1996 24 Hours of Le Mans: Finally a Victory, Still 2nd

Company press release.

1996 24 Hours of Le Mans: Finally a Victory, Still 2nd  Thierry Boutsen's first encounter with the 24 Hours of Le Mans would come only after a few years of his being involved in racing. In 1981, Boutsen would partner with Serge Saulnier and Michel Pignard to drive the WM P81. It would prove to be an introductory experience as the race would last just 15 laps before it would all come to an end. This would be just the first of three early retirements in the 1980s. The 1990s, however, would be an entirely different story altogether.

Boutsen's breakthrough in the French classic would come in 1993 when he would be approached about driving for Peugeot Talbot Sport. It was the dawn of a new era in Le Mans history. The Group C cars that dominated the 1980s, Boutsen's terrible decade, would be gone. The new C1 category was to be the way of the future. And Peugeot was one of the teams at the forefront of the change.

Partnering with Yannick Dalmas and Teo Fabi, Thierry Boutsen would enjoy his best ever Le Mans experience. Instead of the dropping out before the night came to loom over the circuit, he and his team would be right there heading into the final moments on Sunday afternoon. After completing 374 laps, Boutsen, Fabi and Dalmas would finish in 2nd place overall, by far Boutsen's best result at Le Mans.

The 2nd place overall finish would touch off an incredible string of results for the Belgian and it would all culminate with his best result ever in 1996.

1996 24 Hours of Le Mans: Finally a Victory, Still 2nd  

Mentioning Belgium and Le Mans together and immediately thoughts roam to that of Jacky Ickx, who was, at the time of the running of the 64th Grand Prix of Endurance, known as 'Mr. Le Mans'. While proud of his Belgian heritage, Thierry Boutsen was on a mission to write his own lineage as a Belgian at Le Mans.

Initially, the attempts at Le Mans would not go well. In three races in which Boutsen would contest during the 1980s he would not complete more than 180 laps and would never see the finish. However, with his 2nd place overall result at the wheel of the Peugeot 905 Evo in 1993, Boutsen had been experiencing an amazing run of success which included three-straight runner-up finishes in the top categories. But 1996 represented Boutsen's best shot at an overall victory since that drive with Peugeot back in 1993.

1995 would see the GT1 class McLaren F1s take the overall victory, as well as, four of the top five positions in the finishing order. And though Boutsen would finish 2nd in the WSC category driving a Kremer K8 Porsche Spyder along with Hans Joachim Stuck and Christophe Bouchut, his number 4 Porsche would still finish 6th overall, some nine laps behind the winner.

But 1996 promised to be a great opportunity for the Belgian. McLaren, with its powerful F1s, would dominate in 1995. But in 1996, Porsche would come to the race with a GT1 car of their own. Though called a Porsche 911, it was a GT1 version with a 3.2-liter turbo-charged 6 cylinder engine, and therefore, was much faster and nimble than a normal 911.


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    These new and rather untried 911 GT1s would be going up against the defending champion McLaren F1s and a slew of open-cockpit prototypes. The stage was being set for one of the most fantastic battles between the prototypes and the GT1 cars that would ever be seen at Le Mans. And right in the middle of it all would be Boutsen.

    Over the course of qualifying it would be the prototypes that would show the best times around the 8.4 mile long Circuit de la Sarthe. However, when it came to actually placing the cars on the grid, the prototypes would occupy one side of the grid while the closed-cockpit GT1 cars would line up on the other.

    Therefore, the Joest Racing Porsche of Didier Theys, Michele Alboreto and Pierluigi Martini would line up on pole, but it would be the slightly slower Porsche 911 GT1 of Yannick Dalmas, Scott Goodyear and Karl Wendlinger lining up 2nd. This grid arrangement would force the faster prototype of Didier Cottaz, Jerome Policand and Philippe Aliot to have to start 3rd right alongside the Porsche 911 GT1 of Bob Wollek, Thierry Boutsen and Hans-Joachim Stuck.

    In all, 48 cars would come around to take the start of the 1996 24 Hours of Le Mans. And as the French Tricolore would be shown to the field the two GT1 Porsches would streak into the lead with Yannick Dalmas leading the way in the number 26 Porsche.

    In time, the number 25 Porsche, co-driven by Wollek, Boutsen and Stuck would take over the lead of the race and would look strong early on. But by the end of the first hour the Joest Porsche was beginning to make a run and would soon put itself in between the two GT1s clearly with the lead in mind. Within a matter of a couple of laps the two Porsche 911 GT1s would be back running nose-to-tail but in 3rd and 4th overall.

