24 Hours Centenary – Ten ingenious engineers behind the century’s iconic models

24 Hours Centenary – Ten ingenious engineers behind the century’s iconic models

24 HOURS CENTENARY – PEOPLE AND MACHINES ⎮ Public perception sees racing drivers speeding along in broad daylight or in eerie darkness, braving the searing heat or torrential rain, as the heroes of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Their names are inextricably linked to the makes with which they found fame. However, this view does something of a disservice to the engineers who spent hours at the drawing table (or computer screen) and in the garage, perfecting the design of cars that made the race a legend. Here are ten whose imagination propelled their cars to glory.

Engineers, like team managers and mechanics, are a vital component in the quest for victory. Fame tends to elude them, but their passion for racing is at least as strong as that of the household names behind the wheel. Although the names of most have been erased from collective memory, some deserve to be remembered.

Vittorio Jano, from Alfa Romeo to Ferrari

Jano was hired by the team manager of Alfa Romeo – none other than Enzo Ferrari. He was the brains behind many engines such as the straight-six and, especially, the supercharged 2.4-litre straight-eight engine equipped with twin overhead camshafts which were rather uncommon in those days. The Alfa Romeo 8 C powered by the S8 engine won the 24 Hours four years in a row from 1931 to 1934.

Two Frenchmen of Italian origin also left their mark on the pre-war years.

Bugatti and Gordini, French success stories with an Italian accent

In their own individual way, Ettore Bugatti, together with his son Jean, and Amédée Gordini wrote some remarkable chapters in 24 Hours history.

Ettore and Jean Bugatti were totally focused on the goal of absolute performance. “What has already been invented belongs in the past; only innovations are worthy of interest,” Bugatti Senior claimed. Such an outlook resulted in road cars that combined performance and unparalleled luxury. On the racetrack, the constant pursuit for speed was rewarded by countless victories all over the world. The Bugattis’ success story included two Le Mans wins in 1937 and 1939.

Amédée Gordini started out by preparing Fiats for himself in the 1930s. His mechanical prowess and racing skills came to the fore in 1939 with a class win in a Simca 8. After the war, Gordini set up in Paris as a racecar manufacturer and returned to Le Mans in 1952 with the T15 S driven by a 2.5-litre six-cylinder engine. Further class wins in 1953 and 1954 produced an overall sixth place in both editions.

Sadly, a lack of funding prevented Gordini-badged cars from achieving the reliability required over 24 hours to repeat the feat. In the 1960s, the “Wizard” joined up with Renault in a highly successful move. Alpines equipped with Renault-Gordini engines scooped several class wins and Performance and Thermal Efficiency Index awards. A few months before passing away, Gordini finally had the satisfaction of seeing a Renault-Alpine powered by a turbocharged Gordini V6 engine on the top of the 1978 24 Hours of Le Mans podium.

John Wyer and his alter ego, John Horsman

From the mid-fifties, a British duo – John Wyer, who managed then owned his own team, and John Horsman, a Cambridge engineering graduate turned technical director – became prominent figures in the worlds of endurance and Formula One. They were in charge of the Aston Martin programme that resulted in victory in 1959 and were subsequently involved in the early days of the Ford GT40 project, before Carroll Shelby took over for the Mk II and Mk IV.

Wyer and Horsman later returned to the GT40 Mk I for two successive Le Mans wins in 1968 and 1969. Sensing that the venerable GT40, designed in 1963, was coming to the end of its competitive life, the pair reached an agreement with Porsche to race the 917 in 1970 and ’71. It was Horsman who designed the unforgettable outline of the 917 K (for Kurzheck, or short tail), based on his observation of the lack of insects splattered on the rear of the original bodywork.

However, the 24 Hours-winning 917s were not Wyer’s, contrary to the story depicted in the Steve McQueen movie Le Mans. After the Sport 5-litre class cars had been outlawed in favour of barchetta-style prototypes, Horsman went back to the drawing board to design the Mirage, one of which won in 1975.

Ferdinand Piëch and Norbert Singer, shooting Porsche to the top

A grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, Ferdinand Piëch was a brilliant engineer who was assigned to the firm’s racing programme in the mid-sixties. Piëch wiped the slate clean in terms of body styling and developed his own line of prototypes – the 907 and 908, and later the 917 – tailored to achieve lightning-quick top speeds:  On the other hand, despite having trained in engine design, he retained and developed the air-cooled flat-six layout, and subsequently the flat-eight and flat-12. The disappointing 908 was systematically beaten at Le Mans by Ford, but with the 917, Piëch found success in 1970 – in the colours of the Salzburg entity funded by his mother – and again in 1971.

Norbert Singer joined the Porsche team in 1970. After Piëch switched to Audi in 1972, Singer was put in charge of engineering on Porsche’s various racing models. The array of wins achieved under his leadership is mightily impressive: Porsche 936 (three wins in 1976, ’77 and ’81), 935 (one win in 1979), 956 and 962 C (six straight wins from 1982 to ’87), and finally the 911 GT1 that secured the German marque’s 16th Le Mans win in 1998. The affable, good natured Singer is a true Porsche legend.

