Four Great Rivalries from Le Mans
Le Mans has always been a gathering place for big egos. From Colin Chapman, to the Bentley Boys, there almost is not enough room in the rural French town for all of the genius, testosterone, and vitriol that are thrown into the cauldron every year. The competition is fierce and the stakes are always high, but some years- or stretches of years- battling of egos stoke the flames of massive rivalries. Some of the greatest rivalries have been two top-tier teams at the height of their game, in healthy competition. Others have been the product of anger and spite, and their win at Circuit de Sarthe is an act of pure vengeance. No matter the reason for the heightened tensions, the eventual byproduct has been dazzling finishes and superlative performances that have found their way into the annals of history. In other words, it makes for great racing, and here are some of the fiercest of them all! Ford vs. Ferrari: How could you have a discussion about rivalries and ill-will without including Enzo Ferrari? In the early 60’s Henry Ford II was interested in endurance racing. This coincided with a desire by Ferrari, who was dominating at Le Mans, to sell his company. Ford and Ferrari were deep into months of talks when they broke down at the last minute. Several reasons have been cited, including Ford’s lengthy and invasive audit of Ferrari, Ford’s insistence that Ferrari race at Indy (a race in which Enzo supposedly had no interest in competing), and the fact that Enzo would be working with arch rival Carroll Shelby. [caption id="attachment_6965" align="alignnone" width="532" caption="Painfully beautiful Ferrari 330P"]
Whatever the exact reason, talks broke down, and Ferrari pulled out, which enraged Henry Ford II. Rumor has it, the very same day the deal broke down, Ford II initiated the GT40 program. Ford poured massive amounts of resources into a race car that could beat Enzo at Le Mans, and in 1966, the GT40 would finish 1-2-3, demolishing the Italian rivals. Even when a rule change pushed the 5-liter Mk IV GT40 out of the prototype class, famed constructor John Wyer simply entered a 4.7-liter Mk I through homologation rules.
[caption id="attachment_6973" align="alignnone" width="556" caption="The 1-2-3 Finish"] [/caption]
Following the four-year reign of the GT40, Ford would only win once more- sort of. The 1975 winner Mirage GR8 was very loosely based on the GT40, and featured a Ford-Cosworth V8. Ferrari would never win again, though developments in the Italian automaker’s race program would lead to our next rivalry
Ferrari vs. Porsche: Both of these organizations looked at Ford’s dominance at Le Mans as an affront to the credibility of their race teams, and both stepped up their respective games. Porsche brought in John Wyer, one of the key individuals in the GT40 development. Wyer took the 917LH (long tail) and shortened it to create the 917K that Porsche would field at Le Mans.
[caption id="attachment_6964" align="alignnone" width="545" caption="An epic painting of the 512 and 917 at Le Mans"] [/caption]
Meanwhile, Ferrari developed the 512S and sold 25 to privateer racing teams like NART. Unfortunately for Ferrari, they did not have the track time enjoyed by Porsche. They did not have time to work out the kinks. Additionally, Ferrari had lost several drivers to either accidents or walkouts (John Surtees left after a quarrel with director Eugino Dragoni), and were no match for the superior Porsche pilots.
Porsche would win in 1970 and 1971, with the 512 never far behind. The rivalry was brought to an end with the French-built Matra Simca taking the podium in 1972, and Ferrari moving to the GT-class with the production-based 365 GTB/4.
The rivalry was immortalized in the Steve McQueen film Le Mans. However, based on that movie alone, we should not assume that the Porsche and Italian teams were flipping each other the bird and drivers were sleeping with each others’ wives. The off-track transgressions in that film have helped form an image of that era in Le Mans that many hold dear today.
Audi vs. Peugeot: Not as hot-blooded as the seething rivalries of years past, this falls into the “two upstanding teams at the top of their game” category. Following six years of Audi dominance at the track (first in the gas-powered R8R, then in the diesel R10 TDI), Peugeot debuted their own diesel prototype for the 2007 Le Mans Cup season. The Peugeot 908 HDi-FAP found wins at Monza and Valencia, but when it came time to take on the R10 TDI, the 908 was initially no match. The Audi’s were faster on the straights and more stable through the turns. In the 2007 24-hour endurance race, one Peugeot did not finish and one managed to come in second.
In 2008, Audi would once again take the checkered flag, but Peugeot would take second and third place. 2009, however, would see the first overall win for the 908. They were faster cars than the new-and-unproven R15 TDI, and Peugeot took the first and second places. Audi has won the last two years, but Peugeot has been close behind both times. Rather than any bad blood, this rivalry has become a testament to the viability of diesel as a race fuel.
Circuit de Sarthe vs. Every Team on the Grid: Though a comparatively safe race now, the high speeds of the track have brought on some of the most horrendous crashes the sport has ever seen. Early racers refused to wear safety harnesses, preferring to be thrown from the vehicle rather than crushed by it. The 1955 crash involving a Mercedes SLR, Jaguar D-Type, and Austin Healy 100 is considered one of the worst in motorsport history.
The “Le Mans Start” alone was a source of danger, as drivers would run across the starting grid to their respective vehicles, many racing the first lap without their safety harnesses fastened. This start was eliminated, in favor of a rolling start, but the dangers brought on by the track were far from over. The insanely high speeds of the GT cars in the 80’s and 90’s resulted in some of the most stupendous crashes. In 1999, a CLK-GTR became airborne in qualifying (pictured above), as a pocket of air formed under the car at speed.
24 racers have died since the race’s origins and the mental fatigue placed on racing throughout the night will always place drivers in danger one way or another.
Photo Credits: Ford, Audi, Steffen Jahn
Enjoy more exciting of the BoldRide Le Mans-fest with History of Le Mans, The List: Top 5 Le Mans Racers for the Road and Heroes of Circuit de la Sarthe: the Greatest Le Mans Race Cars. And stay tuned tomorrow for our 2012 Le Mans Race Guide.