When the aero-space and research firm of Engins Matra first showed an interest in motor cars and motor racing, by forming a subsidiary company called Matra-Sports in October 1964, it created only mild interest in the International scene. They had absorbed the dwindling racing team and car factory of René Bonnet, taking over his mid-engined sports car and monocoque Formula 3 cars, and it looked as though the main interest of Matra was to compete against Alpine in domestic sport and commerce. The situation in France was very similar to that in England, for they had Jean Redele and his Alpine cars in direct opposition to Charles Deutsch and René Bonnet with their D.B. cars, just as we had Chapman with his Lotus and Cooper with his Coopers. In France the Renault company backed the Alpine and it seemed that Matra were going to back the René Bonnet cars, while at home B.M.C. were behind Cooper and Ford were behind Lotus. However, Matra had much larger horizons than merely beating Alpine in national races and small capacity long-distance racing, and it was not long before Bonnet and his ideas were completely absorbed, used and discarded and Matra-Sports were well under way on their own with their sights on a long-term plan.
In 1965 they made their entry into Formula 3 in a small race at La Chatre and were well satisfied to be still in the running at the end of the race, after numerous pit stops. They made rapid progress and were rewarded with a victory at Reims and the following year they forged ahead into Formula 2. Realising that they were tackling something a bit beyond their limited experience they made a contract with Ken Tyrrell to run Formula 2 Matra cars, powered by Cosworth engines and driving through a Hewland gearbox. With Stewart as the number one driver they made great strides as regards chassis, suspension, braking and handling and the knowledge was passed on to the Formula 3 team, which had Jean-Pierre Beltoise as the team leader. The overall aim of Matra was to progress into Grand Prix racing, not only to publicise Matra research engineering but also to put France back into the Grand Prix picture. With the engineering facilities of Matra, the racing and organisational knowledge of Tyrrell and the driving of Stewart, the team went from strength to strength and the Matra monocoque chassis and handling earned healthy respect from its rivals.
The year 1967 was a crucial one for Matra-Sports and they virtually dominated Formula 3 racing on the International front, starting off with a string of four wins in the Argentine. Their task was made a lot easier for them by the withdrawal of a lot of the more serious opposition, either through lack of finance or progression into other forms of racing, but nevertheless the year 1967 saw the Matra Formula 3 cars, powered by various versions of Ford engine, notably Cosworth, win a great number of races. Beltoise began the season in F3 and when he moved up into F2 a new young French driver took his place, this being Henri Pescarolo. Matra Formula 3 cars were being sold to private owners so that both F2 and F3 had strong representation for this new French firm, and even though they used Cosworth engines, the name Matra was consolidating itself and Matra-Sports were building up a good reputation and gaining the confidence of the French people. Throughout 1967 Matra had three strong teams competing in single-seater racing, the factory F2 cars driven by Beltoise and Servoz-Gavin, the factory supported F2 cars of Ken Tyrrell, driven by Stewart and Ickx and the factory F3 team of Pescarolo and Jaussaud and these supported by private owners created an impressive list of successes over the season. All the time the aim was to build up a reputation and to boost morale both inside the team and outside, and for this reason there was some careful choosing of events and driver activity, for the plans for Grand Prix racing were taking shape. Stewart could be guaranteed to race against the best drivers in open F2 competition, Beltoise was gaining experience all the time, and Pescarolo was showing good promise among the F3 drivers. In April 1967 it was announced that the French government had loaned Matra about £800,000 to tackle Grand Prix racing, the terms of the loan being that if Matra-Sports became successful in the world of commerce as manufacturers, then they could pay the money back. If they merely succeeded in Grand Prix racing and there was no further benefit to the firm then they could forget the repayment. Upon this announcement Matra said they would have a Grand Prix engine running before the end of 1967, the car would be on test in the spring of 1968 and it would be entered for the Monaco G.P. in May.
While the engineers at Matra got on with the design work, the racing team followed its policy of consolidation and the gathering of experience. The newly-formed petrol company E.L.F. sponsored the works cars and the name Matra-E.L.F. began to make itself known throughout France and Europe. The letters E.L.F. stand for Essence Lubrificont Francaise and a nation-wide chain of service stations sprang up early last summer, followed by a big publicity campaign embracing Matra and the French drivers. Beltoise was obviously the number one driver for Matra and to give him experience in the serious field of Grand Prix racing a Formula 2 car was entered in Grand Prix races, whenever possible, and as the season progressed it was clear that Pescarolo had the best possibilities among the other drivers, so he was given the occasional drive in F2 races. Although in 1964 there was no great talk about long-term plans, it gradually became evident that Matra-Sports were taking the whole project very seriously and decisions that sometimes seemed strange were quite logical and part of the long-term planning. One such decision was the avoidance of English airfield racing, such as Silverstone, especially for the F3 team who were building up a reputation for always winning, on circuits like those in the Argentine, Monaco, Pau, Zandvoort and so on, and a good team spirit was being achieved by these successes. Matra were very conscious of being young at the racing game and knew that drivers, mechanics, team-personnel, engineers and so on were all gaining confidence by the F3 successes. If Pescarolo had been let loose on the wide open spaces of Silverstone with all the English “scratchers” he would have been lucky to have finished in the first dozen and that would have done a lot of damage to the morale of the whole team. On true road circuits he could hold his own with anyone in F3, but on open airfields he lacked experience.
