Le Mans victory that earned Graham Hill the 'Triple Crown'

It’s been 50 years since Graham Hill and Henri Pescarolo won the Le Mans 24 Hours, securing the British driver a historic motor racing hat-trick that nobody has matched. Pascal Dro spoke to the Frenchman, now 79, about that memorable weekend, when he scored the first of four wins at La Sarthe aboard a car he never intended to drive, with a team-mate he didn’t want

MOTORSPORT-CAR-ENDURANCE RACING-LE MANS
Browse pages
Current page

1

Current page

2

Current page

3

Current page

4

Current page

5

Current page

6

Current page

7

Current page

8

Current page

9

Current page

10

Current page

11

Current page

12

Current page

13

Current page

14

Current page

15

Current page

16

Current page

17

Current page

18

Current page

19

Current page

20

Current page

21

Current page

22

Current page

23

Current page

24

Current page

25

Current page

26

Current page

27

Current page

28

Current page

29

Current page

30

Current page

31

Current page

32

Current page

33

Current page

34

Current page

35

Current page

36

Current page

37

Current page

38

Current page

39

Current page

40

Current page

41

Current page

42

Current page

43

Current page

44

Current page

45

Current page

46

Current page

47

Current page

48

Current page

49

Current page

50

Current page

51

Current page

52

Current page

53

Current page

54

Current page

55

Current page

56

Current page

57

Current page

58

Current page

59

Current page

60

Current page

61

Current page

62

Current page

63

Current page

64

Current page

65

Current page

66

Current page

67

Current page

68

Current page

69

Current page

70

Current page

71

Current page

72

Current page

73

Current page

74

Current page

75

Current page

76

Current page

77

Current page

78

Current page

79

Current page

80

Current page

81

Current page

82

Current page

83

Current page

84

Current page

85

Current page

86

Current page

87

Current page

88

Current page

89

Current page

90

Current page

91

Current page

92

Current page

93

Current page

94

Current page

95

Current page

96

Current page

97

Current page

98

Current page

99

Current page

100

Current page

101

Current page

102

Current page

103

Current page

104

Current page

105

Current page

106

Current page

107

Current page

108

Current page

109

Current page

110

Current page

111

Current page

112

Current page

113

Current page

114

Current page

115

Current page

116

Current page

117

Current page

118

Current page

119

Current page

120

Current page

121

Current page

122

Current page

123

Current page

124

Current page

125

Current page

126

Current page

127

Current page

128

Current page

129

Current page

130

Current page

131

Current page

132

Current page

133

Current page

134

Current page

135

Current page

136

Current page

137

Current page

138

Current page

139

Current page

140

Current page

141

Current page

142

Current page

143

Current page

144

Current page

145

Current page

146

Current page

147

Current page

148

Current page

149

Current page

150

Current page

151

Current page

152

Current page

153

Current page

154

Current page

155

Current page

156

Current page

157

Current page

158

Current page

159

Current page

160

Current page

161

Current page

162

Current page

163

Current page

164

Current page

165

Current page

166

Current page

167

Current page

168

Current page

169

Current page

170

Current page

171

Current page

172

Current page

173

Current page

174

Current page

175

Current page

176

Current page

177

Current page

178

Current page

179

Current page

180

Current page

181

Current page

182

Current page

183

Current page

184

Current page

185

Current page

186

Current page

187

Current page

188

Current page

189

Current page

190

Current page

191

Current page

192

Current page

193

Current page

194

Current page

195

Current page

196

The crowd figures for the 1972 Le Mans 24 Hours vary, but we can safely assume two things: firstly, that it was north of 150,000 strong; and second, that few of them realised the exact measure of the piece of history they were witnessing unfold before them.

Graham Hill – already twice a Formula 1 world champion, five times a victor at the Monaco Grand Prix and winner of the 1966 Indianapolis 500 – became the first, and only driver, to complete the ‘Triple Crown’ by adding his name to the Le Mans roll of honour.

Of course, he didn’t do it alone, sharing the No15 Matra-Simca MS670 with a 30-year-old Henri Pescarolo. And the win made history for more than just Hill’s achievement.

Without a French winner since 1964 (or since 1950 if you were talking about the constructor) Pescarolo and Matra’s victory broke the Anglo-Italian-German stranglehold that had lasted over two decades at La Sarthe.

img_98-2.jpg

Pescarolo aboard the MS670 in the Le Mans pitlane.

