Heading into its 50th year, Porsche boasted a total of 81 wins at Le Mans, all classes considered, including 15 overall. In that era, the GT1s were leading the charge against the prototypes, with the 911 GT1 finishing second and third in 1996.
Two years later, a who's who of top constructors went up against Porsche in the GT1 class: Toyota, Mercedes, Nissan, McLaren and Panoz. In response, Porsche designed an even more ambitious version of its 911 GT1. It had already inherited the 6-cylinder 3-liter flat turbo engine from the 962 C prototype (winner at Le Mans in 1986 and 1987), and in 1998 was given the first carbon fiber chassis in Porsche's history.
Two of the cars took the start, entrusted to Uwe Alzen-Jörg Müller-Bob Wollek (#25) and Laurent Aiello-Allan McNish-Stéphane Ortelli (#26). Porsche also fielded two prototypes shared by Michele Alboreto-Yannick Dalmas-Stefan Johansson (#7) and David Murry-Pierre Henri Raphanel-James Weaver (#8): the TWR Porsche prototype winner at Le Mans in 1996 and 1997, renamed the Porsche LMP1-98.
After early retirements for Mercedes, a duel between the 911 GT1 and the Toyota GT-One set the tone for the 66th running of the 24 Hours. In the lead during the first hours, the GT-Ones driven by Martin Brundle-Emmanuel Collard-Vincenzo Sospiri and Thierry Boutsen-Ralf Kelleners-Geoff Lees were delayed with technical problems, and the two 911 GT1s snatched the top spots. During the night, they stayed in the fight but were plagued with their own troubles: an incident for the #25 and lack of power for the #26, allowing the GT-One shared by Thierry Boutsen-Ralf Kelleners-Geoff Lees to retake the lead. But, just 90 minutes from the checkered flag, the #29 Toyota threw in the towel with a failed transmission.
Porsche earned a stunning one-two with its most iconic model, the 911. During the podium ceremony, the winning trio took selfies with disposable cameras. Laurent Aiello won as a rookie, whereas Stéphane Ortelli and Allan McNish had already been teammates at the 1997 24 Hours at the wheel of a 911 fielded by Roock Racing.
But the most emotional was clearly Wolfgang Porsche, barely two and a half months after the death of his father, Ferry, who could not have imagined a more fitting tribute all-around, especially the year of the marque's 50th anniversary. Ferry's absence echoed another tragic if not coincidental moment in the marque's history: in 1951, Ferry's father Ferdinand had passed away just a few months before Porsche's first participation in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Between 1998 and 2000, Porsche developed a new LMP1 prototype, christened the LMP2000, but it never competed in a race. During the second half of the 2000s, the RS Spyder brought the German marque additional success at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Find out more in the next installment of this series.
PHOTOS (Copyright - Archives/ACO: (Top) greatly modified at the aerodynamic level, the GT1 still retained a few visual similarities with the road 911 like its comma-shaped headlights. (Gallery below) at left, the 911 GT1s celebrate their one-two by crossing the finish line in tight formation; center, despite the retirement for the official LMP1-98s officielles, the Kremer K8/2 Spyder at the checkered flag, a private Porsche prototype, 12th overall; at right, at the wheel of the 911 GT2 fielded by Roock Racing (17th overall) figured German driver Claudia Hürtgen, competing in her second 24 Hours that year, along with French driver Michel Ligonnet and Brit Robert Nearn.