By the end of the 1967 season Matra could truthfully say that they had virtually dominated F3 racing, for quite often, if the works cars failed a private owner gained victories, and in F2 racing they had made their mark, with Ickx winning the European Championship and Stewart winning four important events. In Grand Prix racing they had established the names Matra and Beltoise on the entry lists and by December 1967 the factory were working flat out on their 1968 projects. On December 19th the 3-litre V12-cylinder Matra Grand Prix engine burst into life on the test bed and around the same time a prototype Grand Prix car was out on test. The 1968 programme is to get a foothold in Grand Prix racing with Beltoise driving the V12-cylinder car, and if progress permits a second car will eventually be entered for Pescarolo and the aim is to have a truly competitive Grand Prix team in 1969. Realising their limitations Matra could see that what they wanted for the 1968 season was some form of advance publicity and prestige, a sort of battering-ram to keep the opposition on its toes, while the new car and engine were getting under way. For this purpose they made a contract with Ken Tyrrell and Jackie Stewart, grouping them under Matra International and buying Cosworth V8 engines, as being the best known and available Grand Prix power plant. The monocoque of a Formula 2 car was modified to accept the Cosworth V8 engine and a Hewland gearbox, the brakes and suspension were improved to deal with the 400 b.h.p. and in a great rush this prototype car was taken to South Africa for the Grand Prix on January 1st and was driven by Stewart. A 1,600 c.c. Formula 2 car was taken for Beltoise to drive and Matra were well away in Grand Prix racing. It was the lash-up Cosworth powered car that was on test about the time that the Matra V12 engine started up on the test-bed, which gave rise to excitable stories that the new V12 car was out on test. Stewart got this experimental car on the front-row of the grid, alongside the Team Lotus cars and actually led for the opening lap, which more than satisfied Matra. While lying third the Cosworth engine broke, but the effort had been well worth while, and Beltoise finished 6th, gaining valuable experience. The “battering-ram” had done a good job and allowed Matra to say truthfully “We led a Grand Prix race, albeit only for one lap, but it is a start.” A brand new car is being built for Stewart, with the Cosworth V8 power-unit, and a spare car will follow, while the prototype will be kept for test purposes, so Stewart should have sufficient material with which to forge the name Matra at the forefront of Grand Prix racing, with Tyrrell looking after the organisation. In addition the Matra engineers have one of the best rival Grand Prix engines at their disposal, not for copying for that would be futile, but for evaluating and comparing and they have one of the fastest Grand Prix drivers to give them a set of standards They know that their V12 engine must give 420 b.h.p. as a minimum if it is to be competitive and they already know that the weight is comparable to their Cosworth engine, even though the castings are as yet only in aluminium. Somehow I cannot see Team Lotus, Cosworth and Ford allowing Matra to have the latest and best in Cosworth design and development, but no doubt a 1967 engine will be enough for the Matra “battering-ram” until such time as toe all-French entry can challenge.
The foregoing covers Matra and single-seater racing, but there is much more to Matra-Sports than that. The little Renault engined Rene-Bonnet Djet coupé was tidied up and put into production as the Matra Djet and used by numerous people for rallies, hill-climbs and GT racing throughout Europe, the production line reaching quite sizeable proportions for the limited market. The aim of Matra was to expand in the sports car market and to set their sights on a prestige car or “Grand Standing” as the French refer to such things as Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and so on. As an initial probe into a wider market the Matra 530 was designed and is now in production, this being a mid-engined coupé of bizarre appearance, using a Taunus-Ford V4 engine. The Matra 530 is not aimed at the racing and sporting fraternity, for they have the effective little Matra Djet, but more for the “with-it,” “impact,” “get-away,” smart set who could not care less where the engine was situated. This unusual, but nevertheless logical two-seater coupé is in the “think group” that the Citroën DS21 personifies and is a sound move by Matra to get a foothold in the car production world without copying the Lotus Elan or Lotus Europa.
Running parallel with the single-seater programme and the production programme was a Le Mans project, with Group 6 sports-prototype coupés using 2-litre B.R.M. V8 engines, these cars running in the 24-hour race in 1966 and 1967 as well as in other long-distance events. For 1967 a sports-prototype was built with a 4.7-litre Ford V8 engine and these cars were used to gain knowledge for a brand new car that may appear this year using a “long-distance” version of the Matra V12 engine. This 3-litre Group 6 car will be test-driven mostly by Servoz-Gavin and will only progress if the Grand Prix project is on schedule, but in 1969 a big effort will be put into the Le Mans car with the intention of being at Le Mans in 1970 with a car capable of winning the 24-hour race outright. If these plans materialise Matra visualise having their V12-cylinder “prestige” car at the Paris Salon in 1971 and in production the following year. With the announcement of these plans last month, and the presentation of the 3-litre Grand Prix engine it now becomes self-evident that there was more than Alpine and Renault behind the sudden change to 3-litre capacity for Group 6 racing and the “chicanery” that went on last June after Le Mans.
In presenting the Grand Prix engine to the outside world, Jean-Luc Lagardere, the Managing Director of Matra-Sports emphasised that it was not the work of one man, but a team of engineers, there being 500 available at Engins Matra and he went on to stress that everything that was done was done for Matra. There was no Tyrrell, Stewart, Beltoise, Matra-Sports, Engins Matra, Matra-E.L.F., it was all Matra, and anyone seeing the size of the factories and buildings at Villacoublay can appreciate that it is a serious industrial concern, but whether they will be able to challenge the combined genius of Chapman, Duckworth and Clark only time will tell.—D. S. J.