Continental notes, February 1970

The regulations for the Le Mans 24-Hour race arrived recently and it is interesting to note that its official title is the XXXVIII GRAND PRIX D’ENDURANCE ET DE RENDEMENT DE 24 HEURES, and it will be held on June 13th and 14th, reverting to its traditional starting time of 4 p.m. on Saturday.

When you think that one 24-hour race involves more organisation than a whole season of short-circuit racing, and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest are now in the throes of organising their 38th event, you realise the size and power of the Club. A lot of people do not like the Le Mans race and consider the whole thing to be a “circus” for the financial benefit of a few people, which may or may not be true, but this year the circus aspect will rise to the surface when the flag falls at 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 13th.

It has been traditional at Le Mans for the drivers to line up on the opposite side of the road to the cars and when the flag fell they ran across the road, jumped into their cars and roared off in a struggling mass. This was called the Le Mans Start and was classic way of Starting sports-car races.

Naturally the idea was fraught with hazards, but apart from a few details the “Le Mans start” usually went off well. I think it was the RAC who were the first organisers to drop the Le Mans start from their rates, probably after Duncan Hamilton did a complete spin from a standstill at Goodwood, in the middle of the field of cars. The Monza people wanted to use the Le Mans Start for their 1,000-kilometre race, but the layout of the circuit prevented this.

Using the road and track Monza circuit means having the wide pit straight divided into two lanes, so there was no longer enough width for a Le Mans start. At Nürburgring the Le Mans start was used regularly for the ADAC 1,000-kilometre race, until a wall of Armco barrier was erected in front of the pit apron, and this then made the track width to narrow for a run-across-the-toad start. The ADAC said it was due to safety-harnesses and low coups and all that sort of thing, but they were only side issues.

Now the Automobile Club de l’Ouest have come up with an excuse for the first-lap accident of last year, when Wolfe was killed in his Porsche 917. They say his driver’s door was not properly fixed; due to the rush of the start, and this was partly to blame for the accident. I’m sure Amon would not subscribe to that theory, having watched the accident nearly happen all the way from Mulsanne, being right behind the 917.

However, in their wisdom the Le Mans organisers have altered the starting arrangements, adding that the new system will mean that drivers will start the race fully harnessed and with cooling tubes plugged into their suits on the 917 Porsches.

By two minutes to four o’clock the number one driver must be in the car, all strapped in and ready to go and the door will be firmly shut. The number two driver will be across the road standing in the prescribed circle. Scrutineering will ensure that all cars have a battery masterswitch located on the left side, and situated to the rear of the door, mounted externally. Before the start all these switches will be “off” and when the flag falls the number two drivers will run across the road, turn on the master-switch and the number one driver will then be able to start racing!

Needless to say the number two drivers will then get smartly out of the way. What is not stated is the condition of the number two driver when he lines up in the circle opposite his car. Does he have to wear full racing kit, crash-helmet, goggles, gloves and so on, or can he be in athletic kit with spiked shoes? Some years ago I used to suggest that the Le Mans race should be for proper four-seater cars and that at the start the number two driver should be in the passenger seat and two mechanics should be in the rear seats.

Then after ten laps the car could stop and drop one mechanic; after another ten laps the second mechanic could be dropped off at the pits, and after another ten laps the number two driver would get off, and then the serious business of racing would begin. During the final hour the procedure would be reversed at quarter-hour intervals, so that the winning car would receive the chequered flag with a full complement on board. It would develop some splendid family saloons.

Everybody laughed at my suggestion and asked if I was trying to ruin Le Mans or make a circus of it. I was merely intending to brighten up Le Mans: I shall watch the “new look” Le Mans start, but I am certain that it will convince me that my idea was not so daft or is Le Mans a “circus”? It is said that “Tradition dies hard”, but, my goodness, how hard can it get?