Who is the most successful Le Mans driver? Kristensen, Ickx and more

Along with the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500, the Le Mans 24 Hours is one of the biggest and most illustrious events in international motorsport.

Who is the most successful Le Mans driver? Kristensen, Ickx and more

The French endurance classic on the high-speed Circuit de la Sarthe first took place in 1923. Since then many greatest drivers have won – and lost – the race, which is one of endurance competition’s toughest challenges.

Some drivers, however, stand above the others. Here is the list of the top Le Mans aces, based on the number of overall victories.

Tom Kristensen

Kristensen's run of six victories in a row between 2000 and 2005, pictured, has never been surpassed

Kristensen's run of six victories in a row between 2000 and 2005, pictured, has never been surpassed

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Wins: 9 (1997, 2000-05, 2008, 2013)
Starts: 18

One of the finest drivers never to race in Formula 1, Tom Kristensen starred at Le Mans on his very first appearance. After a late call-up, the then Formula 3000 driver was rapid during the night and scored a sensational victory with Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson in Joest’s sole TWR Porsche WSC95 in 1997.

He could, and perhaps should, have won with BMW in 1999 too had it not been for a crash caused by a stuck throttle. But his move to Audi’s squad for 2000 heralded an unprecedented run of success.

Read Also:

’Mr Le Mans’ won the 24 Hours six times on the trot, with works R8s in 2000-02, a factory Bentley in 2003 and privateer R8s in 2004-05. A wheel coming off the Audi R10 TDI he shared with Rinaldo Capello and Allan McNish ended a good chance of victory in 2007, but the following year the trio pulled off one of the greatest Le Mans wins against the faster Peugeot 908s.

There were three more Le Mans podiums before a record ninth victory in 2013 laid the foundations for Kristensen, McNish and Loic Duval to become World Endurance champions in their R18 e-tron quattro. Second place in his last Le Mans one year later meant Kristensen took an incredible 14 podium finishes in his 18 starts.

Kristensen was more than a Le Mans specialist, however. He also won the Sebring 12 Hours six times (another record), both Petit Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series title in 2002, and was a race winner in the DTM, British Touring Car and Japanese Touring Car championships.

Still an occasional racer in historic events, Kristensen has to be regarded as one of the greatest sportscar drivers of all time.

Jacky Ickx

A winner in three different decades, Ickx's 1977 win went down in folklore as one of the race's greatest-ever performances

A winner in three different decades, Ickx's 1977 win went down in folklore as one of the race's greatest-ever performances

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Wins: 6 (1969, 1975-77, 1981-2)
Starts: 15

Ickx was already an F1 winner in when he took his first Le Mans success in 1969. On his third visit to the 24 Hours – and after strolling to his car as a protest against the traditional Le Mans start – Ickx took a famous late victory in the Gulf Ford GT40 he shared with Jackie Oliver against the faster Porsche 908 of Hans Herrmann.

Read Also:

Ickx came close to winning the F1 world championship for Ferrari in 1970 but the peak of his single-seater career was behind him when he next won Le Mans. Partnered by Derek Bell, Ickx took the 1975 edition in a Gulf Mirage GR8.

The Belgian made it two on the trot with Gijs van Lennep in the under-rated Porsche 936 the following year, then put in what he believes was his greatest race in 1977. After his own car failed, Ickx transferred to the Jurgen Barth/Hurley Haywood 936 and stormed through the field to take victory when the rapid Alpine-Renaults hit trouble.

After two second places, in 1978 and 1980, Ickx was joined by Bell once again for 1981. Armed with a 936 with the 2.6-litre turbo engine destined for the Group C 956, the duo dominated from pole, winning by 14 laps.

Ickx and Bell teamed up again the following year and led a works Porsche 1-2-3 as the new 956 crushed the opposition. Ickx won the world sportscar drivers’ title in dramatic circumstances at the end of the season and repeated that the following year, after he and Bell had finished a close second at Le Mans.

Ickx made only one more Le Mans start, in 1985, but was a consultant to the ORECA-run Mazda team that took a shock victory in 1991.

One of the most versatile drivers as well as a Le Mans great, Ickx retired with eight world championship F1 wins, a Dakar Rally success and victory in the Bathurst 1000 to go with his record 37 world sportscar championship triumphs.

