With the 24 Hours of Le Mans taking place this weekend, we take a look back on some of the most iconic and storied cars you can race at home.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans gets underway this weekend for the 99th time, so we at Traxion.GG have gone all nostalgic and feel now is a great time to look back at some of the most inspirational, storied and downright cool racing cars that have both raced at Le Mans and been recreated in our favourite sims.
Racing games like Gran Turismo 7, Forza Motorsport 7 and Project Cars 2 are rich in historic Le Mans content, featuring both the track and several of its cars, while Automobilista 2 and Assetto Corsa have several Le Mans cars, including Group C prototypes, ‘60s GT cars right up to the previous generation of hybrid-powered cars from Audi, Porsche and Toyota.
This isn’t a definitive list of the best cars, or the only Le Mans cars we love – we could write an entire book on the subject – but more of a snapshot into why we motorsport nerds invest so much in our sim racing hobby: we want to emulate our racing heroes!
Sauber Mercedes C9 ‘89
Sims: Automobilista 2, Gran Turismo 7, Project Cars 2
The number 63 Sauber Mercedes C9 of Jochen Mass, Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens qualified a lowly 11th for the 1989 24-Hours of Le Mans but fought back gallantly to take the win – five laps ahead of their teammates in the 61 car.
Sporting a Silver Arrows livery, this tie-up between F1 team Sauber and Mercedes-Benz turned out to be the most dominant racer in Group C, with the Gran Turismo 7 version sporting 710bhp and weighing in at 893kg.
Real-life power figures were thought to be around 800bhp in qualifying trim, but such was the car’s lap time advantage over its Group C rivals, drivers could outpace the field using lower turbo boost and revs – aiding reliability.
You can drive this Mercedes-powered monster in Gran Turismo 7, Automobilista 2 and Project Cars 2. For maximum immersion, however, we suggest giving it a go on Project Cars 2’s version of Le Mans with a VR headset. For all of PCARS2’s flaws, it’s still a well-optimised showcase for what virtual reality can bring to a racing sim.
The C9 in Automobilista 2 is also tremendous fun in VR but the game, unfortunately, lacks the Le Mans circuit. Otherwise, it would be a superior experience in my opinion.
Interestingly, the 1989 edition of Le Mans was the last to feature the full-length Mulsanne straight, in part thanks to the C9’s 248mph top speed in qualifying. In fact, it’s the second-fastest car ever to run at Le Mans, being beaten only by 1988’s WM Peugeot P88, which clocked 251.1mph before detonating itself in a fiery cloud of Peugeot bits (for a similar experience, drive down any British motorway on a hot summer’s day).
FORD GT40 (all versions)
Sims: Assetto Corsa (MK1 GT40), Forza Motorsport 7 (Mk II), Gran Turismo 7, GT Legends
The Ford GT40 was originally built in the UK and was based on Eric Broadley’s acclaimed 1964 Lola Mk6 GT. Although subsequent Ford GT40s were heavily revised from Lola’s template, they retained its iconic deep-cut door line.
The Mk II Ford GT40 was famous for breaking Ferrari’s stranglehold on the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, becoming a Hollywood film starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon in 2019. The actors played test driver Ken Miles and legendary designer/driver Carrol Shelby respectively, and both would have a massive impact on Ford’s future success (Miles and Shelby, not Bale and Damon).
The subsequent Mk III was built as a road car only, so the Mk IV arrived as a true successor to the Mk II in 1967, and it looked like a completely different car altogether – it featured a longer, more aerodynamic body better suited to Le Mans’ long Mulsanne straight.
The number one car, driven by legendary American racing drivers Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt, took the win with a four-lap lead over the Ferrari 330 P4 of Mike Parkes and Ludovico Scarfiotti, cementing its position in racing folklore.
My best memories of driving the car virtually come from a classic Le Mans team event I took part in many years ago. The car and track were mods for rFactor, and I was up against a phalanx of European hot-shoes in faster Shelby Daytona Coupes.
