Le Mans 24 Hours

A Grey Race with a Remarkable Ending

Le Mans, France, June 14/15th

No matter what the situation in the annual Sports Car Manufacturers’ Championship, everyone wants to win the Le Mans 24-hour race, not only because it was the one that started sports-car racing, but the very fast Le Mans circuit is a severe test of machinery, and 24 hours of such testing is very convincing to the outside world. Before Le Mans began Porsche had won the 1969 Championship, with outright victories at Brands Hatch, Monza, Targa Florio, Spa and Nurburgring, and if the Championship had been their only interest they could justifiably have stayed away from Le Mans, but unlike driver champions who are only interested in points winning, the Porsche Racing Department were out to win the 24-hour race, regardless of any Championship. They arrived in France with an enormous mass of men and material, with three long-tailed 908 coupés, the flat-8-cylinder 3-litres, one new open or Spyder 908, with a new long-tailed body, and four of the incredible 917 coupés, with 4½-litre flat-12-cylinder engines. One of the 917 coupés was destined for the first customer, the Woolfe Racing Team, for Woolfe and Martland to drive, but the latter driver tried it in practice and decided it was more than he could cope with. In consequence the works driver Linge was loaned to the Woolfe team to co-drive with the owner. The Porsche works team of drivers shuffled around amongst the various cars during practice, and Siffert/Redman settled on the open 908, Mitter/Schutz, Herrmann/Larrousse and Kauhsen/Lins settled on the long-tailed 908 coupés, and Stommelen/Ahrens and Elford/Attwood on the 917 coupés, the factory spare not being used.

Since the ban on aerofoil assistance, Ferrari, Matra and Alpine had re-arranged their bodywork to comply with the rules, their aerodynamic assistance having been very much an afterthought addition to the cars. On the long-tailed 908 coupés and the 917 coupés Porsche claim to have designed and developed aerodynamic stabilisers as part of the bodywork, comprising a fixed aerofoil across the tail with small trim-tabs actuated by links from the rear suspension. The mechanism certainly works, but how effective it is is another matter, but Porsche were refusing to run without the trim-tabs. In practice Stommelen took out a 917 with the trim-tabs fixed and demonstrated to gullible marshals and organisers that the car was virtually undrivable, giving the impression it was out of control. With a car having somewhere around 500 b.h.p. and an all-up weight of just over 2,000 lb. it was not difficult to make it look hair-raising! While none of the other competitors made any official protest, they made it clear that they thought Porsche were not complying with the new C.S.I. ruling and such C.S.I. members who were at Le Mans stuck rigidly to the letter of the law, and for once the A.C. de l’Ouest were on the side of Porsche. After much chatter from all sides it was agreed that the 917 coupés could use movable trim-tabs but the 908 coupés would have them fixed at the optimum angle. The open 908 did not have them anyway. Some of the idea of the performance available from the 917 was shown by Stommelen when he went round the circuit in practice in 3 min. 22.9 sec.—238.976 k.p.h. (about 148.5 m.p.h.), the performance coming from the car’s acceleration rather than its maximum speed, which was around 190 m.p.h.