Derek Bell

Bell uncorks the champagne for the fifth time after taking a second win on the bounce alongside Holbert and Stuck in 1987

Bell uncorks the champagne for the fifth time after taking a second win on the bounce alongside Holbert and Stuck in 1987

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Wins: 5 (1975, 1981-82, 1986-87)
Starts: 26

Britain’s most successful Le Mans driver, Bell was still struggling to break into F1 when he made his first start in the 24 Hours in 1970, for Ferrari. His breakthrough success came in 1975 when he joined Jacky Ickx in the Gulf-liveried Mirage GR8.

Things didn’t come together during his time with the Alpine-Renault team, but they certainly did when he joined Ickx at Porsche. Although not considered as quick as the Belgian, Bell was the perfect foil and they took fine wins in 1981 and 1982.

Bell also starred in the closing stages of the 1983 event in which he narrowly failed to catch the ailing sister Porsche 956 of Al Holbert/Vern Schuppan/Hurley Haywood.

As Jaguar’s challenge grew, Bell and Hans-Joachim Stuck often led Porsche’s defence. They won the sportscar title together in 1985 and then won Le Mans in 1986 (when Bell was again champion) and 1987, both times sharing their 962 with Al Holbert.

With Klaus Ludwig replacing Holbert, they finished a close second in an epic 1988 bout against Jaguar – it was Bell’s seventh Le Mans podium of the decade.

His best years were behind him, but there was still time for one more third place. Bell, son Justin and Andy Wallace were real contenders in 1995, only a late gearbox problem dropping them back.

Frank Biela

Biela joined Pirro and Marco Werner in giving Audi's turbodiesel project a first Le Mans victory in 2006

Biela joined Pirro and Marco Werner in giving Audi's turbodiesel project a first Le Mans victory in 2006

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Wins: 5 (2000-02, 2006-07)
Starts: 10

Perhaps the most memorable Biela Le Mans moment comes from 2003, when he failed to pit in time and his Audi R8 ran out of fuel. That’s unfortunate, because for much of the rest of the decade the German was a consistent and safe pair of hands who took seven Le Mans podiums in a nine-year period.

Having finished third on his Le Mans debut in 1999 with Audi’s new sportscar programme, Biela teamed up with Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro. The trio went on to record three consecutive victories in the 24 Hours with Joest-run factory R8s.

Biela scored another podium with the Champion team in 2005 and then joined Pirro and Marco Werner to take the first diesel-powered triumph at the Circuit de la Sarthe the following year. The trio repeated the success with the R10 TDI in 2007. They were sixth the following year, which was Biela’s last Le Mans start.

Biela is probably more famous for his touring car exploits, winning the 1991 DTM and 1996 British Touring Car titles, but five Le Mans victories and four Sebring 12 Hours successes underline his strength as an endurance driver.

Emanuele Pirro

Like Biela, Pirro was plucked from Audi's touring car driver pool. Pictured here in 2000, he joined Biela and Kristensen in kick-starting Ingolstadt's reign of dominance

Like Biela, Pirro was plucked from Audi's touring car driver pool. Pictured here in 2000, he joined Biela and Kristensen in kick-starting Ingolstadt's reign of dominance

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Wins: 5 (2000-02, 2006-07)
Starts: 13

Between 1999 and 2007 Emanuele Pirro didn’t finish off the overall podium at Le Mans. His remarkable run with Audi included five victories – a hat-trick with Tom Kristensen and Frank Biela in R8s and a double with Biela and Marco Werner in the ground-breaking R10 TDI.

After a brief F1 career that included two points finishes, Pirro made a successful switch to tin-tops. He twice won the Macau Guia touring car race with BMW, was a double Italian Touring Car champion with Audi, and dominated the 1996 Super Tourenwagen Cup in Germany in an A4 Quattro.

The Italian stayed with Audi as it stepped into sportscar racing and the titles kept coming. He won the American Le Mans Series title in 2001 and 2005.

Although he retired from frontline motorsport at the end of that decade, Pirro remains involved in the sport. He competes in historic racing and is a Goodwood regular, and is one of the driver stewards for GPs.