It also wrote the first chapter in Pescarolo’s stunning career in the race. With 1972 being his sixth attempt at Le Mans, Pescarolo would go on to rack up a record 33 starts before his retirement after the 1999 edition, celebrating four wins along the way.

This was a race of huge significance for both British and French interests, especially with the Ferrari factory team opting to skip the event having already won the World Sportscar Championship, leaving Matra as the firm favourite. But the result so nearly didn’t come to fruition. Pescarolo, who had been a keystone to Matra’s Formula 1 activities in the 1960s, suddenly found himself frozen out and was due to race an Alfa Romeo instead. He was only called back when the team expanded to field a fourth car for Hill. Already seething with his former employer, the prospect of sharing with a 43-year-old ex-F1 driver didn’t fill Pescarolo with enthusiasm. However, he begrudgingly accepted, and in doing so secured a front-row seat for what has gone on to become a milestone in motor racing history.

This is his side of the story.

Henri, Le Mans 1972 now looks like such a straightforward success story, but at the time there were a lot of issues in the background, some big enough that they almost stopped you from racing that year.
“By 1972 I was no longer supposed to be driving for Matra. In effect I had been sacked in 1971, even though that wasn’t supposed to have happened. That scumbag Jabby Crombac [the Swiss motor sport writer] told Matra boss Jean- Luc Lagardère, ‘That Beltoise is no use, you’ll never win anything if you keep him – I’ll find you a decent driver.’ He sought out Chris Amon, lead driver at March in 1970, and Matra poached him for a sum that would seem derisory nowadays but was quite a lot at the time.

img_99-1.jpg

Hill was desperate for the win – and knew Matra was his best chance

“And that was that – they decided to keep Jean-Pierre Beltoise while I found myself out of a drive, even though I’d done a pretty good job with that heap of junk MS120. After that, I didn’t want anything to do with Matra. For me, it was all over. After having set so many records with them in Formula 2, after almost winning the European championship in ’68 and after having spent four months in hospital for trying to develop a car of theirs that wasn’t exactly terrific, the only reward I received was to be fired. For 1972, I accepted an offer to drive an Alfa Romeo for Scuderia Filipinetti.

I didn’t want to hear another word about Matra. As far as I was concerned, they no longer existed.”

So what brought you back?
“The same Jabby who had contributed to my sacking, even if that hadn’t been his intention.

He came up to me and said, ‘We’re planning to run four cars at Le Mans in 1972, in a bid to win, and you need to be part of the team.’

Henri Pescarolo, 24 Hours Of Le Mans

Pescarolo in action, in front of the sister car of François Cevert. Cevert had an oddly slow start from pole, and deliberately so, believing it bad luck to lead the opening lap

“After all the work I did for Matra, the months in hospital, the only reward I received was to be fired”

I sent him away, told him I no longer wished to talk about Matra, particularly after what he’d done to me. But he persisted and persisted. Finally, I said to myself, ‘Look, you could be a prize idiot here. You played a key role in Matra’s rise to prominence, you worked harder on its cars than anyone else and now that Matra might challenge to win at Le Mans, you’re going to be a prima donna and tell them to get stuffed?’ After all that effort, all that development and all that work, it occurred to me that it would be stupid to turn them down on a point of principle.

Finally, then, I accepted.”

img_103-5.jpg

François Cevert in his prime.

So, what happened when you heard you’d be sharing with Graham Hill?
“That’s when it all kicked off again. I told Jabby that if Graham was my team-mate, I wouldn’t be coming. It was out of the question. I’d have been happy to share with Jean-Pierre [Beltoise], François [Cevert] or [ Jean-Pierre] Jabouille, but I didn’t want to drive with Graham. So Jabby told me to consider more carefully. ‘Look, he has been world champion, he has won the Indianapolis 500 – and nobody has ever done that and won Le Mans. And he really wants to win.

img_98-1.jpg

Graham Hill with Matra chief Jean-Luc Lagardère at La Sarthe, 1972.

You have seen him in F1 and F2. You know very well how good a driver he is.’
“No arguments there, but all I could think about was his age [Hill was 43 at the time]. In my eyes, I was a young charger and he was ancient. I knew that as soon as there was rain or fog, or darkness descended, he’d want to go and take a nap. But Jabby insisted that Graham was doing it because he really wanted to win, so eventually I agreed.”

