, Yannick Dalmas, Ralf Kelleners

Photo by: Patrick Martinoli

Ralf Kelleners probably wouldn't be the first name that springs to mind when it comes to unfortunate drivers at Le Mans. But twice he suffered failures that are worthy of this list ­- in consecutive years.

The first came with Porsche in 1997. The 911 GT1 Evo he shared with Yannick Dalmas and Emmanuel Collard was in the lead battle from the start and the works Porsches had a small but significant advantage over the Joest TWR-Porsche that had won the year before.

Bob Wollek crashed the sister 911 on Sunday morning, leaving Kelleners/Dalmas/Collard in command. When Kelleners left the pits with just over two hours to go, he had a lap in hand, but then the car dramatically caught fire as Kelleners went down the Mulsanne Straight.

The German jumped out safely, but the car would go no further. An engine oil leak was to blame, and handed victory to a young Tom Kristensen.

Kelleners then joined the new Toyota squad, armed with the GT-One, for 1998. The twin-turbocharged 3.6-litre V8 machine he drove with Thierry Boutsen and Geoff Lees moved to the front when the sister car of Martin Brundle/Eric Helary/Collard hit myriad problems.

Gearbox issues on Saturday night handed Porsche the initiative, but the 911 GT1-98s then suffered calamities of their own. That meant the Toyota that had started seventh had a good lead on Sunday morning.

The gearbox remained a concern and the gear set was changed for a second time, putting Boutsen/Kelleners/Lees into a fight with the Allan McNish/Laurent Aiello/Stephane Ortelli Porsche.

Boutsen was still in front, chased by McNish, when the transmission failed with just 80 minutes to go. "There is no way the Porsche would have caught us," reckoned the disappointed Belgian.

Kelleners had been denied again and never did add an overall victory in the 24 Hours to the GT2 class win he took on his Le Mans debut in 1996.

4. Disaster for ORECA, Peugeot and Aston Martin, 2010

#2 Team Peugeot Total Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP: Nicolas Minassian, Stephane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny, suffers engine failure

#2 Team Peugeot Total Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP: Nicolas Minassian, Stephane Sarrazin, Franck Montagny, suffers engine failure

Photo by: Sutton Images

Peugeot arrived at Le Mans in 2010 off the back of a breakthrough victory the year before and qualified 1-2-3-4, with the ORECA entry (above) backing up the three works 908 HDi FAPs.

The French V12s, which had new titanium conrods that would prove their undoing, had a pace advantage over the Audi R15-plus entries and duly led the way before trouble started to strike.

The pole-sitting #3 car of Sebastien Bourdais, Pedro Lamy and Simon Pagenaud was lost early on when a front wishbone mounting plate pulled out of the tub, but it was the engine failure on the leading car of Stephane Sarrazin, Nicolas Minassian and Franck Montagny on Sunday morning that was the biggest blow for the factory team.

That put Audi ahead. The remaining works 908 of Anthony Davidson, Alexander Wurz and Marc Gene started making up ground until its 5.5-litre turbodiesel also broke.

That left only the ORECA Peugeot, which had lost four laps shortly before half distance when a driveshaft failed. It became an all-or-nothing charge in an attempt to snatch a spot on the podium, with Loic Duval setting a fastest lap that was quicker than Bourdais' pole position mark!

Perhaps inevitably, the ORECA then suffered its own engine failure with 1h15m left on the clock, leaving team boss Hugues de Chaunac in tears. The car had covered 373 laps, more than the car that would eventually take fourth.

That still wasn't the last major failure. The Lola-Aston Martin of Darren Turner, Sam Hancock and Juan Barazi was running fourth in the final hour when its V12 blew. That handed unofficial petrol honours to ORECA's own chassis, perhaps some consolation for the Peugeot debacle.

"I bet I don't feel half as bad as the Peugeot boys," reflected Aston Martin Racing's George Howard-Chappell.

3. Brun heartbreak after 23h45m, 1990

#16 Brun Porsche 962 C: Oscar Larrauri, Jesus Pareja, Walter Brun

#16 Brun Porsche 962 C: Oscar Larrauri, Jesus Pareja, Walter Brun

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Brun Motorsport had already felt how cruel Le Mans could be with a late double retirement in 1985, but that was nothing compared to what befell Jesus Pareja and Walter Brun in 1990.

For the first year of Le Mans with the Mulsanne chicanes, the privateer Porsche team correctly identified that the higher-downfore short tail would be better than the low-downforce long tail on its new 962, unlike the works-supported Joest squad.

"We were maybe the first team that took the decision to go with the short tail and even the nose was different from the Le Mans nose," recalls Pareja. "As soon as we knew that the ACO had decided to put in the chicanes, we decided to go with the short tail - even though Porsche did not agree with this decision."

