Porsche has had a successful history at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, scoring 19 overall victories to their name, the most of any manufacturer to race at the prestigious endurance event. Only their first year of their LMP1-hybrid campaign (2014) did not see them taking the top step of the overall podium. However, 2020 marks an important milestone for the German manufacturer, as 50 years ago they took their first overall Le Mans victory in a race the team would not soon forget.
It was not the first Le Mans victory Porsche scored. The German team came onto the endurance scene in the best way possible; taking class victory in their first race appearance in 1951 with the Porsche 356 SL. Seen as the underdog for quite some time, Porsche race fast and fair in their class, making themselves known but never looking close enough to clinch the overall victory.
Towards the end of the 1960s, Porsche had made themselves ones to watch. In the closest Le Mans finish to date in 1969, Porsche lost the overall victory by 75 meters (around one second) at the line. But the team already had their eyes forwards, and a strategy change they had been slowly implementing over the 1960s saw them in a very strong position coming into the new decade.
Porsche did not just start the decade strong, but rang in the new era claiming the entire overall podium. Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood took the top step and the first overall victory for Porsche in the #23 917 KH, whilst Gerard Larrousse and Willy Kauhsen were second in the Martini Porsche 917 LH, and Rudi Lins with Helmut Marko rounded off the podium in the Porsche 908/02.
“It was a race dominated by rain and it felt we had to permanently keep changing the tyres and adapt to the situation at hand.” Herrmann said, looking back at the race he and Attwood won 50 years ago. “It was not the wear that forced us to change tyres, but the constantly changing weather. The fact we harmonised so well together as a driving team led us to victory.
“To compete in a 24-hour endurance race with just two drivers is no mean feat. The 917 started out as a very difficult racing car. It was driving us rather than the other way round – until we managed to optimize the aerodynamics and transform it into a winning car.”
“Le Mans is a race where everything goes right, or it doesn’t. In those days, the 24 Hours was more like an endurance drive than a race.” Attwood remembered. “To win Le Mans with Porsche and Hans came fully unexpectedly because our car didn’t have the right set-up for speeds. Hans and I were simply a dream team.
“The victory gained in significance over the years. Who would have thought that Porsche would become the record title holder at this race?”
The success at Le Mans continued for the team, and not only were they taking victories but also setting new records. In 1971, just one year after their first overall victory, 33 of the 49 starters were driving Porsche-made cars, the highest percent of a Le Mans grid using the same manufacturer still to this day. They also claimed the first turbo victory at Le Mans with the 936 Spyder in 1976, which went on to take back-to-back wins in 1977.
To this day, Porsche still hold the longest unbroken chain of victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, remaining unbeaten from 1981 to 1987, and are still the manufacturer with the most 24 Hours of Le Mans overall victories at 19. Their latest win was their last as part of the LMP1-hybrid class, with Brendon Hartley, Timo Bernhard and Earl Bamber beating the rest in one of the craziest Le Mans in history, where an LMP2 car almost took the overall victory.
With a history like this, it seems only right it be celebrated, and to do so, Porsche have put the winning #23 917 KH on display at the Porsche Museum. The original winning car will be added to the exhibition on the weekend of the 13/14th June – when the 88th 24 Hours of Le Mans was due to take place – to celebrate its racing history, heritage and success at the prestigious blue-riband event.