1972 Le Mans 24 Hours race report: A French victory for Matra

-A French Victory

Le Mans, France, June 10th/11th

The 1972 Le Mans 24-Hour Race, or Grand Prix of Endurance as it is called officially, will not go down in history as one of the more exciting events, but it will have its place, for it saw the first victory by a French car since 1950, when Louis Rosier and his son won with a Lago-Talbot. This year it was the French Matra team who won, success coming at last after a number of tries. It was quite a good Le Mans, in spite of a lot of last-minute withdrawals, but nothing like as good as it had promised to be earlier in the year, but the important thing was that it remained Le Mans and the classic 24-hour test of speed and endurance for the cars and stamina for the drivers. It was very much a “typical” Le Mans, about the only thing missing being the torrid Sunday morning heat that usually arrives about 11 a.m., when everyone is feeling tired and dirty. By then actual racing has subsided and the cars that are left running have settled into a steady rhythm of endurance, having only another five hours to run. This year the weather fluctuated from heavy rain to brief sunny periods, but never became stable in any circumstance, and there have been wetter and colder Le Mans races, and there have been warmer and drier ones. As so often happens Saturday afternoon opened with a “sprint”, then things settled down, then troubles began, night fell and the cars went on and on by the light of their headlamps, dawn broke, retirements were continuous, for a car has to be strong and well prepared to last 24 hours at racing speeds, and those that were left went on to the final hour on Sunday afternoon. Inevitably when 55 cars set out to race for 24 hours some of them crash, and equally inevitably when racing cars crash someone gets hurt, and when someone gets hurt, someone can get killed, and Joakim Bonnier got killed. The bearded Swedish driver who had been racing since 1954 was 42-years-old and had probably raced in a greater variety of events and cars than most people. His Lola T280-Cosvvorth V8 was in collision with a GTB Ferrari at 150 m.p.h. and was projected up into the air, over the guard-rails without touching them and into a wood, where the car literally burst asunder with no hope of survival for the driver. Vic Elford, who was following in an Alfa Romeo said he thought Bonnier made a slight error of judgement, other people reckoned that the inexperienced Swiss Ferrari driver moved over to let the Lola through, and got in difficulties on the loose edge of the track and skidded into the path of the Lola. Whatever happened, it was a motor racing accident, unfortunate and unforeseen, and Bonnier was just about the last driver anyone expected to be involved in such a happening. It all happened shortly after 8 a.m. on Sunday morning on the flat-out right-hand bend before the corner named Indianapolis, and at the time the Lola was in eighth position having been delayed the previous afternoon by gear-change trouble after leading in the opening laps.

During the months preceding the race it looked as though it was going to be one of the classic events of all time, for the Matra team were putting all their efforts into it, even to the point of foregoing all other sports car races. They entered four cars, and backed their chances every possible way with variations of body shape, engine power, known engine reliability, fuel consumption, tyre sizes, gearbox variations and so on, and the four cars were as right as could possibly be; the arrangement of the variables was such that whatever conditions prevailed for the race, one of the four cars would be at an advantage for one reason or another. The eight drivers selected also seemed to cover every contingency, being Amon/Beltoise in car number 12, Cevert/Ganley in car number 14, Hill/Pescarolo in car number 15, and Hobbs/Jabouille in car number 16, and it was such a complete team effort that all prize money was to be pooled and shared eight ways, so that anyone who felt they had the wrong car for the conditions could not grumble about the pay. As far as the glory was concerned there was no discussion, it was to be for Matra and France. The pre-race testing was remarkably thorough and no expense was spared in the workshops, the laboratories, or the test-track and the Paul Ricard circuit near Marseilles was used for 24-hour test runs. Without any question Matra were out to win and the reason they chose 1972 for this determined onslaught was because at last the FIA rules were on their side, with a 3-litre limit on all sports and prototype cars. It will be recalled that a limit of 3-litres was brought in in 1968 by a certain amount of jiggery-pokery in order to help Matra win Le Mans, but an oversight on the sports car regulations, as distinct from the prototype regulations, allowed Porsche and Ferrari to build 5-litre “production” sports cars, which soon became 5-litre “works” cars and the 3-litre prototypes could not hope to beat the Porsche 917 or Ferrari 512, and as it took two years to re-write and implement new rules to get rid of the 5-litre cars, this year was the first one where 3-litre prototypes could be certain of winning. As always Ferrari was not slow off the mark and his 3-litre prototype sports cars have swept the board all this season, so that his entry of three cars for Le Mans, for his own factory team, plus an extra one for Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team, introduced a big factor into Matra’s plans, but even though they did not participate in any earlier races against Ferrari, they were very confident, especially on the reliability score, if not on sheer speed. The first little skirmish of this interesting confrontation took place back in March at the Le Mans test weekend for Ferrari was fractionally faster than Matra, but clearly more fragile. It was hoped they would come to blows with a car apiece in the 4-hour race that weekend, on the newly revised circuit, but they both withdrew saying they had too much work to do and could not spare the time to stay for the 4-hour race on Sunday afternoon, so the event was won by Bonnier/de Fierlant in a tired Lola T280-Cosworth V8 from negligible opposition.