    The first few hours of the race would see attrition come to take a toll. Without the sun even having set yet a number of cars, including the Ferrari 333SP of Evans, Velez and Muller would be of the race. But even more would leave the race by the nighttime hours. The Kremer Porsche of Bouchut, Lassig and Toivonen would lose its engine forcing them out after 110 laps. The Sebring and Daytona champions, Taylor, Sharp and Pace, would last until 157 laps into the race when transmission failure would bring their search for the Triple Crown to an end. And while many others would fall out of contention over the course of the nighttime and early morning hours of the race, the number 25 Porsche of Wollek, Boutsen and Stuck would remain right there in the hunt for the overall victory.

    But the road to a possible overall victory wouldn't be without its bumps and bruises. While Stuck was at the wheel of the car he would be battling with a prototype car coming through the Porsche Curves and down toward the Ford Chicane. Stuck would make his move to pass and would be hit in the side by the prototype. Stuck would manage to hold onto the car and would even stay ahead to carry on. But still, it would be a nervous moment for the number 25 Porsche team. The nervous moments would keep coming, this time for Stuck, as he would try and get around lapped traffic in the run down to Indianapolis. Stuck would be forced wide and would travel through the grass and would actually damage the front splitter on the car that would require some extra time to be repaired. This moment would be followed by another when a slower GT2 Porsche would go through the grass right in front of it. Still, Stuck would make it through and would carry on.

    Throughout the night and early morning hours it would be the number 7 TWR Joest Racing Porsche of Davy Jones, Alex Wurz and Manuel Reuter in the lead some 50 seconds or so ahead of the number 25 Porsche of Wollek, Boutsen and Stuck. There would be a brief period of time in which both Joest Porsche led the way and one of the McLaren F1s was up ahead of the number 25 Porsche. But, around the halfway point, the number 25 would be back up to 2nd overall and looking incredibly strong. And still, just 50 seconds would be the gap between the two.

    It seemed the number 25 Porsche would be able to hang on with less than a minute being the gap, but with just about four hours remaining in the race, the Joest Porsche had managed to open up the gap even more and would eventually lap the Porsche giving the Reuter, Jones and Wurz car a comfortable lead heading into the final couple of hours of the race.

    Covered in brake dust and the general grime built up from 24 hours of racing, the number 25 Porsche continued to run strongly hoping for something terrible to happen to the Joest Porsche. Boutsen was enjoying one of his greatest moments in his Le Mans career. He was in the leading car in the GT1 category and was still fighting for an overall victory. He would just need a little bit of help and he would finally have his overall win.

    It would be the first 24 Hours of Le Mans for the Porsche 911 GT1 and it would prove a mighty machine. But on the 15th and 16th of June in 1996, it would come up just a little short. The Joest Porsche of Jones, Wurz and Reuter would go on to take the overall victory completing 354 laps in the 24 hours. Thirty-seven seconds later, and one lap down, it would be the number 25 Porsche of Boutsen, Wollek and Stuck crossing the line to finish 1st in the GT1 category and 2nd in the overall standings.

    Although he would not achieve his overall victory, Boutsen would nonetheless come away with a class victory and his fourth-straight runner-up result in the race he could not finish in three attempts during the 1980s. The middle-90s would be an incredible moment in time for Boutsen at Le Mans. Unfortunately, the last three years of the decade would prove to be a repeat of his first three attempts. Still, his results during that incredible run would undoubtedly earn him an incredible opportunity with the Toyota team in 1998 and 1999. Unfortunately, it would be a major accident at Le Mans in 1999 that would for sure bring an end to Boutsen's racing career.

    It had been an incredible run for Boutsen and it would be topped off with one of the best performances ever at the Circuit de la Sarthe. And though he would be a Belgian that would be forever overshadowed by his countryman, 'Mr. Le Mans', he would still prove his talents in the French endurance classic.

    Sources:

    'Races: Le Mans 24 Hours 1996', (http://www.racingsportscars.com/results/Le_Mans-1996-06-16.html). Racing Sports Cars. http://www.racingsportscars.com/results/Le_Mans-1996-06-16.html. Retrieved 5 July 2012.

    Wikipedia contributors, '1996 24 Hours of Le Mans', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 17 June 2012, 12:20 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1996_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans&oldid=498012256 accessed 5 July 2012

    1996 Le Mans Highlights Part 1 Video. (Jan 15, 2011). Retrieved 5 July 2012, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ljZ9KPOnM4&feature=relmfu.

    1996 Le Mans Highlights Part 2 Video. (Jan 15, 2011). Retrieved 5 July 2012, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CS7oVvbT8Ro&feature=relmfu.

    1996 Le Mans Highlights Part 3 Video. (Jan 15, 2011). Retrieved 5 July 2012, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsSRwJWNh3E&feature=relmfu.

    1996 Le Mans Highlights Part 4 Video. (Jan 15, 2011). Retrieved 5 July 2012, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8b0eed-uCI&feature=relmfu.

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