As in the previous races this year the main opposition to the Stuttgart team came from Ferrari, who entered two 312/P cars with coupé bodywork, and apart from the coupé tops the cars were as previously raced. The drivers were Amon/Schetty and Rodriguez/Piper. Alongside the six factory Porsche cars the two Ferraris looked sadly in need of some support and though there were no other red cars capable of supporting them there was a strong team from Matra, who were out to upset the Porsche plans, and Ferrari’s as well. In spite of two pre-race accidents which set them back in men and material, Matra-Sports had put everything they had into their Le Mans preparation and were ready with four cars, a 1968 coupé-type 630, a brand new open Spyder-type 650, with an unusual tail treatment ending in long points behind the wheels, the open Spyder that raced earlier this year, this being a 630 chassis fitted with a 650 body, and another open Spyder built from a 1968 630 coupé that used to have a 4.7-litre Ford V8 in it. The last car was built up hurriedly after the accident to the new 640 coupé when Pescarolo was injured, and like the interim car was referred to as a 630/650. All four cars were powered by the Matra V12 Grand Prix engine and 5-speed ZF gearboxes were used. The assembly of drivers for the Matra team was most unusual and caused a few raised eyebrows, but Matra knew what they were doing, as results were to show. Leading the team were Beltoise/Courage with the new 650 Spyder, then came Servoz-Gavin/Muller with the 630/650 Spyder used already this season, Widdows/“Nanni” Galli with the hastily built 630/650 Spyder, and Guichet/Vaccarella with the 630 coupé. Also in French blue like the Matra team were the works Alpines with Renault-Gordini V8 engines, there being three long-tailed coupés with the radiators mounted across the tail and one long-tail coupé with side radiators. Previous appearances had shown that the Alpine-Renault team are not as powerful as the Matra team, lacking horsepower from the V8 engine and drivers of the calibre of Beltoise and Servoz-Gavin. The three late-type cars were for Cortanze/Vinatier, Depailler/Jabouille and Grandsire/Andruet, the fourth car being for Nicolas/Thérier. Aiming for the Index of Performance handicap there were also two 1,500-c.c. Alpines, one 1,300 c.c. and one 1,005 c.c.

On paper there were no other cars capable of challenging for the Grand Prix d’Endurance, or outright victory, but in fact there were the two Ford GT40 coupés, with 5-litre Weslake-head V8 engines, of the Gulf Oil Team, run by J.W. Automotive with the Gulf drivers lckx/Oliver and Hobbs/Hailwood. The two Gulf-Mirage cars that ran at Nurburgring had been left at home as it was felt that they were too new and unproven to tackle a 24-hour race, whereas the GT40 Fords knew their own way round Le Mans. Though they were not fast enough to challenge the best 3-litre prototypes, or the Group 4 Porsche 917, they could be relied upon to be running at the end of the 24 hours, and would probably not be too far behind. There were also three privately owned Ford GT40 coupés, of Guthrie/Gardner, Sadler/Vestey and Kelleners/Jost, any of which could be well placed at the end of 24 hours. After a brand new Ferrari “Daytona” GT coupé and an old Dino 206 had collided in practice and eliminated themselves, both being in the N.A.R.T. team, and the works Unipower and Piper-Ford twin-cam had both failed to qualify, the total entry list only came to 45 cars, instead of the usual 55 that start at Le Mans. In addition to the main contenders there was the Healey-Climax V8 Coupé, the J.C.B. Ltd. Chevron-B.M.W., and the 2-litre Nomad-B.R.M. from England, numerous French-owned 911 Porsches, the Lola-Chevrolet coupé of the Filipinetti team, driven by Bonnier/Gregory, the two Alfa Romeo “33” cars of the Belgian V.D.S. team, and a Ferrari LM coupé from the N.A.R.T. of Chinetti.

The usual practice periods were held on Wednesday and Thursday, in the evenings, running from daylight into darkness, and the 917 Porsches had everyone completely demoralised by their performances. Stommelen was fastest at 3 mm. 22.9 sec. and apart from the three 4½-litre 12-cylinder cars the only other car to record under 3 min. 30 sec. was the open 908 driven by Siffert, nobody else getting anywhere near 3 min. 30 sec., let alone 3 min. 22 sec. If the 917 Porsches had not been so new and untried most competitors would have felt like going home, but all hopes were put on the 917s not lasting, the only question being, how far in front would they be when they did blow up. There was also the uneasy feeling that if they got a big enough lead they could ease up and then they might prove reliable.