Did you test the car together before the race?
“I don’t think so or at least I don’t remember! I’m fairly sure we didn’t.”

img_102-1.jpg

So he would have arrived at Le Mans without having shown any great prior motivation to win the race, nor having done any testing…
“That’s how I remember it – and there were some experienced drivers in the team too, not least François Cevert, who qualified on pole.

“The team planned for slicks, but Graham insisted on rain tyres”

I remember one particularly surprising thing about that. François took the lead at the start, but I was able to pass him during the opening lap. I could see that he was deliberately trying not to push. After the race I went to find him, to ask what he’d been doing during those first few moments. He replied, ‘D’you know something? Never in the history of Le Mans had the car that led the opening lap gone on to win the race.’ He was so superstitious that he did everything he could to make sure he was lying second, which seems crazy. After that it was a fairly lively race – especially as we had been given team orders. And the consequence of that, of course, was that we all did our best to ignore them!”

Were the drivers supposed to stick to pre-arranged race positions?
“No, it was more a case of setting predetermined lap times. There was no designated number one crew, no favouritism. That said, you knew when they put Cevert in one car that it was going to be quick, ditto Howden Ganley [his co-driver]. But I remember that Jean-Pierre [Beltoise] and Amon had a problem – Jean-Pierre was convinced of as much but Amon thought the opposite. They even went to do some tests on the runway at the airfield across the road, to be certain one way or the other. They didn’t find anything particularly wrong, but the problem reappeared very early in the race [the engine expired after two laps].

img_103-4.jpg

The Matra photo finish

The other important point about this race was the absence of Ferrari. Lagardère had put together everything he needed to win Le Mans, but also to beat Ferrari. But in the end Ferrari didn’t turn up, because they’d discovered that the 312 wasn’t capable of lasting 24 hours.

Happily, they did turn up the following year, when we were able to beat them at Le Mans and in the championship.

img_103-3.jpg

A packed Circuit de la Sarthe from the air

In 1972, the [Ecurie Bonnier] Lolas established themselves as our closest challengers early on, while the Alfa of Andrea de Adamich was also running well. At the first stops, however, Graham struggled to strap himself in and we lost time, which allowed François to retake the lead. Graham finally got going and when it came to my next stint I drove flat out to catch the leader. At that point, they began showing me ‘slow’ boards when I passed the signalling pits, so I had to back off.

“I’ll spare you the details about our brake wear issues, because we were getting through discs faster than the others, for reasons I don’t know, and various other minor details that affected our race, but we were lying second to the No14 car [Cevert and Ganley] when night fell… and then the rain came, along with my worries that Graham’s eyesight might not be up to the task in difficult conditions. But that’s when he excelled. It was no longer raining next time he pitted, but there was some drizzle. The team had planned to give him slicks, but he insisted they give him rain tyres.

He then returned to the track, made up our deficit and put us back in the lead.”

img_103-1.jpg

Here: Hill’s tyre call in mixed conditions was crucial to the car’s success

Did that decision save you an extra stop?
“I don’t recall, but we regained the lead thanks to his tyre call and his subsequent pace in the wet – but then we started to have some more braking difficulties. Despite that, we remained in contention for the lead with Cevert and Ganley. And as it was raining, there was no longer any prescribed lap time to adhere to. All of us were pushing like crazy, despite the conditions, and I’ll underline once again – that’s when Graham excelled. To be honest, that was probably the only approach to take. And then Jo Bonnier had his fatal accident, which cast a shadow over the race.”

The race wasn’t stopped?
“No. In those days, races were never interrupted. It wasn’t like the bogus form of the sport we see today. Rain or no rain, there were no safety cars or anything like that. It was proper racing – and you can quote me on that, because it’s what I think. Accidents were a part of the sport. Our lead battle continued – and I don’t remember whether the others had made a wrong tyre choice, or hadn’t changed at the right moment, but their car was eventually caught out on slicks in the rain when it was still dark. While Ganley was crawling back to the pits, Marie-Claude Beaumont [sharing a Corvette with Henri Greder] smacked straight into the back of it, necessitating bodywork and suspension repairs when the car finally got back.”

Did you then just pace yourselves to the finish?
“Exactly. We just had to make sure we didn’t commit any errors. It was a fabulous moment for me, even if I still hadn’t forgiven Matra for the way I’d been treated. It was also special because I had done so much development work on all the Matras, including the 660 that took off and put me in hospital for four months. It was the ultimate accolade for all the work we’d been doing at Matra since 1965.”