Added to the Matra versus Ferrari battle was the entry of four Alfa Romeos by Autodelta, two cars from the Gulf-Mirage team and two Lola T280 cars from the Bonnier team, so that the opening phase of the race looked like being a classic. It all fell very flat, because Ferrari withdrew his four cars a week before the event, for a number of reasons; among them were the facts that his flimsy Grand Prix style cars were not built for 24-hour endurance races, the flat-12-cylinder engines failed to stand up to very long flat-out tests, he had won the 1972 Manufacturers Championship anyway, a miserable failure at Le Mans would do him more harm than good, and by withdrawing he left Matra with a hollow victory—if they failed to win they would have been the laughing stock of racing. Added to all that Enzo Ferrari is still a law unto himself and always will be. As the race drew nearer it became very obvious that Alfa Romeo were not going to provide much opposition, and they reduced their entry to three, and at the last moment the Gulf-Mirage pair were withdrawn as John Wyer did not reckon the Cosworth V8 engine to be suitable for the 24-hour race, if it was used competitively, and the new Weslak-Ford V12 was not ready.

By the time 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 10th approached the prospects for any sort of race were very thin and it looked as though all the Matra team had to do was to arrange the order of their four cars and put on a 24-hour demonstration in front of the large crowd which always attends the Le Mans race. There was no shortage of enthusiasm for the event, or of competitors, for the usual maximum of 55 cars was easily reached, but the quality of driving experience among the 110 or more drivers was rather alarming. Fortunately the limit of 55 cars got rid of some really slow stuff during the practice periods, but even so there were some drivers taking part who had not been heard of in their own country, let alone in the world of International sports car racing. In addition to the eight Matra drivers the Alfa Romeo drivers comprised Elford/Marko, Vaccarella/de Adamich and Galli/Stommelen, while Bonnier’s team of fast but fragile Lolas were driven by himself and Van Lennep, Larrousse, de Fierlant, Cabral and de Bagration. The rest of the entry of sports cars was made up of private owners, the long-tailed Porsche 908 of Jöst/Weber/Casoni having full Porsche factory support in the form of engineers and mechanics preparing the car and running the pit. A last-minute entry was a British Standard Special designed and built by a small group in a London mews garage under the direction of Alain de Cadenet. Taking a standard Formula One Cosworth V8/Hewland gearbox layout they attached it to a conventional monocogue structure, added Formula One type suspension and brakes to the corners, with Brabham hubs and wheels, covered it all with a fibre-glass body like a Chevron or a Lola and had themselves a car ready to race, but without a name. As the Duckhams Oil Company had given some financial support to the project it was called a Duckhams-Ford for want of a better name. Although it all sounded easy enough it had involved this small group in a fantastic amount of work and effort, of the sort that only enthusiasm can produce and money can neither buy nor repay. Their first satisfaction was to get through practice and onto the starting line without too much trouble and de Cadenet and his co-driver Craft approached the whole thing in the true spirit of Le Mans, to keep going, handle the Cosworth engine and Hewland gearbox with care and delicacy, avoid any heroics and still be running on Sunday morning, and with a bit of luck on Sunday afternoon as well.