They would streak away on the Mulsanne but I’d catch them under braking and through the bends. It was a tremendous race and I heartily enjoyed thrashing the V8 brute to within an inch of its life, rev-matching downshifts and locking brakes, amazed at how real-world drivers could contain its power.
Up to 1968, Le Mans was famous for its standing start; drivers would run to their cars when the green flag flew and drive away at high speed – even while other drivers were still on track.
Safety concerns were numerous – drivers would occasionally forgo the formality of fastening their safety belts for example. In 1968, it’s alleged that Belgian driver Willy Mairesse failed to shut the door properly on his GT40, owing to the rushed Le Mans start procedure. The door flew open on the Mulsanne straight at over 170mph and he crashed, suffering career-ending head injuries.
At the start of the 1969 race, Mairesse’s friend and fellow Belgian Jacky Ickx strolled to his car in protest at the absurd risks drivers undertook in the name of tradition. He fastened his belts carefully in his John Wyer Automotive Engineering Ford GT40 and set off in last position.
He and co-driver Jackie Oliver won the race.
From 1970, the running start was banned and replaced with the rolling start still used today.
Safety pioneers like Ickx and Jackie Stewart were often lone voices in the paddock during the ‘60s and ‘70s but backed up their unpopular views by being the fastest and bravest on track. There’s no doubt many drivers owe their lives to them.
Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe ‘64
Sims: Forza Motorsport 7, Gran Turismo 7, GT Legends
The Shelby Daytona Coupe was the car Carrol Shelby worked on before he received the call to help with the Ford GT40 program.
Designed with a curvy aerodynamic shape to help on the straights of Le Mans and Daytona, the car won the GT class in the 1964 edition of the French endurance race. The number five car of Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant finished a full lap ahead of its biggest rival, the Ferrari 250 GTO.
The Daytona Coupe was based on the open-top AC Cobra, with the new Coupe body increasing the car’s top speed on the Mulsanne by almost 20mph alone. The car ran so well that it finished fourth overall, just behind three Prototype Ferraris.
Featuring 385bhp and a Ford V8 engine, the Daytona Coupe weighed only 1,043Kg, so was an absolute brute to drive. Sadly, only six examples were ever produced between 1964-65, and thanks to its rarity, it commands a suitably high price tag. One example recently sold for $1.49m.
It was also one of my favourite cars to drive in GT Legends many years ago, allowing me to take some of my first ‘major’ sim racing wins. The Gran Turismo 7 version brings the car model and sounds up to date, and Polyphony Digital’s rendition of the Circuit de la Sarthe track is the perfect way to re-live its two-year racing career.
Porsche 917K ‘70
Sims: Assetto Corsa, Forza Motorsport 7, Gran Turismo 7
The Gulf-liveried Porsche 917K won its first race – the 1970 Daytona 24 Hours – in the hands of Pedro Rodríguez, Leo Kinnunen and Brian Redman, breaking the race’s distance record by 190 miles after completing 724 laps of the Floridian track.
This kicked off a dominant two-year period for Porsche in the World Sportscar Championship, coming after a rather disappointing season for the original 917LH in 1969. High-speed stability issues in the long-tail model (or Langheck – LH – in German) meant the 917 lost Le Mans to Ford, but worse still, it was just plain dangerous to drive.
A revised car for 1970 gave Porsche high hopes for the WSC and Le Mans – they kicked the season off in style with the number two John Wyer Automotive 917 taking Daytona victory by 45 laps over its sister car, driven by Jo Siffert and Brian Redman (again!).
Porsche 917Ks sell at a premium because of their success, but also because of the Steve McQueen factor. His super-cool Le Mans movie was shot during the 1970 race, with our hero driving another Gulf-liveried Porsche 917K. Originally McQueen was set to race in the epic enduro with a jobbing co-driver by the name of Jackie Stewart…
Imagine if that had happened! McQueen was no slouch behind the wheel, being a very quick gentleman driver, but with Stewart’s mechanical sympathy and raw speed, they could easily have won given Le Man’s retirement rate.