Did you relax a little when you saw the times Graham was doing during his first stint?
“You know, when there were only two drivers per car there was never much time to relax between stints. You couldn’t wander too far away in case you were needed. You spent most of your time getting in or out of the car!”

Did you switch every time you refuelled?
“No, we were doing double or triple stints, each lasting a bit less than one hour. But I was keeping an eye on Graham’s progress and immediately felt reassured.”

It’s insane to think you hadn’t talked to each other to discuss the race before you got there. It’s inconceivable today that you wouldn’t practise driver changes, try out different seats, belt settings, head-rest heights…
“No, but you have to remember that the sport wasn’t the same back then. We were all used to jumping into different cars every weekend.

img_104-1.jpg

The author Pascal Dro (left) with Pescarolo reminiscing at his home in France

There were a dozen F1 grands prix in the world championship and a similar number of races in the World Sports Car Championship. Matra might not have been doing all the sports car races that season, but most weekends I was just like everybody else, racing in a couple of different events. Switching between cars and changing seats was a matter of routine for all of us. As for Graham, he had confidence in the team. He was quite canny and seemed sure that Matra might be ready to win. That was another reason he wanted to do it! Neither he nor Howden had any problem settling in – but then you tend to adapt quickly when you know you are in a team that’s capable of victory.”

“Back then races were never interrupted, rain or no rain”

After the race, did you shake hands and go your separate ways, or did you remain close?
“Graham and I already had a good relationship, not least because I’d qualified as a licensed pilot at the age of 16 and flying was a common interest. It was my first love and from a young age I’d wanted to be a fighter pilot. It was a bit strange at first, because I’d arrive at the airfield on my moped but was then allowed to take off with four passengers… Going back to the race, I think it would’ve been close between the two leading Matras, if it hadn’t been for Marie-Claude Beaumont’s intervention.”

Even though the other car had been significantly faster in qualifying?
“Graham certainly didn’t set out to take pole – and in my case it was normal procedure to set the car up to last 24 hours. That was the biggest difference between guys like Cevert and Beltoise or Larrousse and I. They would jump in to prove how fast they were, whereas Gérard and I took a longer-term view. I don’t remember even trying to go for pole – I’d just have been preparing the car for the race.”

img_105-1.jpg

While 19 drivers since have attempted to equal Graham Hill’s achievement, none as yet has managed to replicate the Triple Crown. The only active drivers to hold two of the three required victories are Fernando Alonso (Indy 500) and Juan Pablo Montoya (Le Mans 24 Hours)

I called Howden Ganley to tell him we’d be having this chat and he told me you hadn’t spoken for years – and that you should call him! He didn’t have the same profile as Graham, so how did he end up with the team?
“Through Jabby, again… As far as he was concerned, French drivers might as well not have existed. And Jean-Luc Lagardère listened to him, unfortunately. But I have to accept that what happened to me was partly my fault.”

How come?
“Lagardère was a great team leader, but he wasn’t much of a psychologist. He never understood that somebody who was shy in life could also be an absolute assassin behind the steering wheel. When Matra needed a replacement for Jackie Stewart in 1968, after his F2 accident at Jarama, Johnny Servoz-Gavin would have taken the lift to the fifth floor, stuck a foot in Lagardère’s door and explained why he was the best choice. Me, I’d have gone up to the fifth floor, waited for the lift door to open… and then pressed the button to go back down! I would never have entered his office to sell myself. In his mind, it wasn’t possible for somebody that shy to be a star driver.”

You won the race again the following season, this time with Gérard Larrousse.
“We won everything in 1973 – Le Mans and the world championship – but I didn’t receive any offers from F1 teams. The best I’d had was at the end of 1971, when Ron Tauranac wanted me to sign for Brabham. Like an idiot I turned him down, because I’d been driving for Frank Williams, who took out his violin and promised me he was hiring a new engineer and so on, but that didn’t work out too well. He next tried the same with Alan Jones, but this time the engineer was Patrick Head! The strange thing was, for Le Mans and other major races, the grid was full of F1 drivers – but there was no promotion in the other direction. F1 was a closed shop and winning endurance races wasn’t going to earn you a better F1 seat. I’d hoped it would, but it didn’t open any doors – and I think the same thing applies today.”