Formula One drivers take on the 24 Hours of Le Mans

Formula One drivers take on the 24 Hours of Le Mans

In the history of motorsport, only five drivers have ever been crowned Formula One world champion and also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. However, no fewer than 22 Formula One world champions have taken the start of the French marathon.

There are 22 names in the list of Formula One champions to have taken part in the world’s greatest endurance race: Nino Farina, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alberto Ascari, Mike Hawthorn, Jack Brabham, Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Denny Hulme, Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Mario Andretti, Alan Jones, Nelson Piquet, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button. Sebastian Vettel's turn soon? Their triumphs, trials and tribulations weave together the closely-related stories of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Formula One.

Le Mans and Formula One together

In the fifties and sixties, Formula One was not as popular as the 24 Hours of Le Mans – or as sportscar racing in general. Before the early seventies, many world champions took part in both. Four of the five drivers to boast both a Formula One world title and a triumph at Le Mans achieved their feat in that period: Mike Hawthorn (1955), Phil Hill (1961), Jochen Rindt (1965) and Graham Hill (1972).

In 1950, before winning his five world titles, Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio drove a Gordini at Le Mans, but did not see the finish despite four attempts between 1950 and 1955. The first ever Formula One world champion, Italian driver Nino Farina, and his compatriot Alberto Ascari had no more success at Le Mans. In three attempts, Jack Brabham finished once, in 15th place in 1957, having being the first world champion to win with a rear-engined single-seater and the only one ever to win with a car named after him. His sons Geoff and David won the race with Peugeot in 1993 and 2009.

In the sixties, five world champions finished in the top 10 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans while still racing in Formula One: Jim Clark (3rd in 1960, champion in 1963 and 65), Graham Hill (2nd in 1964, champion in 1962 and 1968), Jackie Stewart (10th in 1965, champion in 1969, 71 and 73) and Denny Hulme (2nd in 1966, champion in 1967). In the same period, John Surtees achieved the unique feat of being crowned world champion in both motorcyling and auto racing. Having won the motorcycle Grand Prix in 350 and 500 cc seven times between 1956 and 1960 he went on to claim the Formula One crown with Ferrari in 1964. The same year, he placed second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Lorenzo Bandini.


Le Mans before and after Formula One

Things were different in the 1970s. Formula One attracted huge publicity and drivers became more and more specialised, choosing either single-seaters or sportscar racing. No Formula One world champion still driving full time in the discipline took part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The trend seemed to be to win the championship first and try Le Mans afterwards.

Michael Schumacher is a prime example. In 1991, the 22-year-old member of the Mercedes team hopefuls finished fifth in the Sauber-Mercedes, having clocked the fastest lap, marking the beginning of a career featuring 91 Formula One race wins and seven world titles.

As for Mario Andretti, he deserved a prize for perseverance. After two participations in 1966 and 1967 and the Formula One title in 1978, he returned to Le Mans in the eighties, determined to add the legendary race to his list of achievements. He got close, finishing third in 1983 and second in 1995 and later, 15th in 2000 in a last-ditch attempt before his 60th birthday.

Seven other world champions of the eighties and nineties turned to Le Mans after their Formula One career. Alan Jones (6th in 1984), Keke Rosberg (DNF in 1991), Nelson Piquet (8th in 1996), Jacques Villeneuve (2nd in 2008) and Nigel Mansell (DNF in 2010). Graham Hill’s son Damon drove a Porsche 962 C at the 1989 24 Hours of Le Mans (DNF) and went on to become Formula One world champion in 1996.

2009 world champion Jenson Button also had a go at the 24-hour trial of strength in 2018 following his retirement from Formula One. Max Verstappen, a regular contender for the Virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans crown and current Formula One world champion regularly talks of venturing to La Sarthe one day, he who witnessed his father Jos win the LMP2 class in 2008. He has also said that he will have to wait until his Formula One career is over and that he is under contract until 2028.

For now, the last champion to have raced the 24 Hours of Le Mans while still in Formula One is Fernando Alonso in 2018. He won Le Mans twice with Toyota, joining Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill in the select group of drivers to boast a Formula One world championship crown and a Le Mans 24 Hours trophy. 

PHOTOS : LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES DU MANS, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS – From top (Copyright ACO Archives): After two successive wins in 2018 and 2019, Fernando Alonso has stated his eagerness to do Le Mans again one day; Jack Brabham (right) finishes 15th in 1957 with Cooper, the manufacturer with which he won his Formula One title in 1959 and 1960; Jim Clark and Roy Salvadori’s Aston Martin, third in 1960; Michael Schumacher beside the #Sauber-Mercedes with which he took 5th place, just a few months after his Formula One debut at Spa-Francorchamps; in 2010, Nigel Mansell was the seventh British Formula One world champion to take the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans; Jenson Button joined Fernando Alonso on the grid of the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans.

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