Unfortunately, the plan was scuppered by insurance, and for good reason – one driver was killed and another had a leg amputated during the 1970 race. The movie is viewed as a visceral look at motorsport of the era – light on the storyline but dripping with authenticity.
This brush with the ‘King of Cool’ has elevated the mystique and desirability of the 917K as a result. David Hobbs and Mike Hailwood’s 917K from the 1970 24-Hours of Le Mans recently went up for auction in Monterey, California with an estimated price of $16-18.5m, but remained unsold.
The car is available in Gran Turismo 7 and Forza Motorsport 7, but its Assetto Corsa version is my favourite – mainly thanks to the tremendous noise its flat-12 engine makes. It handles like an understeering brick on wheels a times, thanks to the lack of weight over the front axle, but when you really get to grips with it the sense of accomplishment is huge.
Just ask anyone who’s completed the final Gran Turismo 7 license test…
Audi R18 e-tron quattro
Sims: Assetto Corsa, Forza Motorsport 7 (2012 & 2014), Gran Turismo 7, iRacing, Project Cars 2, RaceRoom,
The Audi R18 e-tron quattro, and its many variants, appear in nearly every major racing sim around, including iRacing, RaceRoom and Assetto Corsa. The hybrid car debuted in 2012 before a full assault on the World Endurance Championship a year later, its V6 turbodiesel supplemented by 100bhp worth of Bosch electric motors attached to the front wheels.
The electrical energy was harvested at the flywheel, with additional energy converted from heat at the exhaust and deployed using automatic driver modes. Thanks to this, the car automatically deployed hybrid power to the front wheels, creating a four-wheel-drive car.
It took grip levels into consideration too, so could be used as a form of unintrusice traction control. The car was a success at Le Mans, winning in the hands of Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Loïc Duval, beating the rival petrol-powered Toyota hybrid car by over a lap.
This car represents the beginning of a short-lived golden era in Le Mans history, where Porsche (2014 onwards), Toyota and Audi duked it out at Le Mans and in the World Endurance Championship using different hybrid philosophies to achieve a similar pace. Costs were out of control, however, and both Audi and Porsche had departed by the end of 2017(Audi left after the 2015 season).
Thanks to its aero capabilities and hybrid assistance, the Audi is quite a thrill to drive in any of the above sims – it’s sometimes easy to forget that it shares the same fuel as your average Ford Transit. If I saw an R18 tailgating me on the motorway I’d definitely pull over. (Audi drivers, eh?)
It’s also poignant in a way, as this era of LMP1 cars could represent the fastest ever in the history of Le Mans. Three manufacturers pushed the envelope of technology, spending millions in order to gain the slightest advantage.
With new rules in place to prevent full manufacturer support for the top class of Le Mans, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see cars attain the kind of lap times the Hybrid LMP1s were capable of. Their sheer complexity also decreases the chance we’ll see them on track in a demonstration run or historic races in future.
So, the best way to drive the likes of the Audi R18 e-tron quattro, Toyota TS050 Hybrid LMP1 and Porsche 919 Hybrid for anyone will likely be in sims. And that makes me quite sad and happy at the same time.
We recommend giving the R18 e-tron quattro a blast on iRacing’s version of Le Mans with a VR headset. It may not be the prettiest sim, but with VR it’s masses of fun. The way the R18’s hybrid harvests its energy is also hugely immersive when compared to real-world onboard footage. It’s the perfect Allan McNish simulator! (Try to be the 2013 version of McNish, not the 2011 one…)
There we are. A list of some of the most interesting cars to race at Le Mans that you can drive at home on console or PC. Which is your favourite 24 Hours of Le Mans car? Is there a Le Mans car we’ve missed that you particularly love driving? Let us know in the comments below.