The List: Top Five Le Mans Racers for the Road
One of the great traditions in auto racing is outsmarting the rules. You’ll never hear a member of a pit crew or a driver call it “cheating” because technically, it is not. Cheating would be knowingly violating the rules. There are many ways to assess the rules and find a loophole. It is the competition within the competition. In Le Mans racing, one of the great end-around of the rules is homologation. While restrictions are placed on the straightforward prototype classes, things are a bit more laissez-faire if you can build and sell a certain number of road-going versions. Throughout the years, some of the most potent cars in field have been these homologated cars. Sometimes, they are previously-legal cars that have become outlawed from the prototype class. Other times, they are insanely powerful road cars, which have been modified to compete at the most storied race track in the world. Here are five cars that have found success at Le Mans, and have also found their way into some lucky millionaire’s garage- with a registration sticker on its windshield! 5 - Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
This one almost does not need an explanation. Aside from being one of the most beautiful cars of all time, it offered many race-bred innovations. The Mercedes SL boasted the first four-stroke engine to feature direct injection, and its lightweight tubeframe chassis helped it win the 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans. The road-going version would require the iconic gullwing doors to accommodate elements of the frame that rose too high to allow for conventional doors. Because of its race-inspired quirks, it is largely considered the first exotic supercar.
4 - Mercedes CLK-GTR / Porsche Dauer 962 Le Mans
Though technically unrelated, they represent a time in Le Mans racing where the GT class was batshit-crazy with power and speed. The Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR is basically the Le Mans racer, which sold in limited numbers. Two CLK-GTR’s ran at Le Mans in 1998, and just hours into the race, both had to bow out when their V12 engines failed- but look at it! The vents, the scoops, the everywhere-bodywork. The road car had no amenities, therefore making the $1.5M price even more absurd.
Meanwhile, the Dauer 962 Le Mans is equally as preposterous. Dauer partnered with Porsche on the development of a road car that cost over a million dollars. The car was insanely fast and insanely expensive, but Porsche was able to convince race organizers that the Dauer supercar was tied closely enough to the track car. The 962 went on to win the 1994 Le Mans.
3 - Ferrari 250 GTO
Considered by many to be THE greatest sports car of all time. It combines a timeless, flowing design with a hand-crafted 3-liter V12, and a storied racing career. It has the look and feel of a car that could tear down the Mulsanne straight over the weekend, coast along the French countryside for leisure. The fact that a racing version sold for $35 million recently may make this road/race car a little unattainable, though.
2 - Ford GT40 Mk III
The GT40 was an absolute beast, mopping up any competition that Ferrari and Porsche could throw at it four years in a row. In 1969, new rules limited engine size to just 3-liters, knocking out the GT40 from the Prototype class. While the Mk III GT40 was intended to be the road-going version of the car, Wyer Ltd. sold the Mk I, which many buyers preferred. Wyer had sold enough to meet homologation, and the Mk I GT40, several years old by then, won the 1969 24 Hours of Le Mans. On the road, the car is an absolute monster. GT40 historian Ronnie Spain subtlety summed up the car’s power, “The acceleration…Jesus H. Christ…it was phenomenal!”
1 - McLaren F1
The McLaren F1 wasn’t even developed with the race track in mind. Designers wanted to create the ultimate sports car experience, albeit with lessons learned from decades of racing. The result was a car rivals today’s super cars almost two decades later!
The beauty of the F1 is its simplicity. I do not mean to say that the F1 is crude- it uses some of the highest-grade technology, including NASA-inspired gold-film heat shield, carbon fiber, and Kevlar. It also featured a modem, which broadcast diagnostics back to McLaren- and this was in 1992! Yet while modern sports cars use highly active suspensions and aerodynamics to master the track, the F1 did it with the time-honored formula of “low weight, high power” and perfectly-sorted chassis.
The most impressive feat of the F1 is how little the road-going version differs from the F1-GTR that won at Le Mans in 1995. With comparatively minor changes (in the context of what is usually needed to race-prep a GT), the F1-GTR beat out faster prototypes with its road-worthy reliability. The F1 would compete in various forms of motorsport up until 2005, highlighting the durability and timelessness of the F1.
For additional Le Mans history, see yesterday's post "History of Le Mans" and stay tuned for "Heroes of Circuit de la Sarthe: The Greatest Le Mans Race Cars".