When the 45 cars lined up for the traditional Le Mans start on Saturday there was very little confidence anywhere other than in the Porsche team. The Ferrari team had decided to go very steadily and hope to gain on fuel consumption, rather than try and fight the Porsches, the Matra team had little choice for they were nothing like fast enough and were also rather thirsty, the Alpine-Renault team could only hope to run their own race and see how they got on, and the Gulf Ford GT40s had but one trump card, economy with reliability. Due to French politics the start was advanced to 2 p.m. on Saturday, the race to run until 2 p.m. on Sunday, whereas the traditional start is 4 p.m. The whole length of the Mulsanne straight had been lined with double-height guard rails, sensibly placed well back from the edge of the road, leaving a grass verge wide enough to accept a spinning car, and guard rails had been erected at numerous other points on the circuit. The sandbank on the outside of the Mulsanne corner was gone and in its place a large area of tarmac on which cars could run in emergency; a corrugated concrete edge to the tarmac discouraged deliberate use of the run-off area. In view of the increased popularity of full seat-harness on many of the cars, drivers were to be allowed to stay in the cars during refuelling, instead of having to get up on the pit counter. Traditional things about the Le Mans race are gradually disappearing, for good or for bad, but two things that will surely stay for all time are the 24-hour duration and racing in the night behind blazing headlights.

By all normal reasoning the pattern of the race could be foreseen before the start, with fine warm weather but total cloud cover and a heavy grey haze over the whole area. At Le Mans there is little that is normal or reasonable and any one of the 45 competitors could tell enough interesting stories to fill a book before the race starts. Entering, preparing, scrutineering, practice, race preparation, staff preparation, pit preparation, signalling, strategy, provision for emergencies, mechanical and personal, all take an enormous amount of time and energy and produce panics and headaches, so that the prospect of racing for 24 hours seems simple by comparison with all that goes before. The expected Porsche domination in the opening stages went according to plan, with Stommelen and Elford in 917 Porsches setting the pace. What was not expected was a fatal accident to the third 917 which John Woolfe elected to start, in spite of minimal experience with such a fast car. On the opening lap he crashed at the exit of the Maison Blanche ess-bend and was killed; the car broke in two and caught fire, and Amon, driving the first of the works Ferraris hit the blazing Porsche fuel tank, which set fire to the Ferrari. Amon bailed out unhurt, but the wreckage and fire delayed a large proportion of the field so that the opening lap became a straggling affair and there was no question of anyone challenging the works Porsches, who had been ahead of the accident. Gardner (Ford GT40) picked up some of the wreckage and ruined a tyre, and the Healey collected something through its radiator. The whole tempo of the race was very deflated by the whole unhappy affair, and though the works Porsches set a cracking pace there was not a very enthusiastic atmosphere about the place.

Although the 917 Porsches were immensely fast they were consuming the petrol from their regulation size tanks very rapidly and they ran for only a few minutes over one hour before having to refuel. The Matras were equally thirsty, but nothing like as fast, whereas the 908 Porsches ran for more than 1 hr. 15 min., and the Ford GT40s ran for nearly 1½ hours. In a 24-hour race this sort of difference is very significant, and the remaining works Ferrari driven by Rodriguez also lasted nearly 1½ hours on a tankful of petrol. Recent races indicated that Porsche had regained their reliability and the race soon looked like being a Porsche benefit, but it was not to be and one by one they ran into trouble, with clutch defects and gearbox breakages. With a six-strong team at the start they always managed to keep one of the cars in the lead, and for most of the time it was the 917 of Elford/Attwood, the lack of serious opposition allowing them to run lightly and not strain things too much. The Siffert/Redman Spyder 908 was finally wheeled away with a broken gearbox just after four hours of racing; the Herrmann/Larrousse 908 coupé lost a lot of time at the pits having a front hub assembly changed, parts being taken off the derelict Snyder car, and the 917 of Stommelen/Ahrens was beset by small problems and was losing oil all the time. Altogether it was a very shaky Porsche team that was just managing to keep the 917 of Elford/Attwood in the lead, and fortunately for them the opposition was not in a very healthy state. The lone Ferrari had spent a lot of time at the pits having a bent 5th gear selector in the gearbox rectified, and since the opening lap delay had never been in the picture. The leading Matra of Beltoise/Courage was running well, but not fast enough, though it moved up the leader-board as Porsches fell by the wayside. By 9 p.m. it had reached second position, but then a long stop to rectify a fault in the rear lights wiring put it a long way back. The Matra of Servoz-Gavin/Muller had been in difficulties with the left-front suspension coming adrift, and repairs had been made but it was half-way down the field. The other two Matras were running all right, but not fast enough, while none of the Alpine-Renault V8 cars were anywhere near the leaders, and anyway their engines were not proving reliable.

