1998 24 Hours of Le Mans: Porsche’s last victory
The 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans marked the third year for Porsche AG’s 911 GT1 programme and, after near misses in both 1996 and 1997, Weissach turned up to the 66th running of the Grand Prix d’Endurance with an all-new design with the intention of taking its 16th overall victory at La Sarthe.
In 1996, the brand new Porsche 911 GT1 had come straight out the box and proven itself the fastest of the new GT1 breed, winning its class and finishing second and third overall at Le Mans that year.
A year later, an Evo version of the 911 GT1 once again proved fast only to see both entries taken out of the reckoning before the chequered flag. The no. 25 was struck down by gearbox problems after 238 laps before the no. 26’s chances of victory literally went up in flames when an oil cooler burst.
Unfortunately though, the new Porsche 911 GT1-98 didn’t look like reversing Weissach’s fortunes as June 1998 rolled around. In the opening FIA GT race of the season at Oschersleben, mechanical gremlins struck both cars.
A similar fate would befall the no. 7 Porsche at Brands Hatch too (although the no. 6 would manage to finish second, on the same lap as the winning Mercedes-Benz).
With both those races running over just three hours, it seemed unlikely that the fast-but-fragile Porsche 911 GT1-98s (numbered no. 25 and no. 26 at La Sarthe) would last the distance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
What’s more the Mercedes-Benz had upgraded the dominant CLK GTRs, bringing a revised aerodynamic package and new V8 engines to the famous French endurance race.
The new CLK LMs proved their worth in qualifying, with the no. 35 car securing pole position and the sister no. 36 entry winding up third, split only by the no. 27 Toyota GT-One, piloted in the grid-setting sessions by ex-F1 ace, Martin Brundle.
Porsche had to settle for fourth and fifth on the grid with the no. 25 car of Jörg Müller, Uwe Alzen and Bob Wollek besting the no. 26 entry driven by Laurent Aïello, Stéphane Ortelli and Allan McNish.
The remaining Toyota GT-Ones would take the start from seventh and eighth (the no. 29 car ahead of the no. 27) and split from the other GT1 class entrants by the new Williams-built BMW V12 LM prototype.
On Sunday afternoon, the traditional Tricolore start saw the two Mercedes-Benz streak into an early lead. However, the Silver Arrows’ glory would be short lived as the lead no. 35 car’s V8 expired after just 19 laps.
Less than an hour later, the no. 36 CLK LM would join its sister car in retirement, suffering a similar engine failure. Mercedes’ decision to switch from the CLK GTR’s proven V12 had backfired spectacularly.
Toyota’s challenge was not proving any stronger either. Despite leading into the darkness, the no. 28 GT-One, once again with Brundle at the wheel, would crash during a night time rainstorm, immediately putting it out of contention.
With the no. 27 entry not enjoying the same pace as its teammates (the all-Japanese driver line-up would eventually finish ninth), the Japanese firm’s chances lay solely with the no. 29 machine driven by Thierry Boutsen, Ralf Kelleners and Geoff Lees.
However, numerous stops to fix gearbox gremlins (including time in the pits to swap all the internals) saw its advantage wiped out, with the Porsche 911 GT1-98s handed a seemingly unassailable lead heading into Sunday morning.
Remarkably, spurred on by Boutsen, the no. 29 Toyota mounted an incredible comeback, snatching back the lead as the race headed towards lunchtime. Yet, more cruel luck was to strike as, with just 80 minutes of the race remaining, Boutsen stopped out on track, hit with another gearbox problem, this time terminal.
This left the two Mobil 1-liveried Porsches, no. 26 a lap ahead of no. 25, to circulate in tandem for the remaining hour, staying out of trouble (as they had done for the entire race) to cross the line for a one-two, Porsche’s 16th overall victory at La Sarthe.
Can Porsche add victory number 17 to the Le Mans tally this weekend? Keep up with all the action at Total911.com.