While the outright winner of Le Mans can be expected to come from the sports car ranks, there are equally serious class races going on at the same time. The GT category was very full with Ferrari GTB4 production cars from the Ferrari agents in America, Britain, France, Belgium and Switzerland opposing four De Tomaso Panteras and a row of 911 Porsches as well as four thundering 7-litre Chevrolet-Corvettes, while the Group 2 saloon class comprised three factory Ford Capri RS2600 models with fuel-injected 3-litre V6 Weslake modified engines, and a similar privately owned one, as well as a lone BMW 3000 CS.

While changes are bound to happen, like the loss of the Pontlieue hairpin in 1929, resurfacing and widening, the introduction of the new road through the Esses to Tertre-Rouge in 1932, the building of the Ford chicane before the pits in 1968, the complete elimination of the White House section in 1972, Le Mans still remains and it is still the 24-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance, running from 4 p.m. on Saturday to 4 p.m. on Sunday. An insidious small wind blew in before the start in the form of an FIA official being appointed to decide whether the race should be abandoned at any time during the 24 hours should rain conditions become extreme. (This part of the mental sickness that is going to kill motor racing within the next ten years, if racing does not kill us all by then). With the new safe, open and clinical stretch of Autodrome replacing the dangerous, blind brow and deceptive ess-bend at White House, the lap distance is altered so all records were waiting to be rewritten for this race. The classic Le Mans start was abandoned in 1970 and replaced by a ridiculous rolling start in which the 55 cars straggle round the circuit behind a pace car for whole lap and then start racing.

The President of France, Monsieur Pompidou was not only guest of honour but actually gave the signal for the field to set off on their pace lap at a few minutes to 4 p.m. and when they returned the race was under way. Fortunately the Le Mans race is still big enough to withstand small nibblings of its former grand self, for 55 car attempting to race tor 24 hours must provide enough excitement and drama to over-rule the changes that keep being made, but how long this balance will remain is open to doubt. As the 55 cars straggled away to start their first serious lap one realised that for all the tension and excitement at the start you might as well turn up at 5 p.m. as at 4 p.m. Everyone settled down to watch the Matra demonstration run, the only speculation being as to the average speed they would settle for and what the team order would be. As the field finished the first lap it was Matra, Matra, Matra, Lola, Matra, Alfa Romeo and down the field a Chevrolet-Corvette was leading all the GTB Ferraris. Waiting for the fourth Matra to get into position on lap two and for the team to then get with the right order, there was suddenly consternation in the packed grandstand for Matra number 12 did not accelerate away from the Ford chicane with the shrill scream expected of it. Instead it crept past the pits and grandstand going slower and slower and everyone streamed past it. It staggered up the slope towards the top of the Dunlop curve and expired in a cloud of smoke as the engine burst asunder. It was Jean-Pierre Beltoise at the wheel and his V12 engine had lasted a mere two laps in this almighty Matra demonstration. That was bad enough, but when the leaders reappeared at the end of the third lap there was worse, for a yellow Lola was leading, driven by Bonnier, and the whole scene had gone to pot. It got even worse before it got better for de Fierlant then took his yellow Lola into the lead and Cevert, Pescarolo and Jabouille began to wonder what had gone wrong, especially when it started to rain and the Lola went even further in the lead. Such an absurd state of affairs could not last and fortunately for the French, Bonnier’s car went into the pits after 53 minutes when he could no longer select all five gears, and three minutes later de Fierlant joined him for his first routine stop for petrol as the consumption of the Cosworth V8 was a rather unknown factor. As the first hour passed all was in order with the three Matras leading the three Alfa Romeos, while further back order had been restored when the Ferrari GTB4 of Rouveyran/Migault took the GT lead from the unruly Chevrolet-Corvette of Cudini/Darniche and Fitzpatrick was leading all the Porsches in the Kremer car.

