The 24 Hours of Le Mans has long been revered as one of the toughest events in motorsport, and Porsche, with 19 wins, has conquered it more than any other automaker.
The race has become part of the brand’s identity. Its success will be celebrated this weekend at the Le Mans Classic, an event for vintage cars from the history of the 24-hour race, dating from 1923. There will be a race solely for historic Porsches before the start of the classic.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Porsche’s first Le Mans class winner, the 356, entering production, and 50 years since the birth of the 908, a leading model in the racing world through the late 1960s and 1970s.
Both stand as examples of Porsche’s rich history at Le Mans, with the race offering the company a way to prove its pedigree in one of the toughest arenas. Porsche competed with its latest and most advanced car models against rival manufacturers such as Ferrari, Ford, Aston Martin and, more recently, Audi and Toyota, helping to develop new design concepts.
While fuel efficiency and hybrid technologies have lately been the focus, Le Mans was responsible for simpler automotive advancements, including windshield wipers and seatbelts.
Audi, a sister brand that is also part of the Volkswagen Group, is second with 13 wins, while Porsche’s run of seven consecutive victories from 1981 to 1987 is also a record. It had also won from 2015-17.
“For sure Le Mans made Porsche, with the history they made themselves there,” said André Lotterer, a Le Mans winner who is now a Porsche factory driver. “For a while, it was impossible to imagine Le Mans without Porsche. They walked out, they came back, they walked out, they came back, but there’s always been Porsches at Le Mans since they started.”
Porsche’s most recent stint in Le Mans’s premier class, LMP1, which stands for Le Mans Prototype 1, ended in 2017, when the company closed the program and moved into Formula E, an electric racecar series. At Le Mans, Porsche will still race in the GTE-Pro class.
Lotterer joined Porsche that year, but he had achieved his success at Le Mans with Audi, winning in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
“I fell in love with Le Mans in the later part of my career, and that was very much with Audi, but you always look at Porsche at Le Mans in a different way,” he said. “They are the boss there. It’s a shame it was just one year for me. But I have to consider myself lucky that I’ve been involved.
“To race for Porsche at Le Mans, it’s quite special. You feel the whole company is behind it, the workers, everything. It’s so close to this legendary brand that everyone loves.”
Lotterer’s car had a terminal failure in 2017 while leading by 13 laps. But the second Porsche 919 Hybrid won the race with Brendon Hartley as one of the drivers. It was his first success at Le Mans
Hartley has since moved into Formula One, widely regarded as the pinnacle of motor racing, with the Toro Rosso team. But when asked if winning Le Mans for Porsche remains the high point of his career, his answer was instant.
“One hundred percent, yes.”
The 2018 Le Mans Classic is split into six classes for cars from different eras, but there will also be the separate Porsche race, which is open to cars from 1952 to 1973.
“For this year, for the special anniversary, we have the Porsche race,” said Patrick Peter, of Peter Auto, a Paris company that specializes in classic-car events and is the organizer of the classic. “It’s a celebration. This is the 70th anniversary for Porsche, and the target is to accept 70 Porsches. But it is a big problem, because I think it will be overbooked.
“We will have 70 cars in the race, but we will have many, many Porsches in the 24-hour race,” he said, referring to the classic. “After that, we will have around 1,000 Porsche club cars everywhere on the infield circuit. They have a very big fan base at Le Mans. For Porsche lovers, they have to be there.”
“If you are a race organizer like Patrick, there’s a lot of people applying to get into your race with Porsches. So we’ve in some ways addressed an issue, as there are probably more people who want to race Porsches than Patrick has space for.”
So synonymous is Porsche with Le Mans that Turner recommended the brand for many “gentlemen drivers” — wealthy people looking to enter the 24 Hours of Le Mans in its Pro-Am Grand Tourer class.
“I think Porsche is completely intrinsic to Le Mans, to the extent that when I was advising gentlemen drivers on what to race in the 24 hours, we always talked about how iconic Porsche 911s were,” Turner said.
“If one was going to do Le Mans in a GT car, it would be really cool to do it in a 911, because it was the car that you associate with driving at Le Mans.
“One of the reasons I’ve always loved Porsche as a brand is that the motorsport heritage is genuine,” Turner said. “From the very beginning, the family were racing guys.”
The company’s founder, Ferdinand Porsche, took some convincing to take the first Porsche 356 to Le Mans in 1951, but now, Porsche would not be the brand it is without Le Mans.