The Gulf Team Fords had appeared to be completely outclassed at the beginning of the race, but consistency, reliability and efficient pit work was paying off and as faster cars ran into trouble they gradually moved up the leader-board. By 2 a.m. on Sunday morning, with heavy mists everywhere but dry roads, the lone 917 Porsche was well in the lead and taking things comparatively easy four laps ahead of the 908 of Mitter/Schutz and five laps ahead of the 908 of Kauhsen/Lins; the Stommelen/Ahrens 917 Porsche had retired with transmission trouble. The two blue and orange Ford GT40 cars were fourth and fifth, but they were eight laps behind the leader so could hardly be considered a serious challenge. However, Le Mans is not known as the Grand Prix d’Endurance for nothing and reliability must go with speed. The Porsche position of first, second and third looked good on paper but not convincing in fact, for the leading car was too unproven to believe that it would last 24 hours, and the sister cars of the two 908 Porsches had already been in trouble, so there was no feeling of overconfidence. The lone Ferrari was not at all on form, trailing along in ninth place, a long way behind the last of the works Porsches, which was the Herrmann/Larrousse car that had lost so much time having the front suspension changed. Having lost their number-one car on the opening lap the Ferrari team seemed to lose all their enthusiasm, and though the V12 engine sounded its usual healthy self it was proving a great disappointment to Ferrari enthusiasts. Just before 5.30 a.m. the gearbox broke up completely and it was pushed sadly away having left little or no impression. Shortly before 4 a.m. Schutz had crashed badly at the end of the Mulsanne straight and the car had caught fire and was completely burnt out. He escaped uninjured, but was very shaken up, and this left the German team with two cars at the top of the list, for the Herrmann/Larrousse car was still a long way behind and not gaining very quickly on the two Fords and the Beltoise/Courage Matra ahead of it. For a long time the leading 917 Porsche had been trailing oil smoke and it was clear that Elford and Attwood were driving with very light feet and keeping their fingers crossed.

Just after ten o’clock on Sunday morning the 917 Porsche stopped at the pits with a failing clutch and signs of discontent in its gearbox. It had six laps’ lead over the 908 of Kauhsen/Lins and 10 over the Ford of Ickx/Oliver, and though it rejoined the race and cruised round slowly its days were numbered. The second-place Porsche was all set to take command as the 917 fell back, when with very little warning Kauhsen made a non-scheduled pit stop to have the gearbox looked at. He made a hesitant get-away and nasty noises came from the gearbox as he left the pits, and that was the end, for he only covered another half a lap. The Ford of Ickx/Oliver was now heading for the lead as the 917 was very sick and even if it could keep going it could not go fast enough to ward off the healthy GT40. Porsche’s only hope now was the Herrmann/Larrousse 908, which had slowly been recovering from its 29 minutes lost at the pits the previous evening. At 11 a.m. the 917 Porsche staggered into the pits and that was the end, the gearbox had finally succumbed and the car was wheeled away. On distance covered it was still well in the lead, and at the 21st hour it was still four laps ahead of the Ickx/Oliver Ford GT40, even though its race was run. The last of the works Porsches was gaining slowly but surely on the Ford, but not quick enough to be a certain winner, and though it was on the same lap at midday, with two hours to run, the Porsche team had to beat Ickx, and had only Herrmann and Larrousse to do it. The Gulf Team wisely kept Ickx in the car and for more than two hours he drove the sort of race one expects to see at the start of a Le Mans event, not at the end. At 12.34 p.m. he made his last stop for petrol, the Gulf mechanics getting the car serviced in double-quick time, but not before Larrousse had gone by into the lead. At 12.42 p.m. the Porsche had to stop for petrol and the Porsche mechanics worked equally fast, for suddenly the whole outcome of the 1969 Le Mans race was in the hands of the mechanics. Herrmann set off in the Porsche and as he accelerated up the pit lane Ickx went by in the Ford. There was one-and-a-quarter hours left to run and it seemed that Porsche must win, for the remaining 908 was very healthy and faster than the Ford, but lckx was driving brilliantly and the Ford was-equally healthy. Relentlessly the Porsche wore down the gap and soon after 1.30 p.m., with less than 30 minutes to go, Herrmann took the lead, but lckx was not impressed and next lime round he was back in front.

