So close… BMW has had some fine results at Le Mans, but it’s never been the company’s happiest hunting ground, as Bob Harper explains. Photography: BMW Press and BMW Group Archive.
BMW at Le Mans / BMW on track
The debate over which is the world’s toughest endurance event is undoubtedly set to rage among race fans for years to come, but it’s probably fair to say that the most famous of them all is the 24 Hours of Le Mans. There’s something about the French endurance classic at La Sarthe that really captures the imagination, and which has transformed it into an event that all the world’s manufacturers want to win.
In the late 1920s, it was the Bentley Boys with their wonderful, lumbering leviathans; the 1930s saw Alfa Romeo come to the fore, while Jaguar made it home several years on the spin in the 1950s. Ferrari took six straight wins in the 1960s, before Ford muscled in with its GT40 and, subsequently, the race has been dominated by Porsche and Audi, plus the odd wildcard winner from the likes of Sauber, Jaguar, Peugeot and Mazda.
Porsche has an incredible 19 outright wins to its name, while Audi’s efforts over the past couple of decades mean it has crossed the finish line in first place an impressive 13 times. And it has to be said that these numbers make BMW’s sole victory as a manufacturer in 1999, look like decidedly slim pickings.
To be fair to BMW, though, it’s very rarely actually contested the top categories at Le Mans and, over the years, has achieved quite a few class victories. Somehow, though, BMW has never been as successful in France as it has been at its home endurance event – the Nürburgring 24- Hours – where it’s been the overall winner on no less than 19 separate occasions.
1939: THE 328
BMW’s first foray into endurance racing at Le Mans was in 1939, with the 328. Ever since the model’s introduction, it had become the car to beat in the under 2.0-litre category in sports car racing, and whether or not it could cope with the endurance aspect of Le Mans simply wasn’t open to question – it had taken the first four places in the under 2.0-litre category in the 1938 Mille Miglia.
Three cars were entered for the 1939 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the entrant was actually the NSKK (National Socialistisches Kraftfahrt Korps), the Nazi motorsport team. The cars had been extensively reworked from their production spec, and boasted an output of 130hp thanks to a raised compression ratio, lightened valve gear, revised valve timing and enlarged venturis for the Solex downdraught carbs.
Other mechanical changes included a close-ratio gearbox and a 100-litre fuel tank. Aerodynamics were improved by fitting special undertrays and aero screens. For one of the cars, though, there was a far more involved body transformation. While the standard 328 might have looked suitably streamlined to 1930s eyes, the design of the front wings lead to excessive drag, and the open cockpit also left something to be desired as far as aerodynamics were concerned.
Thus, BMW took a leaf out of Alfa Romeo’s book and headed to Carrozzeria Touring in Milan, where the 328 Roadster was transformed into a 328 Touring Coupé, with a significantly more slipstreamed shape. The superleggera body was constructed from aluminium, and weighed less than 800kg. By way of comparison, some of the heavyweights in the race absolutely dwarfed the diminutive BMWs – monster Delages, Lagondas and the Bugatti Type 57 Tank all packed much more firepower than the 328s. But the Touring-bodied BMW was able to make the most of its aerodynamics, and came home an impressive fifth overall, and first in class.
The standard-bodied versions lagged behind a little, but still came in seventh and ninth overall (second and third in class), to complete a BMW rout in the under 2.0-litre category. However, WWII broke out a scant three months later and, for decades after the war, it looked like BMW would remain a ‘one hit wonder’ at La Sarthe.
1970S: CSLS COME GOOD
Apart from a couple of BMW-engined Elvas and Chevrons in the late 1960s, BMW had been absent from Le Mans since the 328s won their class immediately before the Second World War. But that changed in the 1970s, when the E9 Coupés entered the fray. Despite being relatively underdeveloped by the factory and a little lacking in ultimate speed, the 2800CS had demonstrated it could have the pace to win in endurance events when it took the chequered flag at the 1970 Spa 24-hour race.
In 1972, Schnitzer entered a 2800CS at Le Mans, driven by Herzog and Heyer in the Touring class – a category mainly populated by the CS’s nemesis, Ford’s Capri. The CS was outgunned for pace – it was 10 seconds a lap down on the fastest of the factory Capris – and didn’t cover itself in glory during the race, retiring on lap 60 with a lack of oil pressure.
