Thursday’s announcement that Nico Hulkenberg will contest the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours for Porsche has once again brought focus upon the idea of active F1 drivers joining the grid at la Sarthe.
Rumours have proliferated over the last few weeks relating to the possibility of Fernando Alonso or Jenson Button joining the field for the FIA World Endurance Championship showcase event also, but once upon a time, this was not half as outlandish an idea as it appears now to modern audiences.
2014 saw Andre Lotterer become the first driver in five years to compete both in Formula 1 and at Le Mans in the same season. Lotterer’s foray into F1 saw him outqualify teammate Marcus Ericsson , but unfortunately his Grand Prix debut came to a swift end with an electrical failure on the first lap but less disappointingly for him, he had prevailed at Le Mans for the third time in four years only 2 months previously .
Prior to Lotterer in recent times , Sebastian Bourdais (2009) and Franck Montagny (2006) had run limited campaigns in F1, at Torro Rosso and Super Aguri respectively . Both drivers have reached the podium on numerous occasions, including 2nd place as teammates whilst at Peugeot in 2009 . Both have yet to win at the fearsome French circuit.
Through Formula One’s formative years, many drivers were able to combine Le Mans with a full campaign in the world championship. Champions such as Graham Hill and Mike Hawthorn were able to taste success at the world famous endurance race and on the other side of the fence Ferrari stalwart Jacky Ickx , formerly the most successful driver at Le Mans , was able to add 8 Grand Prix wins to his 6 Le Mans victories .
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Le Mans was viewed as a race more attractive to rising stars and retired Grand Prix drivers. Thanks to the F1 calendar stretching further around the world , the time commitments required by F1 stars saw less and less active drivers attempt to conquer racings “Longest Day”. The alumni of victors featured F1 drivers in their ascendancy, Johnny Herbert, Alexander Wurz and Mark Blundell, these all tasted glory early in their careers. On the other side of the hill former GP heroes such as Michele Alboreto , Stefan Johansson and Pierluigi Martini triumphed in the latter .Sp5rl!47rs of their careers .
Hulkenberg will be the first driver since 1994 to simultaneously race a full season and the 24 Hours . That season saw both Bertrand Gachot and Eddie Irvine attempt this feat . Regrettably both drivers faced a challenging and incomplete season in F1 that year .
Irvine’s season included a 3 race suspension following an accident at Interlagos which rendered Martin Brundle unconscious. The seat that Irvine occupied at Le Mans was originally intended for Roland Ratzenberger, who tragically died in qualifying for that years San Marino GP . Roland’s name remained present on the side of the car during the race in tribute to his passing. Irvine achieved 2nd place with driving partners Mauro Martini and Jeff Krosnoff . As a sad postscript to their success Jeff Krosnoff perished two years later during an Indycar race in Toronto .
Bertrand Gachot’s 1994 Le Mans and F1 season were as chequered as his Le Mans and F1 career. Often remembered more for being jailed during the 1991 season (and leading to Michael Schumacher’s debut in F1 replacing him) , than his racing, Bertrand suffered bleakly at the hands of the racing gods . Le Mans offered him a 14th place finish which was far, far better than his F1 campaign . Racing for Pacific Grand Prix he failed to qualify for 10 of that season’s 16 races , he retired from the 6 races he did start (an improvement over 1990, where he failed to Pre-Qualify for the first 10 races and failed to qualify for the following 6). Gachot attempted to twin F1 with Le Mans five times, 1990, 91, 92, 94 and 95 . A win at the 2nd attempt for Mazda in 1991 was never matched .
The 1994 running of Le Mans was won by Yannick Dalmas . Larrouse provided him with a seat for 2 races towards the end of that Formula One season . In both races he matched the pace of lead driver Eric Comas in qualifying .
Heading into 2015 , with endurance racing becoming sprint races , the demand for the highest quality drivers may see an upsurge of F1 drivers switching codes. Mark Webber’s high profile switch to WEC for 2014 saw him compete at Le Mans, but this wasn’t his first time. His 1999 race is now infamous for two massive crashes when his Mercedes CLR proved aerodynamically flawed and resulted in the Australian being flipped off the circuit, miraculously escaping injury on both occasions.
It will certainly be interesting to follow Nico’s progress, although the inclusion of the Korean round on the 2015 F1 calendar may now scupper his preparation and possibly his plans to participate.
Of course, Formula 1 owes one of it’s most long standing traditions to its glamorous cousin, as it was F1 driver Dan Gurney who “invented” podium champagne spraying after victory at Le Mans in 1967!
-Written and submitted by guest writer Michael Alonso.