Oscar Larrauri qualified second and the car was right at the front in the early stages, battling with the fastest Nissans and Jaguars. It was a fine performance from a genuine Pro-Am line-up even before Larrauri started to feel ill during the night, leaving 'gentleman racers' Pareja and Brun to drive most of the rest of the 24 Hours in what was probably the race of their lives.

Although they lost a little time when the 962 suffered a flat battery on Sunday morning, the consistent duo moved up the order and were established in second spot during the final third of the race. The leading Jaguar had lost fourth gear, so a shock result was still possible.

But with just 15 minutes to go it was the Porsche that failed. The engine died on the Mulsanne Straight thanks to an oil union failure. Even the TWR Jaguar team, which inherited a 1-2, had sympathy for Brun and rival teams applauded Pareja as he trudged to the signalling pits to embrace his crew.

So late was the failure that the stationary Brun car still covered more laps than the Alpha Racing Team 962 that took third.

"This was one of the worst feelings that I got in my life because it was so close to the win, but this is the luck," adds Pareja.

"The car was really good, even better than the 1986 car [when he finished second]. It was the best race car that I drove at Le Mans.

"It was a very strong grid, so to be on top was very nice, very good. I am very proud of this race."

2. Home hero fails at the last, 1952

#8 Talbot Lago T26 GS Spider: Pierre Bouillin, Pierre Levegh, pitstop

#8 Talbot Lago T26 GS Spider: Pierre Bouillin, Pierre Levegh, pitstop

Photo by: Motorsport Images

If ever there was a heroic solo effort at Le Mans that went unrewarded, this is it. And Pierre Levegh (real name Pierre Bouillin) is one of the 24 Hours' most tragic figures.

The Frenchman's 1952 effort, in his own Talbot-Lago, has passed into legend. Against multiple factory efforts - including Jaguar, Ferrari and Mercedes - Levegh single-handedly brought his T26 GS Spyder up the order. In a race of attrition, the crowd favourite was sixth after four hours, second after eight hours and led comfortably by half distance.

Mercedes had run to strict orders in terms of pace and picked up places as others hit trouble, but Levegh seemed out of reach. With four hours to go he was four laps clear of the Hermann Lang/Fritz Riess Silver Arrow after 20 hours.

A famous and popular victory was within Levegh's grasp, but the 4.5-litre straight-six's big-end failed with just over an hour to go, handing Mercedes a 1-2.

Some criticised Levegh for not handing over to nominated co-driver Rene Marchand and there were suggestions he had missed a gear and blown the engine through fatigue. But it later transpired that Levegh had been aware of an issue developing and had decided to nurse the car to the finish.

The drive also got the attention of Mercedes and it was in one of the German marques 300SLRs that Levegh was killed, along with more than 80 spectators, in motorsport's worst accident at the 1955 Le Mans.

1. Toyota's curse at its worst, 2016

#5 Toyota Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima

#5 Toyota Racing Toyota TS050 Hybrid: Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima

Photo by: Simon Winson

Toyota's bad luck at Le Mans was legendary even before one of the most dramatic and unbelievable finishes in sport.

In a classic Le Mans of the modern era, the #5 TS050 HYBRID of Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima looked like it had got the better of its Porsche and Audi opposition. It had been going a lap longer on a tank of fuel than the rival 919 Hybrid and got quicker as the temperatures increased on Sunday. The Porsche of Marc Lieb/Romain Dumas/Neel Jani was still within a minute or so, but it wasn't going to catch the Toyota on Sunday afternoon.

Then Nakajima slowed going down the Mulsanne Straight with six minutes to go. In an era when everyone had got used to racing cars being incredibly reliable, it didn't seem possible. Was Toyota really going to lose this late on?

Yes. Nakajima made it as far as the start/finish line before stopping right in front of his engineers on the pitwall. A connection in an air line between turbocharger and intercooler had fractured.

The Porsche swept past with 3m21s left on the clock. And although Nakajima eventually got the car going again, the time he had spent stationary after starting his final lap meant it was outside the 6 minutes maximum time allowed to complete the final tour - a rule designed to prevent potentially dangerous broken-down cars rejoining to take the flag.

With a final lap of 11m53.8s, the Toyota wasn't classified, even though it covered more laps than the second-placed TS050 of Mike Conway, Stephane Sarrazin and Kamui Kobayashi.

"Porsche steals Toyota's race," said Autosport magazine, while Davidson went further: "No one would believe a movie if it ended like this. To actually live through the experience is pretty hard to take."

 
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Series Le Mans
Author Kevin Turner