F for Forghieri and Ferrari

In Italy, Mauro Forghieri was the man who led the Ferrari programmes of the late sixties and early seventies. The Bologna University graduate was taken on by Ferrari’s engine department in 1960 and placed under the guidance of Carlo Chiti, Vittorio Jano and Romolo Tavoni. After a number of key figures left the firm in 1961, Ferrari handed the reins of the Scuderia’s racing division to the young Forghieri. He was in charge of the development of the 250 P, 330 P, 312 P, 512 S and 512 M programmes. Finally, he was behind the 312 PB that fought an epic battle with Matra in 1973. After winning Le Mans with the 250 and 275 P in 1963 and 1964, and then the 250 LM in 1965, Forghieri oversaw Ferrari’s Formula One revival from 1974 after the firm officially ended its involvement in prototypes.

Gérard Ducarouge and André de Cortanze, eminent French engineers

Matra’s ascent to the top step of the Le Mans podium was the work of two engineers: Jean-Luc Lagardère, who directed and organised the operation, and Gérard Ducarouge in charge of design and team management.  They succeeded in keeping the Le Mans trophy on French soil for three consecutive years, in 1972, ’73 and ’74, powered by the splendid 3-litre V12 developed by a third engineer, Georges Martin, formerly of Simca.

The 1990s saw the emergence of another French engineer whose father was a talented driver and then a member of the 24 Hours of Le Mans organisation. After a distinguished academic career, André de Cortanze switched to racing, appearing at Le Mans with a Porsche 904 GTS which, despite qualifying, was unable to start the race.

He moved to Alpine in 1966 as a driver and project lead, but retired mid-race. De Cortanze saw his first chequered flag in an Alpine 1300 in 1967, and again the following year with the 3-litre Alpine A220. After a final unsuccessful attempt in 1970 in a Porsche 908, he hung up his helmet and gloves to focus exclusively on his role as an engineer. He worked on the Alpine programme from the 2-litre A441 in 1975 through to the A442B turbo that took Le Mans honours in 1978.

Subsequently recruited by Jean Todt for Peugeot in 1984, he headed the Peugeot Sport team of engineers for the 205 Turbo 16 rally programme, then oversaw the creation of the 905 that won the 24 Hours in 1992 and 1993. After a few years in Formula One, he returned to Le Mans with the emblematic Toyota GT-One that came so close to victory in 1998 and ’99. He ended his career with Pescarolo Sport after the turn of the century.

Tony Southgate, the eclectic genius

For the firm’s return to Le Mans in the 1980s, Jaguar banked on the wonderfully versatile Tony Southgate for the XJR-9 to XJR-12 series. He had notably been responsible for the 1968 Indianapolis 500-winning Eagle driven by Bobby Unser, the BRM P160 of Jean-Pierre Beltoise that won at Monaco in 1972, the marvellous Shadows that competed in Formula One and CanAm, and the Ford C100 in endurance.

Southgate therefore designed the two Jaguars that won the 24 Hours in 1988 and 1990. After leaving TWR-Jaguar, he was involved in creating the Toyota TS010, then the Ferrari 333 SP and finally the Audi R8R and R8C in 1999 that ultimately led to the Audi R8 prototype series (five wins from 2000 to 2005).

 And many, many more

The ten engineers featured above are obviously just a small sample of those who have left their imprint on the 24 Hours of Le Mans with their creations. Figures such as Charles Deutsch, Gérard Welter, Manfred Jankte, Wolfgang Ullrich, Ulrich Baretzky, Carlo Chiti, Jean Pierre Boudy, Harvey Postlethwaite, Gordon Murray, Bruno Famin, Nigel Stroud, Gioacchino Colombo, Ferry Porsche, Vincenzo Lancia, Colin Chapman, Ross Brawn, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, Eric Broadley and Len Bailey are also deserving of a mention, as are many more.

Today, the job has evolved towards more of a collective effort. Whereas in bygone days a team relied on just one engineer, today it employs a whole army with several devoted to each car: design engineers, operations or track engineers, performance engineers, strategists… A growing list of professionals all keen to live their passion for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

PHOTOS: LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 1931–1998 24 HOURS OF LE MANS – FROM TOP TO BOTTOM: The Alfa Romeo 8C’s engine was the work of Vittorio Jano (#12, pictured in 1932); Jean Bugatti died in the summer of 1939, a few weeks after the marque’s second win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (#1); in 1937, Amédée Gordini’s Simca (#59) had one of the lowest engine capacities ever seen at the 24 Hours of Le Mans); a result of Ferdinand Piëch’s burning desire to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Porsche 917 owes its famous short tail to engineer John Horsman (#21 pictured in 1970 in the Gulf colours of John Wyer’s team); for over two decades, the Le Mans-winning Porsches bore the hallmark of Norbert Singer (#26 911 GT1 pictured in 1998); Mauro Forghieri’s two Ferrari 312 PB machines (#15 & 16) on the front row of the Le Mans grid in 1973 fought a tough battle with the trio of Matras (#10, 11 & 12) of Jean-Luc Lagardère, Gérard Ducarouge and Georges Martin; after the Peugeot 905, André de Cortanze was involved in designing another car that made a mark on the nineties, the Toyota GT-One (#29); the 1990 Le Mans-winning Jaguar XRJ-12 (#3) emerged from the 1998 XJR-9 LM, the work of Tony Southgate.

Major Partner

PREMIUM partners

OFFICIAL partners

All partners