Olivier Gendebien

Gendebien retired after winning his fourth Le Mans in 1962, which made him the most successful driver ever at the time

Gendebien retired after winning his fourth Le Mans in 1962, which made him the most successful driver ever at the time

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Wins: 4 (1958, 1960-62)
Starts: 8

Although Gendebien made 14 world championship F1 starts, taking two podiums and completing a Ferrari 1-2-3-4 in the 1961 Belgian GP, he was at his best in sportscar competition. At a time when cars were less reliable and needed to be treated accordingly, the Belgian often showed a knack for bringing his cars home.

Following a spell in rallying, Gendebien made his Le Mans debut in 1955 and immediately finished fifth overall – and second in class – sharing a Porsche 55 RS Spyder with Wolfgang Seidel. But it was with Ferrari that he scored his biggest successes.

After finishing third in 1956, Gendebien formed a formidable combination with Phil Hill and the Testa Rossa. They won Le Mans in 1958 and 1961, and could have won in 1959 had it not been for an overheating issue in the closing stages. Partnered with racer-journalist Paul Frere, Gendebien had also won the 1960 24 Hours, also in a Testa Rossa.

Read Also:

By 1962, Gendebien had won the Automobile Club de France’s Tour de France three times and Reims 12 Hours twice, all in GT Ferraris, plus scored a hat-trick of Sebring 12 Hours successes. During that season he added another endurance classic, the Nurburgring 1000Km, to his CV, scored a third Targa Florio success, and dominated Le Mans once again with Hill in Ferrari’s 330 TRI/LM.

After four Le Mans wins in five years and with nothing left to prove as one of his era’s best sportscar drivers, Gendebien retired. His tally would not be surpassed until fellow Belgian Jacky Ickx scored his fifth Le Mans victory in 1981.

Henri Pescarolo

After teaming up with Hill to win in 1972, Pescarolo partnered with future F1 team boss Larrousse to score a memorable hat-trick

After teaming up with Hill to win in 1972, Pescarolo partnered with future F1 team boss Larrousse to score a memorable hat-trick

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Wins: 4 (1972-74, 1984)
Starts: 33

Henri Pescarolo’s record of 33 starts in the Le Mans 24 Hours may never be surpassed. He first contested the race – unsuccessfully – as a budding single-seater driver in 1966 and made his last start in 1999 as part of his own team that went on to play a key role in sportscar racing in the early years of this century.

Pescarolo, who scored one podium in his 56-race F1 world championship career, didn’t finish the 24 Hours until his sixth attempt, but that resulted in victory for the Matra MS670 he shared with Graham Hill.

He completed his – and Matra’s – hat-trick with wins in 1973 and 1974, sharing with Gerard Larrousse. He rates the middle success, scored after a titanic battle between Matra and Ferrari, as his greatest race.

The Frenchman’s Le Mans luck deserted him for the next few years, aside from a second place for Rondeau in 1979, but victory number four arrived in 1984. With the factory Porsche squad boycotting the event, Pescarolo and Klaus Ludwig stormed back from an early delay to win in their Joest Porsche 956 as the Lancia challenge crumbled.

There would be no more overall podiums, but Pescarolo did add a Daytona 24 Hours win to his CV in 1991, to go with his 21 world sportscar championship victories.

After retiring, Pescarolo successfully ran his eponymous squad, winning the 2005 Le Mans Endurance Series and dominating the Le Mans Series the following year. The team never quite managed to win the ‘Big One’ but was a regular frontrunner in the 2000s and finished a close second in the 2005 Le Mans 24 Hours.

Yannick Dalmas

Dalmas claimed his second of four Le Mans triumphs in the McLaren F1 in 1995, a race remembered for Lehto's virtuoso drive in the wet

Dalmas claimed his second of four Le Mans triumphs in the McLaren F1 in 1995, a race remembered for Lehto's virtuoso drive in the wet

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Wins: 4 (1992, 1994-95, 1999)
Starts: 12

Yannick Dalmas had an unsuccessful F1 career and wasn’t perhaps the most consistent of performers but when he was comfortable the Frenchman could be rapid. And his Le Mans record is impressive.

The Peugeot 905, built for Group C’s new 3.5-litre regulations wasn’t ready to win when Dalmas made his 24 Hours debut in 1991. But it was the following year and he won with Derek Warwick and Mark Blundell, Dalmas and Warwick going on to win the 1992 world sportscar crown.

