24 Hours Centenary – The incomparable Yannick Dalmas
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24 Hours Centenary – The incomparable Yannick Dalmas

24 HOURS CENTENARY – PEOPLE and MACHINES ⎮ Yannick Dalmas was a major force to be reckoned with at Le Mans in the 1990s. In fact, he is the only driver to have won his four victories at the wheel of four different cars, a feat still unequaled on the eve of the Centenary.

Yannick Dalmas first made his mark in single-seaters. After masterfully climbing the ranks of French promotion formulas, winning in Formula Renault in 1984 then in Formula 3 in 1986 (with a prestigious victory in the race held as part of the Monaco Grand Prix), he graduated to Formula 1, competing in a total of 23 Grand Prix between 1987 and 1994.

But it was in endurance racing that Dalmas truly found his stride. Jean Todt, the head of Peugeot's competition activities at the time, offered him the wheel of a 905 prototype for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and World Sportscar Championship in 1991. With the exception of the retirement that year teamed up with fellow countryman Pierre-Henri Raphanel and previous F1 world champion Keke Rosberg, the French driver never failed to reach the podium at the 24 Hours until 1996, with three wins (1992, 1994 and 1995), second place (1993) and third (1996).

Four wins, four cars and four marques

For his first victory, Dalmas shared the Peugeot 905 with two Brits, Mark Blundell and Derek Warwick. The trio quickly took the helm of the race after a first hour dominated by Mazda. Then it turned into a long chase with Toyota, but the rain favoured Peugeot whose Michelin tyres proved more efficient in the wet than the Japanese marque's Goodyears.

In 1994, Dalmas took the start in a Dauer-Porsche 962 LM (a homologated version of the 962 C prototype winner in 1986 and 1987). Toyota was favoured to win again, but the French driver and teammates Mauro Baldi and Hurley Haywood snatched the lead two hours from the finish as the top Toyota dealt with technical troubles.

The following year, Dalmas won his third 24 Hours driving a competition version of a high-performance GT. Unveiled in 1992 and the manufacturer's first road car to win 20 Formula 1 titles, the McLaren F1 won the 63rd running much to everyone's surprise after a race again affected by rain. Dalmas claimed the top step on the podium with Finnish driver JJ Lehto and Japanese driver Masanori Sekiya. A unique feature of the McLaren F1 was its three front seats, with the cockpit shifted forward in the centre. He admitted an improved field of vision on the track compensated for the inconvenience of a slightly longer steering wheel.

For his fourth win, the French driver took the wheel of a BMW V12 LMR prototype in 1999. The field at the 67th 24 Hours was exceptional, with Toyota, Mercedes, Audi, Nissan and BMW. More underdogs than actual favourites, Dalmas and his teammates established a clear race strategy. "From the start, Joachim Winkelhock, Pierluigi Martini and I insisted with team management to spare the car in order to stay among the front runners. It paid off because some of our competitors adopted a Formula 1 level pace." The trio slipped into the lead on Sunday morning as Toyota dealt with problems and the BMW sister car of Tom Kristensen/JJ Lehto/Jörg Müller went off-track.

A pioneer and adviser for the rebirth of endurance racing

Across his 12 participations in the 24 Hours, Dalmas also drove a Porsche 911 GT1 as well as Reynard, Chrysler and Audi prototypes. He joined forces with big names like Gérard Larrousse (his team owner in F1), Reinhold Joest (the winningest team owner at Le Mans) and Hugues de Chaunac (ORECA founder and current benchmark manufacturer in LMP2, for whom he won two single-seater titles and was a driver at the 24 Hours in 2000 and 2001).

In less than a decade, Dalmas matched Henri Pescarolo, himself a four-time winner (1972, 1973, 1974 and 1984), as the most victorious French driver at Le Mans, and his track record at the 24 Hours was bolstered by many first-time achievements. Peugeot owes him the first of its three wins, and McLaren and BMW their only victories at the race. In 1995, teammates JJ Lehto and Masanori Sekiya became the first citizens of their respective countries to reach the top step on the podium.

Since 2012, Dalmas has acted as a key player in the success of the World Endurance Championship as an FIA adviser driver: "My role has evolved considerably so as to be fully involved with the Race Director, the FIA doctors and the stewards. I also offer my knowledge in consulting with drivers in the event of a dispute on the track. We talk more with the drivers, and team managers too, about what can still be improved: safety, race decisions, safety car deployment, Slow Zones (neutralisation zones specific to the 24 Hours circuit, Ed.), Full Course Yellows, etc. So, the conflicts in the field are strong, but respectful. All of it is the fruit of teamwork done by the World Endurance Championship, the FIA and the ACO."

2023 is certain to be a special year for Yannick Dalmas with the Centenary and the growth of the Hypercar class that succeeded LMP1 in 2021.

 

PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO Archives): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS. From top to bottom: the Peugeot team in 1992, Yannick Dalmas on the right in a jacket, sitting on the left front fender of his #1 905; the cars of his four wins, the 1992 Peugeot 905 (#1), the 1994 Dauer-Porsche 962 LM (#36), the 1995 McLaren F1 GTR (#59) and the 1999 BMW V12 LMR (#15); Yannick Dalmas (at left) with ACO President Pierre Fillon and Head of Stellantis Motorsport Jean-Marc Finot with the 1992 905 during the Peugeot Allure Le Mans exhibition in 2022.

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