The last few minutes of the race were unbelievable for Ickx was making up on corners and braking what the Ford lacked on speed, and the two cars passed and re-passed in the sort of wheel-to-wheel racing we would like to see in Formula One events. Using the slipstream of the Porsche down the long straight, lckx kept up and then out-cornered the Porsche on the very fast right-hand bend leading to Mulsanne. As the clock ticked away the last minutes to 2 p.m. it was still anybody’s race and normally at Le Mans the winning car is cruising round at the end, with the driver deliberately wasting time to try and approach the finishing line exactly on the hour. There was no cruising this time, both cars were flat out, and a few seconds before 2 p.m. the two cars started their final lap. They passed and re-passed four or five times during that final lap and lckx took the lead round the fast bend to Mulsanne. The excitement in the pit area was such that the organisers lost complete control and as the Ford led the Porsche across the line by about 100 yards the whole ending of the race went to pieces. The crowds invaded the track in spite of hundreds of gendarmes and the traditional parade of the cars, drivers and pit crews did not take place. It was a long time before lckx and Oliver could be got together to receive the acclamation of the crowds, and a sad and unhappy Herrmann never did appear. He had been out-driven by the young Belgian and made no excuses, but it was a bitter blow to Porsche, who wanted to win Le Mans above all else. The Gulf Team found the whole thing unbelievable, having started with a feeling of hopelessness and settled for being outclassed. The traditional end-of-race ceremonies went by the board and the 1969 Le Mans 24-hour race ended in chaos and confusion.—D. S. J.


Le Mans Afterthoughts

At the traditional Le Mans start Ickx let everyone else run to their cars while he walked across to the Ford, and then made a very leisurely start. It nearly cost him the race. It also meant that he got very boxed in at the traffic jam behind the first-lap accident.

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After the farce of the attempted dead-heat by the Fords in 1966, when the starting position determined the outcome, the rules now say that it is assumed that all cars start from the same point, so that at the end the one in front on the road is the winner.

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For their first big onslaught on Le Mans Matra did remarkably well, three out of the four cars finishing. They were fourth, fifth and seventh, and the single retirement was caused by an electrical failure to the car of Servoz-Gavin/Muller. The V12 Matra engines gave no bother at all, and they only had trouble with a fuel pump on the Widdows/Galli car, and brake discs on the Beltoise/Courage car, apart from the wiring fault. Courage had a slight collision with a 911 Porsche in the night, which damaged the left-hand headlamp and lost them time. Matra pit could be improved.

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The Ford GT40 of the Deutsches Auto Zeitung team, driven by Kelleners/Jost, was not as fast as the Gulf Team Ford, but it was just as reliable. The winning Gulf car was the same one that won last year, when it was driven by Bianchi/Rodriguez.

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The little 1,005-c.c. Alpine-Renault of Serpaggi-Ethuin won the Index of Performance handicap, but the overall winning Ford GT40 won the Index of Energy handicap, in which average speed, distance covered, the car weight and the fuel consumption are put into a Formula to find the winner. The performance of the GT40 in winning this was almost as meritorious as its overall win.

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The Gardner/Guthrie Ford GT40 was withdrawn, as long delays at the pits to change the radiator and two drive-shaft universal rubber “doughnuts” had put it too far behind to qualify at the distance check at 8 p.m. on Saturday. The Sadler/Vestey GT40 went out with a defective alternator.

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The old Ferrari LM of Zeccoli/Posey ran like a train, finishing eighth overall and staying remarkably clean throughout the 24 hours. The Filipinetti Lola-Chevrolet V8 retired with the usual Lola trouble; that of having a Chevrolet engine.