24 Hours Stories: a real-life Top Five finish for comic hero Michel Vaillant

24 Hours Stories: a real-life Top Five finish for comic hero Michel Vaillant

Throughout this month, we will bring you a very special Advent calendar dedicated to remarkable stories and anecdotes from the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans. Today, we look back at the 1997 vintage which saw the participation of a Courage prototype sporting the colours of Michel Vaillant, the hero of the French/Belgian graphic novel series.

In 1997, illustrator Jean Graton celebrated a double anniversary at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Forty years earlier, racing driver Michel Vaillant first appeared in the Tintin comic magazine, and 20 years before that, the 13-year old Graton and his father witnessed the triumph of Robert Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille in a Bugatti on 19-20 June 1937.

Local driver-turned-carmaker Yves Courage entered a Courage-Vaillante prototype in the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans. He chose the name in tribute to the fictional marque owned by the Vaillant family. The livery was designed by Studio Graton. The car’s number, 13, was Courage’s favourite racing number ever since his first competitions as a manufacturer and was also the lucky number of Graton, appearing in many of his works. Powered by a Porsche 3-litre twin-turbo flat-six engine, the Courage-Vaillante C41 was driven by two Frenchmen, Didier Cottaz and Jérôme Policand, and a Belgian, Marc Goossens.

1997: Michel Vaillant and the ‘magic spray’

The Courage Vaillante’s performance in the 65th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was also marked by a feat of ingenuity that Michel Vaillant himself would have proud of. Starting the race in 13th position on the grid (where else?), the Courage Vaillante took a firm grip of seventh place as night fell when an electronic problem struck. The engine obstinately refused to restart until the team physio found a miraculous solution. He fetched a spray designed to treat stiff muscles and gave the engine a quick squirt!

After losing an hour, the trio of Cottaz, Policand and Goossens made their way back up the standings by virtue of a quick spray at each pit stop. The #13 Courage Vaillante took the chequered flag in fourth position, second in the prototype class behind race winners Stefan Johansson, Michele Alboreto and Tom Kristensen in the Joest-Porsche TWR. The real-life scenario was stranger than any fiction featuring Michel Vaillant... and provided an unforgettable experience for Vaillant’s creator Jean Graton. “We were in the Courage-Vaillante garage,” said his son Philippe, writer of the Michel Vaillant albums from 1994 to 2019. “My father pointed to the grandstands on the other side of the Pit Straight and said: ‘I sat over there with my father. It took me 60 years to cross the track.’ It was a highly charged moment for him.”

2017: Michel Vaillant's ‘rebellion’

Twenty years after that Top Five showing, Michel Vaillant was adopted by Swiss outfit Rebellion Racing. The 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship season concluded with Vaillante Rebellion taking the LMP2 Team trophy with the LMP2 Drivers trophy going to Brazilian Bruno Senna and Le Mans’ own Julien Canal.

The Centenary of the 24 Hours in 2023 will also mark 100 years since the birth of Jean Graton, who died on 21 January this year. Will Michel Vaillant appear once again on the bill of this double anniversary? Only time will tell.

PHOTOS (© ACO ARCHIVES): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 1997 24 HOURS OF LE MANS – Studio Graton, who illustrate and colour the Michel Vaillant albums, designed the livery of the Courage Vaillante driven by Cottaz/Policand/Goossens. Vaillante’s trademark tricolour V symbol can be seen on the hood of the Courage prototype in the above photo. 

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