From this point onwards the excitement for the lead was over, for one or other of the Matras led for the next 23 hours, which is exactly what they said they would do, but for the rest of the runners it was nothing like so cut and dried and in the GT category there were all sorts of interesting things happening, as well as in Group 2. Results are published at Le Mans at every hour, worked out and printed by a vast IBM machine, and this year it was working impeccably, issuing the positions at each hour about ten minutes past, and on paper Matra number 14, the car of Cevert/Ganley dominated things just ahead of Matra number 15, the car of Hill/Pesearolo, and rain or shine, darkness or daylight, these two blue cars hummed round and round, the V12 engines turning at 10,500 r.p.m. without a single hesitation. The third Matra, car number 16, of Jabouille/Hobbs caused a panic early on Saturday evening when it stopped out on the circuit, ostensibly out of petrol, but it turned up at the pits five laps late. The reserve fuel tap had been knocked partially “on” before it was due to be used, by the passenger seat moving forward, and the fuel system had become confused and the system had dried up. Jabouille had rocked and tipped the car until the remaining fuel had sorted itself out and the pumps primed and he was able to get going again, but the delay had dropped the car down to twelfth place. Once refuelled it went perfectly and steadily climbed back up the list to reach third place by four o’clock Sunday morning. The three Alfa Romeos were never really in the picture, being quite unable to match the speed of the leading Matras, and all they could do was to run reliably and hope everyone else would break down. As things turned out they broke down themselves, clutches and gearboxes giving trouble in the early hours of Sunday morning so that at 6.30 a.m. all three cars were in the pits being worked upon. The Elford/Marko car had been taken apart and a new clutch fitted, and went back into the race after losing just over halt an hour, and the Vaccarella/de Adamich car was having similar things done to it. Later the Galli/Stommelen car was taken apart to replace the clutch but it was then discovered that the gearbox had broken so it was screwed together again and pushed round the back of the pits.

The two yellow Lola T280 cars of Ecurie Bonnier made their mark in the first hour and then fizzled out, the pit work on refuelling being slow compared to the Works teams, so that number 7, which de Fierlant started off driving dropped back even though Larrousse took over in place of Cabral and de Bagration. As van Lennep was sharing Lola number 8 with Bonnier, the two “paying customers” were very bitter about the Swede’s handling of the arrangements. Soon after dark on Saturday evening while lying in fifth place de Fierlant had a spin on the wet surface and stalled the Cosworth V8 engine. When he came to restart he found the dutch had gone solid and would not free, so he abandoned the car and returned to the pits. Larrousse, who is more mechanically minded, went out to the abandoned car, put it in second gear and drove off on the starter motor until the engine fired and returned with a perfectly healthy car, but unable to continue as driver changes are only permitted at the pits. The second Lola kept going right through the night until the dreadful accident just after eight o’clock on Sunday morning, when Bonnier lost his life.

Behind all the works cars and running reliably and unobtrusively was the old long-tailed 908 Porsche coupé that had been borrowed for the occasion by Reinhold Jöst and had been prepared at the Porsche factory. It was running like a Swiss watch and moving up steadily as the works cars ran into trouble. Throughout the 24 hours it went round and round, the only anxiety being an excess of oil mist coming out of the breathers and a tendency for the tail to come adrift at high speed, so that pit stops involved quite a lot of cleaning of the perspex panels in the tail and meticulous sealing of the body joints with masking tape. Other than that it just went on and on, climbing steadily from ninth place at the end of the first hour to third place at the end of the 24 hours, and was as fast as anyone, even the Matras, down the Mulsanne Straight with a timed speed of 320 k.p.h. (198.7 m.p.h.). Another car that was running incredibly well, being driven within its capabilities, the drivers setting out to be running at the finish come what may, was the Duckhams-Ford, which started off in tenth place, albeit a lap behind the leader at the end of the first hour, but by running regularly and not wasting time at the refuelling stops, it climbed to fifth place overall by Sunday morning at 11 a.m., though now 31 laps behind the leading Matra, but Le Mans is that sort of event, and keeping going pays off, no matter how gently you drive. Even so the Duckhams car was averaging over 181 k.p.h. and was faster than all the GTB Ferraris.