Dalmas was second for Peugeot the following year as Group C had its last hurrah, before joining Hurley Haywood and Mauro Baldi to win in 1994. In the very wet 1995 edition, Dalmas won with JJ Lehto and Masanori Sekiya as the McLaren F1 GTR starred on its debut.

That made it three wins in four years with three different manufacturers for Dalmas and he was a leading contender with Porsche in 1996 and 1997. The 911 GT1s were outpaced by the Joest TWR Porsche WSC95 in 1996 and finished second and third, while Dalmas/Emmanuel Collard/Ralf

Dalmas’s luck returned in 1999. After the failures of the faster Toyotas and leading BMW of team-mates Tom Kristensen/Lehto/Jorg Muller, the V12 LMR that Dalmas shared with Joachim Winkelhock and Pierluigi Martini came through to take a narrow victory.

shares
comments

Related video

Tincknell joins Proton Porsche for Le Mans GTE Am assault

Previous article

Tincknell joins Proton Porsche for Le Mans GTE Am assault

Next article

Corvette ace Garcia to run Campos tribute helmet at Le Mans

Corvette ace Garcia to run Campos tribute helmet at Le Mans
Load comments
Why Toyota's Le Mans victory was not as simple as it looked Prime

Why Toyota's Le Mans victory was not as simple as it looked

Toyota scored its fourth Le Mans 24 Hours victory and a 1-2, with the #7 car of Kamui Kobayashi, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez beating the #8. But although it looked straightforward from the outside, Toyota faced serious problem that had to be solved with some quick-thinking and ingenuity.

Le Mans
Aug 24, 2021
What we've learned from the Le Mans 24 Hours so far Prime

What we've learned from the Le Mans 24 Hours so far

The new dawn for the FIA World Endurance Championship has arrived at Le Mans, as Hypercars prepare to duel for victory in the world's oldest endurance race. Motorsport.com picks out the 10 things we have learned in the build up to the race.

Le Mans
Aug 21, 2021
Le Mans 2021: The team-by-team guide Prime

Le Mans 2021: The team-by-team guide

After a two-month delay due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Le Mans 24 Hours is set to get underway with the start of the Hypercar era at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Le Mans
Aug 21, 2021
The ex-F1 drivers making a name for themselves in LMP2 at Le Mans Prime

The ex-F1 drivers making a name for themselves in LMP2 at Le Mans

Kevin Magnussen will make his Le Mans 24 Hours debut this weekend alongside father Jan in LMP2. But the Danes won't be the only ex-F1 drivers to appear in the hotly contested category this year.

Le Mans
Aug 20, 2021
Can Toyota's #7 crew break its Le Mans curse? Prime

Can Toyota's #7 crew break its Le Mans curse?

One Toyota, normally with the number 7 on the side, always seems to attract the bad luck in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Mike Conway, Kamui Kobayashi and Jose Maria Lopez are hoping for a change in fortune this time around, but face significantly more unknowns than in recent years

Le Mans
Aug 19, 2021
How to prepare an amateur for Le Mans sensory overload Prime

How to prepare an amateur for Le Mans sensory overload

The 23-car GTE Am field promises to be one of the most open in this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, with the added jeopardy of managing the enthusiasm of amateur drivers to boot, as Absolute Racing Porsche driver Marco Seefried explains

Le Mans
Aug 19, 2021
Why Glickenhaus should be taken seriously on its Le Mans bow Prime

Why Glickenhaus should be taken seriously on its Le Mans bow

Many were quick to dismiss Glickenhaus when the boutique American sportscar firm's entry into the top class of the Le Mans 24 Hours was announced. It's all-new LMH racer, powered by an engine built by a rally specialist, goes in as the underdog against Toyota but the mathematical odds suggest that it has more than just a faint hope of success.

Le Mans
Aug 18, 2021
How 1971's benchmark Le Mans team lost with the best car Prime

How 1971's benchmark Le Mans team lost with the best car

The JW Automotive Engineering team won twice at the Le Mans 24 Hours with ageing Fords and was considered the heavy favourite to add more victories to its tally after partnering with Porsche. But despite being armed with the all-conquering 917, this formidable combination was never as successful in real life as on the big screen.

Le Mans
Aug 15, 2021