How Jenson Button can join an exclusive F1 club when he heads to Le Mans this year
Former Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button will start a new chapter in his motorsport career in 2024 as he returns to full-time racing in the World Endurance Championship’s hypercar class, which includes another run at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. With the Briton celebrating his 44th birthday, we thought it would be a suitable moment to look at the five fellow F1 title winners he could soon join by also triumphing in the endurance classic…
First on the list is Mike Hawthorn, who dovetailed his F1 efforts throughout the 1950s – like many drivers at the time – with several appearances at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other endurance events.
Hawthorn was disqualified from his first Le Mans outing with Ferrari in 1953 due to a mechanic illegally topping up the brakes before the required distance, but he returned a couple of years later, this time aboard a Jaguar, for another attempt.
After a thrilling battle with Ferrari’s Eugenio Castellotti and Mercedes-Benz’s Juan Manuel Fangio in the early stages of the race, disaster struck when Hawthorn slowed for a pit stop, which forced the following Lance Macklin to take avoiding action, only for his Austin-Healey to be collected by the fast-approaching Mercedes of Pierre Levegh.
Levegh’s car was sent into the crowd and he tragically lost his life, along with more than 80 spectators, but the race went on and Hawthorn, alongside team mate Ivor Bueb, took victory – a subsequent inquiry determining that none of the drivers involved in the incident were responsible.
Hawthorn made three more appearances at Le Mans, securing another class podium finish, with his last drive coming in 1958, the same season in which he won the F1 world title for Ferrari. He died early the following year in a road accident aged 29.
Another driver to represent Ferrari in F1 and sportscars, Phil Hill was a regular competitor at Le Mans from the early 1950s to the late 1960s – strangely either winning the race or retiring from proceedings.
After debuting for the Rees T. Makins team in 1953, Hill embarked on a run of eight successive appearances in Ferrari colours and, with four DNFs behind him, the 1958 event yielded a breakthrough win.
Hill shared that success with Belgian racer Olivier Gendebien and the pair would tackle Le Mans together in a Ferrari on three more occasions, also winning in 1961 and 1962, before the American’s attempts with a host of different outfits – David Brown/Aston Martin, Ford, Shelby and Chaparral – proved fruitless.
Hill added to his 1961 Le Mans win with that year’s F1 title, albeit in tragic circumstances when nearest rival and Ferrari team mate Wolfgang von Trips suffered a horrifying crash at Monza – leaving the German and several spectators dead.
Matching Hill’s record at the famous endurance event, Jochen Rindt either won or retired from the four Le Mans races he entered across the mid-1960s – the same time that the Austrian was establishing himself in F1.
Rindt represented the North American Racing Team, F.R. English/Comstock Racing and Porsche in the 24-hour encounter over the years, and it was his second outing with NART in 1965, alongside American co-driver Masten Gregory, that brought victory.
The win proved to be Ferrari’s last outright at Le Mans until their return to the top class of sportscar racing in 2023, when ex-F1 driver Antonio Giovinazzi triumphed next to team mates Alessandro Pier Guidi and James Calado.
Rindt went on to win his first Grand Prix with Lotus in 1969 and then rack up five more during the 1970 season until tragically losing his life aged 28 in an accident at Monza – though the significant points lead he had built up saw him posthumously become that year’s champion.
Graham Hill remains the only driver in motorsport history to achieve the ‘Triple Crown’ – namely winning the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Having won the Monte Carlo F1 race five times – earning himself the nickname ‘Mr Monaco’ – and the Indy 500 once during the 1960s, it was not until the closing stages of Hill’s career that he conquered Le Mans for the final piece of the jigsaw.
With a hatful of DNFs and a drive to the runner-up spot behind him, the Briton’s 10th appearance at Le Mans in 1972 finally saw him take overall honours alongside Henri Pescarolo for Matra, though it was a race in which Jo Bonnier – godfather of Hill’s son, Damon – lost his life.
Hill had long been an F1 champion by this point, his first drivers’ title coming with BRM in 1962 and his second with Lotus in 1968, following the death of team mate Jim Clark. He was killed in a plane crash three years after his Le Mans success, aged 46, when returning home from a test session with his own team.
Fernando Alonso has repeatedly expressed his desire to follow in Hill’s footsteps and complete the Triple Crown, with two of the boxes now ticked thanks to victories at the Monaco Grand Prix and 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Alonso’s wins on the streets of Monte Carlo came during the height of his F1 career to date in the mid-noughties, and it was not until around a decade later – amid struggles after returning to the Honda-powered McLaren team – that he scratched the itch to compete elsewhere.
He first tackled the Indy 500 with McLaren’s sister team in 2017, running toward the front until a technical failure, before being given permission to take on the World Endurance Championship – and Le Mans – with Toyota a year later, winning both the race and title on debut alongside ex-F1 drivers Sebastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima.
Alonso repeated the Le Mans feat with Buemi and Nakajima a year later, having stepped aside from F1 altogether in a period that also saw him contest the 24 Hours of Daytona, try his hand at the punishing Dakar Rally and have another crack at Indy.
After a couple of years out, Alonso returned to F1 with Alpine in 2021 and recently enjoyed a resurgence upon his switch to Aston Martin for 2023, raising hopes that he can once again challenge for a third world title to add to those he achieved with Renault back in 2005 and 2006.
Other F1 world champions who have raced at Le Mans
In addition to a long list of F1 race winners and drivers, more than 20 world champions have contested the 24 Hours of Le Mans, from the aforementioned Fangio in the early 1950s to Button himself last year, when he drove NASCAR’s modified Chevrolet Cup Series car as the ‘Garage 56’ entry reserved for innovative designs.
There were podium finishes across the 1960s for Clark, Denny Hulme and John Surtees, the latter having successfully transitioned from two wheels – which included seven Grand Prix world titles – to four.
Then we have Mario Andretti, who first contested the race in 1966 and returned a couple of decades later determined to add it to his list of achievements, coming agonisingly close when he finished third in 1983 and second in 1995.
Jacques Villeneuve is another F1 title winner to visit the Le Mans podium, placing second in 2008, and there could be more to come in the not-too-distant future, with reigning champion Max Verstappen expressing his desire to one day give the race a go – his father, Jos, having previously won the LMP2 class.