Throughout the closing hours intermittent rain showers kept appearing which caught out many drivers who were now getting tired and weary, and at midday on Sunday it rained heavily and GanIey was driving the leading Matra. Without rain tyres he was going along relatively slowly, not taking any chances, when the French woman Marie-Claude Beaumont driving a great Chevrolet-Corvette ran slap into the back of the Matra! Unbelievably, but with justice, the Corvette came off second best and had to retire, while the Matra suffered a smashed rear wheel and tyre, suspension derangement and shattered bodywork, but Ganley was able to limp round to the pits, where quite a large flap was in progress. Things were sorted out, another fibreglass tail fitted and Cevert rejoined the race, now in second place and victory seemed assured for the Graham Hill/Henri Pescaralo car, especially as Cevert was soon back in the pits with a misfiring engine due to water getting in the electrics during the slow journey back by GanIey. All this lost them nine laps on the leading Matra, but so poor was the opposition that even that distance did not lose them second place.

In those damp closing stages Craft had an excursion off the road before Tertre-Rouge corner and damaged the front suspension of the Duckhams Ford, but he managed to creep round the whole lap and get back to the pits. The car had been fifth overall at this point but all they could hope to do was to patch up the front end, where the wishbone mounting points had been wrenched from the monocoque and make the car just drivable so that de Cadenet could drive slowly round for one lap and be classified at the finish at 4 p.m. This last-minute disaster dropped them back to twelfth place in the final results, which gives no indication of how steadily the car had gone throughout the race, the “British Grand Prix Pack” in the rear proving completely reliable at the speed the car had run. Around the same time the last remaining Alfa Romeo spun on the wet and damaged the bodywork, but got back to the pits to have a new nose cowling fitted and rejoin the race. As the last minutes ticked away, with Matras first, second and third, and about to form up in formation for a triumphal ending to months of hard work and planning, and 24 hours of driving in anything but good conditions, the junior member of the team went missing as the ZF gearbox on Jabouille’s car broke and stranded him out on the circuit.

At 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 11th a French car won Le Mans for the first time since 1950 and had the organiser been more organised it could have been a magnificent finish to a not very exciting Le Mans 24-Hour Race, but in the event it deteriorated into a disorganised shambles. Since the “new boys” moved in to take over the running of the sport in France the finishing scenes at Le Mans have been no more impressive than a 5-lap sprint race at Brands Hatch, whereas the end of the classic 24 hours endurance race should be something to remember, with all the pomp and ceremony suited to such an occasion, for it is only once a year that anyone wins the Le Mans 24-Hours, and for some only once in a life-time. — D. S. J.

Le Mans Lights

If anyone has any doubts about the worth of the Ferrari 365GTB4 Daytona coupé, with its 4.4-litre 4 o.h.c. V12 engine, the row of five of them in the results should be convincing enough. However, they were not all perfect and the brand new one of the English Maranello Concessionaires driven by Westbury/Hine broke its engine quite early on.

An unusual occurrence was the complete disaster among the Porsche 911 brigade, for the German cars usually run for ever. This time only one was left out of seven starters, various engine troubles putting them out.

The 5.7-litre Ford V8-engined De Tomaso Panteras were pathetic and only one out of four managed to struggle to the finish. The blowing of head gaskets was reminiscent of the early days of the Ford GT40 which used a similar type of Ford V8 engine.

The German Ford Capri RS2600 team gave another impressive display, though the Mass/Stuck car retired with a broken engine, but the remaining two works cars ran impeccably. However, the size and complexity of the Cologne organisation was on a scale that would have been justified for an outright win, not merely for Group 2 saloons. Perhaps one day it will be for a more serious purpose.

While the Frenchmen Ballot-Lena and Andruet won the GT class convincingly from Posey and Adamowicz, the third GTB Ferrari driven by Mike Parkes and Lafosse was literally only a few hundred yards ahead of the Belgian-entered car driven by Bell and Pilette, after racing for 24 hours.

It is a solemn thought that the tail-enders were more than 1,000 kilometres behind the winners in this 24-hour event; and some people consider a I,000-kilometre race itself to be too long !