However, the model was about to enter its purple patch – sweeping all before it on the European Touring Car circuits – so it was almost inevitable it would make a return at La Sarthe.
The following year there were three CSLs on the grid, occupying the T5 class and, with no other machinery in the class, the BMWs were assured of a class win! The two BMW Motorsport cars – driven by the pairings of Amon/Stuck and Quester/Hezemans – were pretty quick in qualifying, ending up in 29th and 30th on the grid ahead of many cars that should have been faster. In the end, the Quester/Hezemans CSL came home a very creditable 11th overall (unsurprisingly, first in class), while the Amon/Stuck car succumbed to an accident late in the race.
There were two CSLs on the grid in 1974, up against a Capri and a Mazda. Once again, though, the CSL was the only car to finish in its class while, in 1975, two CSLs and a solitary 2002Ti took part; the Ti finished first in class. One of the ‘1975 CSLs was the famous Alexander Calder Art Car entered by Hervé Poulain but, despite qualifying in an impressive 11th place, it failed to finish, succumbing to a failed CV joint.
An Art Car returned in 1976, but this time it was the stunning Frank Stella Group 5 machine and, with its turbocharged motor, it was a real flying machine and took eighth place on the grid. Sadly, in the race it retired after just four hours, suffering from excessive oil consumption – the turbocharged CSL was mighty fast, but too fragile to last the course in endurance events. So it was left to the naturally-aspirated CSL to complete the 24 hours and finish fourth in class.
By this time, though, the poor old CSL really was getting too long in the tooth to be genuinely competitive. As a consequence, factory support was cut for the 1977 event but, nevertheless, the Luigi team brought its CSL E9 home as class winners with the second in class going to the third BMW Art Car, the Roy Lichtenstein turbocharged 320i.
1980S: THE M1 YEARS
The first outing for the M1 at Le Mans was actually in 1979 – the famous Andy Warhol Art Car driven by Marcel Mignot, Hervé Poulain and Manfred Winkelhock. It was actually one of the best results for the M1, finishing an impressive sixth overall and second in class, despite requiring a clutch replacement and a gearbox rebuild during the race. Truth be told, though, Le Mans wasn’t a particularly happy hunting ground for the M1 E26.
Between the years of 1980 and 1986, 21 M1s were entered yet only six of them finished the race. The best results came in 1984 and 1985, when the model won the Group B class, but these were relatively hollow victories without much in the way of serious opposition.
The main problems the M1 faced were the fact that its engine couldn’t match the output of its turbocharged Porsche 935 nemesis, it was heavier than the 935 and, perhaps worst of all, it was ultimately unreliable. BMW M1 E26 pit crews became pretty adept at replacing crankshaft dampers and clutches during, but gearboxes had to be rebuilt as replacements weren’t permitted in those days.
Despite the best efforts of some of BMW’s finest drivers – Cecotto, Quester, Stuck and Surer among them – the M1’s time at Le Mans wasn’t a happy one. Perhaps with more investment and with a quicker gestation period, the car could have been a success. But, ultimately, BMW’s only mid-engined racer simply didn’t represent the company’s finest hour.
1990S: V12 GLORY
If BMW’s own mid-engined supercar struggled at Le Mans, the same can’t be said of the McLaren F1, with its stunning, S70 V12 BMW powerplant. Its first year at La Sarthe was in 1995 and, despite not being in the fastest LMP1 or LMP2 classes, the Ueno Clinic-sponsored F1 GTR came home in a quite astonishing first place overall.
It was an amazing achievement for a car at its first Le Mans, and was in no small part down to the driving antics of JJ Lehto who, at times during the night in pouring rain, was up to 30 seconds a lap faster than any other car on the track. To top it off, F1 GTRs occupied third, fourth and fifth place overall as well – a comprehensive performance if ever there was one.
This success was no flash in the pan, either. Seven F1s were entered in the 1996 race, with six of them finishing, and securing fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth places overall. BMW gave some factory support in 1997, with two BMW Motorsport-entered machines, but it was one of the Gulf Racing cars that clinched the class win and second place overall. BMW Motorsport had to settle for second in class, and third place overall.
Two F1 GTRs were entered in 1998, but this was the year that BMW had decided to pull out all the stops and go for the LMP1 crown with the V12 LMs it had developed in conjunction with the Williams F1 team, in anticipation of the Formula 1 partnership. The BMW V12 engine had proved that it had both the necessary pace and the reliability in the McLaren F1, but it was ultimately a frustrating event for BMW and Williams. The car was certainly quick enough, with the Martini/ Cecotto/Winkelhock car taking class pole. Unfortunately, though, come the race, both cars were forced to retire during the fourth hour, with failed wheel bearings. BMW returned in 1999, this time with the V12 LMRs and, while one of the two cars (No. 17, which had taken class pole and set the fastest lap in class) crashed on lap 304, the No. 15 car – driven by Martini, Dalmas and Winkelhock – went on to win the race outright. This was BMWs only outright win at Le Mans to date. The cars didn’t return the following year – BMW was concentrating its Motorsport efforts on Formula 1 by then – and it wasn’t active at Le Mans for another 10 years after that.
2010S: FACTORY GTS
BMW re-entered the fray in 2010, with the E92 M3 GTRs and, despite pitching into the incredibly competitive GT2 category, didn’t opt for a low-key entry. It had specially commissioned an Art Car for the race, the stunning Jeff Koons’-designed moving canvas, and BMW had even bagged the number 79 start number in homage to the Warhol M1 art car from 1979.
Unfortunately, though, things didn’t go well. The car had a puncture in the first hour, then had to pit for almost an hour with transmission trouble. If that wasn’t enough there were problems with the steering rack, another puncture that led to a coming together with the LMP1 Audi of Tom Kristensen plus suffering the ultimate ignominy when Priaulx ran out of fuel at Indianapolis. The second M3 of Müller, Farfus and Alzen finished 19th overall and sixth in class, 18 laps behind the class winner.
There was a better showing in 2011 when the M3s returned, taking class pole and fastest race lap in the new LM GTE Pro category, but it wasn’t quite enough to win, with one car retiring and the second taking the third step of the class podium. Fast-forward eight years and BMW was back at Le Mans in 2018, this time with the stunning M8 GTE. Prior to the race, the M8s contested the first round of the World Endurance Championship at Spa and weren’t quite on the pace and, despite some Balance of Performance (BoP) breaks prior to Le Mans, grid positions of 12th and 13th after qualifying weren’t what BMW was expecting. Minor adjustments to the BoP between qualifying and the race did look to have levelled the playing field somewhat and, at times during the first part of the race, the M8s were able to push the leading (and eventual winning) Porsche hard.
The GTE Pro class did deliver some incredibly close racing, though, with the Fords, Porsches, Corvettes, Ferraris and BMWs having some great dices. But it all came to nought for the BMWs, which were both put out of contention after succumbing to shock absorber failures that dropped them down the order.
One car eventually crashed at the Porsche curves, while the other had to make another unscheduled pit stop for a radiator replacement after it had been damaged by debris on the track, finishing in a lowly 12th place.
So, one has to wonder if BMW is perhaps cursed with bad luck at Le Mans? Let’s hope the M8s can put the hoodoo behind them when they return in 2019!
There was a better showing in 2011 when the M3s returned, taking class pole and fastest race lap
Left: Le Mans wasn’t a happy hunting ground for the M1. Between 1980 and 1986, 21 were entered yet only six finished the race. Apart from unreliability, the engine lacked power compared with the turbocharged Porsche 935; the M1 was heavier, too. Right: Despite not being in the fastest LMP1 or LMP2 classes, the BMW-engined F1 GTR was the overall winner of the 1995 race.
BMW entered a pair of striking Jeff Koons’-designed moving canvas art cars in 2010. But, while it certainly looked the part, the E92 M3 GTR didn’t deliver. One car ran out of fuel while the other finished 19th overall.
As the 1970s started drawing to a close, the poor old CSL really was getting too long in the tooth to be genuinely competitive. Factory support was cut for the 1977 race but, nevertheless, the Luigi team brought its CSL home as a class winner.
In 1999, BMW entered a pair of V12 LMRs and, although only one finished, it was the overall winner. This was BMW’s only outright win to date.
In 1976, a turbocharged CSL with livery designed by Frank Stella was fast but fragile. It retied after four hours due to excessive oil consumption.
BMW’s first foray into endurance racing at Le Mans was in 1939, with the 328.
This year’s contenders; a pair of BMW 8 Series GTEs.
The CS was outgunned for pace – it was 10 seconds a lap down on the fastest of the factory Capris
BMW’s first foray into endurance racing at Le Mans was in 1939, with the 328